I tinkered with my list a little last week and came up with a few slightly different versions. Some stories got dropped, others jumped around a few places, and I contemplated combining stories in order to include others, but by and large what I ended up submitting is what I first came up with. In general the list reflects my perspective as an English teacher, and so what is big in that corner may or may not be reflected in the expat community at large.
The list is here for the time being, but will switch to pay-per-view shortly, so I've pasted it below for your convenience. Also check out the three other lists on the "Expat Living" section.
1) Legacy of Christopher Paul Neil
The biggest story among the expat teaching community was the legacy of the arrest of Christopher Paul Neil, a pedophile arrested in Thailand in late 2007. Though Neil committed his crimes in Southeast Asia, that he taught for a time in Korea spawned all kinds of on-again off-again visa regulations and another round of xenophobic yellow journalism stories. While some media outlets threw every derogatory stereotype at us, foreign teachers started leaving and schools found it harder and harder to fill vacancies. Given the bad economy, the bad test scores, and the bad vibes, more people are asking not "can I get a job in Korea?" but rather "do I even want to?"
2) Down goes the won
Or up, as the case may be. The won took its biggest hit in ten years as the global financial crisis hit everyone, well, globally. It's worth pointing out that with imported teachers no longer able to save as much money -- long considered the advantage Korea held over other Asian countries -- it will be interesting to see just how many native speakers local schools will be able to find.
3) Confusing visa regulations
Right from the get-go, the new visa regulations for English teachers were a big problem. They were targeting only E-2 applicants and not other visa categories and not ethnic Koreans. They were requiring costly trips back home for five-minute embassy interviews. They were applied differently by each immigration office. And they were changing every few months without any discernible reasoning. Most recently, immigration announced a mandatory Vulnerable Sector Screening for Canadian applicants. That was news to us, and news to the Canadian Embassy, too, whom the Ministry of Justice hadn't yet told.
4) The death of Bill Kapoun
Bill and his girlfriend died in an apartment fire earlier this year. Not the first foreigner to die under suspicious circumstances in recent memory, and not the last, though it was perhaps the first so widely-publicized among the growing foreign teacher community. It was also perhaps the first time said loosely-defined community came together in a time of tragedy, and used internet sites like Facebook, blogs, and teachers' forums to do it.
5 Korea Herald editor gets stabbed
Expat Living editor Matt Lamers was stabbed with a bottle in Hongdae this June. Thankfully it wasn't premeditated or provoked by anything he'd covered in the paper, but that it was an apparently random attack was a sign of the slow but steady increase in violence and resentment against foreigners. Since one of 2008's themes was atrocious police work, and since foreigners never get a fair shake from the authorities, that he chose not to go to the cops was and is a topic of some debate among the community.
6) Foreigners go mad over Mad Cow
While the Mad Cow panic of 2008 isn't really an expat story, the weeks and weeks of protests provided endless amounts of material for my blog, and dominated the headlines on others. What kept this business in my mind wasn't so much the shouting, the regularly-scheduled protests, the child endangerment, and the banners on every street-corner: it was spending the summer answering all kinds of questions from students (and teachers) about "krajie kow."
7) The death of Michael White
In May, 14-year-old Michael White was found dead in a Gyeongsan sauna. His whole story was shrouded in mystery, and characterized by substandard medical care and inefficient police work. His mother is still looking for answers, and so are we.
8) I attract some netizen anger
A few articles I had written for local English-language media attracted the attention of a disgruntled netizen, who posted some personal information online and directed readers to "correct" my views by protesting my school and getting me fired, and thus deported. The short-term effects were a few gray hairs and an icy teachers' office, although the episode gave birth to significant questions about a foreigner's role as critic, the hypersensitivity of some, and ultimately the legitimacy of foreign voices.
9) Testing, testing
The papers talk up Korea's "unique" test culture, but foreign English teachers seem more interested in the scores. The numbers say that in spite of Korea's English fever, Koreans earn some of the lowest English scores in the world. Though more Koreans take the internet-based TOEFL exam than any other nationality, their average score puts them at 107th. According to one testing company Koreans ranked 19th out of 20 countries in English ability in 2006.
10) TaLK program introduced
And while that hunt (see No. 11) was going on, and while there was more and more paperwork required for E-2 visa applicants, the government allowed current college students to teach English in rural public schools for reduced wages under the "TaLK program," which stands for Teach and Learn in Korea. Originally it was hoped ethnic Koreans would take one for the team and return to the motherland for less money, although recruitment was well below expectations. By shooing away foreign teachers with one hand and welcoming even less-qualified ones with the other, the program came to be yet another example of the mixed messages sent by those in charge of English education.
11) The hunt for "unqualified" teachers
Another year, another assortment of campaigns against "unqualified teachers," although nobody seems clear as to what that term actually refers. A nationwide hagwon association warned that unqualified teachers were damaging the quality of English education and driving up costs. All this business makes us question what exactly "qualified" and "unqualified" mean in our line of work.
12) Korea's image problem
A lot of attention was paid to Korea's image problem and to its apparent inability to market itself to non-Koreans. As the Japanese are still the largest nationality to visit Korea, the designation of actor Bae Yong-joon as tourism ambassador makes sense. Going with the Aquafresh-inspired "Korea Sparkling" as the slogan and the enigmatic, psychedelic "Haechi" as the mascot: not so much.
13) Building international neighborhoods in Seoul
One attempt at helping the non-Koreans already here was the creation of "global village centers" in Seoul, set up around pre-existing foreign communities. The neighborhoods provide local foreigners with native-language information and with assistance on tax and immigration paperwork.
14) Feet Man Seoul goes to Seoul Fashion Week
In a big year for the local blogosphere, the bilingual street fashion site Feet Man Seoul took a huge step for bloggers by being approved to cover Seoul Fashion Week. Not only a significant step for foreign writers, but for bloggers in general, who still struggle to be treated with the same respect, or better, than mainstream journalists.
15) Beautiful foreigners on TV
The continued popularity of "Global Beauties Chat" has been a pleasant surprise. Some object to the premise, and say that it plays into the fetishization of foreign woman, but these women are smart, sexy, well-spoken and cultural ambassadors for countries many Koreans wouldn't care about otherwise. Plus, whoa, they're speaking Korean!