Connecting and Communicating with the U.S. Consul General

First things first, as seen in Dong-gu last week while J-Mar and I had lunch together:

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Not sure what these people were dressed in or for what purpose, but henceforth they will be known as the Q-tip people. Also, this was taken in a Subway (yes, American franchise restaurant), which, as you can see, has a garden outside of it. This is already shaping up to be a weird post. [Great Wall adventures to return soon.]

Flash forward to this week. This afternoon, the American expat community in Ulsan had a rare (and cool, might I add) opportunity to meet with the U.S. Consul General to Korea, a diplomatic official who works at the American Embassy in Seoul. He was in town for a tour of the HHI shipyard and fabrication yard, and also took time out of his busy schedule to come to the foreigner’s compound to talk about services his office provides and answer questions from the community. His intent was to connect with American citizens in Ulsan and to open dialogue about any concerns we might have or information we might want to know.

First off, it was really nice to have contact with someone (particularly someone important) from the U.S. State Department to feel connected to our government and home country. These days with all of the conflict going on in Washington, it’s hard to have a good feeling about the bureaucracy of government, but today, at least for me, it felt nice to be recognized and connected.


Mr. Powers from a photo on flickr.com

We learned a little bit about the Consul General himself, Mr. Roberto Powers – he is not the ambassador, by the way, and was not sent in place of the ambassador either. The U.S. ambassador to Korea is Mark Lippert, who was just released from the hospital today from being attacked last week for political reasons by a Korean national who is now being charged with attempted murder. [Side note: here’s an interesting article on South Korean reactions to the attack.]


US Ambassador to Korea, Mark Lippert, shortly after the attack. Photo from Business Insider.

Anywho, I don’t think we ever actually go the run-down of what Mr. Powers actually does, but he was answering all kinds of questions and his specific job duties didn’t come up.

…Ok, I just Wikipedia-ed it (way to go, reliable source-checking me!) and it seems an ambassador is technically a representative of one country’s head of state to another country, aka President Obama’s representative to Korea. This is distinguished from Mr. Power’s role as Consul, which is to be a representative for the American government as a whole as well as to “protect and assist” American citizens in Korea. So I guess if there is someone I’d want to talk to, it’s Mr. Powers!

Mr. Powers has worked in US foreign relations for many, many years, and, in fact, his very first assignment was in South Korea almost 30 years ago. You can imagine how different things are now. Since then, he has worked in a number of countries, a few of which have had some pretty serious crises going on – Sudan, Egypt, Syria – so it sounds like he’s pretty experienced when it comes to handling any sort of emergency or evacuation situation, which is what a lot of the discussion revolved around.

I was surprised to learn that there are 190,000 American citizens here in Korea, not including active military plus contractors. [Active duty military accounts for around 25,000 people and contractors add another 50,000 personnel.] This large number includes the many Koreans who were born in America and are thus American citizens or dual nationals, so not all of the close to 200k are “traditional” American citizens. I was also surprised to learn that around 50 American citizens are imprisoned in Korea; however most of them are dual citizens, so there aren’t too many cases where the consulate is super involved with their legal problems.

Some other interesting information Mr. Powers shared was what the State Department will get involved in from time to time, including certain life or death circumstances of an American citizen. Furthermore, he addressed issues that are not overwhelmingly common but arise from time to time, including things like legal issues with Korean employers or sexual assault cases. In the case of the former, the consulate will provide a list of lawyers (but not direct legal assistance) to help with problems around contracts and payment, which can be a concern for the many, many American English teachers that reside in Korea. In terms of the latter issue, Mr. Powers was reinforcing education on both personal safety and awareness as well as alcohol consumption, as this ties in to many sexual assault cases that are brought to the attention of the consulate.

Then the conversation turned to the obvious: North Korea. Yes, mom, I was the one who asked if he could give us any advice on anything new and more calming to say to relatives who ask about safety concerns relative to our northern neighbors. He spouted off a lot of information, but nothing I didn’t already know or haven’t already told concerned parties: obviously, the situation with North Korea has been going on for many decades. The State Department treats each threat according to severity and plausibility, and although things could potentially escalate quickly, they have a good handle on the politics and are well prepared militarily to address any issues. Furthermore, as I’ve noted before, we’re located well away from Seoul, which is the most likely target for any sort of conflict, so in terms of relative safety, we have less to be concerned about than others.

Still, to be prepared, it’s a wise idea to sign up for email travel alerts through STEP, the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, where you can also notify the Embassy of your preferred in-case-of-emergency contact. You can sign up for alerts if you’re traveling to or residing in another country, or even if you’re just a concerned relative and you want to know what’s going on. This program is in place in most every country where the U.S. has an official diplomatic presence and is a modern-day convenience that didn’t always exist. Mr. Powers told stories of his time in the Middle East and Africa when people would receive phone calls and then travel from door to door to get the word out about any critical issues, or the government would rely on non-profit organizations or missionary representatives to have a chain of communication with American citizens living and working abroad.

Today, there is still a similar “warden” system in place, and I found myself at the end of the meeting signed up to be in more direct contact with the Embassy so we can spread the word quicker in the event of any crisis situation. There is an emergency assistance number if you’re an American citizen in Korea. Furthermore, relatives can also call the State Department if something comes up on the news and they would like up-to-date information on the status of the situation.

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One additional thing I sadly confirmed today is that in the event of any emergency, animals will not be provided for. I felt a little silly asking, but this is a real issue that people have had to deal with in past evacuations of American citizens. It didn’t always turn out well. Though incredibly terrifying to think about, the restriction still makes sense given the circumstances. We’ve just got to hope and pray for a safe and uneventful rest of our time here.

I’ll also be hopeful for more of these sunrise views from the roof of our building, though less air pollution would be nice:

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China: 5 Days + 3 Cities + 7 Expats = Infinite Fun

Happy Seollal! It’s Lunar (Chinese) New Year here, which is a huge holiday for Koreans, typically involving celebrations and ceremonies to honor ancestors, as is custom for many holidays here. The Korean New Year almost always lines up with both the Chinese and Vietnamese New Year, but it’s actually based on the Korean lunar calendar, which about every 25 years differs from the others by one day.

Whoa information overload! Anyway, it’s a perfect day to start my series about our trip to China. I have really been looking forward to blogging about this, particularly because the lively group we traveled with was the perfect dynamic for blazing through the country on a jam-packed quest for delicious buns. Oh, also that Great Wall thing, but mostly pork buns. Said bun-quest took us on planes, trains, automobiles, tandem bikes and a toboggan.

I was so close to having a video done before I hit the hay tonight, but it just ain’t gonna happen, so I’ll post a little bit of background information, because getting permission to go to China was a journey all its own.

Before the bun-quest could begin, we had to travel through the magical world of Expensive-Single-Entry-Visa Forest, into the Land of Swirly, Twirly Flight-and-Hotel-Bookings. We didn’t go through the Lincoln Tunnel at the end, but booking tours with reputable companies definitely helped connect the ends of travel planning with a great, easy experience on the ground. [[Unapologetic Elf fan right here.]]

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Seriously, though, the visa process was a bit confusing because we had heard buzz around the expat community here that China would not grant visas to foreign residents of Korea that didn’t have a minimum of 6 months left on their Korean visa/alien registration documents. The theory behind this is that many English teachers would go over into China with only a month or so left on their Korean visa and just stay in China illegally while searching for an English teaching position. I’m not one to judge how common this actually was, but it was clearly enough of a concern for the Chinese government to implement said rule.

Later on, we discovered that this rule did apply to certain Korean visa types for a certain period of time. Due to the nature of our group’s immigration status in Korea (business and dependent visas), this rule would not have applied to us even when it was in effect. Essentially, we could all breathe a sigh of relief. Furthermore, we have the great benefit of the administrative assistants in J-Mar and co.’s office to help us out with all this type of paperwork. We simply submitted our passports and provided our travel dates to the admins and they took care of the rest. The unfortunate consequence of this method of obtaining a visa to visit China is that it is extremely expensive. Close to $300 per person! Thus, if you’re going to make a trip to China, I highly suggest maximizing your time to make the cost of the visa worth it.

On the other hand, if you’re interested in getting a brief taste of what China has to offer, they do have a free, 72-hour, no-visa-required option where they will let you swing by for a little while. You may wonder why we didn’t go for this option and why we paid so much to simply add on two days and two nights to our trip. Our thought process was based on trying to balance being able to see more of China than 72 hours would allow while using our finite vacation days wisely and exploring as much of Asia as possible. After determining what Chinese sites were of most interest, we went for the single-entry visa; however, one couple on our trip went ahead and got a double-entry visa which is the same price, but you have to use both entries within a 6-month period. Thus they planned an additional trip to Shanghai not long after.

Ultimately, the group decided on the following major activities: exploring the city of Beijing for a day or so, taking an overnight camping trip to the Great Wall, and also traveling on overnight trains to the city of Xi’an to see the famous Terracotta warrior statues. The logistics of this required a lot of research on the easiest and most cost effective ways to travel between cities as well as get a unique Great Wall experience. In the end, we worked with a few good tour companies that made everything easy on the ground. From the time we landed until take off, everything was fairly well planned so that we didn’t have to make difficult group decisions in the moment – that’s key to keeping everyone’s sanity and remaining friends afterward. See? We’re all smiles:

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I am hoping to share the first video with you really soon! Until then 새해 복 많이 받으세요 – best of luck to you in the coming year!

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