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Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

Erie Expatriates Seeking Jobs…in South Korea by Kristi Gandrud

[ Rust Wire is a great source of news and insightful essays about the Rust Belt from the viewpoint of championing its resurgence without too much sugar coating. I’m pleased to be able to bring you a sample of what you’ll find there today – Aaron. ]

When I was an undergraduate headed to Canada for my freshman year, I remember trying to get a money order to pay for my visa application in advance of crossing the border. Standing at the counter in my credit union in Erie, PA, trying to persuade the clerk to make a money order out in Canadian dollars? I might as well have asked for Mauritian rupees. Before I left the credit union, half the staff had been called on deck to figure out how to perform such an exotic transaction. I shook my head at the apparent difficulty of using the currency of a country which, on a clear day, I could see from my bedroom window. Eventually getting what I’d come for, I left the credit union in disbelief of my hometown’s provincial ways, and made for the border.

Four years in Canada and one linguistics degree later, I found myself living in Seoul, South Korea as an ESL kindergarten teacher, far from the shores of that provincial hometown. I had, at some point in my undergraduate linguistics career, heard the drumbeat of the overseas ESL market, and registered for a one-year intensive Korean language class. When Koreans ask me how I got here, that’s what I tell them. I say, “Yeah…I studied the language in undergrad, so I got interested in Korea, and I just ended up here…”

But what I really want to say is: “Well, I come from a pretty economically depressed region of the US, and when I finished my undergrad, I had no viable options for a job in my hometown, and few personal connections for jobs anywhere else. I was able to get a job in Seoul that paid about $23,000 a year, included free housing and round-trip airfare, provided health insurance, and only required a bachelor’s degree,” –which is more along the lines of the truth. My Korean studies did help me move to Seoul, and my linguistics background did nudge me toward language teaching, but the main draw of the Korean labor market was stable, decently remunerated employment for my 22-year old self.

And it seems, I wasn’t the only Erie native to figure this out. Most obviously, there was my boyfriend (now husband) Chris: we were hired together by a major Korean ESL conglomerate, YBM, and were placed in different schools in Seoul. Chris was in as much of an employment bind as I was: he had just finished a one-year master’s degree in political science at the prestigious London School of Economics, but lacking professional opportunities in Erie—as well as personal or professional networks in London—he spent five months pounding the pavement before he finally gave up on getting a job in the UK, and heeded the call of the East Asian ESL-teacher experience.

Also somewhat obviously, there was Chris’s brother Nate. He finished a degree with top marks at Bard College—also, by all accounts, a well-regarded institution of higher education –but, lacking immediate opportunities to start earning an income, followed in his brother’s footsteps to Seoul. Nate now works as a kindergarten teacher at the same company where Chris and I worked, somewhat improbably given his double major in philosophy and history.

That, of course, is all in the family. But how about Emily, a girl from my graduating class at my high school? What are the chances that I would go thousands of miles from home, and meet a classmate working in the very same city, in the very same industry? And this didn’t just happen to me: Nate also met a classmate of his in Korea via Facebook, a girl in his graduating class who now works as an ESL teacher in Busan, on the southeast coast of the country. And what about the steady stream of emails from Erie residents that I’ve answered in the last four years: ‘My cousin is moving to Korea soon, do you think you could write to her with some advice?’ or ‘My neighbor’s son is looking for a job in Seoul, do you have any recommendations?’ or ‘My friend is thinking of doing a year abroad at Yonsei University, what do you know about it?’ When I can momentarily set aside my own gratification at having apparently developed a celebrity reputation in my immediate circle as the pre-eminent South Korea guru, I marvel at the unlikely number of Erie natives heading for the Land of the Morning Calm.

I won’t attempt a detailed review of the positively unfathomable, never-before-seen-in-human-history growth that the South Korean economy experienced from the 1980s to the present. Let’s just say that 50 years ago, it was the poorest country in Asia—malnutrition was widespread, and the infant mortality rate would make even the most hardened social statisticians cringe. (For reference: a Korean friend of mine who is in her mid-30s, the oldest of five children, grew up in a mud hut in the southern city of Gwangju.) Today, Korea’s economy is among the most developed in the world: it gained membership in the OECD, the rich world’s premier economic social club, in 1996.

If you don’t have a Samsung cell phone in your bag or pocket right now, you probably know someone who does. The last time I visited Erie, my father-in-law proudly gave me a detailed demonstration of his top-of-the-line, front-loading LG washer and dryer, and I must admit, they were quite nice. When my cousin from Pittsburgh wrote me to say that his Playstation soccer game contained a Korean league team called the ‘Pohang Steelers,’ I pointed out that, as home to steel manufacturing giant POSCO, the coastal city of Pohang has taken much more from Pittsburgh than just the name of its football team. That friend of mine who grew up in the mud hut? She now lives in Seoul in a beautiful high-rise apartment with her successful lawyer husband and a three-year-old daughter. Can this country afford to employ legions of 20-somethings from depressed areas of the US to teach their kids English? You bet it can.

I’m living in Seoul now, and having gotten a master’s degree, have moved up a rung on the expat employment ladder: I work as an editor at Seoul National University on an English proficiency test. From March to July of this year, I spent a grueling 5 months in Erie trying desperately to find a job that would enable me to live closer to my parents, sisters, and grandparents. To no avail: even the interviewer at the temp agency told me the pickings were slim. I finally threw in the towel and decided to come back to a place where I knew employment, a decent wage, and health insurance awaited. This past week, I helped my father and sister-in-law book tickets to Seoul for Christmas. Since my brother-in-law, husband, and I will already be in here, it made sense to do the holidays in Korea.

A few weeks ago, I was on the phone with the good people at the Erie Federal Credit Union. I’ve been sending remittances home, and I wanted to check on a few of the details of the transactions. I explained to the teller than I was actually living and working in South Korea, and so I understood if my requests to deal in Korean won were a bit out of the ordinary. Fully expecting to don the outlandish mantle of the long-lost hometown girl, I was taken aback when the teller at the other end of the line said, “Oh, no, that’s fine. We deal with won all the time.”

Indeed.

This post originally appeared in Rust Wire. Reprinted with permission.

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