That said, something came up in December that made my last couple months very stressful, and made me want to give up this blogging business. I was under investigation by Korean immigration based on my contributions to local newspapers. I was summoned to the immigration office in Seoul twice in December, based on allegations that I was being paid for my writing while I was on an E-2 visa, and had to prove based on emails and my bank records that I wasn't paid by the Korea Herald, wasn't writing under any agreement or assumption that I would be paid, and that the 531,850 won I received from the Korea Times, illegally, in December 2009 was received after my E-2 visa expired.
I never learned who or what started the investigation, beyond being told "someone" called immigration about me. I do have my suspicions, and though I can't say for certain or with much evidence, can at least lay out some circumstances that need to be considered. On December 3rd in a telephone conversation with Korea Times reporter Kang Shin-who, he told me that he would check with immigration to see if I was legally able to contribute to the Korea Herald. On December 21st I received a phone call from a woman at immigration telling me I was under investigation and that I needed to come to Seoul as soon as possible. I met with two immigration officers on December 23rd and again on December 30th, over roughly six hours in all, and had my case forwarded to another office. Nothing eventually came of it, and I passed January and February without incident.
This started with a few emails between Kang Shin-who and I on December 3rd. I had been critical of Kang's reporting over 2009, and called him "Korea's worst journalist" in a November 24th post, based on his numerous distortions and fabrications. I learned about some more bad journalism in other articles, about Kang using unauthorized photos from other outlets in his pieces, and about publishing incorrect information. In a November 19 article about Naver and the Anti-English Spectrum, Kang wrote
Kim Kwang-tae, an official in charge of the case at the Suwon Immigration Office, said Vandom was still being sought, adding that her visa status was no longer valid.
Vandom responded in an email that she is not being "sought" and that both immigration and the reporter know where she is. Kang responded, she tells me, with
As a reporter, I should write what I heard, although he is lying.
I sent an email to Kang on the 3rd to get his reaction to this before I posted on it. I've written to Kang before, asking for comment on the claim that he distorted the words of the president of the International Graduate School of English in an April 22nd article, but he didn't respond. In the email I identified myself as "a freelance writer and a blogger at Brian in Jeollanam-do" and that I'd be writing a post on Andrea Vandom and the reporting on native speaker English teachers in general, and that I'd like to ask him a few questions. The questions were, as written in the email:
I. Are you a member of the Anti-English Spectrum Cafe? There is a contributor with your name.
II. What do you do for the club?
III. How do you respond to teachers who may be uncomfortable with the conflict of interest?
He responded an hour later saying we should meet face-to-face or talk over the phone, and since I was living in Gwangju, on the other side of the country, I called the number he sent me. We talked for a few minutes and he was courteous. He answered my questions, saying he was a member of the online cafe Anti-English Spectrum, but that he only used it to monitor the discussion and to, he says, correct any misinformation about teachers being written there, citing former ATEK spokesman Tony Hellmann by name.
He called me back an hour later in a very bad mood, asking me who I am, and saying he didn't know who I was when he answered those questions earlier. I reiterated that I was a blogger and a writer who, at the time, was contributing opinion pieces to the Korea Herald. He said he read my November post where I called him "Korea's worst journalist" and asked me if I thought the "Journalist Association of Korea and the Korea Press Foundation" were stupid for naming him Reporter of the Month. I stated some of my objections to his articles and the history of bias in the articles, but he said this was just my opinion, and that I'm not a reporter. He said calling him "Korea's worst journalist" hurt him, he asked what my job is---I was a student at the time---and said he'd check with immigration to see if I had permission to write. I think the conversation prompted one of the editor's to write the piece "Setting the Record Straight" on December 8th:
The Korea Times has recently learned about some "misunderstandings" regarding our coverage of foreigners in general and native English teachers in particular.
Rather than name names or nitpick over the contents of articles that apparently serve as the basis for that misunderstanding, we would like to share with our readers some principles this newspaper operates by.
The morning of December 21st I received a call from a woman claiming to be from Seoul immigration, telling me I was under investigation and asking me when I could come to the office. It sounds suspicious to receive a call from somebody, in English, identifying themselves as Seoul immigration and talking about an investigation, but, well, that's what happens.
I went to Seoul on December 23rd and met with two officers, one of whom was serving as an interpreter. They said they learned I was contributing to a Korean newspaper as an E-2 visa holder, and that this was in violation of my visa status. They had prepared a file with my information and the ten contributions I made to the Korea Herald from December 30, 2008 through December 2009, not including the few weeks I was in Pittsburgh in August and September. In the first interview they told me I was not permitted to be employed by a newspaper while in Korea on an E-2 visa or, as was the case from September through February, without a visa. Over the course of questioning I explained I was not paid by the Herald for my contributions, was not writing with the assumption of later being paid, was not writing under an agreement that promised payment, or receiving any other form of compensation. I told them I could prove this with my bank records and with emails from the editor of the "Expat Living" section. I was asked to fax a list of bank transactions, and to bring documents explaining where I was living, where I was studying, and where I was getting the money to do both, to a follow-up visit in the future.
I received a phone call the next week and went to the office a second time on December 30th. This session lasted nearly four hours, because the records showed that I indeed was paid by the Korea Times for contributions I made to them from September 2008 through April 2009. The editor had offered me 50,000 won per contribution, and I wrote nine over those 8 months. In emails I explained that I was not able to receive payment because I was on an E-2 visa, and that it was unlikely my school would give me permission to add the Korea Times as a second employer since my writing had gotten me in trouble a couple months earlier. I assumed at the time I wouldn't get in trouble for receiving payment once my visa was completed. I returned the money to the Times after my first meeting with immigration because, as I told the officers, I learned that wouldn't be the case.
The emails I provided from the Herald showed I was under no agreement to be compensated for my contributions, and my transaction records demonstrated the only money I received outside my contract was the 531,850 won sent by the Korea Times, money I returned to the Times after my first meeting.
Adding length to the conversation was the issue of opinion pieces and letters to the editor. I was asked to become a "contributing writer" to the Korea Times in August 2008, with the promise of 50,000 won per piece. However, I had written at least five other pieces before that, some of which were letters to the editor. In the immigration office we went through each one looking for the "contributing writer" tag, but I did spend quite a bit of time explaining the opinion page: they accept and encourage contributions from anyone, and these are given and printed without payment and without any promise of payment.
The officers were also interested to learn about my conversation with Kang. I have no proof that it was him, but he was the person who told me he'd go to immigration. Contributing even more to my suspicions was the two officers only having record and knowledge of my contributions to the Herald. This is the paper I mentioned over the phone to Kang, but everybody knows---and a quick look at this site will confirm---that I had a weekly column in the JoongAng Daily, contributions to the Gwangju News, an article in Busan Haps, and several articles appear in the Korea Times, for which I was actually paid. I was never paid for my articles in the Gwangju News, JoongAng Daily, or Busan Haps---works out for me now, but I wished many times I could have been compensated for the countless hours of reading and writing---but somebody who did their homework could have simply presented my body of work to immigration and assumed something would be out of place.
Regardless, I broke the law, and taking money for my writing was only one of the mistakes I made. I was open with immigration and admitted my fault, and told them I would accept whatever punishment they deemed necessary. I had to write and sign a statement, and approve everything the interpreter had written down, and then my case was forwarded to another office that would decide the penalty and call me for another hearing.
Like I said I passed the next two months without incident and without even hearing from immigration, though the idea of Anti-English Spectrum attention was one reason I didn't announce where I was or what I was doing in January. I called one of the officers a few days before I left Korea, to let them know I was leaving and to see if they had made a decision. The officer was surprised I hadn't heard back, but said that no news meant there was likely no penalty, something the officer checked on and confirmed to me in a later phone call.
This whole episode has implications for other bloggers and writers, and this recent incident together with my netizen run-in in 2008 made for a pretty nice blueprint of how to shut foreign writers up. A student, coworker, reader, or reporter who doesn't care for what a foreigner is writing in a publication can simply call immigration. Even if that writer is unpaid---most "opportunities" don't pay---the aggravation of having to go to immigration multiple times, having to open up your banking records, having to contact your editors and employers, and having to prove your innocence is enough to make somebody want to quit. I was fortunate that I was between classes at two different schools, and not being employed as a teacher. I nearly lost my job in 2008 because of my writing, and spent a good while in the school's doghouse, so I can just imagine what the reaction would have been were I summoned to immigration during school hours, and were my principals and coteachers subject to questioning as well.
Many English-language newspapers and magazines in Korea turn to bloggers for material because they're some of the only ones providing original English-language content written by foreigners for foreigners in the country. For obvious reasons I won't list all those contributors here, but there's really nothing stopping a reader or competitor from calling immigration and having them look at each and every one of them. If nothing sticks, the writer will probably be exhausted from the process and might very well give it up. If something does stick, well, then they're out of business and potentially out of the country. For foreign writers out there, if they are in fact writing for free---again, most "opportunities" don't pay---it really behooves them to have it made very plain by their editors that they aren't to be paid, will not be paid in the future, will not receive any sort of compensation in lieu of money, and are under no agreement to receive anything at any time for their submissions.
This mess informed a good bit of my perspective in that Korea Times interview I did in late-January (and don't think I didn't hesitate about accepting that request, considering everything I'd been through).
That said, Deutsch, is philosophical about his experience, and says he has considered whether starting his blog was a good thing to do.
"Sometimes I think whether starting a blog was a good idea. I think more harm has come from it than good," Deutsch said, "I don't like opening myself up to criticism and threats to my livelihood.
"It's (a question of) whether you want to stand up for what you believe or keep your head down."
This isn't the only meeting I've had with quote-unquote the authorities, or the only threat against me. I was also told by someone I'll just call an unidentified government source that I'm being watched and that I need to keep my head down. This is the first time, though, somebody has tried to use a government office to silence my opinion, and I'm glad the officers didn't allow that to happen.
Because I knew so far in advance I was leaving Korea, believe it or not, I had plenty of time to think about regrets and reflection. I still have an overwhelmingly positive view of Korea, and not only because it introduced me to my fiancee. But, I can't deny wondering about my contribution, if I was the best teacher I could be for our students, the best coworker I could be in the office, and the best person I could be as an educated man living in a foreign country, and all the attention my blog has brought has made me think about how my life would be different had I spent my time in other ways. I won't deny there's been some interesting stuff here, some informative posts about culture, or festivals, or whatever, and even some posts of good use to what we call the expatriate community. Sitting in an immigration office, though, with your "contributions" sitting in front of you in a file, and ready to maybe get you kicked out of the country, you do start thinking about what you've done with your time.
The Times interview continues:
When asked how he would advise future bloggers, Deutsch preached caution.
"I wouldn't advise against it but I would advise them to know what they are getting into. I would advise caution; you're in a place where netizens are powerful," he said.
Unless this type of reckless attack through immigration happens with more frequency, most bloggers in Korea will never approach getting near the vicinity of an area within throwing distance of the level of visibility my site has had. That's not me being an arrogant, deluded prick, that's me saying all this controversy didn't magically appear, but started because I was writing about controversial issues in very public places. It took a couple years of very hard work to be a fairly well-recognized Korea-based blog, and that's not something casual writers, or even serious bloggers, will stumble across accidentally. I don't necessarily want you to rethink blogging, and it would be hypocritical of me to say "be nice," but you should ask yourself if you really want your little hobby to turn into something lifestyle-threatening. You have to ask yourself whether you think your opinions about Mad Bull Shit, English education, or shitty journalism are worth getting fired over, and you have to ask yourself if you want to make that teaching job something much more difficult than it really needs to be.
The thing to remember is that when we're brought in by schools we're on an E-2 visa, one that really restricts what we're allowed to do outside of work. There may also be some other restrictions placed on us being government employees, I don't know. When I was in trouble in 2008, my school said it was because a public servant like a teacher employed by the government shouldn't make themselves a public figure. Now, this was said by unionized teachers who spent their weekends organizing candlelight rallies and protests against the Lee Myung-bak government, so take their position for what it's worth, but you do have restrictions on you because of your visa and your job.
I would like to say this sort of thing isn't exclusive to Korea. Just looking at Pittsburgh, my hometown, a prominent local blogger formerly known as Pittgirl was fired from her job last summer two days after making her real name public, and I'll bet there are a lot of companies that don't want their employees blogging. Saying "netizens are powerful," as I did, is certainly true, but let's remember the people who took their dislike of me to an extreme was a bitter guy in Hwasun county married to an immigrant, and one other guy last year. I count many Koreans as my readers now, and have had plenty of Koreans stick up if not for me than for my right to say what I want to say.
I will also say this wasn't orchestrated by the Times, and if it did come from somebody there, it was not something that came from the top. I've had many email conversations with the editor there, and found him to be a thoughtful, considerate man. His was the first paper to publish my stuff, he encouraged me to write on a number of topics, and he listened to my complaints on, among other topics, Jon Huer, the shitty letters to the editor, and Kang Shin-who. We ultimately had some disagreements about the direction of their paper and the representation of native speaker English teachers, but I've had no reason to change my opinion of his character. That immigration didn't first focus on the contributions to the Korea Times and the payment received in return tells me this didn't come from the editors there.
There is no solid evidence pointing to the person or group behind this investigation. I can't come out and accuse a particular person, I can simply lay out a sequence of events. It could have been Kang Shin-who, as he is the first and only person in my 2+ years of writing in Korea to actually bring up immigration. It could have been somebody with the Anti-English Spectrum, if Kang tipped them off. It could have been another reader who wanted to give immigration a try. Or, it could have been another foreigner who didn't like my site or me. My biggest and loudest critics have always been other foreigners.
Kang has of course denied his involvement. I was going to let this whole issue go away, at least for a few months or for a time when I wouldn't have so many other posts on my site, because I don't want to spend a lot of time writing about Korea with so many other things in my life. But, I received an email from Kang Shin-who yesterday, asking me not to print his photo on my site without permission. He finished the email with:
Pluse, I heard from the Korea Immigration Service that you were
investigated over breach of immigration regulations.
Could you tell me the exact reason why you have to leave Korea?
That shithead line is what brings this post out now. I replied that I had a very good idea who told immigration about me, and that I'd be sharing his threat against me with my readers, to which he responded a few hours later:
By the way I don't know what you are talking about and I don't care
what you are writing about because I have never read your story.
What I have seen so far from your blog were the title "worst
journalist" and my picture, while I was searching my previous
I fully expect he'll retaliate with more threats or with something in the paper, so I wanted to write something now---in spite of it being April 1st---to not be caught off-guard.
I'll reiterate that in spite of what some readers think, or what the "'Angriest Blogger' Leaving Korea" headline might lead you to believe, I wasn't forced out of Korea, and I left simply because it was the right time. Though my fiancee and I both like Korea, and have plenty of job opportunities there, neither of us are Korean citizens and with limited Korean-language skills it just wouldn't make sense to stay there and try to raise a family. Furthermore, it's smarter to try and reenter the US job market now, at 29, than to wait a few years when we're both older and perhaps further out of touch. I had some pretty interesting job offers back in Korea, in education and in media, but even though my mind was made up long before this past winter, I'm not sure I'd want to continue as a writer if I could be called down to immigration or the police station each time I publish something controversial. As a non-citizen engaged and eventually married to another non-Korean, my visa and our livelihood would be always be at the mercy of unfriendly readers.
This all gives bloggers and writers something to think about. They shouldn't cower to bullies, especially if those bullies are the same ones on a mission to defame native speaker English teachers. But they should be aware of what those bullies are up to, and what they'll do to keep them quiet.