Stephen King’s “IT” and the Nostalgia of Returning Home

On September 8th, American moviegoers will be able to watch the latest adaptation of Stephen King’s epic 1986 novel, It. The book had previously been adapted in 1990, with the villain, Pennywise the Dancing Clown, played infamously by Tim Curry.

In 1990, I was 11 years old, the same age as the characters in the story. You see, It is the story of a group of seven 11 year-old kids (self-titled the “Loser’s Club”) who must fight a monster living beneath their small town in Maine. Originally defeating the monster in the summer of 1958, the kids vow to return to Derry, Maine, should the monster ever re-awaken. Fast forward 27 years and the monster, “It”, has awoken and has started eating children again. The seven losers, now all successful adults, make good on that promise and return to Derry to fight the monster one last time.

I am writing this in the summer of 2017. This writing falls 27 years after I first saw It while still a young boy about to enter the sixth grade. In 1990, I was living in a small town very much like Derry. That town was called Miles City, Montana. Population: about 9,000.

I first read It while in high school and read it again earlier this summer in anticipation of the upcoming adaptation. And this summer, much like the characters in Stephen King’s classic tale, I have returned to my old hometown for a trip down memory lane.

Now, let me be clear. There is no monster in Miles City, nor did my friends and I fight any malevolent being lurking in the city’s sewers. However, one of the most poignant moments in the book is when the characters cross over into the Derry city limits after a 27-year absence. They feel a host of unexpected, yet familiar feelings rushing back to them.

In the story, our hero, Bill Denbrough, rides a cab into the city, describing how much the city has changed.

Called the Paramount Theater in the 1990 film, the original book refers to it as the Aladdin Theater.

“It hasn’t all changed,’ Bill said…”The Aladdin [theater] is still there.”

“Yeah,” the cabbie conceded. “But just barely. Suckers tried to tear that down, too.”

“For another bank?” Bill asked, a part of him amused to find that another part of him stood aghast at the idea. He couldn’t believe that anyone in his right mind would want to tear down that stately pleasure dome with its glittering glass chandelier…Not the Aladdin, that shocked part of him cried out. How could they ever even think of tearing down the Aladdin for a BANK? (p. 620)

Cruising down Main Street in Miles City, I could empathize with Denbrough. Though, instead of banks, I was stunned to see a number of casinos had popped up in the old downtown. During my childhood years here, casinos were relegated only to nearby Indian reservations. Now, nearly each block has one.

However, unlike Derry’s closed up Aladdin Theater, Miles City’s only theater is still up and running with no signs of slowing down.

The Montana Theater brings back two strong memories. Once, in 1990, while watching Dances with Wolves with my family, I had quickly consumed my 32oz Hawaiian Punch. So, I kept the paper cup nestled on my lap as the epic film pushed towards 3 hours. During that time, the remaining ice had melted and, unbeknownst to me, had significantly weakened the bottom of the paper cup. As John Barry’s musical score rose near the end, I found myself strumming to the beat on the base of the cup with my fingers. It took just a small bit of pressure for my finger to poke through, creating a hole, and consequently soaking the crotch of my pants with ice water. My parents were curious why, upon leaving the Montana Theater just 10 minutes later, had I nervously draped my jacket over the front of my pants.

My second memory is a bit more mischievous. During the summer, my brother and I liked to bring small, hand-sized water pistols to the theater. We thought it wildly funny, in the shadows of a darkened scene, to shoot the water into the air in front of us, wetting those several rows ahead. When the theater manager would appear (responding to complaints of leaking water from overhead, no doubt), we would slyly replace the water guns and enjoy the rest of the film.

The book continues: The Center Street Drug, lair of Mr. Keene and the place where Bill had gotten Eddie his asthma medicine that day, was also gone…Looking inside as the cab idled at a stoplight, Bill could see a record shop, a natural-foods store, and a toys-and-games shop which was featuring a clearance sale on ALL DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS SUPPLIES. (p. 618)

In Miles City, Big Sky Pharmacy was the equivalent of Center Street Drug in Derry. And it still stands today and is in full operation. As I entered, I encountered a smell that I hadn’t whiffed in 25 years. The smell of the pharmacy alone took me back to 1992 when I and my brother would peruse the small comic book rack near the window alcove next to the front door. We’d buy up Marvel and DC comics for usually $1 or $1.25, back when new issues celebrated “First Issue! Collector’s Item!” though just before the wave of foil covers and gimmicky “Zero Issues” which took hold just a few years later in the collectible comic book industry.

The Barrens, where the children in “It” play during their summer, from the 1990 film.

One of the most striking similarities between Stephen King’s It and my childhood in Miles City is where the kids go to get away from their families and school. It’s called the Barrens and is a forested area on the outskirts of town. Coincidentally, my brother and I also used to spend copious amounts of time one summer in a very similar spot. It was along the Tongue River near where it empties into the larger Yellowstone River. Complete with abandoned train track and plenty of graffiti, this spot 25 years ago was our summer retreat where we built a fort and set a few trip wires and booby traps.

The Barrens in Miles City, where I used to play with my brother.

The Barrens next to the Tongue River in Miles City, with the Honda Trails sneaking off to the right.

Next to this spot was a dusty area of bike trails referred to locally as the Honda Trails, undoubtedly where older kids would ride and jump their dirt bikes. For those of us who were 11, riding our regular bicycles at high speed often satisfied the need-for-speed. Though, for me, it also led to me eating a live grasshopper.

You see, in the middle of summer with cicadas buzzing in the trees and grasshoppers bouncing about, it shouldn’t have surprised me to have one jump right into my mouth as I was pedaling hard along the Honda Trails, racing my brother. I remember feeling the small bug lodge itself in the back of my throat. I jumped off my bike and tried to force the critter up, but he was too far back. Closing my eyes, I reached for the water bottle attached to my bike and took a long swig of sun-warmed water, washing the grasshopper into my stomach and hoping my stomach acids would do the trick on him.

In Stephen King’s It, the characters are harassed by bully Henry Bowers and his goons. While I had, for the most part, escaped scorn and torture from bullies, there was a brief time (lasting no more than a few weeks if I recall correctly) when a bully and his friend would wait for me after school during the 6th grade.

Lincoln Elementary

The school was Lincoln Elementary and the first incident occurred one day when this boy started mouthing off to me on the walk home. Undeterred, I mouthed off back to him, prompting him to cross the street and, along with his friend, put me into a headlock until I took back my words. It became a daily occurrence and before long, I found myself waiting him out, standing in this exact spot, a landing on the 3rd floor of the school… just waiting and waiting until I guessed he had lost interest and gone home.

The 3rd Floor landing where I would wait for upwards 30 minutes before daring to go outside, hoping that the bully had moved along.

Once middle school came and I started to grow more in size, he eventually found other kids to pick on.

I’ll end this post with just a few random memories to preserve…memories that I had forgotten until seeing certain locales.

Next to the train tracks, this abandoned spot used to be either a Pizza Hut or Little Caesar’s Pizza, frequented by the local middle schoolers:

I remember going there in the 7th grade one day and sitting on the floor eating my slice of pizza (it was a to-go only spot I think). Rumors had been circulating that my divorced father was about to marry our old 5th grade teacher (yes, it was true and they are still happily married). One of the girls from my class had asked me about it and when I shrugged, suggesting that I didn’t know if the rumor was true or not, she proceeded to pour her cup of cola over me. To this day, I never understood why she did that. She was always a nice girl up until that moment. Perhaps, for lack of a better response, she did that.

In 1990 or 1991, Nestle Crunch candy bars offered a sweepstakes and grand prize to anyone who could spell the word C-R-U-N-C-H by collecting candy bar wrappers that had one letter each printed on the inside. This was at a time when paper (not foil) wrappers were still being used (and instant win, not “enter this code online” was still a thing). I realized that some wrappers didn’t have letters but had coupons for free Crunch bars. And… I realized that if you pushed down on the wrappers and got the lighting just right, you could see which wrappers had coupons and which didn’t.

So, little thieving me used to go to this exact convenience store and push down on all the Crunch wrappers and buy only those with coupons inside. Then, I’d go outside next to the ice boxes, unwrap them, and re-enter to claim my “free” Crunch bars. It wasn’t really stealing, right?

The Miles City Library sits smack dab in the middle of downtown and looks darn near the exact same. It’s no surprise that I was a bookworm as a child and I recall spending obscene amounts of time in the basement of the library (where the children’s books were located… though they have since been relocated to an extended wing on the first floor now). The Miles City Public Library had a summer reading program that year. I recall a poster of a cartoon dog and a small box of bone-shaped papers. Upon finishing a book, kids would write their names on the small bones and stick them on the giant dog. Over the course of the summer, the student who had the most bones would get a mention in the local paper. I don’t remember if my name ever surfaced, but I do recall the librarian looking at me over the rim of her glasses making sure I wasn’t reading too much Curious George books and was checking out more meaningful, in-depth books.

Oddly enough, the upstairs portion of the library seemed much smaller than I remember as a child.

While going through the children’s books, I remember having read a series of novels about talking animals and nature. I could only remember they were small hardbacks with no dust jackets. After spending about 20 minutes going through every shelf, I finally came upon them!

I can’t believe they are still there and available for checkout!

While a student in middle school, I had my first job. I was a paperboy for the Miles City Star, the local newspaper that was distributed every afternoon. I would go home around 3:30pm and have the papers at my doorstep by 4pm. After loading up my newspaper vest, I would ride out about 4 blocks to the first house on my route, park my bike, and begin the 1-hour delivery.

I made about $100 – $120 a month as I recall. However, as a middle school student, I was too focused on comics and baseball cards, so ended up squandering all my funds towards that. I remember withdrawing $10 every day from the local bank (and the teller giving me a look which said: Shouldn’t you be saving this money?) and going to the local Ben Franklin’s craft store.

Ben Franklin’s during its heydays.

Ben Franklin’s in 2017. 😦

Ben Franklin’s used to have a wonderful old 1950’s style diner inside. A wonderful woman there named Bev used to serve up grilled ham and cheese sandwiches and Country Time lemonade (though sometimes chocolate milk was in order). The icing on the cake was Bev’s delicious K-bar snacks, a tasty chocolate and peanut butter soft cookie. Sadly, the store has closed, though isn’t all forgotten. The new owner has preserved the old diner and turned the rest of the shop into an antique consignment store.

And for me, having not seen that diner in 25 years, I can attest that it looks nearly as it did back then (though with much more “vintage” signage and color now).

See the last seat before the counter opens up? That orange spot used to be “mine.”

Finally, not everything has changed of course. While the old Super America gas station where I got busted for shoplifting (yes, more baseball cards) is gone, the nearby M&H gas station still stands. And although the interior shelves are all bright and shiny and the prices have gone up, some small things still linger.

While attending Washington Middle School, we used to spend our lunch hour at M&H where, in 1992, the lunch special was 3 hot dogs and a Pepsi fountain drink for $1.00. Any left over pocket change would be used to buy sour Warhead candies.

And now? Well, like I said, the price has gone up, but not unreasonable considering it’s been 25 years. And as I walk the streets of this old town I occasionally see kids riding their bikes, jeering one another on these hot summer days. I wonder what memories of the town they are making now and what they themselves will have to return to in 25 years time.

Many dismiss Stephen King as being merely a horror writer, but for some of us, the literary value of his craft ties itself much closer to the heart.

I’ll end this with a quote from another Stephen King tale, one called “The Body”, which was later turned into the wonderful film Stand By Me. The quote is the opening of the story and one that seems to round out my nostalgic trip back to this small town in Montana quite well. It goes:

The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them — words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.

–Stephen King, The Body

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Book Publishing in South Korea

historys-mysteries-websites

Today, December 15th, 2016, marks the publication of the first book of my History’s Mysteries ESL English puzzle adventure book series. The book has been published by Key Publications, a major publisher in Seoul with a whopping command of ESL textbook market share in the country. It’s a time travel adventure story targeted towards middle school ESL learners.

So, how did I manage to get my series published in South Korea? Here’s the story in 5 parts.

 

PART ONE: HOW IT ALL BEGAN —

For a few years I created an managed my own organization from Daegu called Stompy Ruffers Cultural Fusion. Originally meant to be a business selling Korean-American fusion patbingsu in the summer time, the organization morphed into any and every creative project I found myself doing while working as a public school elementary teacher for 5 years.

In the summer time, I pushed selling my bingsu at festivals and events, however, once fall arrived and the shave ice season wrapped up, I needed to concentrate my creative efforts elsewhere. So, I started a Stompy Ruffers Youtube channel and began crafting short films and various Korean-American culture-related videos. Although the other elements of Stompy are mostly non-existent now, I do still enjoy shooting and editing for the Youtube channel.

Well, when the following spring would roll around, I wanted to create a kick-off event for the up-coming bingsu season. I decided to take inspiration from David Blaine’s mind-bendingly fun and engaging 2002 Mysterious Stranger $100,000 Treasure Hunt. Having participated in the hunt myself (yes, my buddy and I took a road trip to Ft. Bragg, California, in February 2004, but no treasure!) I was bent on creating a similar style hunt combining Korean and English for the Daegu community. The result was the 2014 Stompy Ruffers Great Daegu Treasure Hunt.

Having had such a fun time doing the hunt in Daegu, I scaled everything up and put up 500,000 KRW of my own cash to launch the 2015 Great Seoul Treasure Hunt, a wonderfully fun event to plan, design, and execute to the wonderful citizens of Seoul.

PART TWO: THE PITCH — 

Coming off a victory with that (design and execution all went off without a hitch), I started to think about the next big idea. I’ve enjoyed a fun hobby of creative writing since I was in middle school and during my twenties had fashioned a dream of becoming a full-time novelist one day. Frustrated with the lack of energy I had seen in the ESL book market in Korea, I thought it might be nice to combine my interactive English puzzle treasure hunt with ESL content and create an adventure story where our actual readers would have to solve fun puzzles to help the characters in the book. It felt like Choose Your Own Adventure for the modern ESL market! It seemed like such a brilliant idea!

So, I hired a very talented children’s book author and illustrator to create a few pieces of concept art which I would use in a proposal to pitch my idea into the publishing world in Korea. I was aiming to pitch the idea at the 2015 Seoul International Book Fair in the fall of 2015. Here’s some of the concept art that was created:

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(c) 2015 Megan Hellwig

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(c) 2015 Megan Hellwig

The original idea was called Treasure Bound and was meant to be an ESL treasure hunt book, where readers would solve a series of puzzles which would lead to the very real location of a missing diamond (most likely using just a plastic place-holder) which would be redeemed with the publisher for a real cash prize.

At the fair, my then-girlfriend, Hyerin, and I were inundated with tons of publishers and agents representing their items at the fair. We navigated to the booths which looked like they published English content. Hyerin would kick into her sales pitch mode while offering over a proposal I had drafted together in Korean and printed out on heavy stock paper. The proposal had the concept art on one side and on the reverse there was a brief summary of the book’s idea, then the treasure hunt concept, and finally a bit about my qualifications of having successfully created a live treasure hunt event in Seoul.

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Hyerin and I passing out the proposal cards to publishers at the fair.

As we wandered about, we were met with tepid interest. It was starting to look like cold-pitching the idea wasn’t going to work. We had two more booths to approach.

We met with Mr. Kim, the CEO of Key Publications after speaking briefly to his son. Mr. Kim’s eyes immediately lit up upon hearing our proposal. He mentioned that they had been looking to create some kind of new, fun ESL project. He invited us to return the following day to sit down and discuss the idea further.

Eager, Hyerin and I returned the following morning to meet with Mr. Kim at the Key Publications booth in COEX. He immediately expressed great interest in the project and event started jotting down rough contract terms, royalty percentages, and info on how they structured their print runs. Excited at having captured his interest, we stood and shook his hand. We snapped a picture along with his son. As we were walking away, Hyerin kept saying: “Oh my god! I think we just sold a book! I can’t believe it!” It was such a thrilling moment.

With Mr. Kim and his son at the Key Publications booth at the 2015 Seoul International Book Fair, October 2015.

With Mr. Kim and his son at the Key Publications booth at the 2015 Seoul International Book Fair, October 2015.

PART THREE: A NEW CONCEPT —

Over the course of the next few months, I was put into contact with my editor and project manager at Key Publications. I went to Seoul to meet with her in a cafe and discuss the project more. She said that Key Publications was not interested in creating a treasure hunt book because they make most of their revenue from reprints and after the treasure was found, the book would lose its value (at least in one aspect). She asked me to brainstorm some new ideas.

In January, I created a new concept and wrote a sample book. I sent it in with a few pages’ layout in photoshop so my editor could get a visual of what I had been thinking. She responded by saying that the text was too high-level. She asked if I could write in simpler language. She says jump. I say “how high?” Of course, I could!

I put together another concept for the story and characters and re-submitted my proposal. Now, the story wasn’t about a missing diamond, but about the same group of four kids (the main characters had never changed this whole time) who are bookworms and find a magic book which takes them back in time to meet a famous person in history. Through a series of fun English puzzles, they (and our readers) must complete the puzzles to solve the “history of mystery”. She responded favorably and gave me the green light to work on the project, writing: “I couldn’t wait til I could write to you properly with my laptop at the office, because I wanted to let you know that the project you’ve conceived seems to be able to take off as a full-fledged publishing project.

Awesome!

We were now in March, 2016, and I had plans to spend a week solo in Jeju Island. I took this opportunity to focus on writing the story. Instead of writing on my laptop, I decided it might be best to write the story by hand. This would force me to slow down my writing and concentrate on making simple sentences which would work best for our readers.

Once completing the text and having self-edited it, I sent it in to my editor with a bit of nervous hesitation. When submitting, I took the time to create a stronger visual conception of the ideal look and feel so that my editor could best understand the angle I had imagined. Here’s a sample of my rough concept for the first page followed by the actual final version.

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My original first page concept I sent to the publisher along with the full text. This was meant to serve as a quick visualization tool for my editor.

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This is the final version of the same first page. It really didn’t change much, did it?


To my surprise, she responded on March 25th that Mr. Kim had decided to offer me a publishing contract! She asked me my terms so that we could begin contract negotiations.

 

PART FOUR: THE CONTRACT —

In April 2016, I negotiated my contract terms with Key Publications. I won’t reveal details but will mention a few things here. The amount of the book advance (amount paid upon signing the contract) was not important to me. What was more important was the royalty rate (the percentage I would get of each book sold). After some back-and-forth, my editor and I came to an agreement. I would get X% for each copy sold. Should book sales pass a certain amount, then I would get a larger royalty, Y% for all future copies sold during the length of the 10-year contract.

Being my first time negotiating creative rights in Korea, I did some research and read some harrowing stories of writers and artists who had been taken advantage of by their publishers. There’s the case of a South Korean author who penned a children’s book called Cloud Bread, but didn’t negotiate the rights properly and the publisher ended up licensing out the characters and third party rights without compensation to the author. Likewise, Korea’s popular messaging app, Kakao Talk, had a similar issue with the character artist not negotiating these rights properly and now receives no compensation for all the commercialized products created from his/her original designs.

Looking to avoid this, I made sure my editor knew that I requested retaining a percentage of these third party rights. Of course, there’s no way to know now if the series would be popular, but should (for example) a stationery company want to create notebooks and erasers featuring my characters, they will have to buy the rights jointly between me and the publisher.

To ensure this, I did hire an English-speaking Korean lawyer to review my final contract. He made some recommendations about a few spots to give clarification. All of his recommendations were met in kind by the publisher and they agreed to all of his suggestions.

Finally, the contract was signed and book production could actually now begin.

 

PART FIVE: PRODUCTION —

Production on the book began immediately. My editor searched for and found a very talented illustrator name Jung Young Ha. In particular, my editor was attracted to a part of her portfolio containing some playing cards she had designed for a client:

playing-cards

Intrigued with the simple color scheme and design, I also approved of the kid-friendly feel of Miss Ha’s work. My editor then set out to find a book designer. After a hiccup with the first designing firm, we settled on the wonderfully professional folks at Mim & Ponytail based in Seoul.

Throughout the summer of 2016, we went back and forth working on the book’s layout and design. It was very exciting to see the project slowly come together. I think my editor and I shared over 500 emails on this project.

As we got closer to completion, it was time to get the audio book version produced. My editor again made a tremendous effort to find a studio who could supply voice actors with the right tone and feel that we had been looking for, to bring these four wonderful characters to life. All audio samples and files were sent to me for approval and I was pleased to know that my editor and I shared similar opinions as we rejected some candidates and approved others.

As fall approached, my editor gave me the green light to start working on History’s Mysteries Book 2, anticipating success with the first volume. I won’t detail it too much here, but I did my research and wrote the book over a period of five weeks from mid-September to late October, 2016, while visiting friends and family in the United States.

Finally, December 2016 came and the book was released successfully. Anticipating a potential international audience, Key Publications printed a “local” edition (Korean written on the inside cover flaps) and an “international” edition (English on the inside cover flaps). Time will tell how well the first book in this charming series does. I hope it’s successful enough to go forward with the already-completed second book.

I really hope this book series sparks an interest in young ESL learners worldwide. I would have loved to have read this kind of book when I was a high school student learning German, my first foreign language. I hope that this contribution will be well-received and used as an engaging educational tool for learners of English.

History’s Mysteries Book One: The Missing Years of Gutenberg may be purchased online here or at any local major book retailer.

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Renewing your F-2-7 (points) Visa in Korea

About a year ago, I was finally awarded my F-2-7 (points) visa from the Daegu Office of Immigration. Having jumped through all the hoops to get it, I had to admit that I was a bit dismayed to find out they had made it valid for only ONE YEAR. Well, that year has passed, and so I was somewhat dreading the renewal process. However, I can say that it went surprisingly smooth.

Immigration asked for only two documents. Proof of residence and proof of employment. Providing the proof of residence bit was easy. I brought with me my housing contract signed by my landlord and I. I also brought a recently utility bill with my name and address on it, though it wasn’t needed. I have also heard that one can bring in the official notice of renewal from immigration as proof of residence (though I haven’t verified this independently).

Now…moving along to the proof of employment…

I had quit my public school teaching job after 5 years in February, 2016. Having the new visa meant that I could work, as I’d desired, as an independent freelancer. Having paid off all my student loans and credit card debt, I was able to coast for a bit and not worry much about income. However, the immigration officer was wary of my sudden Bohemian lifestyle and did say that the F2-7 is still tied to work in a specialized field.

So, I reached into my bag and pulled out what might have been my trump card. It was a publishing contract recently offered to me by a major publisher in Seoul for a series of English education novels I was to write (the contract was for the first in the series). I will write more about my experience with publishing in Korea soon. I handed it over and the immigration officer looked through it. He convened with others for about 5-10 minutes and then gave me the good news.

Visa extension would not only be “no problem”, but I was getting a 5-year extension!

I’ve heard of others getting 5-year F2 visas right off the bat and I certainly didn’t expect it. It was great news (and great to know that I needn’t report to immigration for another 5 years). I paid my fee (60,000 won), got my updated expiry sticker on the back, and was on my way.

So, all one apparently needs to renew their F-2-7 (points) visa is simply:

  1. Proof of Residence
  2. Proof of Employment (contract)

If any of you have more information or other stories about renewing your visas. Leave a comment below!

~BMV

 

Posted in 한국어 Korean language, Korea | 4 Comments

ROK of Ages : Calculating Age in Korea

It’s no big shock to anyone who has lived in Korea or studied a bit about the culture that Koreans count their ages differently than westerners. Koreans count the gestation period towards the life of the child (which should speak volumes about where this country would side culturally in a “Does life begin at conception?” debate). Thus, once the child is born, he/she is technically about 9 months old. Koreans get a little sneaky here and just round it up to 1 year.

Likewise, when the New Year comes around (meaning January 1st) *everyone* in Korea celebrates a birthday. Yea! Everyone tacks on an additional year. So, what happens later in the year when the date of their actual birthday comes to pass? More celebrations! (But no adding numbers to their age this time around. Boo.)

Thus calculating one’s age can be a bit tricky when asked (and believe me, you WILL be asked…a LOT). It’s possible for a baby to be born in December (1 year old at birth), then be considered 2 years old a few days later on January 1st. That little tyke won’t add another year until the following January, but it is a bit overwhelming to think that your newborn baby has zoomed up to 2 years of age so quickly.

I first encountered the Korean aging system while living in Guam from 2009-2011. We operated a Kids Club at the hotel resort I worked at and there was a clear minimum 5 year-old age cut-off. The waivers we had the parents sign were available in Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, and English. The sheets required the parents to write the date of birth of their kids. Often times, we’d catch sneaky parents trying to put their 4 year old kids there, relying on the trusty old Republic of Korea Department of Aging Mathematics to handle the paperwork. Not on my watch, folks.

In fact, I think I’d like to see Koreans get even more exact with aging. Instead of calling a 9-month old newborn 1 year old, why not wait another 3 months and celebrate a true full year? Well, they kinda already do! It’s a 100-day celebration (백일), so close enough. Besides, maybe it’s a little creepy to start counting on the exact 1 year mark. Then you’ll live the rest of your life knowing a little too much about what season your parents like to get giddy.

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Fight Fire with Fire: Korea’s Love Affair with Spicy Cuisine

Koreans have an expression called: “이열치열” which translates as “fight fire with fire.” This expression is most often used regarding Korean cuisine, and especially in the summer months. Foods that are both temperature hot (삼계탕, ginseng chicken soup) or spicy hot (take your pick of nearly any Korean dish)

Tonight I had some spicy jjimdalk with my neighbors (also expats). We had two types. Regular and spicy. Normally, regular is fine with me but on occasion I will have the spicy variety to assess where my tolerance currently sits with spicy Korean food.

See, when I arrived in Korea 4.5 years ago, I remember being rather confused about spice. At the time, it seemed to me that Korean food was relatively bland in taste (think veggie-based dishes) and that they used spice to “shock” flavor into a dish~ to give it at least something for the taste buds to respond to.

However, in the past 4.5 years, I’ve watched as my tolerance for spicy food has steadily grown, getting to the point of being able to stomach spicy 쭈꾸미 (baby octopus) as well as the aforementioned 찜닭.

I think part of the appeal to eating spicy food here is that it forces one to savor the full taste of whatever sweet counterpart has equipped the dish. In the video above, you’ll notice the couple sipping on sweet peach juice, a necessity when taking down spicy tteokpokki. I think that the juice is more appreciated, more revered, when acting as a sweetening and cooling agent against the strong, ripping spice of the main course. Perhaps it’s something about balance, or maybe it just serves as justification for having a sweet dessert after the meal. After all, the juice can be sipped during the meal and these restaurants often offer complimentary bingsu (빙수), or Korean shaved ice, as a proper dessert.

이열치열 can be a blessing to some or a death sentence to others. What’s your favorite kind of Korean spicy dish? How was your tolerance when you first tried it? Leave a comment and thanks for reading!

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F2 Visa: Upgrading Your Life in Korea (Pt. II)

[UPDATE: A new Points list has been released by immigration. Links are provided below. Valid from July 20, 2015]

Over two years ago, I posted about the F-2 (F-2-7) points visa offered by the Korean government. Often referred to as “the points visa” I was interested in completing the steps to obtain it since I knew I would be in Korea long term.

Now, over two years later, I have successfully obtained the visa and would like to share my experience.

What is the F-2 Points Visa?

The points visa is based on one gaining 80 points from a list provided by the Immigration department. Click here for the English Breakdown: 07.20 KIIP Update English (07.20.2015 Update) However, I also recommend checking out the Korean version, since the Immigration officers will reference this when processing your application and there are a few things that aren’t translated properly into the English form (more on that later). Here’s the Korean version [updated July 20th version] 07.20 KIIP Update Korean.

Other blogs break down the points, so I won’t get into that here, except for how it unraveled in my personal situation.

The Korean Immigration Integration Program (KIIP)

Now, most participants will need to take part in KIIP (Korean Immigration Integration Program, 한국사회통합프로그램). This is a state-funded Korean language / culture study course offered for free to participants. If nothing else, it is an excellent way to get some free Korean classes. When working towards the points visa, it will give you 25/26 points towards the 80 you are building towards. (More on the 25/26 discrepancy below)

KIIP consists of 5 Levels. Levels 1-4 are grammar lessons. Level 5 is called Understanding Korean Society and Culture. It is not a grammar-learning course.

To participate in KIIP, I first registered for my placement test via the Socinet website. There’s an English option for most of the forms, but anyone who has used Korean-style sites before should be relatively accustomed to the procedure. After making an account, I signed up for the test. It was held on June 8, 2013 at Yeungnam University in Daegu.

Taking the KIIP Placement Test at Yeungnam University, Daegu.

Taking the KIIP Placement Test at Yeungnam University, Daegu.

The test involved a grammar and listening test, similar to TOPIK or other standardized tests. Being a placement test, one could feel the questions increasing in difficulty. After the written test, we were shuttled to another room to do the reading/speaking test. For this part, I sat with 4 other test takers directly in front of the exam proctor. Since I was sitting on the end, I had to start. I read the short passage taped to the table (only about 4-5 sentences about a girl who enjoyed spending her time watching movies on the weekend), then answered some comprehension questions about it. (ie. “What does the girl like to do?” “How does watching movies make her feel?” etc.). Then the proctor asked me a random question: “Describe for me a national holiday (명절) in Korea.” So, I started talking about Chuseok (추석) and described all I knew about it. She then went down the line of other students who had to read / answer the *exact* same questions. Then the test was over.

Via the Socinet website, I was able to see I had been placed in Level 4. This was the highest grammar class of the KIIP system. So, I was pleased to have been placed so high, allowing me to skip the lower levels, saving me gobs of time.

Level 4 KIIP class at Yeungnam University, Daegu.

Level 4 KIIP class at Yeungnam University, Daegu.

I registered for the Level 4 class via Socinet again. This was in March 2014. (I had a busy summer 2013, so had to push it off). I did my time, took my notes, and passed the final test with relative ease.

I then registered for Level 5 and took that in October 2014. Again, I put in my required time, took my notes, and did my test. This time, during the final test, there was another similar speaking component. Seeing as how the test was administered at the Daegu Office of Immigration, we had to answer some questions in front of one of the Immigration employees. One question was to describe what we knew about Jeju Island. Another question was to recite / sing what we knew of the Korean national anthem and describe the national anthem from our own country.

Attending KIIP Level 5 at Keimyung University, Daegu.

Attending KIIP Level 5 at Keimyung University, Daegu.

One thing I should mention is that I *loved* the text for KIIP Level 5. It’s like the Cliffs Notes of Korean history and culture, written for non-Koreans, so uses easy language and is very visual. I wish this book was available in the marketplace. It’s contents are very valuable I think.

KIIP Level 5

KIIP Level 5 “Understanding Korean Society” textbook.

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KIIP Level 5

KIIP Level 5 “Understanding Korean Society” textbook.

After passing Level 5, I was ready to head to Immigration and get my points totaled! And *this* is where the headache began.

Applying for the F2 Visa

First Attempt:

As soon as I found out I had passed Level 5, I headed over to the Daegu Office of Immigration to get my points calculated. In my calculation, I was over the necessary 80 points. One of the things I handed in was proof of having worked 6 years in a professional field back in the States prior to coming to Korea. I had worked in the professional security world and served as a Security and Fire Life Safety Manager for one of Denver’s high rise office towers.

The immigration officer accepted this documentation and said I was over the 80 points needed, however, I would need to gather tax documentation for at least 3 consecutive years from back home. But, not to worry, he said. I could request those documents and immigration would accept a PDF showing it.

So, I went home, emailed my old manager, and woke up the next morning with the requested tax documents, in PDF format, in my inbox. Again, I went to immigration, pulled my number, and waited. When my number was called, I found myself sitting across from a different immigration officer. I explained how I had been in the office on the previous day and was ready to submit my new documents. This officer, however, refused all work experience from back home citing that the experience had to be in a related field. Here, he produced the original Korean form of the points breakdown and showed me, in Korean, that it states it needs to be in a related field (which it wasn’t in my case). I told him that the other officer said it was fine. The two talked. Then the officer I had originally spoken with apologized and said he was mistaken.

Not only this, but the new officer insisted that passing Level 4 of KIIP was equivalent to 15 Korean language points, not 16 as specified in the documentation I had (which is linked above). He said TOPIK Level 4 is 16, but KIIP Level 4 is only 15. I asked him for documentation, and he swiveled his computer around to show me that indeed it was only 15 points. I asked for the date of that document. It was dated April 22, 2013. Mine was dated April 17, 2013. That means there was an updated version made 5 days after the original was published and released to the public. I asked the officer for a printed copy of his updated points breakdown, but he refused, claiming it was an “internal document”. I was pretty upset at the inconsistency here. He said I had 79 points and suggested I “just pass TOPIK 5” and all would be ok.

Ugh.

I took my documents and went home.

Second Attempt

In February 2015, I had to renew my normal Korean visa, so when I went in I decided to take all my documents again and see where my points stood. This time I spoke with another immigration officer who tallied the points and said I had 79. She suggested I do the 50 hours of community service and come back. I asked if there was anything else I needed. She said no. Just the document showing my 50 hours. So, I renewed my other existing visa, and left.

Third Attempt

A few months later, this time May 2015, after having successfully fulfilled 50 hours of community service over 6 different sessions (via festival event planning with the YMCA in Daegu), I returned to the Daegu Office of Immigration with my documents and spoke to the same officer I had spoken to in February. She didn’t remember me, no big deal, but when she calculated my points, she said I had 80 now, but also needed *an additional* 5 more documents. I was not too shocked anymore to see the goal posts changed on me once again. I started complaining to her that everyone in the office kept shifting the target around on me and telling me different things. I reminded her that in February she had told me the community service document was *all* I needed.

She apologized and said the other 5 documents would be easy to obtain (recent phone bill to establish residence, 2014 income earnings [I still had the 2013 earnings statement with me then], bank account official document, employer’s certificate of registration and tax info, etc.)

Feeling a bit guilty perhaps, she said I could leave my documents with her, pay the 100,000 application fee, 30,000 won card fee, and a 5,000 delivery fee, fax in those 5 documents, and then they would process my F2 and mail it out to me. In a huff, I did as she asked. (Side note, I had brought a few profile pictures of myself for the application, knowing they would need it, however the background at the studio was gray and they only accept pure white backgrounds, so they made me take new pics in the basement for a 7,000 won fee.)

…and now things get really complicated…

I gathered those 5 documents and faxed them in. Then the immigration officer called me and said that for 2014, I had paid 980,000 won in federal income tax in Korea. The point bracket shows 1 point for paying over 1 million (which I had done for the previous 3 years, including the document from 2013 she had originally approved). So, she said sorry, but they wouldn’t process my visa because I was down to 79 points again. That’s right.  I lost a point because in 2014 I happened to pay 20,000 won (about $20) under the threshold requirement.

AND…

She said that unfortunately they could not refund the 100,000 won application fee they had taken from me just 3 days prior.

Oh….was I ever livid.

Thankfully, it was a Friday, so I could cool my temper down over the weekend before aggressively campaigning for that extra darn point the following week.

Over my 4.5 years living in Korea I had successfully completed 4 YMCA language academy Korean classes. There’s a part of the points where 1 point is given for “Korean Language Training”. The Korean version says:

20150527_083518-1

Nowhere in the Korean does it mention it must be from a university. The YMCA courses are all recognized by the 국립국어원 (National Korean Language Institute). It’s not some fly-by-night language school. All teachers are certified. I then presented the 4 수료증 (specifically stated in clear letters on the top of each certificate and underlined in red in the requirement above).

YMCA Certificate of Completions

YMCA Certificate of Completions

Daegu Immigration shot back by saying that it’s only for university programs. I mentioned they don’t specify anything about universities. They were adamant. Only university programs qualified for this point.

SO…

The only other thing I could think of was to re-approach my previous work experience back in the States. I worked in the security field but also published articles about the industry in national trade journals during my tenure there. Also, I had spent the past 3 years working as assistant editor for the Daegu Compass magazine and had just been offered a promotion to Editor-in-Chief. Perhaps they would accept it now?

Well, after a few days of volleying back and forth over it, they finally accepted it. I think they just wanted to get rid of me and realized I wasn’t going to give up over 1 measly point. So, they accepted the work experience, which put me to the 80 points (perhaps over? I don’t know), and sent me my new F2 visa! I received it about a week and a half later.

One side note: I was under the impression that the visa was an automatic 3-year visa. Two of my classmates from the KIIP Level 4 course were given 3 year visas. Mine was only made for 1 year. Perhaps because I was stingy about it. I called the 1345 Immigration hotline and spoke to a representative in English about it. She said that immigration officrs have discretion over the length of sojourn, so it really is up to what they think of you / how well their day is going.  ㅠㅠㅠ

Likewise, the officer that ended up giving me my visa didn’t make a stink about the 15/16 point issue with Level 4 of KIIP. She calculated 16 points for me, not the 15 that the first officer had claimed 6 months earlier. Again, there’s no consistency in this office. Walking in is just a roll of the dice it seems.

Anyway, hopefully renewing it isn’t a mess. Be prepared for Part III of this F2 adventure if it is.

 

In a Nutshell…

The F2-7 points visa is possible. My experience dealing with KIIP was wonderful, yet dealing with immigration was a nightmare. I felt they kept changing the goal posts on me, telling me one thing one day, and changing their minds the next. Keep in mind, the immigration officer has discretion over what they will or won’t count as points. The inconsistency is a pain, but you can do it!

Would love to hear your thoughts and comments and if anyone has any experience in renewing this visa, I’d love to read it also in the comments below! Good luck to you all!

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KPOP Junkie

I wrote, produced, and directed this KPOP parody for Stompy Ruffers Cultural Fusion Check it out and leave some feedback! Hope you enjoy it!

Also, here’s the companion “behind the scenes” vignette too! Shot entirely in Daegu, South Korea over the course of four weekends.

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