Other forms: 알바 (alba), 알바이트 (albaiteu)
A part-time job of the menial and low-hourly-wage variety
From Daum Dictionary:
Work a student or worker does for the sake of earning money on the side of school or a main occupation.
After his father became bedridden, Eunho started working a part-time job.
Yesterday I couldn’t study at all because of working at my part-time job.
In English, we have part-time jobs, and while alba—the most common form of the word in spoken language—is similar, it’s a little different, too. For one thing, in America, high school kids, even many well-off ones, are often expected and even lauded for earning money after school, while in Korea, it’s usually something that only people who really need the money would do. In college, I think, there’s less stigma, but I don’t think it’s considered to be the character-building, foundational, rite-of-passage experience it’s seen as in many parts of the United States. It’s just a way of earning money, usually at a very low wage.
On the surface, albeit appears to come from the German word arbeit, or work, although the meaning has narrowed in Korean to include only part-time work. German is certainly the a parent of this Korean term, as a number of sources, including Naver’s Korean dictionary, note:
Areubaiteu [German] Arbeit
However, the story of how this word came into Korean is a little more complicated: It came through Japan, probably during the colonial period (1910-1945). Because of this context, the Japanese origins of words have been swept under the carpet in many cases, including, it seems, this one (see Ramsey 2006). So, it’s kind of a third culture word, you could say.
The alba is a pretty big trope in K-dramas and other pop culture products these days, probably because it’s a pretty big deal in society, too, as what started out as the kind of work students did part time has become a way for unlucky adults to eek out a living—a modern phenomenon in the US and other Western countries, too.
Let’s look at the pop culture part first.
In one of the common K-drama themes of poor-girl-meets-rich-guy, the poor girl is often working two or more part-time jobs. Take Coffee Prince, a popular drama in 2007 in which one of the main characters, 24-year-old Go Eun-Chan, takes care of her mother and sister by working as a taekwondo teacher, a waitress, and a food delivery person. More recently, in Discovery of Romance (연애의 발견, 2014), Ahn Ahrim, an important character who becomes a potential romantic rival to the leading lady, is an orphan and college student who works part-time jobs in food delivery, at a bicycle shop and in a clothing store.
While this character type is perhaps overutilized in K-dramas, it also reflects a new trend: It’s harder for young college graduates to get good full-time jobs in Korea these days. Students are delaying graduation from college even after finishing all the requirements in order to avoid a gap on their resume—because graduating and filling the resume gap with a part-time job would not be seen as a mark of industriousness by potential employers the way it might be in many parts of the States.
This was the situation of many 20-somethings I taught in a trade certificate course in Seoul—they weren’t all interested in international trade, many just wanted to fill that gap, put another line on their resumes and maybe improve their TOEIC scores a little. Other young people have completely given up the idea of getting a permanent full-time job, opting instead to become “free-ters,” (프리터, peuriteo) who string together a number of part-time jobs to survive. I’ll write about this in a future post.
Unfortunately, as in many countries, the pay and treatment of part-time workers in Korea is often dismal. This SNL Korea skit plays off that riff:
A cafe like the one in the skit is one part-time job. Others include PC rooms (PC방), convenience stores, bars, hotels, theme parks and even factories, according to the Namu.wiki page on the subject.
These jobs usually pay minimum wage or not much more, and there are no tips because tips aren’t really a thing in Korea. So the pay isn’t very good: While minimum wage has almost doubled over the past 10 years —from 3,100 won ($2.65)/hour in the first half of 2006 to 6,030 ($5.40) in 2016—it’s still quite low, especially when you consider the Seoul’s high cost of living. The student body president of Seoul National University, the Harvard of Korea, has called for a raise to 10,000 won ($8.57)/hour, but that’s unlikely.
Folk romanization: arbeit
Ramsey, S. Robert. 2006. “Korean in Contact with Japanese.” Korean Language in Culture and Society. ed. Ho-min Sohn. pp. 60-61