CouchSurfing in Korea can get you FIRED

This is just a quick post on Couchsurfing in Korea that I wanted to share, just to warn others of the potential dangers of couchsurfing in Korea. Most people who put “couchsurfing” and “dangerous” in the same sentence are referring to the dangers of hosting a complete stranger in your home. The dangers of meeting complete strangers, on the internet, then meeting in a public place, and taking them home as if they were a friend and letting them sleep on your couch / spare bedroom / floor mat..whatever. Having hosted 100’s of couchsurfers and surfed on 5 continents, I can confidently say I have never had any truly negative experience, have never felt threatened, never had anything stolen and have also walked away from the experience with a smile on my face and amazing memories and new friends.

Until today I thought Couchsurfing could work anywhere but having been in Korea one week, I can see that in certain cultures, and in certain countries, it may be more of a hindrance than a help. Why?? Well, check out the letter, below, which my friend received from the principal of her school following a few weeks hosting people in her city South of Seoul…. I doubt she will be hosting anymore. :( Oh Korea.

fired-job-loss
Statement of Civil Complaint 

Last Friday (7/19) evening, I got a phone call from vice principle Kang. It was your civil complain *sic* from parents of our school students. That person told about your behavior that you are inviting many men to your house and they came out in the morning from your house. It cause *sic* neighbor inconvenience. And that person also said to the vice principle, they already asked you to stop that but you didn’t change. Your neighbors already know that YOU are BLANK Elementary School TEACHER and they think that your behavior is not appropriate for teacher’s attitude as well as not good for your young students who live around your house. At the end of the complain, *sic* that person told that BLANK Elementary school hired unsuitable person for teacher. 

I already told about your ‘Couchsurfing’ to principle and vice principles but they are disappointed with the fact, many men came out in the morning from the teacher’s house which is rented by budget of korean civil’s tax, and they want to change your attitude as a TEACHER IN KOREA. 

As American way of thought, you may think that is invasion of privacy. But you are employee of Korea national educational institution. And Koreans expect you to comply with Korean culture. In this country, if you give an impression behind on student’s parents *sic* that you look to be sexually promiscuous as teacher, *sic* then you can be a target of criticism whether actually happened or not. So your behavior that conflict with Korean culture caused your neighbor’s civil complaint. Furthermore, this complain *sic* is regarded as our school hired inappropriate person for teacher. Consequently, you caused the complain to school and violated a contract article 19-1. So we will issue warning letter. 

Article 19 (Codes of Conduct) 
1. The Employee shall not behave in any manner which may damage or tarnish the reputation of the teaching profession in general or of the GEPIK program and the undersigned Employee in particular during the Term of Employment. 
If you do not change your behavior and attitude with this complain, *sic* other complains will come to school and education office. That will make us issue another warning letter and finally we will reconsider about the contract with you.

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28 Comments

  1. July 29, 2013 / 8:58 am

    Eh. Cultural differences are one thing (although I think that our sexual life should stay outside anybody else’s concern), but a complete lack of an interest, and not even willing to understand iniciatives like couchsurfing is another. Wasn’t couchsurfing supposed to bring people together instead of cause them problems (and imaginary problems)? Just like you, I’ve never had any negative experience on CS whatsoever. I am sorry that your friend got into such trouble just because she wanted to help.

    • July 29, 2013 / 2:53 pm

      I know, I think the lack of interest and unwillingness to understand and explain to the neighbours the details of what CS is all about is the thing that annoys me the most. I feel they should have at least stood up for the teacher they hired, instead of just pushing blame on her and making her out to be some sort of promiscuous slut! Absurd!

      • SuperFly
        July 29, 2013 / 3:33 pm

        Obviously you haven’t been here long enough to understand that blame deflection and the inability to take any type of ownership is part of the Korean culture. That’s why its all on her. Funny thing is the principal was most likely writing it at a Love Motel using a hookers back as a table.

  2. InternationalMadeline on CS
    July 29, 2013 / 9:04 am

    Hmm… I have to say that I can understand this from a cultural perspective. I don’t agree, but culturally, I can understand. Single woman repeatedly hosting men in a conservative country would usually be a problem. Employer-paid housing, also a tricky issue especially if just a boyfriend would already be an issue. If the person in this letter lived in Dubai, her actions would be illegal and prosecutable – also if she were a he and it was women guests. It was a warning, not a direct dismissal…. Maybe hosting women would be acceptable in Korea, but if lots of visitors is culturally shocking, then this person has a lot of good PR to do with her neighbours and some cultural lessons to learn. I travel a lot and host a bit. In some countries, all the rules change, like it or not. For example, in Congo, as a foreign woman or even as a local, the best clothing to wear is a floor-length skirt in traditional prints. This is a message that you might be married and are also a respectable woman, warning men not to try and flirt with you. It works and I follow this rule for the past 2 years while working there….. We all need to try and understand the culture where we live, this is also part of CS. Cultural understanding is an integral part of the CS experience, whether we agree with the culture or not.

    • July 29, 2013 / 2:56 pm

      I totally agree with understanding culture, but Korea claims to be a first world country, one which is one of the most technologically advanced in the world, has a booming economy and is becoming a lot more open. I dont even think she hosted that many people…maybe 3 or 4 guys over a few weeks! I just feel they really went over the top with this warning letter, especially when they ALREADY KNOW what CS is, what its about etc. They should have stood up for her!

      • Woden1809
        July 30, 2013 / 12:17 am

        Just a quick point – the world has changed. “First world” (sic) does not mean Western. Korean never claimed to be Western, although – correctly – it does claim to have one of the strongest economies in the world with one of the most influential cultures in the region.

        Living in Korea is so much easier once you realise this simple fact and stop being surprised that it is not a Western country.

        I’m not saying this is right or wrong, but I am saying that many people forget that Korea is a very different culture from our home nations. Much of the “culture shock” and difficulties foreigners experience is because they mistake economic strength and “pop culture” for being Western.

  3. July 29, 2013 / 2:04 pm

    wow –

    • July 29, 2013 / 2:57 pm

      Yup…. “Wow” sums it up pretty well.

  4. July 29, 2013 / 2:50 pm

    I remember how myself and my CS host in Pakistan sat for 2 hours in the local immigration office and finally started explaining to the fat immigration officer ‘how we know each other’. ’twas okay.

    I know that in China you are not allowed to host any foreigners in your house if you work for the government or for the media.

    This is a very fucked-up story, tbh. Maybe she shall host girls only next time O.o

    • July 29, 2013 / 3:05 pm

      Yeah, I remember hitch hiking from Canada to America (arriving in Detroit) and the tough looking immigration officials would not believe us that we were staying on some random persons house…we didnt have her address because we were meeting her at a big CS party in Detroit, so they held us for AGES because we could not tell them where we would be staying in America. It took a lot of persuasion, and good luck warnings from them, before they would let us cross the border! They were so worried about us, but also thought we were bat shit crazy!!

      • July 29, 2013 / 10:06 pm

        Hi Janet,

        US Customs gave me a hard time last time I entered the country from Canada, too. I was on my way to a CouchSurfing “invasion” and hadn’t met my host yet. It was a really tough concept for them to understand and they only let me continue after searching my car.

        Anyway, I enjoyed this post and I’ll keep up with your blog. You showed me an interesting clash of cultures: Korea wants to be modern, yet they have a hard time letting go of some customs which don’t mesh well with the West. Thank you for the insight.

        Dan

  5. July 29, 2013 / 9:27 pm

    It’s Korea. What more do you expect? I have been in this country for 3 years and I am still trying to figure out what the fuck is going on!

  6. July 30, 2013 / 1:00 am

    This is very sad. Taking a positive experience and turning it into something dirty and bad. I can only hope that all Koreans are not this close minded and think in such a nasty way.

  7. ryan
    July 30, 2013 / 1:50 am

    That article in their contract would be contested with any labor board in korea. Korea labor law trumps any contract and specifically states that invasion of privacy is illegal. If she enjoys it, keep doing it. She will win any lawsuit. Maybe give a letter explaining to neighbors if she wishes to explain the couchsurfing program.

    • Peter
      August 26, 2013 / 8:10 pm

      GEPIK is the government run English teacher program. It’s probably the largest employer of foreigners in the country. I’m sure the labor board has seen the contract.

  8. July 31, 2013 / 8:40 pm

    Such a shame that something as friendly and laid-back as CS has been perceived like this. Culture differences is one thing, ignorance is another.

  9. August 1, 2013 / 5:50 am

    Wow. I’m disheartened that an innocent CS hosting experience turned out to be so problematic. However, after living in Korea for 1.5 years… not surprised. The exasperating expression “Oh…Korea” sums up my feelings about cultural awareness, diversity, and acceptance here (or lack thereof). As a previous poster mentioned though, Korea has never said it was a Western nation, though it claims to be first-world. Unfortunately, this is the frustrating situation and cultural environment we choose to live in. Extremely concerning though when what we consider “personal and private” and pretty unimportant actually, somehow becomes relative to our professional lives. Bummer :-(

  10. August 1, 2013 / 11:51 pm

    Something similair happened to me. I would let friends from other parts of Korea crash on my couch during their weekend/stay in Seoul… you know, to be a good friend. But because many of them were men, my landlord thought I was whoring it up and told my school. So… I stopped letting anyone into my house.

    Strange also that my landlord thought it alright to let himself into my house and put my mail on my counter when I wasn’t home.

    Yeah, living in Korea is the toughest part.

    • Chae-yeon
      January 19, 2014 / 2:55 pm

      Well… I think it is because what is considered a problem among Korean people is ‘staying in a house together over night’. Just letting into house isn’t a problem.

  11. Nakame
    August 6, 2013 / 6:06 am

    I’m so tired of foreigners, especially Americans complaining about how they don’t get to do whatever they want. Rule one is to respect the culture you are a guest in. And why she thought she could host random people in a apartment that is paid for by the school is beyond me. She is essentially setting up a hostel in her apartment, which any landlord and neighbors would be mad about in any country, and especially if she had single guys staying over a lot when she is in a leadership position teaching kids in elementary school.

    I Dont understand how anyone can take her side, no one forced her to come to Korea, go back to your own county if you want to act selfish, you cant do whatever you want when you are a guest in others countries.

  12. August 8, 2013 / 5:45 am

    Times may be a changin’ but still gotta understand local perspectives and accept them / respect them in context.

    Nearly 20 years ago in Delhi, couldn’t even rent a flat with my husband (now ex but that’s another story!) as he was Indian and I a Canadian ‘firangi’… My ex sis-in-law had immense difficult renting as a single woman and had to give up on the idea of sharing a flat with her male buddy. Even the place she found, neighbours would complain to her landlord if men were seen entering…

    Its changed significantly since then but there still remain considerations. Just part of living in different parts of the world! :-)

  13. August 9, 2013 / 12:25 pm

    Your friend seems determined to seek sympathy/support for this. They seem to have received a better response here than on waygook.org, where they first posted the letter. The audience there, while not generally particularly sympathetic to Korea, was knowledgeable enough about Korea to recognize that she had violated a basic Korean custom, which she should have been aware of.

    http://www.waygook.org/index.php/topic,59005.0.html

    Your friend made a mistake, and should just accept it. I would think one of the first rules of travel is to respect local customs. It is impossible that your friend could have gone through orientation for her teaching program without being made aware that Koreans usually live at home until they are married, and don’t co-habit before marriage.

    Her job is to teach, not reform Korean culture according to her Western ideals. As the letter makes clear, the school hierarchy was told of the nature of couchsurfing, but even a clear understanding of it would not make it acceptable in Korean culture. Whether she was sleeping with the men or not was really beside the point; it wasn’t considered appropriate for her to be sharing an apartment with them overnight.

    Her co-teacher actually made an awesome effort, in a second language in which they are clearly not particularly comfortable, to help her understand the nature of her mistake and the fact that though it might be perceived differently in America, as a public school teacher in Korea she has to conform to Korean customs. Which really should have been obvious to your friend from the start. To then go through the letter and add *sic* to every minor error is, I think, quite petty.

    • Raina
      May 16, 2014 / 6:29 am

      English teachers in Korea don’t live with their mommies and daddies until they are 30. They typically come to Korea alone. That shouldn’t mean they should be in forced isolation, unable to invite friends over for the night. In a foreign country without any family or friends, English teachers need a way to connect with others and Couchsurfing is great! Explore the new country together, and not in isolation. In a rural area it isn’t practical to go to a big city every time you want to meet someone. What if the foreigner just wants someone to crash with at home? Locals are fine, but with Couchsurfers I find that their isn’t such a language and cultural barrier. Ironic, isn’t it?

  14. August 11, 2013 / 4:43 pm

    I can’t “like” the article with this outcome. However it shows us cultural differences and that whole world is not really suited for so called “democracy”, every country have their customs and values and trying to spread western culture in the East (as we see from this article) can impact somebodys life really bad.

  15. Chae-yeon
    January 19, 2014 / 2:46 pm

    As a Korean student who have been growing in Korea for my whole life, this is quite understandable situation considering our culture, though I’m not saying it is right thing. I think that the school tried to explain Korean culture, but seems not enough. So I want to explain it a bit more.

    Since 16th century, Korea started to emphasize the separation of male and female, according to Confucian idea. The old saying ‘A boy and a girl should not sit together after they have reached the age of seven’ represents this very well. This cultural climate has continued and still exists in Korea although it got weaker a lot. Even nowadays, unmarried man and woman staying together in a private place is avoided, no matter what their relationship is. The only exception is family. Even very close friends do not stay in each other’s house if their genders are different and live alone, usually. Even couples are the same if they are not married officially.

    Furthermore, Seoul is one of the most populated cities in the world. If you have seen the sight of Seoul, you would be able to guess that hundreds of people are living in one apartment building. This implies that there are countless eyes and mouths and ears. Korean people are very interested in neighbors and like gossiping since we have not separated ‘you’ and ‘I’ much for hundreds of years.

    Moreover, Korean gives the most meaning to the carrier of teacher than any other carriers. A teacher is considered not just someone who teaches knowledge, but someone who teaches how to behave. Thus, they are applied the most strict standard and have to be the best model in all aspects.

    Considering all these characteristics of Korean culture, it is rather natural that Korean people think the situation is very strange. Strangers, who are all different people everytime, staying in a single woman’s house several times is something that they have never imagined. It’s obvious that neighbors will tell other people what they have seen, and the rumor will spread rapidly. Although your friend tries to explain what couch surfing is and why she does that, it is not an easy task since there are so many people and the majority of Korean adults have very limited english conversation ability. Even if she succeeds to do, still, it is hard to be understood and agreed since the matter of staying is so sensitive to Korean. Korean are also aware of the freedom of leading a life very well, but if the person is a teacher, it goes differently. They want teachers to stop doing anything that can be controversial. That is why some neighbors called the school and why the school sent the letter instead of ignoring complaint. If she were not a teacher but had other job, I am sure no one would have called to her workplace and the workplace would have never ‘warn’ her either.

    I agree that couch surfing is a great idea and indeed it is one of my biggest wish. So I was very embarrassed when I found this article. I am NOT saying that what is right or wrong. I wrote this with a hope that people who read this article judge the situation with more understand of Korean culture. It’s up to you to judge.