Recently, we had a job opportunity pop up for us to make some good cash in hand. The job was located on an Island South West of Korea called Jangsan. One of our roommates, David, from the hostel had left us a couple days ago to go down to this island and make some cash for a flight back to his home, Ecuador. He messaged us, saying to come down and work as they needed more workers.
The job description – harvesting onions and packaging them for 13 – 14 hours a day. David said the work was really hard and long, but he said the money was good and that it was nice to be away from Seoul. He persuaded us, so we decided to leave Seoul and make some money for our remaining weeks in Korea.
Working illegally in Korea is really easy for foreigners. Almost everyone we know who is staying here long term on a tourist’s visa, works illegally. Because they are on a tourist visa it means that every 90 days they have to go on a ‘holiday’ out of the country for a few days and come back to get another 90 days. With us leaving Seoul, that meant unfortunately we would be leaving behind our other roommates who we considered family, as we created a strong bond between us in that tiny dorm room.
We still had three weeks left in Korea before our visa would expire and prior to those three weeks, we had agreed with the hostel owner that would work (volunteer) till our visa expired, but this opportunity to make a bit of cash in hand was too good to pass up. Plus, we’d done everything we wanted to see and do in Seoul (besides visiting the border of South and North Korea), we were ready for new scenery again.
It was sad leaving our friends behind but we are already planning to see each other again in the near future. We hugged and said our “see you laters” and caught the first bus down to Mokpo, which was about 5 hours. One thing Eb and I love about the transportation in Korea is the coaches. Not sure if it’s the same with all the coaches in Korea but the three coaches we’ve caught so far have always had massive chairs that recline so we can lay practically flat. It’s the most comfiest bus/coach I’ve ever caught.
We left in the early hours of the morning, so we slept the whole way to Mokpo. As we arrived in Mokpo, we already had a feeling that we were in a different country, just because we had been in Seoul for 2 months where it’s so busy compared to the nothingness of Mokpo.
We were on our own again and had to fend for ourselves, so with no one providing food for us, we made a quick stop at McDonalds for a cheeky Big Mac meal, before jumping in a taxi to Mokpo ferry terminal. That’s the other thing about Korea, the taxis are so cheap here. Well we’ve only caught three taxis here, but they were so cheap. For our 10 minute ride to the ferry we paid 6 000 won (less than $10 AUD). And for another journey we took which was 20 minutes, it was only 10 000 won ($11.58 AUD)!
We arrived at the ferry terminal and purchased our tickets and jumped on the next ferry out to Jangsan Island. The ferry was really interesting; it didn’t provide seats. There was just one big room in the middle of the ferry that had people lying down on the floor. We just had to take off our shoes and sit on the ground. It was quite nice actually, being sprawled out on the flat ground.
The ferry took us about 90 minutes to get to Jangsan Island. In the email we were given that had the instructions for us on how to get there, it just said to hop off at the second stop. It didn’t mention anyone picking us up or anything. We didn’t have any wifi and we were unsure if this was the right island to hop off at but we followed the instructions and waited to get off the ferry. As we were walking off the ferry, this rough looking Korean man looked at me with a ciggie in his mouth while he was talking on his mobile phone. He waved me to come over to him and started walking off towards a truck. I said do you want us to come with you? He then handed the phone to Eb. On the other end of the line it was the man who we were corresponding with prior to coming to Jangsan, Mr Kim. He told us to go with this man. So we followed him back to his truck, threw our backpacks in the back of his truck and jumped in the cab. We were squashed in the front seat with this rough looking Korean man who thought he was Lewis Hamilton. He was flying on these roads and was laughing at us as we were looking for our seat belts. It was so nice though, wind blowing through the truck, seeing different scenery in the country side of South Korea on an island.
The first thing we noticed was how many bloody onions there were. There were sacks of onions on the side of the roads and there were many farms with them. We eventually pulled up to where we would be staying for two weeks. It looked like a restaurant at the front and then it looked pretty crud out back with a few bedrooms and a couple toilets and showers. He took us to a room where we thought we would be staying, and told us to stay, then he walked off. They didn’t provide beds so it was just a tiny room with nothing but the bare floor. Eb and I have our blow up mattresses from cycle touring last year. It was VERY basic living, but we didn’t mind, we were just happy to be out of Seoul.
We left the room and just went to the front of the restaurant to have a bit of a sticky beak. The workers still hadn’t been home yet and it was about 5pm. The workers started to flood in around 6:30 – 7:00pm. About 30 people or so, walked in the doors and they all looked absolutely defeated. Their clothes looked very dusty and old, their faces sunburned and dirty. Most of them were Russians. No one said hello or acknowledged that we were there. Then all of a sudden our Ecuadorean friend, David walks through the doors. He couldn’t believe that we’d actually come. I noticed straight away that he looked dirty, tired and like he’d already lost weight.
After all the workers showered, they all came down and had dinner. The majority of them were Russian, but others were from Mongolia, Malaysia, Vietnam, South Africa and Nigeria. Hardly anyone spoke English, so David was stoked we were there because he couldn’t really communicate with anyone else. Everyone ate dinner, then brushed their teeth and went straight to bed. The whole vibe here seemed very work orientated and the morale was very low. It felt almost like they were slaves. What were Eb and I getting ourselves into?!
Shortly after dinner, Eb and I got told that we couldn’t sleep in the same room and that it had to be boys with boys and girls with girls. Eb was shown her room and I was shown my room. I was sharing with my friend, David and another man from South Africa. Our room was sooooo bloody tiny, the three of us had to sleep practically shoulder to shoulder. I thought it was hilarious and thought this is going to be some experience to look back on. I went to check on Eb and she looked like she already wanted to leave. She had the same problem as me but with 2 other Russian chicks. Before we went to bed, we were told by Mr Kim that we had to wake up at 4:30am to eat, get changed and then start work. He said we finish around 6:00 – 7:00pm and that on the first day we won’t get paid, because we have to learn how to do the work. I thought that was complete B/S as all we’re “learning” to do is harvest onions and packing them. It was around 10:00pm, I said goodnight to Eb and went back to my bed.
The next morning I woke up around 5:00am as I didn’t care because I wasn’t getting paid for that day. I went to the front to eat breakfast which was a potato, rice, and a mussel soup and the Koreans were so angry at all of us for taking so long. They were telling us to hurry up, eat and get outside where there’s a couple trucks waiting for us. I see Eb who looks like death! She said that she didn’t sleep at all because one of the Russian girls’ phone kept going off the whole night and one of the girls kept rolling over right next to her. Then, just as Eb was getting to sleep, one of the Russian girls’ alarms went off at 4:00am. She turned the light on straight away and started getting ready for work. Eb was struggling but she put on a strong face for the day, but I knew how she was feeling and I felt sorry for her. The Koreans provided us with a big bag full of food and water, then they split everyone into different work groups. I got paired with my friend, David and another Russian guy and Eb got paired off with other people. I said bye to Eb and wished her luck then I jumped into the back of the truck to go to work.
It was really nice being in the country side with the cool breeze brushing my face as the sun was rising, but I felt so tired and wasn’t sure if I was ready for the day ahead of me. It was 5:30am when we pulled up to a field FULL of already-picked onions. Our job was to pick medium to large onions and pack them into a bag. It’s definitely not hard work at all, but doing this for 13-14 hours a day, I knew it would be mentally and physically tough. I’m pretty strong minded on things like this, but in the back of my head, I was thinking of poor Eb. I’m used to physically hard work from landscaping, but Eb, she doesn’t do this stuff. She has brains!
David, the Russian and I were joined by 3 other Koreans who didn’t speak a word of English. An old man and woman who looked to be 100+ years (no joke) and the other was the wife of our driver, who looked to be in her 40s. They were trying to work us so hard. The way they spoke to us was so demeaning and so loud. They would always say “PALI, PALI” which meant “FASTER, FASTER”. I honestly felt like a slave and because I wasn’t getting paid, I was yelling back at them in English saying “I’m not getting paid, I don’t care”, hand gesturing the money signal and “PALI PALI, MONEY MONEY”. I was having a lot of fun with it actually, and David was laughing at me. That’s one thing Eb and I got warned about before coming to Jangsan Isalnd. Our host in Seoul advised us not to go, saying that the people on the island are very different to mainland Koreans. He said they are not nice and that they are weird. I definitely got that vibe.
Later on in the day, I was starting to fade a little. The sun was right above us, I was sunburned, my back was broken and my ass was about to fall off. These Koreans are the squat masters! They squat all damn day long. The clock had struck 6pm and the Russian guy had enough and said lets go to me and David. I was all for that. The Koreans kept trying to make us work but we all said no and walked back to the truck. They gave in and took us home. I have never hated onions so much in my life! And that’s coming from an onion lover.
We got back to the place and we were the first group of workers home. Poor Ebs’ group finished at 7pm. When I saw her walk in, I was shocked. She looked so dirty and defeated. She did not belong in a place like this! Surprisingly she said she felt fine and that she just needed some rest. That was the really strange thing about working here. During the day, you absolutely hate life and want to quit, but as soon as you get home and get that cash in hand, you all of the sudden feel like you can go another couple days doing this. Eb said no one else she was working with could really speak English and that she was left with her own thoughts. She kept on thinking “I never thought in a million years I’d be here picking onions especially after four years of study” haha, but we had both made it through the day and had decided to continue working here.
Eb had told me later on that a Korean man was harassing her. A lot of the Koreans on the island are not used to seeing foreign people and he had kept saying how tall she was and that she was beautiful blah blah blah and then at the end of the day, he touched her on the ass and also reached for her chest. She pushed him back and said no and then walked away. No one else she was working with intervened. Luckily it was at the very end of the day. When she told me, I was so pissed off! I asked her if the man was here at the place we were staying. She said no, that he was the owner of the land they were working on. I was so angry, I went up to Mr Kim and expressed my frustrations telling him that it’s not on and that from now on, I’m going to be working with her every day. He apologized and called the man and went off at him (apparently). I asked Eb if she wanted to leave but she said no, that it should be fine as long as I work with her.
The next day Eb and I worked together with a 40 year old Russian woman. I was really hoping that we would be working on the same field that Eb was at the day before, so I could confront this man. Unfortunately it wasn’t. The work we had to do today was harvesting. We had to pull the onions out of the ground and cut the stalk, then put the onions to the side for the workers who package them another day. This was the work Eb was doing the day before. At the start of the day it was easy. But for the whole day, it was absolutely so hard. I was horribly slow at it compared to Eb and the Russian girl. I felt like dying. Luckily we had nicer Koreans working with us. They were incredibly fast at doing this, as if they had done this their whole lives. When you work, there is no time to stop and relax for a minute, it’s just non-stop go, go, go. I was fading hard compared to the day before. Eb was going strong which surprised me a lot! The day finished at 6:30pm for us. We went home, showered, had dinner, said hi to David, then we went to bed before 10pm.
The next morning we woke up like zombies ready to work. As Eb and I were standing outside waiting to be assigned to a truck, Eb whispered to me and pointed to the guy who was harassing her the day before. At that moment, the Korean man who was assigning people to the trucks pointed to me and said for me and Eb to split up. I said NO! and took that moment to go off at the Korean man who harassed Eb. I wanted to make a scene in front of everyone to show all the Koreans not to mess with us. I went off at him in front of everyone, and said words that my Mum and Dad wouldn’t be proud of (maybe Dad). I made sure he understood me, because I was pointing to him and then Eb, and I was signalling to him that if he touched her again that I would knock him out. Mr Kim stepped in between us and was telling me to calm down and then he was speaking to the man in Korean. The man was just nodding his head the whole time. The South African and Nigerian guys were smiling at me, as if they were egging me on. I got my point across and for a moment I felt like the Korean men were scared of me. It was a really satisfying moment for me. Eb hates confrontation and always tells me to calm down in moments like that which is annoying because if I didn’t do anything, nothing would have changed. So I’m happy I created a scene in front of everyone. Whilst creating a ruckus, I was cautious not to create too much of a scene. Because for starters, Eb and I, and everyone else there is working illegally. I didn’t want things to escalate too much in case the police came! Mr Kim and all the Korean men understood that from now on, I’ll be working with Eb because of what happened.
Eb and I jumped into the back of a truck and were on our way to work with 3 other Russians. Eb was thankful and understood why I created scene, so I was happy J. Today we were packaging onions. It was a really good day. It felt almost as if our bodies had gotten used to it and had broken into routine. It was also good because of the Russians we were working with. They couldn’t speak English and we couldn’t speak Russian but we were conversing with body language. We finished at 6:00pm that day and had felt as if our bodies was starting to feel used to it, so we were happy to continue for the whole two weeks even though it would be mentally and physically exhausting.
As we were having dinner that night, Mr Kim came up to us and told us that there will be no work tomorrow and possibly the day after next. We asked why, and he said they have been told that immigration have been tipped off about illegal workers on the island and that they are coming to do a check. Mr Kim was telling all of us to take our laundry off the lines and that we have to stay in our rooms and be quiet all day. We both freaked out a little because we’ve watched those shows on TV with customs finding immigrants in the middle of the night and deporting them the next day. We were especially worried because at the ferry terminal at Mokpo, when we went to purchase our tickets, they asked for our passports and entered our details into the system, most likely saying that we’re going to Jangsan Island!
Now, Jangsan Island is not a touristic island. It’s literally an onion island. There is no reason for foreigners to be there. So if immigration are smart (which they are), all they have to do is go to Mokpo ferry terminal and get a list of all the foreigners going to the island. That was the last straw for us. Eb and I still want to travel to more countries and if we have on our passport that we have been deported, it will make it so difficult for us to get into other countries. We decided to bail and get back to mainland. Mr Kim told us this info around 9:00pm, so there were no more ferries leaving the island. We decided to get the first ferry in the morning. All of the other workers were happy to stay and didn’t mind risking it apart from the Malaysians, they were worried about immigration going to the ferry terminal to see which foreigners had gone to Jangsan Island too. The Russians said they earn more money here than back home, so I guess that’s why they are staying.
The next morning we got up early and said good bye to our friend David. He didn’t mind staying because he’s saving up for a flight back home to Ecuador, and if he gets caught, then it’s a free ride home anyways haha, crazy cat. It was so good to see David for these few days but then it was sad to say bye to him again. We got onto the ferry feeling more relaxed and still a little bit nervous in case we cross paths with immigration back at Mokpo. We eventually made it back to Mokpo without any problems. We decided to catch the next coach to Busan, the second biggest city, to try and find some free accommodation near the beach, which we successfully did! And just kick back for the remaining few days we have here.
We’re laughing about it now. It has been a crazy couple of days, first packing up and leaving Seoul, going to this island, where the Koreans are completely different and like rednecks and where we are working 13 – 14 hours a day in the blistering heat, breaking our backs. Eb getting harassed, me almost getting into a fight, both of us with the possibility of getting caught by immigration and getting deported. It was absolutely crazy, but it was an experience that we can look back on and laugh about. Plus our wallets were a little heavier after all that work haha.