“What are you going to do when you graduate?”
“Are you going to stay in Britain? Or are you going back to your country?”
As the last second-year students at RCA, we have a lot of worries about the future, even though we still have about half a year until we graduate. In the orientation, which lasted about two weeks, many tutors emphasised that we should live a “self-oriented” life this year, so we cannot help but worry about our future. And we’re art school students anyway! In other words, maybe we are not the talents companies are looking for first. Plus, the biggest problem is that I’m not British. Will I be able to live here as a proud career woman through challenging British employment processes?
I feel especially susceptible to this problem because I have proudly declared, “I will work in Britain!” and left my family. Of course, my parents must also desire it, as they have covered the costs of living and studying in Britain. They don’t want me to just get my degree and return to Korea. I didn’t just come to Britain for my master’s degree. As the saying goes, “If you’ve pulled a knife, cut a radish at least” or “Over shoes, over boots.”
But I might need to do more than just try hard, I might need to jump in to the unknown. I’m desperate for someone’s advice. Wouldn’t it be possible to get some advice if I ask someone with the same thoughts as me or the same experience, “How was it to get a job in Britain?” Fortunately, I have 5 hard-working friends who came to Britain to study and got a job here, who shared their valuable answers with me.
-You’re all Koreans. Why do you work in London? Is there a particular reason?
-A: Most international students who decide to study in London consider their overseas employment experience after graduation. In my case, I challenged myself to get a job here because of labour rights, such as the number of vacation days, the atmosphere where I can take a vacation, the horizontal atmosphere of the company, maternity leave, parental leave, etc., which is better than in Korea.
-B: The glass ceiling is still severe in Korea.
-Yeah, you know what? According to data released by the Economist in March this year, Korea has been at the bottom of the glass ceiling index for ten years. But when I read the comments in the article, someone said, “You wrote the bullshit with all your heart.” How funny it is.
-C: I came here to live with my British boyfriend, but I chose it because the working environment is better than Korea. You can feel the value of working and keeping your work-life balance.
-D: I chose to work abroad after graduating from postgraduate school in London because I thought it would help me in many ways.
-This is it. All my friends are thinking about this and trying to work here.
-E: London has so many design fields and opportunities.
In July last year, students who completed their Britain degree programme were allowed to stay in Britain for two to three years and seek employment. It was excellent news for international students like me. Like many students, I also jumped for joy as soon as I heard the news. It would be great if I could study where I wanted to, work hard and build a career! It was also good news for more practical reasons, because studying abroad and overseas experience tend to be recognised a little more in Korea.
And sadly, everyone knows that it’s better to build a career here somehow, because the situation in Korea is worse than in London. Korea’s work-life balance, which friends often cite as a problem, is notorious. Although the 52-hour work week has been introduced, overworking more than 52-hours still happens in many industries. Korea ranked 37th out of 40 countries in the work-life balance index surveyed by the OECD for 40 countries. In Korea, where income is below average, and life satisfaction is at the bottom, it is natural that there is a sarcastic joke that says “Korea is a place where only strong people survive.” But can I say that London is any better? Since Korea and Britain are entirely different environments, shouldn’t there be more to unpack to? What do you think?
-A: Korea has a lot more to improve. In London, it’s nice to be able to focus on “work” and how to get better as a member of the company, but in Korea, I had to work extra hard to become the youngest member in a team with “sense.”
-Wow, I can relate to this so much. When working in Korea, I also experienced so many absurd things that I thought, “Do designers have to do this?” For example, I had to make coffee for the director or run errands to buy bread. I always needed to consider what colleague I should line up to get the valuable project that I can put on my resume. And if you work overtime more, you’ll become the “youngest” who has “sense” and is “good at work”.
-A: As a foreigner, I have to pay more attention to my language when presenting. However, there is no extraordinary pressure,because my colleagues consider and accept that English is not my first language.
-B: Discriminatory remarks like “Women are blah blah blah” or “Men are blah blah blah” can be more problematic in London than in Korea. You should also be careful with gender comments that call someone “she/her” because you think they look like a woman.
-C: There’s nothing else I should pay more attention to because I’m working at an office job, not a service job like working in a cafe or a pub. All you need to do is work perfectly.
-D: Consideration for minorities is more embedded in workplace culture than in Korea. In other words, I must listen and pay more attention to this. Every time I talk, I always think about diversity.
-E: I had to be careful about what I said and did because there were more diverse racial and sexual orientations.
-I really agree. Actually, it’s really a problem that Korea calls itself a single ethnic group race, and it doesn’t care about sexual diversity like here. So you can make a big mistake. That is one of the things that I’m meticulous about.
As I said, Korea and Britain are entirely different environments, so there may be some things that are culturally unfamiliar to us. Soon after I started studying at RCA, I met a friend who asked me to call them “they/them,” and I was worried that I would make a mistake when I said “them” because I had never heard of such a concept. After such an experience, I realised I had lived in a straightforward and narrow world. The world is changing, and I was thinking like a frog in a small well.
You can experience more of the broader world, but you have to be careful about more. A few days ago, in my WhatsApp, I heard that the crime of picking up a cell phone on a bike in London is increasing. A stabbing even occurred at Liverpool Street Station because of pickpockets. One of my friends had a cell phone pickpocketed a month ago. Of course, on the issue of policing, as I said in the previous article, London is not safe for international students or foreign women. Have you ever had an unpleasant or absurd experience as a woman in London compared to Korea? In general or in the workplace.
-A: Not so far at work.
-B: It hasn’t been long since I started working, so I haven’t experienced discrimination in the workplace yet. However, judging from my experiences, such as catcalling on the street or sexual harassment in public, it seems no different from Korea.
-C: As a small East Asian woman, I feel nervous. I can’t think of anything that would directly have been unpleasant. Except for those who suddenly shout, “Nihao.”
-Oh, my God. Another version of the ‘Fucking Chinese’ level of racism.
-C: When I see a group of men who look a little dodgy, I walk faster and usually don’t go out late at night. But you know you can go around freely in Korea.
-D: I don’t think so at work. I feel respected by my colleagues as a member of the team, regardless of gender.
-E: Not in the case of work.
I have felt discrimination between men and women while working in Korea, and I have been asked about my private life because I am a woman. “Do you have a boyfriend?” I’ve been asked dozens of times. “If you have a boyfriend at that age, you should consider getting married.” I’ve seen a more significant project handed over to a male colleague. A female director who heard me talk to a client once said, “I think you have good communication skills because you graduated from a women’s university.” Of course, while preparing for employment, I even heard rude remarks at the interview, saying, “There are girls who design as a hobby and aim for marriage.”.
There is even an analysis that it is difficult for married women to get a job in Korea. As many as one in five married women has their career cut-off. And there is also the nickname “Gyeongdannyeo,” which refers to them. It’s ridiculous. Because there is no nickname for “Gyeongdannam(career cut-off men)”. There is no official restriction on the conditions of employment, but in the job market, married women are often avoided . This phenomenon is due to prejudice that women are not competitive because of childcare or housework. Because many still think childcare or housework is up to women.
I’m relieved there aren’t many questions and phenomena like the above here. So far, I have studied in Britain for more than a year and realised that London is a city where I can live more freely than in Korea. However, it was only sometimes a pleasant experience. Not only the racism but also catcalling experiences that everyone has at least once. And yet we live here. What are the advantages and difficulties of being a woman living abroad?
-A: The good thing is that I don’t have to experience the shortcomings of Korean society. It’s free from competitive and comparative cultures and the pressure to achieve something at a certain age. What’s hard is that I’m a minority here, and the peculiarities of being a woman, an Asian, and an immigrant overlap, and many other things happen. Some say it takes much longer than in Korea to feel like “my home.” In addition, close friends and parents are not close by, and I always think that I am “doing” rather than “getting through” all my life in a second language.
-I can relate to this. I went back to Korea for a while during this summer vacation and heard, “When do you want to get married?” dozens of times during precisely six weeks. It’s because I am old enough to get married and have a baby in Korea. I wanted to come back to Britain soon. But I wasn’t born here, and I don’t speak my native language, so I feel a little bit of a barrier, and I feel like “I survived”, rather than “living” day to day.
-B: The advantage is that British men have more basic manners than Korean men. For example, they hold the door or lift something heavy even if you don’t know each other. The fact that the glass ceiling is less than in Korea, that there is less sexual harassment in the workplace, and that there is no discrimination in the workplace is good. But the downside is that you have to live as a second-class citizen for the rest of your life. I’m an Asian woman, so I’ve heard too much catcalling and ching-chang-chong comments from foreign men. And there is also loneliness because it is hard to make foreign same-sex friends.
-C: The good thing about living abroad, to be exact, in Western countries, is that there is a free social atmosphere. It doesn’t matter how you dress, or whether you wear makeup or not. If it is demanding though, and the safety and security are inferior to Korea. And it’s easy to be a target because of our completely different appearance.
-London is where people from more diverse races and cultures live together than in Korea, so there’s freedom. But there is discrimination hidden in that freedom. I think that’s sad.
-D: The good thing is that I don’t have to recognise myself as a woman when I work. My coworkers see me as “a colleague of 000 abilities and 000 abilities” rather than “a female colleague.” There isn’t anything complex.
-E: The good thing is that women are treated better than in Korea, and they don’t notice what I wear because they have less interference. The difficulty is that I think there are some cases where I am looked down on because I’m Asian.
Still, my friends who studied and got jobs here in London lived here longer than I did, so I thought they might have dealt with a little more discrimination, but that wasn’t the case. It’s because they were office workers and foreigners before they were women. As one friend said in my previous article, the school serves as my fence, and the workplace serves as a fence for my friends. But outside the fence, we’re just foreign women.
However, the good thing they had in common among their answers was that they never experiences discriminatory remarks or actions, at least in the workplace. I’d like to hear about it in more detail, what is the most inconvenient thing about living in London as an office worker, especially a female office worker?
-A: Language is the most uncomfortable. Verbal communication is okay because you can use body language or facial expressions, but it is still difficult to adjust to document work and e-mail.
-B: You have to try twice, three times as hard as others. To avoid disruption, compared to those who speak English as their first language, we must think about and prepare simple presentations and conversation topics in advance.
-C: If the country is Britain, there is nothing uncomfortable about being a female office worker. Instead, there are many inconveniences due to handling various documents, including visa problems, because I am a foreign office worker.
-It’s the only thing I can say that is better in Korea. I was surprised to find out the paperwork would be this slow. Even when I got my visa while attending school, it came out too late, I needed to delay my flight, rebooked, and it made a fuss.
-D: I always feel lonely and out of touch because I don’t get cultural empathy . When you make friends, you are more likely to get along with mixed-nationality or foreign people than with full-fledged English people. Sometimes I need help understanding the unique British way of speaking roundaboutly.
-I know. I’ve felt this problem a lot in school. Eastern friends hang around with people from the East and vice versa. Is it because there are many things in common between culturally similar countries?
-E: I haven’t felt any discomfort yet, but it could be because I’m a junior designer. But at the management level, I see few women, And it’s hard to know precisely what the wage gap is. I’m curious about that.
-Oh really? I thought there would be a lot of women at the management level compared to Korea!
Indeed, as a foreigner, the process of finding and getting a job here seems challenging. Finding a job in every country is a tricky problem. But in some countries, finding a job as a ‘foreigner’ is more complicated than passing an elephant through a needle’s eye. Because the companies have to provide visas to foreigners, which is more troublesome than hiring locals, we must put in more effort and persevere to penetrate the narrow door.
But was it easy to find a job in Korea? I can say no. According to the BBC, one in three college or graduate school graduates in Korea is unemployed. It is hard, particularly in large companies, where hundreds of thousands flock to break through narrow job openings. Small design studios quietly recruit job seekers based on recommendations from people around them. And even if you are lucky enough to get a job, creative contracts are often on a fixed-term basis, so you should always be prepared to find another job. So what about in Britain? What are the differences between job hunting in Britain and Korea?? Or have you ever had another experience?
-A: I haven’t looked for a job in Korea, but I think there’s nothing like taking a test and getting a job at a company in Korea. Britain will be different from company to company, but in the case of large companies, the procedure is less complicated than in Korea.
-B: The difference is that you always fill in the equalities form. Even if it is a very mild allergic reaction, there are many kinds of things, such as whether you have a disability, your nationality, race, religion, etc. Also, there is an option called “prefer not to say” when answering gender.
-C: Britain’s job search process is much more comfortable. Of course, it’s different company by company, but it was good because it felt like we were getting to know if we could work together rather than being evaluated during the interview. And the degree of freedom was good because it depends on how you present yourself to the company.
-Right. In Korea, people are almost ‘scored’ during interviews. Like from 1 to 5. I have yet to experience a job interview here, but the atmosphere was comfortable when I applied for postgraduate school.
-D: The application process itself is entirely different. In Britain, most companies ask you to submit CVs, portfolios, and cover letters in general, but in Korea, there are many formats for each company, so it is different. In Korea, large and medium-sized companies tend to emphasise self-introduction essays. In Britain, the company wants to know about me through a 1:1 interview instead of having a simple and free cover letter. Interviews in Korea were always challenging, and I felt like I was being interrogated, but interviews in Britain always felt like they wanted to get to know each other.
-I can relate to this so much. In Korea, self-introduction letters are essential. Even when you go to the interview, the first question is, “Introduce yourself.” I’m sure they read my cover letter, but I don’t know what else to introduce. And I need to understand how to knock out thousands of words with just three questions.
-E: I liked the atmosphere of trying to make the interview as comfortable as possible in Britain. Some people asked me to send my resume after reading my cover letter and interviewing before I read my resume. Usually, there is a discrimination policy, so at the same time as applying, there is a survey to ask about race, sexual orientation, etc.
-Interesting. I don’t know if it’s because I have an interview phobia, but I feel relieved that most of the interviews were in a comfortable atmosphere. I guess Korea tends to digitise people a little more.
In Korean companies, they always do something called a “personality-aptitude test” in the job search process. It is typical to find out if the applicant’s personality matches with the company. Still, it is not a 1:1 or many-to-one foreign interview format, but a form of selecting and submitting options from “not at all” to “very much” to nearly 100 questions as if conducting a psychological test. Therefore, applicants change their persona to match the company, and take the test with “fake me.” Of course, even though they made personas, sometimes they failed.
When I worked at a design studio, the director told me to come to the cafe downstairs. When I went to see her, she suddenly gave me dozens of cards like tarot cards and said, “Put them all down, leaving ten cards with the words you want.” When I thought hard and picked a card, she suddenly said, “You are so greedy,” and added, “I understand that you want to live such a good life and want to have everything, but it’s hard to succeed.” Is that what a director should have said to a junior designer who works for a company? Years later, the card game, her laughter, and the sentence lingered in my mind.
In the end it was a good experience. Because after a series of adventures, I decided, ‘I should study abroad rather than work in Korea.’ Of course, you can only live as a student for a while. Because, as I said, I want to work here. However,I hope I don’t have to work overtime like I did in Korea. I hope they don’t give me a hint if I don’t work overtime and then say, “otherwise it’s hard to succeed.” Is that too much greed? I should ask my friends. Is there any difference from working in Korea? Or are there characteristics of a London job?
-A: There’s no special treatment or going easy on me because I’m a woman. There are no minor gender discrimination remarks such as “Your makeup is good today” or “You don’t have makeup today?” “You look pretty today,” and “Do you have a boyfriend?”
-Those questions are like morning greetings in Korea. The speakers don’t even recognise it as a sexist statement.
-B: It was impressive that each team member trusts and cares about their unique characteristics. I remember being shocked that it was acceptable that it was difficult for a team member to come to work today because they are a mother who had to go to a child’s sports day. It’s hard to even talk about maternity leave in Korea. The company culture here has developed a lot from the attitude of working mothers and working dads.
-C: First, the company dinner culture is free. Participation in a company dinner, what to eat or drink, and when to return home are all incredibly accessible. Second, I don’t need to work overtime. It depends on the company, but you don’t have to work overtime. If you finish your duties early, you can even go home early. Lastly, there are more 1 to 1 meetings or non-work-related meetings between people in the same workplace than in Korea. In meetings like this, I share my feelings, good things, and inconveniences in the company. And the content is immediately well received.
-D: I experienced similar occupations in Korea and Britain, and while Korea was learning by struggling, Britain was trying to teach and help as much as possible. They try to help my career as much as I can and try to reduce overtime work as much as they can.
-E: Of course, work-life balance. The culture where overtime is not a given, and taking care of my life is a given right. And the relationship between co-workers is different from Korean. In Korea, there is a ‘사수sasu,’ so I have to listen to what they say. And there is a lot of pressure on the practical things: ‘how to work,’ ‘how to send messages,’ ‘how to manage files,’ etc. Of course, these are essential skills, but in Korea, they evaluate people more. I’m here for work, not to focus on what’s being shown. And I also remember that Korea is too hung up on its position. “Newbies need to be like newbies.” I can see this kind of mindset. What’s a newbie? I’m a junior here, but I work equally with my seniors and feel respected, so I’m very satisfied.
-I’ve experienced this before. It’s too obsessed with vertical relationships. A manager was under the director at one company I worked for, and they were close. But the manager repeated the advice to the director that something needs to be supplemented, and he was so angry. The two were shouting, fighting, and even having a fistfight outside. It was abnormal.
My Korean friend said she saw a contract colleague working overtime abnormally while leaving the company. So she thought about why, and because contract workers were not given overtime wages, managers at work handed over a lot of tasks to him. It’s literally a free labour force. Of course, Korea is one of the “hard-working” countries that consistently rank in the top 5 in the annual average actual working hours statistics by OECD countries. But are working people happy? Is it an excellent quality to work a lot and do it for a long time?
Still, it is fortunate that the answers of my friends working in London were a little optimistic. But as I said, we are foreigners here. It was hard to find a job, but they must have had a hard time inside their companies. Because in Korea, they are discriminated against only because they are “women,” but there are more complex and diverse classes called “foreigners, Asians, and women” overseas. Do you have any experiences or feelings about this?
-A: I think it’s obvious, but it’s sad. There is ‘British’ society in the workplace, and I feel excluded. And I get a lot of sexual harassment, catcalling, and racism on the street outside. I mean…Please don’t look at me. And want to say “Is it your first time seeing an Asian?”
-B: Not at work so far. Many English people thought that the last syllable of my Korean name was a middle name, but they asked and cared about it in advance. On the contrary, it is complicated due to visa problems in trivial daily life and when working abroad. In conclusion, because of the visa, the number of companies that can prepare for employment and the degree of effort is more intense than for British people. If you had to live fiercely as a woman in Korea, you would be more lonely and fierce as a ‘foreign’ woman in Britain.
-C: It was more challenging to get a job because I was a foreigner than a woman. The company hires a British employee who doesn’t need a visa but doesn’t hire me who needs a visa sponsor or has a limited permit. But I’ve never been discriminated against in my current company because I’m a foreigner. My company’s global project includes EMEA, APAC, and AMER markets, so my case may be unique because there are many foreigners.
-That’s a good case. In the case of businesses pioneering global markets, our presence as foreigners can be helpful.
-D: There is no overt discrimination in Britain, but there seems to be subtle discrimination. Rather than being Asian women, the British had a company atmosphere that they shared among themselves.
-E: I may be lucky, but I haven’t been discriminated against or felt much unless I’m a stupid person. But maybe it’s a more liberal environment because I work for a relatively sizable creative agency, and there are people of various ethnicities and nationalities. And I only go outside sometimes. I lived up in the US when I was young and spoke American English, and people kept asking me carefully, “Did you learn English in Korea?” “Where did you study?” But people might be curious, and I was okay because it wasn’t the feeling of “Oh, you can speak English properly even though you are Asian.” I would also be curious if people of different races spoke perfect Korean in Korea.
-After hearing everyone’s answers, I think discrimination against a stranger, not a gender, is a little more significant. Maybe it’s because we’re “outlanders” who are abroad, so we feel the issue more seriously.
Surely, we cannot be strangers in Korea. We were born and raised in Korea and even received an education there. As a Korean, I have never considered it a privilege to live in Korea. However, for foreign workers, Korea is a very prejudiced and discriminatory country. The relatively small salary can come with frequent accidents and dangerous and unpleasant tasks. In other words, the deep-rooted idea that Koreans are a single ethnic race has resulted in another “discrimination.” It resulted in the problem of ignoring and overlooking people from multicultural families.
I just found a headline from 2018. According to a survey of foreign workers in Korea, the most severe difficulty in living in Korea is “language and communication problems.” Next, there are cultural differences, the burden of medical expenses, and the lack of counselling services. Aren’t you familiar with those for some reason? We, who study and work in Britain, have similar difficulties. Perhaps this is a widespread problem for strangers.
But what’s more interesting is the last story. There are far more women than men who complain of prejudice and discrimination. In addition, it reports that Koreans suffered more prejudice and discrimination if they had children. This discrimination is another class issue for women. They are both foreigners and women. The same goes for us.
I should ask you the question I asked in the previous interview again. What do you think about the feminist issue here compared to Korea?
-A: I think Korea and Korean men are incredibly severe, but Britain is no different. There are a lot of British men who say that feminism is too extreme, and there are a lot of people who sarcastically ask who has the most potent power in their country because gender discrimination has disappeared. The Queen is a woman. (*footnote : The interview was conducted before the Queen’s death.) Even women sympathise with it—no need to mention the independent sexy marketing of the corset industry.
-Oh, my God. So childish as to mention the Queen?
-B: Just by looking at the British election, I think the feminist issues discussed in society have advanced a lot. In Korea, politicians use the minority nature of biological men to win votes, but here, the issue of trans women’s legitimacy is used politically. In Korea, reverse discrimination against men may be a social issue.
-I know what problem you’re talking about. It’s about our country’s presidential election.
-C: Feminist protests are not necessarily dealt with within the framework of feminism but are treated as a social issue overseas. That’s how widespread it is.
-D: The rights for women is much better than in Korea, and the perception of feminism is not as hostile as in Korea. Instead, British feminism seems to have a little more leniency. The rights for women are better, but it’s not the best. I often see my manager get ignored because she is a woman. Instead, the company can complain about the system itself, but I don’t know because I haven’t worked enough in Britain to see if it helps.
Guys, this is finally the last question. How about living as a Korean woman working abroad?
-A: I’m proud of something, but at the same time, I often feel lonely, thinking that I’ll be a stranger to their society forever.
-B: My favourite sentence is, “There is no paradise where you ran away.” The following sentence would be, “There was only another war there,” but I think it’s a process of fighting another fierce war that won’t happen in Korea.
-C: After working abroad, I compare Britain and Korea. Working in Britain is surprisingly satisfying. Work-life balance, company culture, respect as an expert in a field that is not a part of the company, competitive salary, co-workers who do not discriminate by gender or origin, etc. But at the same time, it’s bitter. If I could enjoy all these things in Korea, I wouldn’t have had to work hard to adapt as a foreigner in this faraway country. I sincerely hope that Korea’s workplace culture can develop.
-D: Sometimes I feel lonely but I enjoy the free atmosphere.
-E: I am satisfied. I apply the responsibilities and skills I learned in Korea here, but I also take the things I need to know here. I’m doing just the right thing. My Korean-ness doesn’t become a label while working.
-I’m so proud of you who are working here beyond the limits of being a foreigner. We came to this country by our choice and decided to work in this country, so let’s live hard as we have done so far. And I hope to have the valuable opportunity to work like you guys.
Many Koreans live in Britain. Many Koreans came to the country with rich dreams, including office workers who got a job through complex stages, holiday workers, and part-time workers you might encounter at cafes today, like countless people who search for “British workplace vlogs” on YouTube. Of course, six people, including myself, can only speak for some Korean women working in Britain. We just shared our honest experiences. However, in common, ‘we are living hard and fiercely here’. A woman, a stranger from Korea.
Once again, I would like to conclude this article with the question, ‘How do you live in Britain?’
I thank all my friends for their precious time even though they must be tired from work.