Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The State of Our Union

This title could be taken to mean many things. And in this case, it does. This is a report on the state of my relationship. This is a report on the state of the Migrants' Trade Union, which has great bearing on my relationship. And lastly, this is a report, much like GWB's State of THE Union last week, that is bogged down by the reality of a situation in which you just can't win. Period.

So let me start off by saying that I am not in a funk again. I am just faced with what seems to be, despite my simpleness of mind and life style, an increasingly complicated situation. It is no secret that the General Secretary and I are caught up in the politics of Korea. He, the leader of a trade union that fights quite militantly for the rights of undocumented workers, and I from a trade union background, are united by a simple philosophy: Life is not fair, but if we work together we can make it better. And despite all of the set backs, the shit that life throws at you, and the losses, I still believe it to be true and so does he.

So why then, is this philosophy, and specifically our common desire to build a democratic movement that will give migrant workers a voice and some power, the very thing that is tearing us apart?

This has been a particularly bad year for foreign workers in Korea. After the 2 year mark of Korea's new immigration law, EPS, which was supposed to reduce corruption and make improvements on migrants' rights and rates of documentation, the number of undocumented workers has unofficially soared to nearly 70% of the foreign worker population. And as a result, the government crackdown on undocumented workers has also gone through the roof in an effort to bring this number down. Additionally, the right wing of Korea is saying that EPS is too generous to migrant workers in Korea, and that further restrictions on migration need to be made.

We have seen so many friends get caught by immigration this year. The government has some fancy new strategies that make immigration officials harder to recognize, and therefore has made it more difficult for us to warn our friends (we have set up an alert system, so when someone see a crackdown, they report it and a message goes out to everyone so that they can avoid that area). Everyone is more afraid to leave their houses or factories, and everyone is more afraid to fight for fear of becoming a government target. When just over a month ago our friend Jaman was caught at his factory, immigration officials were downright celebratory in the
detention center when they realized they had caught a leader. And accordingly, they made life more difficult for him in the detention center.

And now, immigration officials do not only raid factories and subway stations, but also mosques, markets and any place they believe an undocumented worker might live or hang out. In short, undocumented workers in Korea have no right to live, no right to sleep, no right to go shopping for necessities, and no right to worship, but are in fact needed for the economy and coveted by bosses, for the more terrorized migrants are, the easier it is to exploit them.

All this said, it is not as though migrant workers have had no victories this year. MTU and another trade union in Daegu have been able help workers recover lost wages, get work injuries paid for by employers, and in some cases, have even got undocumented workers released from detention centers.

All of this makes for an extremely busy General Secretary. A GS who works from morning until past midnight nearly 7 days a week. A GS who rarely sleeps and who sees his friends even less. A GS who has no time for a personal life (ie no time for me). And so I'm not going to lie. I was downright happy when he told me that we was not going to seek a second term for MTU. I became optimistic, thinking that finally we would have a chance to see what life together might be like if we actually had time for each other.

But this was not to be. The pressure for him to run started a few weeks ago and has been relentless. And I, for the most part of have been silent, not wanting to pressure him, only wanting him to make a decision about what he wants to do. And I was pretty confident that his decision was to leave leadership and become a regular old member again. So when he told me on Monday that he was running for a second term as General Secretary, I had a bit of a meltdown... When, after all, is OUR life going to start?

But here is the reality. Even if the GS did become a member again, he is still undocumented. He would have to find some shitty work in some shitty factory that he is overqualified for. He would have to work 14 hours or more everyday in a job that has takes no safety precautions for a pittance, all the while looking out to make sure immigration doesn't raid his factory while he is there. He might have to live in said factory because it is becoming more difficult to work in Seoul due to all the crackdown. He is more likely to get caught, more likely to get injured and in fact, we probably wouldn't see each other anymore than we do now...

And, well, I have to admit that he is the rightful leader of MTU. He has a plan, he knows what to do, he has all the connections with unions, support groups, government parties (actually, he is an elected representative in the Korean Democratic Labor Party and in the last election, got more votes than any other candidate who ran for a post) and officials, and people trust him to do the right thing. The GS was born to be an organizer. So how could I be angry at him for doing it?

So now I'm realizing that our problems have an external source: Global capitalism. Does that sound crazy? Well, think about it. He left Bangladesh so that he could have a job. He came to Korea and found that it was impossible to stay here legally. But he didn't have much choice, needed money and stayed. He became outraged at how he and his friends were treated here and became a fighter. And it's ironic that he is safer from immigration and makes nearly the same amount of money (okay, less, but it is stable income) as other migrant workers by fighting for their rights here, which someone has to do. So for him, on the personal front, it is a situation that he can't win. And that's the case for the rest of the migrant workforce here, too. They have to survive, and as I'm finding out, this comes at enormous personal cost. It is just not possible to survive AND have a healthy, functioning family. It is not possible to survive AND have what Americans (who have never undertaken the migration process) would consider a "normal" relationship.

Global capitalism is not an excuse for some of the bad choices that both of us make, but I am learning the hard way that I have to adjust my expectations of what it means to be in love, have a relationship and be happy with what you have....

Just... Why does it have to be so hard? I never realized before that loving someone and actually being with him is a privilege that a lot people don't experience because of their economic situation. And it really gets me when I hear people say, "How could he leave his family for 10 years?!" Well, the reality is that the family is able to eat, have a house and get an education because he left them for 10 years. This system is tearing families, lovers and friends apart. This system is leaving thousands of children fatherless (and in some cases completely parentless). This system is also preventing me, white middle class college educated American, from being with the person I love in a "normal" way.

This system sucks.

I hope we can make enough money to leave Korea soon... I hope we can survive the political reality of living in Korea as foreigners, one documented, one without even a passport... I hope we can change this filthy, rotten system for good so that our kids (the editorial "our") don't have to make the same kinds of hard decisions that we do about loving or living.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Fun of the American Forces Network

For those of you who are not familiar with the AFN, it is the media network owned and operated by the US government (the Pentagon, I believe is actually in charge) to provide at-home-like media services to American military folk who are stationed abroad. In Korea, it is a welcome (and scary) part of my cable package as it carries CNN, American movies and sitcoms as well as a rare treat: The State of the Union Address.

Did any of you watch what appeared to be a somewhat defeated George W Bush deliver what was possibly the least arrogant speech in his State of the Union history (which we all know has been far too long)? I did... But you know, these speeches just seem silly to me because it, in fact, did not address the state of the union, but gave rather vague outlines for what we might expect from him this coming year, which I have to say, doesn't sound like a whole lot. If he had really given a state of the Union, it might have sounded like this:

Yes, America, it is true. We are losing the war in Iraq. I have no idea what is going on there, but damn, I was wrong, wrong, wrong. And, by the way, I have no idea how to get us out of there. But this is the global war on terror, so we have to keep looking like we are doing something.

On the economy: Finally, success! We have economic success! Our stock market has reached all time highs and rich people like myself are richer than ever! And I have no idea how people who aren't rich are fairing. Any idea out there? Congressmen? Senators? No? oh well, you are all rich, too.

Health Care: Simply unattainable for the masses, so just give up, okay?!

Energy: We are too dependent of foreign oil (well, last time I checked we are too dependent on ALL oil, but anyway) and we need to invest in renewable technologies. Okay, George got that one right, but somehow when this actually translates in policy, I hardly think it will be meaningful. And George, would it really kill you to say "Global Warming"? I mean really, enough with the "global climate change" euphemism. Everybody knows we have global warming...

So we all know that W is just full of a lot of hooey. So back to the AFN... Well, wouldn't it be just like the AFN to cut off Barak Obama in the middle of his critique of the Iraq policy and change over to "A Guiding Light"?

More reasons why the AFN is frighteningly entertaining:

  • Pubic Service announcements: Low budget and poorly made,they usually expound the obvious like: It is against the law to traffic humans. Or, turn on your lights at night so you can see when you are driving. If one had to estimate the collective intelligence of the military based on these announcements, I would say they are, on average, as intelligent as 7 year olds.
  • Pentagon News Round Up: Either entirely pointless (like the human interest story I recently saw about the commander who always checks his humvee's mechanics before driving it) or amazingly biased (like the story about how we won the war in Iraq, No, REALLY, they are still saying that). I have yet to learn anything that is accurate or useful from watching the Pentagon's news service.
  • Why We Serve: Kind of cute, and extremely low budget, you almost never hear the real answer of, "well, I'm poor and there were no job opportunities and I can't afford an education, so it was either the military or a life of crime." Hey, I know people also join because they want to "serve their country", but come on, the economic reality of these soldiers' lives far outstrips any civic duty that most Americans feel. I mean, we don't even vote, do you really think we are going to willingly fight a war?? Either that or we have some pretty screwy ideas about what civic duty means.
  • This Day in History: another low budget segment that offers us glimpses into the invention of the Patriot missile and its exemplary use in the first Gulf War; the glorified success of Operation so and so; W's first inaugural address; and other events of military import.
If I was to say, watch the AFN as my only source of news, I might, just might, support W. A gal is hard-pressed to find any critique of the Bush administration even though there are plenty of people in the armed services who are disappointed, pissed off and all around fed-up with Iraq and Afghanistan (which is also a disaster that no one is making the W administration answer to). It is obvious by the amount of dissent there is in the military that most people are really thinking, evaluating and criticizing... So my question is, why doesn't the media? The AFN media, or the rest of the media for that matter??

So here's to the AFN for providing some comic relief (in a slightly less offensive way than say Rush Limbaugh)... just don't take it too seriously.

And here's to a GWB who is eating some much needed humble pie. Don't that taste good Georgey? Don't it?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

my name is woman warrior and i am addicted to tv

As my new kitten, Rani, sits on my shoulder and grooms the left side of my face, my hair and my neck, I wonder, when did my world go from the New York Times and NPR to America's Next Top Model and Project Runway? How is it that in the last couple of months I've transitioned from intellectual(ish) activist to Tyra Banks cheerleader?

It's true, I spend surprisingly little time these days... thinking. Observing. Analyzing. Reading. And let me tell you that it is not for lack of time. It's just that, well, I spend all of my free time watching elimination show after elimination show, spiced up with a little Sex and the City, and the occasional movie.

And let me tell you something else. This does not have anything to do with depression. No siree. Well, maybe the original habit does, but hey, I'm over that. Really. The days are getting longer, things are looking brighter and I'm actually hanging out with *new* friends (well acquaintances at least). That is, when I'm not home watching TV.

You see, there is just always a big excuse. Like this week, I fell really very extremely ill and literally couldn't leave the house for like 3 days. I mean, the air is damp right now, cold and full of pollution. The air is so thick, it chokes you. And the dampness seems to stick to you. So no way was I going out there. Nope. I mean, one breath of that air, and I like fall to the ground in a coughing/choking on air fit that has been rivaled few times in my life. (Although, for those of you who remember the bronchitis I contracted during the Pollina campaign in 2000, well, this might compare.)

So I guess I feel that I'm ready to enter the thinking world once again. Only, well, where do I start? (I suppose now wouldn't be the time to turn off the computer, and turn on the tv, would it?)

Somebody, please, tell me what to read!!!

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Another Job Dilemma

The history:

This summer I took a job with a reputable and high paying private institute. I had friends who worked there, vouched for it, and it is a difficult job to get. The screening and interview process is rigorous and unlike most private institutes in Korea, they don't just hire anyone off the street. So when I started, I had some pretty high expectations about the professionalism, work environment and level of organization at my new school. But as it always seems to be, I was almost immediately disappointed when I discovered my supervisor what a nit-picky, inarticulate, paranoia-inducing jerk, and the school wasn't as organized as I had hoped it to be. Nor had they fulfilled all of their contract obligations to us (four people were hired at the same time) regarding our hiring, and while my co-workers weren't happy, they weren't willing to speak up for the things to which we were entitled. But I was designated bitch and lead the charge, and we eventually received everything we were supposed to get. Which lead me and said supervisor almost immediately into a vicious cycle of confrontation and passive aggressiveness that ended only when I was terminated, on the weekend via text message and email just 6 weeks or so after I had started.

I was shocked, pissed off, and thrown into immediate financial peril. Not to mention that I am here on a guest worker visa, which is terminated when your job is terminated... Oh, the problems were really starting.

So when the owner of this institute offered to extend my visa, somewhat indefinitely, if I would substitute a class here and there, I couldn't really refuse. I need money. And even more than that, I need a visa. So this little agreement has lead to apologies, followed by more steady work, and now followed by a full-fledged job offer at a new school that she just opened, where I happened to substitute for her yesterday. Where the money is good, and where I'll be teaching little kids again, and where the hours are somewhat normal (now I teach at night, which is convenient for the time-being, but I'd like a normal 9-5...)

Is refusing this job a case of too much pride? I know I've been apologized to, but the way I was fired was just so dirty. I feel so burned. And I feel like they know they made a mistake in firing me and not that damn supervisor (actually, after I was fired, then talked to, then apologized to, they investigated a little more and discovered the inarticulate prick was the problem and not me, and he got the boot, too)... I don't want to refuse what might be a good job, but I also don't want to put myself in the path of getting burned again. Because it has become all too clear to me that this boss is not afraid to burn people. Now I am in the unique position of doing "favors" for her by subbing. I say when; I dictate the rate of pay. I am a free agent. But if I'm contracted to work for her again, won't that relationship change?

Oh, the headache... What should I do?

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

continuing to live a funk free existence

So I haven't been writing because I just kind of don't want to jinx it...But, well, here we are and so here I go.

Dare I say it? I actually feel... happy. I cannot pinpoint exactly why my emotional hardwiring is deciding to do an about-face, but damn it feels good to not feel bad. I have been blowing off my Korean classes, mostly because I don't have time to do the work to pass and it is beginning to feel hopeless. But you know what? For the first time, this does not stress me out.

The General Secretary. Busier than ever. But, this also does not stress me out... With him I just let go of expectations. I know his job is hard. I know he's always working and that he wants to be here as much as I want him to be here. But I know, too, that this is a short term situation and for the next month this is what life must be like. So why start a fight about it? So I've changed my mind-set to how I think when I'm single, which is much healthier anyway, and the General Secretary and I (though not broken up now) are going to have a go at what a real life might be like together when his post with the Migrants Trade Union is completed in just over a month.

And work. Well, I still don't care, but I have resolved to make a lot of money in the coming year and so I'm on the hunt. But I think I've figured out that doing a lot of different kinds of teaching is what just might work for me. Right now, I am working part time at a hagwon, teaching private lessons, and about to pick up another part time kindergarten gig. It's all different enough that I'm not bored out of my mind by the repetion and right now it's enough work to live comfortably (if not a little meagerly)... So in March, we'll see if I can keep up this kind of schedule or if I have to become a one-job woman again.

I'm still on the look out for an affordable gym that makes sense given all the different places I have to commute to around Seoul, where I can get into a routine and stick to it. But in the meantime, I'm not feeling as lazy as I was a couple of weeks ago.

And lastly: Rani (roll the r, short a, kind of spanish sounding). Rani is the newest edition to our bustling household of 4 and one of the cutest darn kittens you've ever seen. And perhaps the most social I've ever met. She cannot stand to be alone and is extremely jealous of the GS, which unfortunately for me, has resulted in an abnormal amount of laundry. But she is playful and cuddly and everyone loves her and she has really earned her name, which means "Queen" in Bangla.

Sunday, January 7, 2007