The Korean dream can be a nightmare for Filipino students
Student visa? Not guaranteed. Bank services? Restricted. English-teaching jobs? Barred. Welcome to the reality of living as a Filipino in Korea.
Korea is a popular destination for Filipinos looking to experience life overseas, but if you are thinking of studying or working here, there are certain hurdles to be aware of that make life a little harder.
Having lived in Korea for about five years now, I once treated this country as my second home. In 2013 when I first moved to Korea to study for my undergraduate degree, everything seemed beautiful and welcoming.
But the hospitality that I expected of Korea gradually changed as I matured and looked at society more closely. Reality hit me — as much as I might want to be, this can never be my home. Filipinos seem to stand in a gray area in Korean society, and that distinction has got even murkier over the last few years during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In February this year, I was sat at home in Manila preparing for course registration for the Spring semester and found myself struggling to find classes offered online. Unlike most students, I was unable to return to Korea because I couldn’t renew my student visa.
Korea’s Ministry of Education at the time said that the Korean government had restricted the issuance of student visas for citizens of countries subject to quarantine reinforcement due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The impacted countries included the Philippines, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Britain, Kirgizstan, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.
The irony was that, at the time, the government still allowed students from other countries with much higher Covid-19 positivity rates to enter Korea.
Many Filipino campaigned on social media using the hashtags #EqualOpportunityforPhStudents and #LiftVisaSuspensionForFilipinos, calling for the Korean government to lift the student visa ban.
There were approximately 100 Filipino students who were requesting entry and waiting for updates from the Philippine Embassy in Seoul on how bilateral talks with their Korean counterparts turned out — having our hopes up one minute, then feeling disappointed the next.
The student visa ban deeply affected the academic plans of Filipino students, including myself. Some admission offices did not accept applications from the Philippines at all due to visa issues. Some students had to worry about giving up scholarship grants that would require them to attend offline activities in Korea.
I even had to change the university I would be attending.
In April 2021, I first contacted an admission professor at Hallym University to ask about any requirements for my master’s program. His answer at the time was, they do not accept Philippines students due to the ongoing visa issues and they do not offer online classes.
I asked him again six months later and the answer was the same.
Thankfully, Korea University was willing to admit me, and, after months of waiting, I was finally able to return to Korea.
But my struggles did not stop there. The next problem emerged from an area I never expected — banking.
Korea is known for its leading technology and communications. Everyone living in Korea enjoys convenience in society in terms of ordering online, bank transfers and kiosk payments.
Even student identification cards can be turned into debit cards for the student’s convenience.
However, that’s not an option if you are from the Philippines and attending Korea University.
Korea University uses a Hana Bank debit card for its identification card. But the bank won’t allow Filipino nationals to create the card.
Kakao Pay, a frequently used service among university students, is another issue.
It’s a fairly common practice for one person in a group of friends to pay the whole bill at a restaurant or cafe and ask everyone else to send them their share via Kakao Pay. I’m normally the only person that can’t do that.
“We inform you that Kakao Pay is no longer available to users with specific nationalities in accordance with ‘the countries which do not comply with international standards for anti-money laundering’ announced by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF),” the Kakao Pay Customer Center told Filipino customers in a Kakao message in November. “Therefore, your account will be automatically withdrawn.”
The FATF, a watchdog group for global money laundering, released a list of 23 risk countries with deficiencies in anti-money laundering systems including the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates, Cambodia, Jamaica and Morocco.
It’s not just administrative issues that Filipinos face in Korea.
“Your English is great — you are pretty much bilingual, but you are not a native English speaker” is a phrase that many Filipino job seekers will have heard in Korea.
The Korean government only recognizes the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Ireland and New Zealand as native English-speaking nations. English teachers from these countries are the only ones eligible to apply for an E-2 visa to teach a foreign language.
That means that Filipinos, many of whom have been speaking English their entire life, typically receive 20,000 won ($16) an hour to teach English while people from other countries receive an average of 50,000 won.
“The duration of my stay in Korea is now unclear and I am just praying that I will be given the opportunity to teach,” said Michael Emerson Amante, a 41-year-old Filipino graduate in Korea.
Amante first came to Korea in 2013 as a former exchange professor with an E-1 visa, or professor visa, as he was teaching English and intercultural communication at the global language clinic at Kongju National University. He eventually pursued a Ph.D. program at the same university and graduated in August with a doctorate in English Language and Literature.
Now that he is on a D-10 visa, or the job seeker visa, he realized how difficult it is to pursue a career teaching English in Korea and has started preparing for the possibility that he will have to move back to the Philippines due to the lack of employment opportunities here.
“Because I carry a Philippine passport, he could not hire me in accordance with Korean immigration law,” Amante said, talking about a time he tried applying for a job at a university’s international institute of education in 2016.
Amante also thinks that educational institutions would prefer nationals of native English-speaking countries with a lower educational background over Filipinos with doctoral degrees.
“When I submitted my resume, the American interviewer told me that if only I have a western passport, he would hire me based on my work experience and educational background,” said Amante.
The Korean government may have perceived justifications for these policies, but for many Filipinos like me, it can’t help but feel like discrimination — especially when citizens of so many other countries don’t face similar restrictions.
BY STUDENT REPORTER ISABELLE PIA SISON [email@example.com]