Sporidium, basidium, inoculum, hyphae, basidiomycota, cordyceps militaris… Esoteric as they might sound, you might have already come across such terms in search of a residency visa in South Korea.
Many topics go together with immigration and visa problems, but mushrooms probably are not one of them. Welcome to South Korea where an ability to grow certain fungi can get you far.
Ansan, 30 km southwest of Seoul. A city with one of the country’s highest concentrations of foreigners. A woman hands me a pamphlet, advertising in large letters: “Mushroom, Laundry, Guaranteed Success.”
This is no coincidence. Mushroom ads are everywhere in this area. Then I see a poster: “F-4 Visa, Mushroom Cultivation Certification.”
At first, I am slightly baffled, thinking they must be promoting some illegal substance, or a money laundering scheme aimed at foreigners.
In fact, these ads are promoting hagwons — private cram schools — which provide a wide range of services in South Korea, from preparing teenagers for college, helping job-seekers get ready for corporate exams and interviews and, apparently, teaching foreign residents how to cultivate mushrooms.
An estimated 700,000 ethnic Koreans from China — more commonly known as Joseonjok — are living in South Korea. Many of them hold visas that need to be renewed every few years — by going overseas.
“I need the F-4 visa to remain in this country without having to go back to China every time [for renewal],” said Yeom Chun-wol, an ethnic Korean from Yanji, China.
Yeom, who works at a restaurant in Incheon, west of Seoul, came to South Korea 10 years ago and is currently on an H-2. That is a visa reserved for overseas Koreans from China or the former Soviet Union who want to work in South Korea.
What she really wants, like many other ethnic Koreans living in South Korea, is an F-4. Not to be confused with the famous car race (or the handsome boys from that famous K-drama “Boys Over Flowers,” who also went by the same moniker), the F-4 visa is renewable every three years at a local immigration office here in South Korea. F-4 is a privilege, dolled out even to those without an elite background, substantial funds or skills. Applicants simply have to be foreigners of Korean descent.
Well, that’s where things get complicated.
Being a Chinese national, Yeom cannot immediately apply for the coveted F-4 visa, unless she is, among other conditions, a South Korean government scholarship student, professor or owner of a company with sales over $100,000. (The discrimination only applies to ethnic Koreans from China and the former Soviet Union.)
Of course, there is always another option, a loophole in the F-4 visa game: She can learn to cultivate mushrooms (or remove stains from clothes).
In February 2012, the South Korean government relaxed the rules of obtaining an F-4 visa, allowing for people like Yeom to qualify so long as they are “highly-skilled” individuals.
There are 383 vocational qualifications that allow ethnic Koreans from China and the former Soviet Union to become “highly skilled” in the eyes of the law. According to Yeom, mushroom cultivation is one of the better options.
“Mushroom cultivation is perhaps not the easiest, but is comparatively easy. 60 to 80 hours of study is all it takes,” said Moon Byung-hwa, the owner of a hagwon in Seoul that helps students change their visas to F-4. All of Moon’s students are Chinese citizens of Korean descent.
In one introductory mushroom class, students in their forties and fifties were taking notes on hyphal fusion and the formation of mycelium, all topics they are expected to know to pass the exam. Moon’s hagwon also offers courses in bread making and laundry services — both are acceptable qualifications, you guessed it, for a F-4 visa.
A quick search online of the words “visa” and “mushroom” reveals a plethora of private educational institutions like Moon’s. There are even teach-yourself books on the topic of mushroom cultivation, designed to help foreign residents pass the exam.
In the past few years, the number of applications for the “Craftsman Mushroom Seeds” qualification — as this skill is officially called in English — has increased almost tenfold, from 291 in 2011 to 2,484 in 2016, according to the Human Resources Development Service of Korea (HRD Korea), the government-affiliated organization which administers vocational qualifications.
To be clear, there is nothing illegal or out of place here, nor is this a laughing matter. Students are obtaining legitimate certificates, which enable them to complete their visa applications for semi-permanent residency status. And the hagwons are catering to such demands.
But what about after the students obtain the F-4? Do they use their vocational skills? Do they become mushroom experts? When I asked whether his students went on to pursue careers in the mushroom industry, Moon answered without hesitation, “Of course not.” According to him, students were here for one purpose only: going on F-4.
It is not clear how many F-4 visa applicants, taking advantage of the vocational qualifications, actually fulfill the South Korean government’s purpose of “contributing to the improvement of the social status of technical manpower as well as to the development of the national economy” in relaxing the visa requirement.
“There is merit in ethnic Koreans gaining professional skills as it improves their ability to find jobs and expands their residency opportunities,” said a Justice Ministry spokesperson, who declined to be named. (Korea Immigration Service, which oversees matters related to visas and residency, is a part of the Justice Ministry.)
But Hwang Byeong-min, a mushroom expert and lecturer at Moon’s hagwon, admitted that the practice of acquiring mushroom certificates for the sole purpose of visas was a little problematic.
“It’s a shame. Originally this certificate was designed for people to gain jobs in the mushroom industry,” Hwang said, but added that he understood why people need the certificate for visa purposes.
At Moon’s hagwon, students spend 500,000 won ($455) to take the 4-hour mushroom course held every Sunday. Moon contends that almost all his students pass: They can retake classes as many times as they like until they pass, without paying any additional fees.
Official figures paint a less rosy picture: According to HRD Korea, the success rate in 2016 for the two-part exam in mushroom cultivation stood at just 35.3 percent for the first (written) exam. Applicants who were able to proceed to the second exam (lab work) saw a success rate of 94.2 percent.
“I feel cheated,” said a Joseonjok student who refused to be named. “The hagwons around here advertise a 100-percent success rate, but actually that’s not the case. Every time we want to retake the exam, we have to pay exam fees.”
Yeom Chun-wol is not too hopeful about the future. She failed the last exam, falling four points short of the 60 she needs to pass the exam. “I simply had no time to study,” she said. She works full-time and only gets one day off each week. Despite that, she commutes to Seoul to attend the classes every Sunday.
I glanced at her heavily used textbook, notes scribbled on every page. She certainly has put a lot of work into this. I asked whether she would apply immediately for the F-4 visa once she passes the exam. She replied, “Pass? I haven’t even thought that far yet.”
Cover image: Stropharia rugosoannulata. (Source: Ak ccm. via Wikimedia Commons)