Sunday, September 28, 2014

Another round...

It has clearly been an eternity since my last post and much has happened. Let's do a quick review for the benefit of those who have been following and wondering, or for those who are new to our story. A lot of this will come from the perspective of my Facebook account.

January 2014

Just to recap, our last visa interview was in Seoul in 2012, where we were denied a visa and the opportunity to file a waiver. Since then policy has changed indicating that people in Carlos' situation SHOULD be able to argue for the chance to file a waiver. So that's what we were doing at the start of the year. I finally gathered the necessary documents and shipped them off to our lawyer so she could file our I-601 waiver.  Here's a picture of the stack of evidence of hardship I sent. Keep in mind this is just a portion of the waiver, as our lawyer then proceeded to construct a thick brief to give all of this context. A major undertaking.

February 2014

Our lawyer finished constructing the waiver and sent it to USCIS to wait in line to be reviewed. At the time, we were anticipating perhaps a 6-month wait.

Spring 2014

A documentary filmmaker contacted us about participating in the filming of a new project on immigration/family separation and the response of faith communities. I was intrigued and we got onboard. He came to film me, my parents, and the kids and then flew to Mexico to interview Carlos. He also interviewed our lawyer and lots of other experts on the topic. More about the documentary below...

July 2, 2014

Almost exactly at the 5-month mark, I got a text message that our case status had changed and could be reviewed online. I was enjoying a summer outing with my kids and parents at Navy Pier when I got that notification. I'll never forget the feelings of dread that flooded over me as I stopped to log in and see what the update said. And I'll never forget the anguish I felt when I read the following:

Later when the denial letter came in the mail, it became apparent that they hadn't even reviewed the facts surrounding Carlos' eligibility for this waiver, nor the merits of our hardship case. Because he had been deemed ineligible in 2012, before this new policy had gone into effect, they hadn't even looked at the waiver, simply denied it.

I had known that this denial was possible but once it became reality, I was devastated. I couldn't believe our separation was going to continue, and the fight was going to drag on.

July 4, 2014

Still reeling, I decided I couldn't deprive my kids of a proper Independence Day in the US (Carolina's first). We went all out, did the parade and fireworks and the whole deal. But all through the celebration, I kept fighting back tears. It's hard to celebrate pride in a country that continues to laugh in the face of your family's commitment. It's hard to enjoy a holiday knowing that I'm being forced to choose between my country and my spouse. And it's really frustrating to constantly rely on my dad to stand in for a husband who is stuck in another country unable to be the father he wants to be to his own children.

 It's especially hard when moments like this occur during the festivities:

late July, 2014

Undaunted by the denial, our lawyer sprang into reaction mode and filed an appeal arguing that we should have been deemed eligible for the waiver and the waiver should be approved. Another 6-month wait, perhaps.

August, 2014

The kids and I headed to Mexico to spend what was left of the summer with Carlos. Those were refreshing weeks. We settled right back into life as a family. Carolina took a little while to work out how she knew Carlos and who he was, but once she figured it out, she eagerly clung to him and followed him everywhere exclaiming, "Daddy!" My heart melted on a constant basis to see my whole family together. We did very badly at taking photos but here are some of the best ones we got:

Our trip was too short, but we had a school year to jump into. We landed back at Chicago O'Hare on a Monday night and Tuesday morning, I was back in the classroom setting up for the year. It was exhausting but in these years of together-apart transitions, I've discovered the importance of being really busy when transitioning back to "apart" so my mind can't dwell too much on the pain of being separated again.

September 2014

Production wrapped up on the documentary, titled "Divided Families: Responding with Faith". It will air on Chicago's PBS affiliate, WTTW channel 11, on Thursday, October 16 at 9pm. Here's a promo clip:

A selection of this documentary will also be shown on Tuesday, September 30 at 6pm at Community Fellowship Church in West Chicago, followed by several other events around the area in the days prior to the airing on WTTW. You can see the schedule, details, and maps here.

For those outside the Chicago area, the documentary will be posted online after it airs on television.

We're really excited to have been a part of this project and excellent care was taken to tell our story accurately and appropriately. Excellent analysis from legal, socio-political, and spiritual perspectives were woven in. Anyone who can should definitely take the time to watch this film!

late September 2014

One final development, which is currently in progress. Unlike a lot of other immigration processes, updates on the progress of an appeal are a bit more cryptic but from what my lawyer can decipher, it appears that this week, our case may have taken a very positive turn. We aren't completely sure yet, and we'll need to wait for official decision letters and a waiver determination, but there could be a chance that 2014 is the last year my family will spend apart! Please continue to pray and keep us in your thoughts, as this separation continues to wear at us. But we are hopeful and eager to see this end, and I'm sure you are as well!

Saturday, January 04, 2014

sheepish 9-months-later post

Saying goodbye to Daddy's airplane at Incheon airport/Seoul
So yeah. It's been awhile. No, the title isn't referring to a new baby, as thankfully our lives are quite full with the two we already had as of my last posting. But in the nine months since I last updated this blog, I guess we've had a lot of eventful moments anyway.

Most notably, we said goodbye to Korea. Korea was a gracious host. Certainly not without its challenges (goodness, were there challenges). But it was the one country that offered us visas, a job, a place to live, our son's first school, our daughter's birthplace, and for two years, a home. We made lifelong friends. We gained new food addictions. We discovered just how much we could accomplish all alone, half a world away from our friends and families, with no one to depend on but each other. And we learned just how much we really needed each other.
Lucas and his friends take a final stroll through Seoul's historic center
Carolina crawls in front of the statue of one of Korea's naval heroes.

But Korea is no longer possible. The Native English Teacher program in the public school system is collapsing. The pay for most of the remaining jobs is being capped at a level that would not be sufficient for my family. Lucas is reaching school age and didn't have the necessary Korean language or academic skills to make it in Korean public school. Plus, we were really struggling so far away from family, especially with two kids in the picture. We had to make the decision to come back to our home continent, even though it meant going back to international separation, once again.

So here we are. I'm back in Chicagoland, Carlos is back in his homeland. He's teaching English again. I'm teaching public elementary school again, although in an interesting twist of fate, I'm teaching Kindergarten for the first time ever. In a dual language (Spanish-English) immersion program. People. I can not emphasize this enough. If you know someone who teaches Kindergarten or preschool or some other form of early childhood education, give them hugs. And chocolate.  And bottles of wine. And spa gift certificates. Because wow. That is a calling of the highest form.

I used to think it was cute how Kindergarten lesson plans are full of games, songs, chants, calendar time, counting, coloring, cutting, gluing, you get the picture. "Kindergarten teachers must have it so easy!" I used to think, as I sat surrounded by papers to grade, project rubrics to design, and research projects to set up. Well, I repent. My friends, do you realize what it's like to keep a class of Kindergarteners interested in counting to 100, MULTIPLE TIMES A DAY? Have you ever tried to teach a group of 5 year-olds how to use a bottle of glue only to turn around for 3 seconds and turn back to find a child covered in it? Can you envision having to assess your students' learning of math skills based on orally testing each individual student, while simultaneously keeping the rest of the class from starting an armed uprising? It's just...I just...words can not adequately express the experience of being a Kindergarten teacher. Spare time, energy, nutrition, general sanity, these are things of the past.

I've been trying to gather what little of those I can find during winter vacation, because, as I'm sure you're all curious, we're still moving on the immigration front. As I mentioned a bit in a previous post, some policy changes have opened an avenue for us (not a guaranteed one, but certainly with a lot more promise than ever before). So we're mustering up what little fight we have left in us for this one final push, and if it goes well, Carlos could end up back home in Chicagoland where he belongs. This weekend I'm in the final stage of document collection, and once this is done, our skillful lawyer will be preparing the final package to get the ball rolling. If you've been praying, please pray with us now more than ever. We will keep you updated. I may even post a new picture or two. And in the meantime, go find a Kindergarten teacher to hug. Till next time, friends!

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

We're all you. How are you?

I'm increasing my usual blogging frequency of a post every...few months...because I felt the current circumstances warranted an update, now that North Korea's rhetoric and threats have turned to the foreigners in South Korea, a demographic that happens to include my family.

You see, my family has planned more of the usual tomorrow: I'm teaching a bunch of classes, Lucas is going to school where they're making ham sandwiches for "Cooking Day", and Carlos is working out after I get home.  We'll bake a chicken and some pita bread for dinner. We may even watch a movie in the evening! However, if you checked the CNN headlines today, you might be concerned that we may be choosing the wrong course of action...

Based on this  headline, we would be better off staying home, purchasing airline tickets and packing for a hasty departure. But this is not the plan. Why? Because we believe there are other perspectives to look at besides the US media, which, after all, is based an entire continent away. The story is a bit different when you instead turn to local Korean news sources in English. For example, the Korea Times, this country's oldest English-language news source looks like this right now:

In this report, North Korea's young, fresh dictator is viewed as a combative character straining to prevent an Arab Spring redux with his own long-oppressed subjects. The writer Kim Tae-gyu explains:

“With the North revamping unease everyday with warlike rhetoric, tensions are very high on the Korean Peninsula. But the consensus is that the primary target audience of the tough talks is North Koreans,” said a Seoul analyst who asked not to be named.

“Kim seemingly wants to maximize the sense of impending crisis through recent provocative activities. Having standoffs with outsiders is a good way to reduce internal conflict.”
In other words, Kim Jong-eun is doing this to keep his population united in the cause of standing strong against the US and South Korean forces and fortifying their nuclear arsenal rather than paying attention to their own poverty and hunger.

Meanwhile, the Korea JoongAng Daily is concerned primarily with the economic consequences of North Korea's decision to tentatively shut down operations at the joint Korean industrial complex just north of the border.

No talk of mass evacuations, no urging foreigners to swarm their embassies or find bomb shelters. Why the drastically different treatment of the current situation?

Maybe some of the answer comes from the perspective detailed by Andrei Lankov, one of the worlds leading scholars and experts on Korean relations. Rather than ratings-hungry media and US military experts, I appreciate hearing from someone who has studied the peninsula in detail for decades and has lived for a significant amount of time on each side of the border.

In an interview last week, Mr. Lankov felt that North Korea's current threats would be best ignored. He points out that when North Korea has warned of attack, they never actually have, and when they've actually attacked, it was with no warning at all. When asked why he thinks it sounds so serious this time, he says:
For many years, actually for decades, North Korea has played the same trick, which until recently has worked well. First, they manufacture a crisis. They behave pretty much like they're behaving now. They drive tensions high. And sooner or later, the international community and the major players begin to feel unwell and tense and insecure. At that point, North Koreans suggest to start negotiations, and they extract aid and other concessions in exchange for their willingness to return to the status quo...This approach, these tactics have worked perfectly well for many, many years, but recently it's losing its efficiency, because the outside world, above all the United States, have finally learned how it usually works with North Korea and they are not really rushing with money and concessions. And this is what North Korea wants above all: money and concessions from the outside world. So, obviously, it's quite possible that the North Korean decision makers decided to go really seriously loud this time.
Meanwhile, the US Embassy in Seoul is maintaining its security message from last week, explaining that they perceive no imminent threat to US citizens located in South Korea. Carlos and I are registered with our respective embassies and we're watching for any information that would indicate the need to take action, but for now, we're fine!

So there it is, folks. That's why our main concerns at the moment center on the return of the warm weather (please!) and what family-friendly movies are on TV tomorrow night.

*P.S. Bonus points if you can identify the source of the quote that makes up the title of this post. :)

Monday, April 01, 2013

How South Korea is dealing with North Korea's threats

South Korean high schoolers' response to North Korea declaring war on the country where we live:
Play an elaborate game of playground tag and help the foreign kid build a sand volcano. 04/31/2013
I'm hoping to squeeze this post in during March in an attempt to build some kind of blogging momentum, but then again we all know that working full-time while raising two kids in a foreign country can kind of present some obstacles to that goal. So today I am planning to talk about the everyday South Korean response to North Korea's increasingly threatening rhetoric this past week.

But let's start with some good news, shall we!?

Just a few weeks ago, the US Department of State very quietly slipped in a new amendment into one of the policy manuals used by immigration officers. It just came to our attention last weekend. Basically, it is providing an exception for the lifetime ban that currently has us exiled from the US, in cases where the intending immigrant was a minor at the time of the false claim incident. It lays out some conditions that must be met, so it's not an automatic cure, but this is quite possibly the miracle we've been praying for. Our lawyer has been on top of this, and is ready to submit our arguments for why the exception should apply to us. Now all that stands in the way is me collecting the evidence of hardship for the waiver packet and then we should be on our way. We won't start any celebrations until Carlos has a visa in hand, but for the first time in all these years, it feels like there could be a tangible, realistic process for us. It might take a very long time, but anything is an improvement on a lifetime of exile. It's exciting. And overwhelming!

Carolina is officially a legal resident of South Korea
In more day-to-day news, life is kind of settling into a routine now for our family. I enjoyed about 75 days of maternity leave under Korea's generous maternity leave policies, during which time we busied ourselves learning how to work a newborn into the family routine, and spent time going to the US Embassy and Korean immigration to make sure this child is properly documented. Now that I'm back at work, she and Daddy have worked out a smooth and peaceful daily schedule, and save for some harried days at the beginning where she refused to drink from a bottle, there have been very few complications. I feel like my current attempts to navigate work, family, immigration, and my own basic physical needs (like sleep) present a massive challenge but so far I'm doing OK. Having a husband to help out makes a huge difference!

So the main purpose of this post is to present our perspective on the escalating tensions with North Korea. Being that we live about 45-50 miles from the country that's threatening to point missiles at my home country and at the country where we currently live, there could be reason for concern. I'm going to try to explain why I don't think too much concern needs to be spent on us.

For one thing, the treatment in the Western media may just be quite a few notches more shrill than it is in Korean media. Even the most foreigner-ized media outlet in Korea has taken a more same-as-always approach to these developments. Today's headline is not actually about North Korea's threats, but rather the verbal sparring going on over the joint North Korean-South Korean industrial complex just north of the border. The fact is, South Korea has been getting threatened by North Korea for decades, and everyone's really used to it being lots of talk, very little action. The picture at the top of this post pretty much embodies the reaction here.

For another thing, it's the Spring. This is when the US and Korean military forces do their big public military exercises every year. We remember this from last year. More jets and helicopters fly overhead, cargo choppers ferry supplies between bases, and apparently this year the US felt the need to do a B-2 bomber rehearsal. But the point is, this stuff is done every year, and every year North Korea decries the display of strength being flaunted by these exercises. Last year, we didn't hear about it as much because Kim Jong-un was freshly installed and probably too green to start the kindling on an international incident. Now that he's gotten comfy in his new role, it's time to start up the warmongering lest his subjects doubt his sincerity.

Panic. Just pandemonium in South Korea on Sunday. Oh, wait...
This New York Times article gets into some of the other things that may be of greater concern coming out of North Korea right now. Ultimately, the ones I most feel concerned for are the members of the US and Korean military, the people who live on base, the ones most likely to actually be impacted by any military skirmishes that come out of this. Also, the residents of the lesser-known islands closest to the border, where some of North Korea's demonstrations have resulted in the loss of regular citizens' lives. Finally, the North Korean people who have lived for generations in extreme poverty and near-starvation, pitted against each other for survival and forced to participate in public demonstrations of support for their leader or face torture, food deprivation, or even death. Those are the people most in need of our prayers for peace right now.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Let no man divide what God has put together (Mark 10:9)

a symbol of the vows we took on May 12, 2007

In the days leading up to Valentine's Day, there tend to be lots of events and lively public discussion about marriage. For example, today is National Marriage Day, and there is a growing international movement to make the week surrounding February 14 International Marriage Week, a week to celebrate marriage and promote its health and survival. In fact, last year several Congressmen in the House of Representatives spent 45 minutes reinforcing the benefits of marriage and the need for a National Marriage week. During that time, they said things like the following:

"...It should always be our goal to keep that family unit together, and to hold that bedrock of our society together...And this is something that we can build on that will benefit our society." ~Rep. Gregg Harper

and this
"National leaders should be encouraging stable family formation, not redefining marriage. I call upon Congress to recognize the intrinsic good that results to all of society when husbands and wives strive to uphold their marriage vows and raise children in loving and stable homes." ~Rep. Doug Lamborn

So Congress, for over five and a half years, my husband and I have been striving to uphold the marriage vows we declared in English and Spanish before God, our parents, siblings, and other dear family members and friends in Illinois. Sometimes this meant staying true to each other and supporting each other across borders. Sometimes it has meant leaning on each other as we attempt to bring up a family in a totally foreign culture. It meant living some of our most precious family moments through Skype, including our son's birth, birthdays, Father's Days.  For these five and a half years, it has meant constantly weighing our individual needs against the long-term survival of our family unit, and choosing to sacrifice accordingly. We've done all we can to keep our family intact. And it has been painful and difficult, all because of the challenge of having one member of our family legally forbidden from entering my country for the rest of our lives. So Reps. Harper and Lamborn, we could really use voices like yours, who are so passionate about the benefits of marriage, to also defend our marriage when it comes to laws passed in your halls.

Family time, the legal way, 2008
"And let me just say, as a government as well, marriage is a big deal to us because there's a direct correlation: The weaker our families are, the more government has to stand up and provide services. The stronger our families are, the less there is a need for government. You'll see it in law enforcement. You'll see it in social services. You'll see it in food stamps. On and on and on, the stronger our families are, the less government we need. And as our families collapse, we have an acceleration of government to try to fill in the gaps. It is this uniting aspect of our culture--white, black, Latino, Asian, American Indian, every race, faith. Family is the key, and marriage is the essence of that." ~ Rep. James Lankford

Rep. Lankford and his colleagues go on to detail the statistics relating to children who grow up in a home with a stable, healthy marriage: ranging from lower drug use, crime, and teen pregnancy rates to higher indexes of emotional, psychological, and even educational stability. They echo the sentiment that stronger families have less need for government intervention or support in their lives. In my experience interacting with other US citizens affected by legal obstacles to their spouse's presence in the US, this is absolutely the truth. Families that were economically stable, making steady payments on their mortgages, seeing their kids thrive in school and church, participating in their communities? They gradually find themselves relying on the government for support when the primary breadwinner is forced to leave or chooses to leave in an attempt to "do the right thing". Kids that were confident and stable suddenly begin to act out, perform poorly in school, require special services to stay afloat.

Immigration policy is seeing some remarkable changes right now, and many of those seek to make it easier on families affected by immigration, especially where children are involved. Even so, many of these changes overlook families like mine, in which the non-US spouse has already left the US. They especially overlook those who fall in those often-overlooked cracks in the law; the laws that impose lengthy bans and no chance to plead out for people who have committed immigration infractions that don't even register on the criminal spectrum of law, sometimes when they were too young to even have a say in such a thing, as is the case for my husband. Our families suffer, our marriages experience excessive strain, our children suffer the effects of an absent parent in many cases. 

In my last post, I said I would be breaking down the stirrings in the immigration world that have changed the game and made the news in recent months, and here's where I'll talk about all of that. The following is about to get all immigration law-heavy as I explain what's been going on with those changes, so feel free to skip if this stuff makes your head spin!

Lockbox Filing - Last spring brought a new streamlined and centralized process for filing waivers (for those eligible to do so), which also opened the door for us to perhaps appeal our case, as it removes the US consulates/embassies from the equation and allows families with obscure legal obstacles like ours to make our appeals directly within the US.

DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) - The summer brought a policy change that offered people like Carlos who were brought to the US as children the opportunity to stay, attend school, and work in a temporary situation free from the threat of deportation. Unfortunately, the policy cut off the age limit just a few months from Carlos' birthdate, so he couldn't have benefited even if we had remained in the US, and of course, by leaving the US, he removed himself from the possibility of ever being able to take advantage of a policy like that. 

Provisional Waiver - During the fall came the development of this groundbreaking policy which will impact thousands of families in the US when it kicks in next month, by allowing them to have their immigration violation bans waived before they even leave the US to interview for their visas, rather than the old program which caused US citizen families to have to choose international separation or temporary relocation of the whole family outside the US for an indefinite amount of time while waiting for their inadmissible immigrant spouse to be approved for their visa. Once again, we can't benefit from such a program since we're already outside the US, and it doesn't remove the issue of the alleged false claim of citizenship that stands in our way of any progress with immigration or waivers.

Comprehensive Immigration Reform - Finally, this winter there is a lot of excitement over potential immigration reform in Congress, after over ten years of virtual impasse on that front. Right now there are lots of proposals and plans; some from the House, some from the Senate, and President Obama has also declared his own ideas. Of course, before we see actual reform, the Senate and House will need to come to a common understanding, and most likely it will need to incorporate the central tenets of the President's plan. Needless to say, that's a lot of work and a lot of cooperation for a Congress that so far has struggled pretty mightily to agree on anything, let alone something of this importance and magnitude. So even passing any kind of meaningful reform is a long battle, and nobody can say right now whether such reform will include families like ours. Some reports indicate that an old legislative proposal from 2010 might be re-entered into the conversation, and if so, that particular bill DOES help families like ours. Right now, the conversation seems to center on the big and dramatic talking points like border enforcement, visas for those in STEM careers, temporary worker visas for the agriculture industry, penalties and the question of citizenship for those currently present unlawfully in the US. Outliers in the law like our situation are unlikely to factor heavily in these debates, and the legislators debating these issues often have very little understanding of the intricacies that exist on that front. That's why we need people advocating for families like ours to be included.

So this week, as so many celebrate love, or make frustrated declarations related to the lack thereof in their lives, I am immensely grateful that I have not only been blessed with a lifelong partner, but that I also have the ability, at the moment, to live in the same country with him. Still, our children's long-term livelihood and our own economic stability are in peril as long as laws remain on the books that force me to choose between my country and the man I promised to spend my life with. A government that values marriage should not be permitting laws that leave responsible, caring, morally upstanding people in separate countries from their US citizen spouses and children with no way to work towards returning to them.

We are among these US citizen-immigrant families,
 sticking it out despite the legal obstacles

And although I have wearied of the battle, the advocacy, the petitioning, the writing, calling, faxing, lobbying, I'm thankfully in league with some wonderful people who have the fire to renew the push for families like ours. They've written a petition and are gathering support for the cause to make it more possible for families like ours to overcome the long-term immigration bans that are preventing us from thriving together in the US. So please, check out this petition and if you agree, sign it. And then, feel free to ask your elected officials to support marriage, all marriages, including ours!

Saturday, February 02, 2013

2012...a bit late

OK, so it's officially February and I've been working on the following post for over a month now. But I have a pretty good reason for the delay, I think!

2012 was a remarkable year for our family. It's the first calendar year we've spent completely living in Korea, and the first we've spent living together as a family. While 2011 brought the newness and adjustment of being a complete family for the first time, 2012 was a chance to settle in and make this "normal".

And although we started 2012 as a family of three, we finished it as a family of four. Welcome to the world, baby Carolina Violetta.

Failed passport photo #27.
Turns out this is harder to do with a newborn than a 3 month-old. 

The day of her birth was a truly remarkable one in every way and totally warrants its own blog post which I'll hopefully get to this year.  Suffice it to say it was a major adventure and we're glad it all worked out as well as it did!

Carolina's a great baby, Lucas has taken to his big brother role so well, and they absolutely love each other, as evidenced by this photo.

While busy in the kitchen, I asked Lucas to keep the baby entertained for a few minutes. I went in to check on them awhile later and this was the scene I discovered.

2012 also marked the re-opening of our immigration case. We filed directly with the Seoul embassy this time, a very smooth and speedy process compared to filing from inside the US. There were several lags due to my own dragging of feet in document gathering and such, but the petition (Step 1) was approved in about a month and then we were able to schedule the interview the moment we were ready, and we interviewed about 3 weeks after setting the date, so really a fast process. The interview itself went almost as expected - same result as our Ciudad Juarez interview in 2008, but the whole experience was much friendlier and much more pleasant. Thus, 2013 will bring the next stage, in which we attempt to bring the fight to the government in hopes of having someone recognize how senseless it is for Carlos to be banned for life.

Post-visa interview. Carlos and Lucas hanging out in Insadong, one of the more traditional districts in Seoul.
There are lots of stirrings in the immigration law and policy world right now, too. Every time one of these changes hits the news, I get lots of excited emails and messages from friends wondering if we will benefit. Believe me, if ever there is a law or policy change that directly offers us the chance to return to the US, I will proclaim the news loud and clear on this blog! Even so, as each obstacle gets knocked down for others with immigration complications, it renews hope that someday we'll get our chance. I had started to outline all these changes here, but I'm going to save that topic for its own post, so if you're interested in the immigration law and policy end of things, I'll be posting about it in the coming days.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

We're already in November!

It's November! Chilly weather has officially set in, but it's still lovely. Our family has been quite busy. There have been Halloween festivities (more than I think we've ever done in any country!). Piles of candy in the apartment right now. Lucas had a major Halloween event at school, my school had Halloween festivities that consumed all my energy on the 31st, and yesterday we participated in a Halloween party for expat families in our area which was a ton of fun.

Performing with his classmates
Lucas and Daddy with the massive bag of candy loot

My costume at school
Lucas is Iron Man War Machine! Carlos worked to make it look extra cool
Two little superheroes decorating mandarin oranges with Jack-o-Lantern faces
Demolishing the remains of the Halloween piñata
Baby - We're at 34 weeks. Time is flying. Still no name picked out, but we're getting closer to figuring something out. I'm very grateful that this has been a healthy pregnancy. Although I don't particularly enjoy being pregnant, I have no major complaints, other than the massive belly that is making overall movement difficult. Also, the daily fatigue is building and it's getting increasingly more difficult to sustain the energy I need to make it through a day of teaching middle-schoolers. If you're praying for us, please pray that I can find that stamina and the energy to still be an effective participant of my household at the end of the day, too!

Immigration - I'm not comfortable sharing the details publicly yet, but we are in the midst of a new attempt at a US visa for Carlos, and at this point we're about to embark on a brand new stage of the fight. At the same time, DHS is currently working on revising its policy for applying the false claim of citizenship ban to people who were minors at the time. This has the potential to impact us dramatically and perhaps even bring Carlos back to the US by next fall.  Again, for those who pray, pray that this policy change will include us and that the path for advancing forward will be smooth. The thought of being back in the US with friends and family (And Chicago-style food! And a family-sized apartment! And a car!!!), with Lucas and Baby getting to regularly see their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousin, great-grandparents, and everyone else again is extremely exciting!

Finally, I've added a "Resources" page to the top bar of the blog. I've gotten a lot of emails from people in various situations, some battling US immigration, some contemplating moving their family to Korea, some mixing both. I've tried to address some of the questions I get by putting links and information on that page. I feel bad because I haven't been great at responding to all of those emails, but I hope that some of what I posted will help point you in the right direction until I get a chance to personally respond.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Being a pregnant foreigner in South Korea

I've been pregnant in 3 different countries (the US, Mexico, and now Korea), and I can say that by far, the experience in this one has been the best. Why is that? Let's see...

Of course, my view is skewed by the fact that the last time, we were in the middle of our first attempt at the US immigration process, I was stressed out beyond all belief, I was unsure of whether to continue in Mexico or the US, ended up bouncing between both countries, and ultimately giving birth in the US while Carlos watched on Skype.

Obviously it's much more ideal to be in one country and together full-time with my husband. During my last pregnancy, I guess I just rolled with it and survived, but now I realize how much I missed out on. For example, this time, I'll only have had to fly pregnant once (already done)! Instead of...four-plus times like I did last time. This time, I actually got to have Carlos there at the ultrasound where they checked the baby's anatomy and told us she's (probably) a girl. That was amazing. Instead of an anti-climactic attempt to reveal the gender over Skype like last time. This time, he's been there to support me through the constant morning sickness that lasted for nearly 3 months, he's been there to slowly adapt to my wildly-changing body (instead of being shocked every couple months), and he's been there to dream with and envision our lives with the baby (mostly we freak out about that, but we'll be OK).  But let's get to the actual specifics.

OK, step one, pregnancy test. Just like last time, we were pretty confident, Carlos more than I, that we were expecting, but just to be sure, I went to the pharmacy, asked for an 임신테스트 기 주세요 ("im-shin-test kit juseyo" = "Pregnancy test kit, please"), then decided to get two (never hurts to be extra positive!) and for about 8,000 won (maybe $7.20) I walked out with the kits and went home to test. The positive line showed up instantly. For both pregnancies, those test kits practically jumped out screaming "Positive!" For anyone reading this who may be contemplating or experiencing pregnancy in Korea, I've heard there are some brands that are better than others and to avoid "the green one" because of false negatives. Incidentally, the green box is the one I ended up with. Also, if you are unfamiliar with pregnancy tests in your native language, it can be slightly confusing to decipher the instructions in Korean, so see if someone can help you interpret before you test. In general, one line is the control to show it worked, a second line is the test line that only appears if positive, and no lines means either it didn't work or you haven't waited long enough. Normally you have to wait like 3 minutes before reading the test (the kit will say, so another reason to have some help or get to work with your online/smartphone dictionary before testing if you can). Probably best to wait the full amount of time before making any conclusions, unless you're like me and the positive result is immediate.

Telling the Boss!
We were a few months ahead of our planned "start trying" date, so finding out I was pregnant in April was a bit of a surprise and then fairly frightening. I knew we would be set through September when my contract at school ran out, but with a December due date, this isn't enough. I decided to tell my employer almost immediately, basically as soon as the morning sickness set in. Probably wouldn't have been able to hide it much longer anyway, as my nausea was aggravated by the smell of food; in particular soy sauce, sesame anything, rice, garlic, red pepper paste, fish, fried anything, and basically I've just described the central features of Korean cuisine, so as you can imagine, teaching in the English classroom directly above the school kitchen was madness for my stomach. It's a serious miracle I got through that whole part of pregnancy without any vomiting incidents at school.

I was prepared that they may not want to renew my contract past September because I've heard many public schools find it too much hassle to support a foreign teacher through maternity leave and all the other legal and contractual obligations that come with it. In all honesty, there are a lot of perks given to native English teachers when compared against the usual qualifications and job obligations and those of the Korean teachers in the school, so I can understand why maternity provisions really tip the balance against the teacher's favor. And yes, my principal was hesitant at first, but she was assured by the other English teachers that my work here is valued, and she was also soothed by the fact that my maternity leave will coincide almost precisely with Winter Break when there are no classes anyway. If you're a native English teacher in Korea and you're pregnant, dealing with the employment end of things is perhaps the most delicate part of the whole entire pregnancy in Korea. It's a good idea to read through your current contract, the upcoming one if you're in the public school system and can access it, and be really informed before jumping into an official discussion at work. The first person I told was a co-worker who I felt I could trust to support me (she was beside herself with glee when I made the announcement), and then she accompanied me to tell the principal.

I worked really hard during the first trimester to not let my condition affect classes. Yeah, I was exhausted, nauseated, felt terrible all the time, and wanted nothing to do with food. But I didn't want the school changing its mind for any reason, especially until I had a signed contract in hand, and 40 weeks is a long time so I had to make it clear I was up to the challenge from the start. The one modification I had to ask for was that during one particularly awful week of nausea, I moved all English classes to the students' homerooms instead of using the fabulous English Zone, just so I could be away from the kitchen smells. My fellow teachers were more than fine with this, thankfully.

Visiting the Doctor
I need to preface this with a short description of the medical system here in Korea because it's vastly different from that in the US and also from the Mexican system. In short, it's a single-payer nationalized system, legal workers pay a small percentage of our paycheck into the system and our employers pay a matching percentage. This is in exchange for broad coverage of pretty much any necessary and non-elective medical needs, and our experience with it here matches the expectation: ridiculously low costs, fast, accessible care, and overall satisfaction. My job/contract covers my dependents under the system, so Carlos and Lucas are taken care of, too. For an fascinating, more in-depth look in layperson's terms, you can see this blog.

Prior to my pregnancy care, we had one hand injury (Carlos) and one ear infection (Lucas). In Carlos' case, a consult, X-ray, and a special brace for recovery all came out under $12 as a walk-in patient who was in and out in under 45 minutes. In Lucas' case, we didn't even take him to the doctor (or, really, hospital), it was his teacher at school who ran him in during lunch time because he was complaining that his ear hurt. Another vast difference from the US - no HIPAA regulations here. Again, less than $10 got him a consult, a cough syrup and antibiotic, and he was apparently back at school in time for class to resume.

When it comes to pregnancy, things get even better. Because South Korea has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, the government is scrambling to incentivise pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing. So there are even further perks which I'll get to below.

Alright, finding a doctor. My co-worker called a local OB/Gyn center in the neighborhood and checked if the doctor spoke any English. Most doctors here know at least some essentials because they have to complete a lot of their medical study in English. For my first appointment, she happily accompanied me (nearly cried upon seeing the baby on the ultrasound), but after that I've always gone by myself or with Carlos and we've been just fine. The staff doesn't really speak English but we get by just fine with minimal English/Korean and a lot of gesturing, and the doctor is able to communicate just fine in English, at least about medical matters. He strains to attempt small talk during the consults but I try to let him know it's OK, we are fine keeping it down to medical business and a lexicon he's much more familiar with, I know he's on a time crunch.

By my first appointment I was already about 10 weeks (I have a bad habit of waiting a long time to get care), so I did the usual initial testing (pap smear, blood, urine checks) and the doctor performed an ultrasound to confirm the pregnancy, get the size/estimated due date, and check that things were alright overall. I was offered a DVD for 10,000 won (less than $10) that I could bring to every appointment and get all my ultrasounds recorded on video. I agreed because for that low of a price, why not? Going home and watching the ultrasound videos again has become a favorite activity of mine.

For those interested in prenatal care in Korea, especially more sophisticated or non-conventional options and doula services, and especially for English-speakers, there are TONS of resources out there. I think I'll get into those more in a separate post because this one is long enough, but an excellent starting place is the Birthing in Korea website, which features plenty of resources targeted to pregnant foreigners in Korea.

Paying for Care
Because I waited so long, I basically had two prenatal appointments rolled into one, tons of testing and procedures, and my expense was about 80,000 won. Keep in mind this is just a lowly, humble clinic in my neighborhood, not a big huge maternity hospital or one of the centers that caters to foreigners, both of which would cost a more. After this first visit confirmed the pregnancy, I was given paperwork to take to the bank (KB, Shinhan, or Post Office bank) to apply for the GoEunMom card. This is a debit card that comes preloaded with 500,000 won (as of April 2012), about $450, which can only be used on prenatal visits in 60,000 won increments at a time, and occasionally some other baby-related expenses like diapers and such at certain locations. This card is available to anyone enrolled in the National Health Insurance system, foreigners included, and the government funds it.

The beauty of using this card and getting prenatal care at a normal little clinic like I'm doing is that since that first visit, I've never had to pay anything out of pocket. Each visit is somewhere between 30,000 won and 55,000 won or so ($25-50) always under the 60,000 total paid by the card. And I should mention that every single visit features an ultrasound, included in the cost of the visit. So at 31 weeks, I've only paid the cost of the initial consultation, and I still have about 300,000 won left on my GoEunMom card. The experience of those getting prenatal care from a pricier institution is different, but I feel like especially for a second pregnancy and no history of risk, there's no need for the fancy stuff. My doctor checks me and the baby all the same.

Kor 538
Korean citizen babies and foreign babies
For foreign moms married to Koreans, there are a whole lot of perks after the birth as well, as they are giving birth to Korean citizens. I believe such moms in certain sectors with especially low birth rates get cash rewards and tax benefits for having more than one child, and there are more benefits as the child grows, even if you only have one, including stipends for child care, preschool, and further education. However, these are not available to children born to two foreigners, because these children are not Korean citizens.

Important fact: Korea, like many major countries, bestows citizenship based exclusively on parentage (jus sanguinis), so a child born in this country is only Korean if he or she has a Korean parent. That means our child will need to obtain one or both of our citizenships, and we'll actually have to do this pretty quickly to register her with immigration authorities and get her covered under the National Health Insurance. For those who are curious, our baby is eligible for both US and Mexican citizenship at birth because both of our countries grant citizenship by parentage as well as birth inside the territory (jus soli). The process of establishing her US citizenship is done by filing a Consular Report of Birth Abroad at the US Embassy, after which we are given a certificate that acts as a US birth certificate, and we can also get her US passport once that's approved. The process for Mexico is the same in concept, although we'll see in practice how it goes. Mexican registries are usually a bit of a fiasco.

For those who are curious, here are links:
US Consular Report of Birth Abroad
US CRBA instructions specific to Seoul
Mexico - Registro de nacimiento en el extranjero (highly specific to the embassy in Seoul, this varies a lot from the process in the US or anywhere else for that matter)

Pregnant woman2
Differences at the Doctor
I didn't do much prenatal care in Mexico, but my initial prenatal visit there was about US $50 and included just a sit-down consult and a pap smear at a tiny, non-fancy clinic. I was given a prescription to go out and get the rest of the testing, including the ultrasound and blood testing, at a separate lab. It was at that point that I got overwhelmed and ended up looking at care in the US instead, so most of my frame of reference comes from experiences in suburban Chicago.

Anyway, based on the experience in the US, besides the cost factor, there are a lot of other differences. Here, I'm not expected to make appointments. I'm just supposed to walk in whenever is convenient, and I generally get seen within about 20 minutes. I usually ask my co-worker to call ahead first just to make sure it's OK but she seems kind of perplexed by this. I can't break my American-ness on that aspect.

Also, the clinic is open until 7 pm and I always see the same doctor (I think he's the only OB), so I don't have to re-arrange my work schedule around prenatal visits or anything. Generally my OB in the States could only do daytime appointments.

The prenatal care schedule matches the standard US one pretty closely - General testing and dating ultrasound first, Dual Marker testing sometime around 12-14 weeks, Quad Screening around 16-18 weeks, full anatomy ultrasound sometime after that, glucose testing (YICK!) at the start of third trimester, non-stress-tests and the like as you're monitored up to the birth. The biggest difference in the care schedule is the use of ultrasounds at every single appointment. At first this freaked me out because I imagined spending piles of money on all those ultrasounds, especially considering that in the US, insurance often refuses to cover more than two over the whole pregnancy. But no, those ultrasounds cost me nothing over the usual limit of what my GoEunMom card covers. So I have no complaints about all the extra chances to see the baby! The office staff at my clinic gave me a prenatal visit schedule at the first appointment and wrote in the approximate cost of each visit, too, which is how I felt confident from early on that I wouldn't spend much more than what my Mom card covers, if any at all.

Cultural Differences in Care
For the most part, the traditional Korean model of prenatal care matches the conventional model in the US. Generally it's focused on spotting potential health complications for mom and baby. Many would say that in Korea, there's more of a sense of the doctor as all-knowing and the mom as simply a medical subject to be worked on. Rarely does Mom get to have any input during consultations and the assumption is that the doctor knows exactly what's going on.

Another thing that most foreigners seem to experience here: most doctors are overly concerned with both the size of the baby and the weight of the mom, almost across the board for any non-Koreans. Most of us have a slightly different physical makeup from that of a typical Korean mom and thus our measurements and baby's often vary from the norm of what doctors are used to seeing here. So expecting foreign moms are often told to cut out all carbs and exercise more (regardless of whether they're already following such a lifestyle).They're also frequently told by the conventional doctors that the baby is probably too big to deliver without a C-section. Korea's C-section rate, something between 30-35%, is often cited as one of the world's highest, especially among OECD countries, so if a foreign mom with a different kind of body shows up, many doctors are going to default to their simplest option, which is surgical removal of the baby, rather than the unknown of letting the mom labor and deliver naturally.

While a lot of the Western world is slowly starting to seek more natural birthing experiences, thanks in part to contributions like The Business of Being Born and an overall cultural normalization of natural birth, these trends have really not reached Korea. Many of the families seeking these experiences in Korea are the Westerners living here who find home and/or water birth and intervention-free labors more appealing. There are a handful of midwives and OBs who favor natural approaches, mainly in and around Seoul, and a majority of them can speak English. Again, the Birthing in Korea site is a great place to start looking at these options.

Delivery and Post-Partum
This is a topic for another post. Suffice it to say that I've been more than happy with my local clinic's checkups along the way, and if I delivered there, the cost would be insanely low. But as a mom who prefers natural, non-intervention approaches to childbirth, and would also prefer to have practitioners comfortable in English during the delivery, I am planning to deliver elsewhere, at great additional expense. I'll try to detail all that later.

A South Korean school lunch
The lunch portions my co-workers would like me to eat

Out in Public
I've probably mentioned that foreigners generally stand out a lot in Korea, and are often the subject of lots of staring. Then add a big, pregnant belly and you've got the attention of just about everybody on the bus/train you're riding. This isn't all bad. Pregnant moms are queens here. Just like in the States, subways and buses have designated "pregnant mom" seats and unlike in the States, people actually jump up and offer these seats. At least in my experience, as a person whose pregnant belly popped out during 1st trimester and who usually is carting around a preschooler as well as a shopping bag.

At school, I'm almost daily greeted with looks of pity and inquiries of, "Tired?" from students and other teachers. Out of obligation, I sigh, "Yeah, a little," because apparently expecting moms are supposed to be VERY tired all the time, especially at this point in pregnancy. Most of my co-workers constantly compliment my energy level, which I honestly thought was par for the course. My students have a hard time believing I'm not carrying twins because my belly really sticks out like crazy nowadays. My principal did have to make a stop at my table at lunch the other day to confirm that I am, in fact, due in December and not, say, next week.

I also get lots of commentary in the lunch room over what/how much I eat. Let's just say that in general, expecting Korean moms are able to consume amazing amounts of food (rice in particular). They also manage to maintain tiny figures and tiny baby bellies, but I digress. I am no longer able to eat that much even if I wanted to because real estate in my abdomen is at a premium right now. Plus, I discovered early into my Korean experience that daily rice consumption was making me gain weight, so I usually only have about a spoonful of it with my lunch and this causes extreme concern among my coworkers. Also, if miyeok guk soup (seaweed soup) is served that day, everyone scrambles to make sure I'm eating it, as this is the prime food of early motherhood. In fact, it's the only food you get to eat for the first month after having a baby in traditional Korean households.

In summary, pregnancy in Korea has been really low-key, and so much easier. It actually feels more natural but maybe that's also because it's the second time, I generally know what's going on, and because I'm actually firmly settled in one place with my husband at my side. We've still got about 2 months until we meet the baby (maybe less?), so we'll see how I'm feeling about it in December!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Looking back III...Fall 2012!!

Here we are in fall! The bridge from August to September is filled with rain. I'm not sure if the term "monsoon season" is apt in Korea, but it rains a LOT in August. And then the typhoons start. This year we had predictions of a really powerful one at the end of August. For days, there were warnings of the incoming Typhoon Bolaven, and we were instructed to take all sorts of precautionary measures, like prepping the windows with masking tape, turning off the gas, stocking up on water reserves, etc. It was supposed to be the biggest typhoon in maybe a decade. The day of the typhoon, classes were cancelled for my students and Lucas' school closed. However, at many public schools like mine, the teachers were still expected to come in. So we did, and enjoyed a day of quiet to get tasks done in the building. We were able to leave before the winds really picked up, and I spent a cozy afternoon hunkered down in the apartment with Lucas and Carlos, making baked goods. Carlos left the news on the TV in case there was a real emergency (as if we would have actually understood any emergency instructions delivered in Korean...), but truthfully all we experienced were the high winds rattling the windows; barely any precipitation fell, we didn't lose power or water. It seems the Seoul region was mostly unaffected by the typhoon. The southern region of Korea was much harder-hit and apparently we'll soon be feeling the effects up here in Seoul as the obliterated crops from the South cause prices to rise even more at the supermarket.

Anyway, we're fortunate to have been virtually unaffected by that or any subsequent typhoon, and by the end of September, the glorious fall weather set in. Living in Chicago, I never really experienced a full fall season, as defined by a continuous period of days with temperatures peaking in the 60s-low 70s Fahrenheit. For like, weeks. It's amazing and beautiful. Chicago seems to jump from searing summer heat to chilly winter coat weather with a few temperate days thrown in the middle for good measure, and bounces back and forth a few times before making up its mind. Here in Seoul, it's this gradual easing into cooler temperatures, and the days are just perfect for getting out and exploring the city in the sun without getting baked by it. We've been taking advantage!

We've been enjoying leisure outings to different parts of the city, including the now-world famous Gangnam:

From Fall 2012

I got to enjoy my 30th birthday with Carlos and Lucas and a lovely cake from Paris Baguette:
From Fall 2012

And we've celebrated our second Chuseok in Korea. Chuseok is the harvest festival and probably biggest holiday in Korea. It's kind of like the US Thanksgiving and Mexican Día de los Muertos rolled together and celebrated with nearly the fanfare of Christmas on our home continent. Last year we went to Caribbean Bay with my recruiter and her family. This year we tried to be a little more true to the holiday itself by going to an actual Chuseok festival. We ended up going twice, since it lasted a week in downtown Seoul. Lucas also got to sample some of the traditional Korean wear that accompanies this holiday.You can click these for more photos:

From Chuseok 2012
From Chuseok 2012
From Chuseok 2012
From Sunday Afternoon in Seoul

One thing we didn't expect to find in the middle of a Korean harvest festival: A live Mexican band performing in one of the plazas!

From Chuseok 2012

It seems fall is still solidly here for awhile longer, so we intend to enjoy it as much as we can!