Friday, December 31, 1999

life turns on a dime

[Originally posted on July 30, 2018, 4:39 p.m.]

In Korea, big, sudden events can occur with little to no warning. This puts the average expat in a position of being simultaneously surprised and unsurprised: surprised because this particular event is unexpected, but unsurprised because, in the back of the expat's mind, there's always the general expectation of sudden upheaval. In Korea, you learn not to trust the ground beneath your feet: nothing here is stable; everything changes.

My boss took me aside today to say he won't be in charge of the R&D department any longer, and that this week is his final week in our office. Boom—just like that. I won't go into much detail, here, given the behind-the-scenes nature of this turn of events, but suffice it to say that the boss will be shunted back to our old building, Mido Sangga, and working directly under the supervision of the Golden Goose's CEO. The boss asked whether I'd be interested in joining him back at the old building, and I said yes, but absolutely nothing is written in stone as of yet (which is also typical for how things move in Korea, especially at hagweons, which are notorious for tacking wildly port and starboard for no apparent reason). It's doubtful that I'll be able to move to Mido at the same time the boss moves, so for at least the first few weeks or months of this changeover, I'll be experiencing exactly what my coworkers will be experiencing: a new department head, and very likely, a totally different set of marching orders that will mean canceling our current projects and starting new ones.

On the (possibly) bright side, if R&D is brought more directly under Korean management, the work we do will be less creative and more boneheaded, i.e., our projects will merely be extensions of current or previous projects that had been initiated elsewhere in the company. For those of us blessed or cursed with lazy temperaments, this will be a godsend: just give us the specific procedures to follow, give us a deadline, then let us do our robotic work. We won't have to do nearly as much actual content-creation, and there'll be precious little graphic-design work for our designer. Workloads might become heavier, in terms of sheer volume, but each individual task will be simpler, more straightforward, and more regimented in terms of how it's to be done. Will less actual R&D for us R&Ders, all that's left is rote activity.

All of this goes against our current boss's vision and ambitions, of course; he saw R&D as the means for our company to create company-specific materials, thus resulting in a distinct brand image. What's going to happen, now, is a reversion to the Korean way of doing things, which will involve actively cribbing from established publishers and "creating" materials that dovetail in style, tone, and content with what those other publishers produce.

I wonder whether our new supervisor will be Korean. Will s/he speak English or rely on those of us who speak some Korean to act as intermediaries? I wonder how long I'll have to wait before I can make the transfer to Mido... or whether I'll transfer at all. I just signed a three-year contract with this company, partly on the assumption that I'd be working with the same boss. Many of the private understandings that I have with my current boss (comp time, vacation, daily work schedule, etc.) will go out the window when the new regime is installed. What will that be like?

For the moment, I think it's best to assume I'm going to endure a few weeks or months of unpleasantness before I can jump ship back to Mido. As for the nixing of several of the projects I'm working on, well... it is what it is. Projects get cancelled in medias res all the time. That's been true even under the current boss.

More on this as it happens, and it's all happening fast—from my perspective, at least.

UPDATE: I just found out that our new boss, whoever he is, will need to be a fluent or native English speaker, likely American. The new boss may, in fact, be one of my coworkers, whom I've long suspected of grooming himself for a supervisory role. I can say with no envy or bitterness that he absolutely deserves the position—one that I'm not willing to take, even though the boss has asked me, on several occasions, whether I'd be willing to succeed him eventually. Me, I'm just a foot soldier, with no desire for a leadership role. Just hand me work to do, and I'll do it to the best of my ability. This coworker, on the other hand, has boundless energy, and is constantly working on self-improvement and professional development. Over the past year, I've watched him acquire various skill sets through online courses as a way of making himself ever more useful to the company. I think he was made for this position, and I hope that, if he gets it, he gets a raise that's commensurate to his responsibilities. At the very least, he needs to be earning more than I'll be earning come September.



apocalypse canceled

[Originally posted on Tuesday, 5/22/18, at 2:26 p.m.]

I had to have one final meeting with Stu, and as it turned out, the meeting was a mere formality: Stu presented me with the new three-year contract for the salary I had requested, and after reading it over to make sure there was no funny stuff, I signed the papers.

Today was a no-fuss-no-muss day: Stu was docile, even friendly. We talked desultorily about Korean, American, and Vietnamese cuisine (Stu travels to Vietnam fairly regularly because our institute has established a few branches in that country), and when the time came to read and sign the paperwork, it was merely a matter of reading and signing. Stu didn't give me any more grief about anything; we simply shook hands, and he wished me a good day.

That was that.

My boss also shook my hand when I came back to our office and showed him the signed contract. I know he's relieved that I won't be leaving for the next little while; he thinks of me as R&D's secret weapon. At the same time, for me, it's a bit overwhelming to realize how much I've locked in my future: I'll be working here, at the Golden Goose, when I turn fifty. Strange and unsettling thought, that. Then again, when you turn fifty, you turn fifty somewhere, so I guess... this is my own particular somewhere.



canceling the apocalypse?

[Originally published on Tuesday, May 15, 2018, at 1:17 a.m.]

Another unpleasant conversation with Stu this evening. My basic position during our meeting was: I'm outta here. Bye. After a long, stony silence at the end of a rather useless exchange, we parted on a not-very-heartfelt note of "I hope you'll reconsider" from Stu. I can tell he dislikes me as much as I dislike him. Fuming, I walked back into the R&D office and spoke a bit with my boss, who leaned hard on me to stay. (Earlier in the day, his boss, a Mr. Kim, also did his best to persuade me to stay. Persuasion involved a lot of gentle wrist-grabbing and hand-squeezing while Mr. Kim said, in Korean and in the third-person singular, "Kevin has to stay!") Stu then walked in, probably after having eavesdropped a bit, and spoke with my boss. A few minutes passed, during which I tried to concentrate on my work. My boss walked back into the office with a grim smile on his face, and he told me that Stu was now willing to offer me the salary I had originally requested, and on a three-year contract. Do I thank my boss for this change? Do I thank Stu?

I almost laughed. This turn of events wasn't entirely unexpected, but the whole thing, since this all came to a head last Thursday, has played out as some kind of bitter comedy. I had already told both Stu and my boss that I was out of the Golden Goose—and I was sincere. Now, after the last minute, came the offer I had been wanting.

Here's my theory. Stu is enough of an arrogant dickhead to be afraid that, should I leave the company, he'll end up looking bad because he's the guy who pushed me away. I think this theory is very plausible, which puts me in a difficult position. On the one hand, it would be my utmost pleasure to give Stu a massive fuck-you and reject this latest offer. On the other hand, I know that, in doing so, I'd be throwing away a secure future for what are ultimately very petty reasons. My boss, after laying out Stu's latest offer, told me that, were I to re-sign under these new conditions, I wouldn't have to deal with Stu for another three years. That wasn't exactly reassuring, but I understood the spirit in which the boss was speaking.

Over the past few days, I've assumed that I'd be leaving the Golden Goose. I had already begun imagining life after this job—taking a long vacation, for starters: hiking along South Korea's east-coast bike path from Gangneung to Busan, flying to the US and France to see friends and relatives, taking up a university position sometime early next year, and working on book projects in the meantime. Now, I've been thrown back into turmoil because I suddenly have in my grasp the deal that I had originally wanted, plus more: a three-year contract to make it binding. While my job at the Golden Goose isn't my ideal métier, I don't hate what I do, and I like my boss and coworkers. Were I to leave, I'd be losing something good (although never seeing Stu again would be a huge boon). So: what to do?

I haven't operated, over the past few days, according to a grand plan. Although I'm not very religious these days, I do tend to go through life with the basic faith that the cosmos will provide if and when I'm in need. For that reason, I never worry too deeply about my future. This might be a mistake, if we heed Aesop's tale of the grasshopper and the ants, but it's an outlook that has kept me sane for years. Sure, like everyone else, I worry about and get stressed over quotidian matters. But fundamentally, I've always had faith that things somehow work out in the end. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. My point is that I didn't actively work toward forcing the company to present me with this latest offer. I wasn't deliberately holding out or trying to play chicken. Quite the contrary: I really had been ready to walk out the door! The fact that the Golden Goose suddenly folded and coughed up an acceptable offer is more the Goose's doing than mine.

Or maybe not: as the Tao Te Ching says, "The sage accomplishes everything by doing nothing." Maybe all I had to do, to get my wish, was to be Lao Tzu's Uncarved Block, just standing there while others reacted to it. Heh. It's a cute thought, but in reality, I hadn't actively worked toward this outcome.

So, now that the company has come around to seeing things my way, through no action of my own, perhaps I'll say yes and sign on for another three years. As of tonight, that's the way I'm leaning. I'm losing a chance to fuck Stu over by making him look bad, but in the big picture that is my existence, Stu is but a poor player that struts and frets his hour across the stage.

This will be a good life. Good enough.



the big nerp

[Originally posted on Thursday, May 10, 2018, at about 6:00 p.m.]

[This is a followup to the previous "frank" post.]

I sat down to talk with Stu (not his real name), a large, beefy Komerican who currently manages the foreign teachers at the Golden Goose. I don't know why he's also in charge of us foreigners in R&D, as we're not teachers, but Stu seems to want to involve himself in any and all things expat-related. My immediate boss sometimes chafes at this situation, but Stu is beloved of the CEO, who views Stu as his right arm, so there's little anyone can do.

Let me be frank: I've disliked Stu from the beginning of my time at the Golden Goose. Luckily for me, I haven't had to deal with him that often, and most of the time, when he lumbers necklessly into our R&D office, he ignores me outright. That's fine by me, but ever since I put in my request for a much higher salary, it was inevitable that I'd have to sit down with Stu and have a face-to-face chat about my situation. That chat happened today, and it has done much to help me decide whether I'm going to stay with the Golden Goose.

Stu is the incarnation of all that is smarmy about hagweons. He's a sneaky, shifty fellow who, whenever he comes in to talk with my boss, usually indicates "We gotta talk in private" by giving a wordless beckoning gesture with his head (disrespectful in Korean culture, but Stu, being a gyopo, thinks of himself as an American talking to a fellow American, which he technically is). There's nothing honest, direct, or straightforward about him, and the way he talks to people, when he's trying to persuade them, usually involves a good measure of underhandedness, half-truths, and misdirection to keep the interlocutor off balance. Hilariously, this snake-like fellow is a seminary dropout, as I found out late last year.

Anyway, when Stu sat down with me today, along with another higher-up named Ivan (not his real name, either) who will be taking over some of Stu's duties, I was prepared to meet with resistance to my salary request. Sure enough, Stu started off with a lie: "I don't want you to think I'm here to reject your request and try to negotiate with you, but..." (As Eddard Stark is reputed to have said on TV's "Game of Thrones," everything before the word "but" is horseshit.) He also said that, because I had signed a contract with the Golden Goose in 2015, I must have signed because I'd thought the deal was "fair." I demurred and said I'd signed because I had no other options. Stu shifted the goalposts of the discussion and said that the past was the past, and whatever had happened before Stu himself had gotten involved with my case (which wasn't until a couple months ago) was no longer relevant. I told him that, from my point of view, the past remained quite relevant to me. Stu ignored my point and moved on.

He tried to convince me that giving me the salary I wanted "wouldn't be smart" either for me or for the company. He talked about the need for "trust" and "motivation." His counterproposal was a sort of "step increase" through a series of one-year contracts. The idea would be that, while I may have requested a salary at level X starting this September, the company would actually pay X minus 500,000 won for a few months, then add a couple hundred thousand won over the next two or three months, then get me up to X at the very end of that one-year contract. After that, over the following two years, I'd eventually get an additional 1.5 million a month. Stu's rationale for this was that, if I got X salary at the very beginning and remained at a stable level for the next two or three years, I'd have no motivation to work as there'd be no higher salary to work toward. Also, by stair-stepping the salary over time, I'd be building a foundation of trust with the company, proving my worth as time went on. This was exactly the same bullshit rationale that justified the sudden cut in my salary when I initially signed on in 2015: "We'll start you lower than the salary you wanted, and after a year, when you've proven your worth, we'll step you up to the level you requested." That's what I was told when the Golden Goose bent me over the barrel. As I've written before, I cursed myself for not having had a Plan B in place.

I told Stu I'd need time to think about all this, so we agreed to talk again on Monday. We shook hands and parted ways, and that left me with time to begin pondering my future. At this point, I'm already pretty sure I won't be re-signing with the Golden Goose. Stu's smarmy manner, and his sneaky style of argumentation, convinced me that the time had come to get the fuck outta Dodge. His psychological point about "motivation"—the idea that I'd be more motivated if I knew I had incremental salary increases coming my way—struck me as utterly bizarre, and it also indicated that the man knows nothing about how I think. Had I been able to get the X-level salary that I had wanted, I would have gladly worked at that level for a few years. In the end, I'm not trying to become super-rich, nor am I trying to extort huge sums from the company. I want enough to pay off my debts and begin to live comfortably, at the level of a middle-class fifty-year-old, with all that that implies about creature comforts, etc. Am I asking too much? Am I a greedy bastard?

I also know that the Golden Goose is expanding into international markets. We've already got property in Vietnam, and from what I've heard, the plan is to sign up at least 150,000 students there within the next two or three years. It's bullshit for a company this rich to plead empty pockets, so I'm not impressed by any institutional moaning and groaning about how much I'm asking for. The company has money, but it's being stingy. Not that that's surprising: you don't get rich by being a spendthrift.

So that's it: I won't be re-signing, and that's what I'll be telling Stu on Monday. I've got feelers out to various universities, and I'm confident I'll have a new place to go by the end of the summer. I told my boss the plan this evening; predictably, he wasn't happy. But all good things must come to an end, and the time has come for ol' Uncle Kevin to move on. On Monday, I'll be sure to tell all the other managers involved that it was thanks to Stu that I was able to come to a firm decision about my future with the company.



upheavals and decisions

[Originally posted on Tuesday, March 6, 2018, at 11:43PM.]

You may recall my rant about the twat in our office. Well, I got news from the boss that she's decided not to re-up, so her nasty ass is outta here when her contract expires. I'm elated. Not that she and I have been at each other's throats or anything—quite the opposite. We've stayed away from each other as much as is humanly possible: I don't look at her or talk to her, and she does the same with me, which is perfectly fine. She and I might exchange a single sentence on those days when I bring food to the office: she'll give me a perfunctory thank-you and tell me the food is good before wandering back to her work station. I'll acknowledge her thanks and say something neutral like, "Glad you're enjoying it." And that's about it.

I think I called the twat "Trish" in my previous rant, so let's stick with that. Trish, who acts lethargic, drags her feet when she walks, talks with a drawl, gets easily annoyed, and is the absolute diametrical opposite of a ray of sunshine, has looked even more withdrawn and antisocial over the past few months. I know she maintains a rich social life outside of work, but while she's in the office, she projects the impression that she'd rather be anywhere else but here. Something happened a few months ago that I'm not at liberty to talk about, and Trish was at the center of it. When the storm passed, Trish was still with us in the office, but we had lost another employee. Feelings were raw, and people were cautious about how to move forward from that time; things have lately seemed to settle into a tentative groove, but Trish herself has appeared, over the last several months, deeply affected by that tempest. I also wonder whether my own chilliness toward Trish has played a role in her decision not to renew her contract with the Golden Goose. I sincerely hope it has, to be frank, but I know better than to ascribe to myself that much influence. Be that as it may, Trish is leaving whenever her contract is up, and that's cause for celebration.

In other news: the boss is leaning on me to stay at the Golden Goose. We had a talk in which things like salary were discussed. I reiterated to him that I was sore at how things had been handled in 2015, when the Golden Goose lopped my proposed salary down to the same level as what I'd been making as a university prof. Cutting my salary down a week before I was to sign my contract was a dick move, and I'm still angry about that. To recap: I had initially been offered a salary at level X, about two million won per month more than I had been making at Dongguk University. A few months later, the boss came back to say that he could only swing X minus a million won per month, which was still almost a million won over my uni pay. I was frustrated, but that salary still sounded better than Dongguk's, so I told him I'd sign a contract with the Golden Goose. A week before I signed, the Golden Goose lopped off another 500,000 per month from the salary, which put me in the same ballpark as Dongguk. I was pissed off, but because I had stupidly failed to have a Plan B at the ready—having trusted my future boss to guarantee the offered salary—I was left with little choice but to sign the contract. I also signed because I hadn't gotten my F-4 visa back yet, and not having an F-4 meant that I didn't have any options. As I've said before, if I'd had my F-4, I'd have walked the moment the Golden Goose lopped off that final W500,000.*

I told the boss that I'd re-sign if he could get me the original proposed salary of X per month—no fucking cuts this time. He said he'd take that to the powers that be, but that he'd most likely get a counter-offer of X minus half a million, which would be half a million more than my current salary, but he also said he'd make an effort to get me an X-level salary, and that he personally had nothing against my earning that amount. At the same time, he noted that, when he had originally made the offer of X per month, "the Golden Goose was a different place then; new hires were all getting high salaries." As we talked, the boss also tried the tactic of making me feel guilty for asking for a million-won raise after having gotten a 500,000-won raise two years ago, but I wasn't having any. I'm normally the sort of quiet, timid guy who doesn't make demands for himself, but in this case, I decided to take my parents' advice not to sell myself short—a phrase I've heard a lot over my lifetime. So if the company thinks I'm being immodest when I ask for X-level pay, well, fuck the company.

After my talk with the boss, I was left a bit confused as to what happens next. He said he wanted me to think about whether I was re-upping; in the meantime, he was going to see whether getting me an X-level salary was possible. It seems to me that I can't commit one way or another until I know for sure that X is possible, so I'm going to have to sit down with the boss again and hash out the logic, here. I'm mentally reserving the right to pull out of any "commitment" if it turns out that HR or the Finance department or the higher-ups decide that X isn't possible.

All that said, I'm still leaning toward leaving. Despite everything the boss said during our talk, there is, at present, no firm promise that I'll get an X-level salary. During our chat, I also told the boss that I don't like the company's cult of personality, which involves kissing the CEO's ass at those utterly useless company-wide workshops. I also talked about the difference between the shitty apartment I've been in for two-and-a-half years and Apartment 1640, where I stayed while my bathroom was being fixed. 1640 was light years nicer. I said that, if I did re-sign, I'd definitely want to move to an apartment like that. Again, the boss was amenable, but all of this remains hypothetical. There have been no concrete promises.

Put all that stuff—the 40-hour week, the sometimes mind-numbing drudgery of the work, the minimal vacations, etc.—against working eight months a year, getting four months' vacation, and a teaching schedule of nine to fifteen hours per week, and it seems like a no-brainer: university work is better. Plus, at the uni, there's none of this personality-cult nonsense—no stupid workshops to attend, no ubiquitous posters and TV monitors displaying the CEO's cheesy face, none of that shit.** And with long vacations, I can engage in personal projects like writing books, traveling and hiking, and perhaps even learning new skills. I might even get a dog at the beginning of one of my two-month vacations: that would give me time to bond with the puppy, and to get it ready for the time when I'll be out of the house several hours at a time. (I do still think a lot about getting a dog.)

Anyway, I have much to ponder. The easier path would be to commit to staying at the Golden Goose—assuming a salary of X is guaranteed (to be clear, I made that a basic condition of my re-upping: no X, no re-upping). The Golden Goose has become "the devil I know," whereas I've been out of the uni biz for a few years, so I've doubtless lost my edge and am now a bit rusty. The more difficult, but more exciting, path would be to tell my boss I'm leaving, then to find uni work somewhere decent. I'm leaning toward this, but the temptation to be lazy and to stay on the current path is very strong. Decisions, decisions.



*An F-4 visa—informally called a dongpo visa in reference to a person's Korean heritage, which s/he shares with regular Korean citizens—allows the holder to function almost like a Korean citizen, at liberty to do everything except vote in elections. Normally, an expat from North America or Europe gets an E-2 visa (to be a language-school instructor) or an E-1 visa (to be a university professor). While an E-1 is better than an E-2, both "E" visas require their holders to be sponsored by the hiring institution, which means that, if the visa holder quits his/her job or is fired, s/he can no longer legally stay in Korea, except as a tourist now unable to work. (Granted, plenty of tourists work illegally in Korea; I used to be one of them.) With an F-4, I'm sponsored by no one, and I don't have to look over my shoulder for Immigration because I don't have to worry about whether anything I'm doing is illegal (unless, of course, I'm engaged in drug trafficking or something stupid like that). In theory, I could lose a job or choose to become homeless, and I'd still be able to stay in Korea legally for as long as my visa was valid (which reminds me: I have to renew mine this year). In practice, as someone with no inclination to relive my belt-tightening days, I can walk away from one job and look for another at my leisure (or at least until the money ran out). This is why I say that, had I had this visa when the Golden Goose dicked me over, I would never have signed that contract, and my life over the past two-and-a-half years would have been radically different.

**There are things I like about my current job, though. I'm tucked away in a corner, surrounded by a partition, which appeals to my introversion. I'm currently working on a single project and not juggling several projects, like some of my coworkers. I like my boss, who has been a very good supervisor for the past couple of years; he's not perfect, but his heart is in the right place. I enjoy, to some extent, the simple and straightforward nature of what I do. And I'm thankful that, when my salary finally went up to X minus 1 million won in 2016, I've been able to pay down my major debts much more rapidly.

TWAT UPDATE, MARCH 7, 2018: the boss actually announced to us, at a meeting Trish didn't attend, that Trish would be out of our office by the end of this week. She's still on contract, but she's being shunted elsewhere so that she can work until the end of her time with the company. As mentioned above, it was Trish herself who said she had no plans to re-up at the Golden Goose. Well... good.



the utterly useless workshop

[Originally posted on Thursday, December 14, 2017, at 12:50AM.]

In case I didn't make it obvious the last time I wrote on this topic, I can't stand corporate workshops, especially the Korean-style ones. Don't give me any fucking games to play, or chants to chant, or slogans/buzzwords to repeat mindlessly. And for the love of Cthulhu, don't make me participate in the CEO's cult of personality.

On Wednesday, all this and more came to pass: a few weeks previously, our CEO had sent around an email "inviting" my company's teachers—and those of us who work in R&D—to attend a workshop to "learn" about our CEO's notions of how to teach grammar—an approach that the CEO describes as "mƏssage grammar."* I initially had no idea what "mƏssage grammar" was, but I understood that the CEO, who only recently got his doctorate, has been pushing this notion, which is a central concept in his dissertation on language education.

As is par for the course with Korean events, the venue location was changed at the last minute from one of our company-owned spaces to another. I'm not sure whether to be thankful that the new space was closer to my current office, but it turned out to be a walk of barely 150 meters to the "Classia" Building, which houses a bakery that I like.

That morning, I was lucky to wake up on time: both my cell phone and my analog alarm clock failed to wake me at 7AM; I ended up arising of my own accord at 7:50AM, which gave me time to shower, dress, and catch a cab to reach the meeting place. I got there with about five minutes to spare. Many expat teachers were already in the building, gathering by the tiny elevator to go up to the fourth floor. I took the stairs; no one followed me.

When I reached the fourth floor, the pre-meeting chaos hit me with a wall of sound. Expats were everywhere. My twatty coworker was there; she told me there was a seating chart (a chart for hundreds of people!) that specified I should be seated in the goddamn front row. Fuck whoever made that chart. I stepped into the large room, which was filled with row upon row of two-seater desk/tables, and made my way slowly to the front. The room was full and getting fuller; it was quite the crowd. Teachers had come to the event from all of the nearby campuses; some had come from as far away as Ilsan, where I used to live during my second semester of teaching at Dongguk University. That's a long subway ride for a meeting beginning at 9AM.

If you've never been to a Korean corporate workshop, it usually works like this: there are speeches, possibly followed by some lectures. For a mostly expat meeting, there will be group activities; for Korean employees, there's usually just more lecturing, possibly by a series of speakers. Along the way, there will be collective chants—often of dumb slogans seemingly made up on the spot. For Koreans, the idea of "together-action" (dong haeng) is an important one: in a crowd, you energize each other, and the convivial glow of this energy somehow infuses the group with a welcome synergy. This is about team-building; this is about becoming one with the corporate entity. As a coworker of mine said at the meeting: "It's like church."

Our meeting roughly followed the above-explained format, but the CEO, knowing that he was dealing with Westerners, often stopped his discourse to interact with teachers whom he knew by name. There was lots of laughter at the CEO's lame jokes, and we finally got a glimpse of what the CEO was talking about with his "mƏssage grammar."

As it turns out, the CEO's most cherished innovation is no innovation at all. Let me explain. When he finally talked about what "mƏssage grammar" was, the CEO said it had everything to do with how utterances change meaning in context. Example: if I issue a flat declarative like, "That pizza looks delicious" while I'm staring at a photo of a pizza on a menu, then the utterance gives you a clue as to my state of mind. If, however, you've got a pizza in front of you, then I come up, stare lovingly at your pizza, and intone, "That pizza looks delicious," I obviously mean that I want to eat some or all of your pizza. The social context helps determine the meaning of the utterance. The CEO calls this context-dependency "mƏssage grammar" because the context governs what "message" you're sending... but there's already an entire branch of linguistics called pragmatics that studies this very phenomenon! The CEO's big idea has been around for ages! The man merely borrowed or stole it.

With that realization, I became even more convinced that this entire event was a waste of time. My rule is this: if you can say it in an email, then you don't need to have a meeting. It didn't help that the CEO was presuming to teach us about grammar despite how poor his own English was. It also didn't help that the CEO, at one point, utterly misinterpreted and misused the concept of a dangling modifier. He said—and I wrote this in my lecture notes to preserve this gem for posterity—that we should "learn how to use dangling modifiers properly." Had I not been in the middle of a creepy cultic ritual, I'd have laughed out loud. A dangling modifier is a mistake that needs to be corrected, not a concept to be employed properly. In the end, I didn't have the courage to stand up and call out the CEO for his bullshit.

The North Korean-style ass-kissing by the Westerners at the event was painful to watch. Our company is filled with lifers who either adore the CEO or make a good show of such adoration. I watched expat teachers who, when handed a microphone, did little more than praise the CEO for his depth of knowledge and inspirational character. Later on, after we had done the workshop-style group activities, there was a Q&A period during which I heard boot-licking questions like, "What inspired you to create this company?"

Above, I mentioned a group-work activity. Almost three hours into the meeting, we had to break up into groups and go into separate classrooms for this part of the workshop. Our task—creating a lesson plan to teach kids how to summarize news articles—was actually somewhat interesting, but it was also fairly high-pressure work, as we had little more than 25 minutes for a group of fifteen of us to create a lesson plan, decide how to present it to the audience, and devise a chant to, uh, energize the group. Our team's chant, in the Korean corporate ass-kissing tradition, contained our CEO's name.

The event had been scheduled to end at 1PM, but as per Murphy's Law, we ran overtime. That was one last kick in the ass. My only consolation is that the workshop took place during work hours, unlike that weekend retreat.

To anticipate the unsympathetic reader: no, signing up to work in a Korean company does not mean that I've agreed to join the hive mind. Even many Koreans, when privately questioned about their attitude toward these events, will tell you they think such workshops are a waste of time. We're all individuals in the end—even the most group-oriented among us. Many of us can't stand being part of a cult of personality, which is another reason why I'm probably not going to renew my contract come September 2018.




*I'm writing it as "mƏssage," not "message," to make the term harder to Google, especially given the tone and content of this post. Ass coverage.





regarding office twats and disenchantment

[Originally posted on October 20, 2017, at : PM]

1. Twattage

Even since our R&D department expanded to its current size of about ten staffers, things have been different. Before the expansion, life was library-quiet, and interpersonal interactions were uncomplicated. Now, we've got complex cross-currents of conversation, coffee cliques (or klatsches), and a hell of a lot more office politics, with all the bullshit that that implies. I suspect the boss enjoys this ambiance, given his grandiose personality, but I'm finding it less and less appealing. More on this later.

One of my new coworkers, whom I'll call Trish, has an interest in hanja, i.e., Sino-Korean characters. She found out that I have a similar interest, and we decided to engage in a silly little project to fortify our knowledge. I suggested that we use the mostly Sino-Korean names of the subway stations of Line 3 (Seoul's orange line) as the content for our study, and Trish agreed. Line 3 has 44 stations; we divided the line in half such that Trish would study the names of 22 stations, and I would study the names of the other 22. For the most part, we would be studying separately (making flash cards and the like), but we would also be writing up one station name per day on the office's white board, listing each Chinese character, its pronunciation, and its meaning in Korean (along with English if necessary).

The project also had an element of competition: after we finished our 22 stations, we would then quiz each other using an agreed-upon quiz format. The winner would receive something from the loser. Trish said she wanted her favorite coffee; I said I wanted a hand drawing from Trish, who is our graphic designer. I said that hand-drawn, hand-crafted items have great meaning for me (they do). We both agreed to the stakes, then we got to studying our hanja.

Some weeks later, we finished our respective halves of Line 3, but as I told Trish, I had also made flash cards for her half of the subway line as well. After all, why not gain as much benefit from the exercise as possible? We agreed to quiz each other after Chuseok break, but just before break (and therefore, just before my four-day walk to incheon and back), Trish made a request of me: could I please give her all the info for the half of Line 3 that she hadn't done so that she could design my quiz? I initially said okay because I always say yes to the ladies, but the more I thought about Trish's request, the more convinced I was that she was asking me to give her information that she could have gotten herself had she not been so lazy as to do only her assigned side of Line 3.

I wrote an Trish email in which I tried to be jokey, but I made it clear that I thought she should have done her own damn work, and that it took some nerve, during a competition, to ask me for the extra information. I gave her the link to a website where she could find, and note for herself, all the info she had requested of me, and I ended my missive by gleefully trash-talking her, e.g., by saying that I looked forward to kicking her ass on the quiz. After a day's pause, Trish wrote me an angry reply in which she called my email "condescending," said she had thought we had been engaged in a "FRIENDLY" competition (her all-caps), and that she wasn't getting a "good vibe" from any part of my email. Finally, she said she was no longer comfortable working on this project with me anymore, but (bizarrely) she hoped this didn't affect "our professional relationship."

My own reaction to Trish's email was that it had been written in the emotional tenor of a five-year-old: "You're mean! I don't wanna play with you anymore!" I also thought she had no idea how to handle trash-talking. Normally, someone with self-confidence would respond to my ass-kicking gibe by saying something like, "Yeah, keep thinking that while you're lying face-down in a puddle of my piss!" That's how trash-talking is supposed to work, and it is an example of "friendly competition." Trish had instead decided to play the wounded victim, which I found unbecoming of her. I also found her accusation of condescension to be hypocritical: she had obviously thought I was just a sap who would do her bidding, giving her information she hadn't earned. That's condescending.

What I did, though, was write Trish a full, gentlemanly apology, to which she hasn't been mature enough to reply. We've spent most of the past couple of weeks ignoring and avoiding each other, like a couple that's broken up but must still work together. (That was, in fact, how I felt about Trish's angry email: it had the traits of a breakup letter, and she and I aren't even going out). Only recently has Trish seen fit to acknowledge my presence with a mumbled "Hey" in the hallway. Personally, I see no reason to speak to her unless spoken to, and while I'll still work with her when needed, that's the only level of interaction I'm interested in.

2. Disenchantment

As I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post, things are getting a bit too noisy and chaotic at the office for this old, crotchety introvert. The R&D department is now stocked with plenty of smart, over-achieving, garrulous people who constantly shout across the office and/or visit each other's cubicles. While there are lulls in the general hubbub, most of the day is noisy as hell, and I'm glad I come in as late as I do: when most of the staffers leave at 5PM, things quiet down radically, and I'm finally able to be productive for a few hours.

Honestly, though, I don't know how much longer I can function like this. R&D is under the microscope because we're on the cusp of producing a brace of textbooks with which our company's reputation may stand or fall, so there's a lot of pressure on us. Even more, we're the country's only textbook R&D department composed entirely of native speakers (as the boss never ceases to remind us), so the Korean upper management is scrutinizing us even more closely than they would a Korean team. With the plethora of assignments and the crush of wave after wave of deadlines, life has gone from one of placid tranquility to the sort of high-pressure ambiance endured by short-order cooks. This is, less and less, the Golden Goose with which I had signed on in 2015, and I'm not loving my current situation.

I mentioned cliques. Some of us go walking together twice a day—just little ten-minute strolls in the neighborhood next to our building. Others go en masse for coffee and/or lunch, which is (according to my spies) where these cliques talk shit about other people in the office. While I don't think our office has reached a stage I'd describe as "toxic" or "dysfunctional," I can definitely see that there's a danger of things deteriorating. There are already some fissures forming; I won't elaborate on that until we have a collapse or an explosion.

Anyway, I'm pondering whether I'll be renewing my contract with the Golden Goose in September of 2018. Employment often works in three-year cycles for me; I find it hard to settle into any one job (which, of course, makes it hard to build up any funds for retirement). If I choose not to renew, I'll just go back to university teaching. This would mean a cut in pay and a delay in my being able to pay off the rest of my major debts, but it might be worth it just for the peace of mind: teaching twelve hours a week and receiving four months of vacation a year (with the option of earning big money by teaching during vacation) is nothing to sneeze at. If, however, I can arrange to work more closely with high-paying KMA (whose gigs are currently my side job), I'll likely jump over to them in Yeouido. KMA would be a dream job for me; despite the one unpleasant incident with a lowly staffer, I love the work I do there and get along well with almost everybody.

I can ponder my options in a more leisurely way now that I've got an F-4 visa: the visa allows me to remain in Korea even if I'm jobless. With other visas like the E-1 or E-2, you're tied to your employer, who is basically sponsoring your stay in the country. With the F-4, I have most of the rights and privileges of a Korean citizen, except that I can't vote in elections—which is fine by me, given my general incomprehension of Korean politics.

So that's where things stand: I'm on one twatty coworker's shit list (and she's on mine), and I'm probably going to run out the clock on my current contract.



in the aftermath of the retreat

[Originally posted on September 24, 2017, at 5:25PM.]

I spoke on Skype with my brother David on Saturday morning, before I left to go to the office for our retreat. (The boss had told us to assemble at the office; a company bus was to be there to take us all down to Anseong.) I bitched to David about how much I resented having to go through this bullshit theft of my weekend, and I took David through some possible scenarios when the time came to announce to the boss that I intended to walk out of this farce and head back to Seoul. "Maybe their bark will be worse than their bite," David ventured.

My brother turned out to be right, but Saturday still sucked. In my mind, the ideal scenario would have been this: arrive at the hapkido master's compound by 4PM, get the workshop portion of the day over with by 6PM (dinnertime), then walk out without having dinner. This would have given me time to get on a bus at Anseong's main bus terminal; the final bus was scheduled to leave the terminal by 9:20PM, and the walk to the terminal was thirteen kilometers, or about 2.5 hours on foot.

What actually happened was close to the worst-case scenario: we arrived a bit after 4PM; the workshop dragged until about 8PM; dinner came and went (I refused to eat because I knew I'd be walking, and I didn't want to have to poop by the roadside); the workshop restarted after dinner and dragged even more until 10PM. I was increasingly agitated as the clock ticked onward. Sitting through the workshop was an exercise in not hulking out and throwing tables around the room. I was at the limits of my self-restraint when the boss finally declared that the workshop was over for the night.

But unlike our recently disappeared coworker, I wasn't planning on just fading away from the retreat without a word. That would have been the coward's way out. So I sat outside while everyone else went inside to play beer pong, and I waited for the boss to come out and find me, as I knew he would. (I'm never far from his mind. He had texted me several times during dinner to find out where I was; I was in an upstairs room meditating, and the boss texted with irritation that "This is not a Buddhist retreat" and that I needed to come down to dinner to show some solidarity. I came down, saw everyone was eating, and went back upstairs for another 40 minutes' meditation.)

Sure enough, the boss came out into the darkness around the house and sat next to me on the open-air shwim-teo where I had parked myself. I told him flat-out that I was going to be leaving now, and he tried to persuade me to stay. "There's plenty of room upstairs if you want to sleep alone," he offered. I said no—I'd rather just go. The boss quizzed me as to why my coworkers were so fearsome to me (he normally tries pushing emotional buttons in a debate situation, so it's no surprise that he'd try to paint me as a scaredy-cat); I explained that it wasn't the coworkers, per se, as it was the forced togetherness of the situation, which made me feel like a trapped animal. I told him quite frankly that I thought the retreat was bullshit, even as I acknowledged the work that he and another coworker had put into crafting the retreat (the two had planned the activities, shopped for the food, prepped the huge dinner, and bought supplies for breakfast the following morning).

Eventually, the boss relented. "I just don't want you leaving here angry," he said into the night. I told him that I did resent the theft of my weekend, but that I wasn't furious with anyone. In fact, I was fairly relieved that the boss hadn't adopted a more aggressive or threatening posture: had he done so, I would have told him he'd be getting my sajik-seo (letter of resignation) on Monday. That's my nuclear option: I can walk away from this job shedding nary a tear because I have no particular loyalty to the company, and I have an F-4 visa that allows me to stay in Korea even if I'm jobless. The Golden Goose has dicked me over several times—beginning with their refusal to give me my promised salary—as is consistent with how hagweons normally operate, and I have a long memory for such things. None of this makes me feel any particular warmth toward the company. If I work hard in the office, it's out of a sense of pride and professionalism that isn't linked to my place of employment. Besides: I have no friends at the company, so there's nothing to lose, socially speaking, by leaving.

The boss and I talked about other, more personal, things, and then I said it was time for me to go. By that point, it was around 10:30PM. I was miffed about leaving so late: I had wanted to leave about four or five hours earlier. The country roads were initially dark, and we were far enough outside of Seoul, away from the city's light pollution, that it was possible to look up into the night sky and see more than a few stars overhead. I ended up walking much more slowly than planned: the 2.5-hour walk expanded into a nearly 4-hour walk. The path that Naver Map had chosen for me took me first along those country roads, then alongside a freeway for a kilometer or two, then into the downtown part of Anseong City, and finally along a creekside bike path that pointed me toward the bus terminal. I wasted three kilometers, at one point, when I had to backtrack so that I could leave the bike path and walk along the main road for the final part of the walk. This added forty or so minutes to the walk.

I knew the bus terminal was going to be closed at that time of night, but my assumption was that, as is true for most bus terminals, there would be a nearby neighborhood with motels and yeogwans. My plan was to hit a motel, then grab a bus the next day. As it turned out, though, Anseong resides in the Twilight Zone, and there was absolutely nothing next to the bus terminal except for a huge crossroads where two major arteries met. Too tired to do otherwise, I waited at the crossroads for a cab. One arrived within a few minutes; it was nearly 2AM by that point. The cabbie cheerfully asked me what the hell I was doing out at that hour. "Nobody else is out here!" he exclaimed. True: the paths I had walked had been largely devoid of people, but some random folks had been out and about. I didn't say this to the cabbie, though. I told him to take me to the nearest motel; he said, "We'll have to go downtown, then," i.e., we'd have to go back to the part of the city that I had already walked through. I smiled at the thought of backtracking yet again.

The cabbie dropped me off at Yes Motel, in central Anseong, where I paid W50,000 for a fairly decent room. I popped out to a convenience store to buy ice and drinks, then I settled into my room, sipping contentedly, happy to be away from that goddamn retreat. The boss had texted me while I was walking, telling me to message him when I had arrived safely at a motel. I did so. Bizarrely, he replied to my text around 3:30AM with a "See you Monday." I had thought he'd be asleep. As for me, I didn't get to sleep until after 5AM (too much Coca Cola in my system: I had hit a couple convenience stores as I was walking). Before I crawled into bed, though, I laundered my clothes, just as I'd done while on the trail, and hung them to dry.

The next day—this morning, in fact—I got out of bed around 9:30AM, showered, dressed, dropped my room key off with the yeogwan ajeossi, and caught a cab to the bus terminal. I went to the ticket window, got a ticket for Seoul's Express Bus Terminal (which runs along Line 3, which takes me right to my apartment), climbed into the bus, and rode back to Seoul. I was more than an hour ahead of my coworkers, who were scheduled to leave the retreat compound at noon and arrive in Seoul around 1PM.

I'll be curious to see how people react, on Monday, to my having skedaddled. They might see my walk-off as childish and cowardly, or they might see it as ballsy and rebellious. I don't particularly care what they think, but it'll be interesting to tally reactions all the same.

According to the boss, there was supposed to be another workshop activity on Sunday morning. I accused him of lying to me: I had specifically asked him, a few days before the retreat, whether we'd be doing anything on Sunday, and he'd said that Sunday would be no more than waking up, eating breakfast, and piling into the bus. During the conversation I'd had with the boss just before I walked off the compound, he flip-flopped and said there'd be some kind of lesson-planning activity. This sort of flip-flopping is par for the course with my boss, who will often say whatever it takes to persuade someone to do something. (This is how he cajoled me into working for the Golden Goose in the first place: with a "promise" of five million won a month. I'll be more wary of over-promising people next time.)

Anyway, I think I left the compound on more or less amicable terms with the boss. There had been no fight, no shouting match, no nuclear option. In the end, he relented and let me go, telling me he didn't want to make me do something I was dead set against doing. That's all to his credit; the bark had indeed been worse than the bite. For me, my nighttime walk was accompanied by a flooding sense of relief and liberation, but there was still some lingering frustration at my having had to start the walk so late at night.

I'm back now, and the work week awaits. I hope everything just goes back to normal.



showdown

[Originally posted on Friday, September 22, 2017, at 1:31AM.]

I don't want to fight my boss, but he's putting me in a position where I'll Have to Do What I Have to Do.

This weekend, we're supposed to go on a retreat to Anseong, south of Seoul. As I've written before, I have a severe aversion to doing retreat-y things. If I'm with a small group of people whom I know and like, that's one thing. Spending a day, a night, and a morning with coworkers, though, is quite another. It's not that I hate my coworkers, to be sure: it's more that I don't like being coerced into having fun.

The retreat isn't all about fun, though: there's going to be a workshop portion during which we'll seriously discuss the future of our R&D department. We'll be divided into semi-permanent teams, and we'll learn about our upcoming projects, as the boss has many ideas for new textbooks (and the revision/updating of old textbooks). As Obama might say, let me be clear: I'm perfectly OK with the workshop portion of the retreat. My interpretation of my business contract is that, if we have job-related matters to attend to, then I must of course attend to them. There is, however, nothing in my contract stipulating that, when the boss orders you to have fun, you must have fun.

I deeply, deeply resent being forced to spend a weekend with my coworkers. As I said above, this isn't because I hate the people I work with. The issue is one of human freedom: can I or can't I decide when I'm going to sit down and relax? In Korea, where there's a group-first culture, the assumption is that it's fine to trample on an employee's weekend because, hey—job-related group activities are fun! How can they not be? Koreans, being group-first people, are emotionally tone-deaf when it comes to personal preferences. It was, frankly, disappointing to discover that my boss had decided to do the Korean thing and host this retreat. I've spent the past couple weeks feeling betrayed.

So I'll be happy to take the bus down to Anseong with my coworkers and do the workshop portion with them. I consider that part of the retreat to be de rigueur. As for the rest—well, there's supposed to be grilling, followed by chilling, i.e., we'll just sit around and... somehow get to know each other. Then we'll retire to our communal sleeping area (oh, joy), wake up and have a hearty breakfast, then take the bus back to Seoul and arrive by 1PM. My thought: fuck that. I'm planning to walk out right after the workshop is done.

Which might lead to a showdown if the boss tries to stop me. Of course, if he tries to stop me, he'll only be making the coercive nature of the retreat obvious. And what's he going to threaten me with? Firing? Hell, I'm willing to walk away from this job if the boss is truly that petty. I'll hand him my letter of resignation the following Monday, work my remaining thirty days, then move on to some place of employment that isn't quite so ridiculous.

My hope is that it doesn't come to that. The boss hasn't been amenable to reason up to now, but there's a chance he'll just let me go once he sees how determined I am to leave.

We'll see how this all turns out on Saturday. I'm going to have something very interesting to write about this weekend.



a possible reprieve...?

[Originally posted on August 26, 2017, at 8:08PM.]

Our mercurial CEO has apparently decided that the R&D department doesn't have to attend this coming Thursday's heretofore mandatory shindig. It would have been bad, had we had to attend: I heard that each department was supposed to put on some sort of dance number or skit. My boss was envisioning some kind of "Stomp"-style routine while I slowly withered inside. Then the news came, later in the day, that R&D was off the hook because most of the event would have been incomprehensible to us foreigners. This is when I realized that we hadn't been invited to a simple "dinner with the CEO": this was going to be a full-on MT.

I had spent much of yesterday stewing, so even though the news of our reprieve came as a something of a relief, I was angry when I started my nighttime creekside walk, and it took a couple hours, plus a lot of sweat, to cool off. I also know that the current reprieve could very easily be taken away from us if the CEO changes his damn mind yet again, so whatever relief I might feel is contingent on what happens over the next few days. If the event happens on Thursday without us, then I'll feel some bona fide relief.



just gets better and better

[Originally posted on August 24, 2017, at 9:05PM.]

It's not enough that our company's CEO wants to make us all suffer through a mandatory dinner: my immediate boss has plans, in September, to have us do an overnight "MT"-style* event out on the property of his hapkido master. This is the kiss of death, as far as I'm concerned, and I've told the boss as much, so I've made no secret of my aversion.

Now I have two mandatory events to look forward to, which is depressing. I plan on handling both in similar ways: for the first event, I aim to leave after an hour, maybe pretending to seek out the restroom or something. Since that event—the CEO's dinner—will take place about 20 km away from my apartment, I'm simply going to walk back to my apartment from there. It's a decent four-hour trek, so I'll get home by about 1AM. As for the second event, my immediate boss's planned overnighter, I'll likely walk out of that one, too. I think it's going to be much farther away from my apartment, so I might need almost two days to walk the whole route. Or: I can plot a route to the nearest place of public transportation and hop on some vehicle there—a bus, a train, whatever. The boss won't be happy and might think what I've done is an insult, but it's insulting to force people to do things they haven't chosen to do—an aspect of Korean culture that I despise. You might argue that, by choosing to work for a Korean company, I've also chosen to attend these events, but I call bullshit on that. I put a lot of work into this company, routinely going above and beyond the call of duty. If the company can't appreciate my efforts and still wants to coerce me, then fuck the company.

I doubt it'll come to this, but if my job ends up on the line because I refuse to play the company's reindeer games, I'm fully prepared to walk away. If this is a company that insists on coercing its employees, then it's not as if I'm "walking away from a good thing." No: I'd be walking away from a very bad thing. Besides, what am I losing in terms of interpersonal relationships? I have nothing but a professional relationship with my boss and coworkers; we're not buddies, pals, or friends. And we sure as hell aren't family—that's the sort of delusion that Korean managers are under when they do these MT events: they think they're cultivating some sort of familial esprit de corps. I'm not buying it, and as I noted in another post, many Korean employees don't buy that bullshit, either.

Back in 2015, when the company dicked me over in terms of my salary (offering me, at the very last minute, W3.5 million instead of the promised W4.0 million), I wasn't in a position to walk because I hadn't yet acquired my F-4 visa. I now have that visa, which makes me a free agent. I can forge my own future in South Korea; I have options that I didn't have before. So, yeah: I'm not worried about how all of this might end, and if I do end up leaving, there won't be any sentimentality to make the departure difficult. As Koreans like to say in parting: "Geu dongan gamsahamnida." For that duration, thank you.



*Don't worry if you're a native speaker of English but have no idea what an "MT" is. This is Konglish: a Korean locution masquerading as something English-esque. "MT" stands for "membership training" and is a big part of corporate life in Korea. It means different things for different companies, but the basic idea is that the employees go on outings—maybe to a retreat in the mountains or somewhere else—where they engage in a series of group activities designed to break the ice and/or develop team spirit. Think: games, singing, chanting peppy company slogans, drinking, hiking in teams, etc. If you're a group-oriented extrovert, and that sounds fun to you, then God bless you. To me, that sounds like a nightmare. Why would I do supposedly "fun," hive-mind-y things with people who aren't even my friends?



bullet dodged... for now

[Originally posted on August 22, 2017, at 5:10PM.]

My boss told me last night that we workers had all been invited by the CEO to a mandatory hwaeshik (standard, and unsatisfactory, romanization: hoesik), i.e., a company outing usually involving dinner and, probably, drinking. I don't drink, and I'm not particularly sociable, and like you, I don't think the words "invite" and "mandatory" really go together, so as you can guess, I wasn't thrilled to find out that my Wednesday evening has been planned out completely without my consent. Office dinners and weekend team-building activities are bullshit wastes of time, as far as I'm concerned. Koreans—or at least Korean bosses—apparently love such activities because (1) Koreans tend to be reflexively sociable, group-first creatures, and (2) such events promote the illusion that the employees are part of a large family. In truth, quite a few Korean employees secretly despise these activities as well, but they're too conditioned or socialized to moan and groan about them publicly.

I joked to my coworkers, who found out about Wednesday's activity only this morning, that I'd had time to go through the five stages of grief and had finally reconciled myself to wasting time at this fucking dinner. Later on, our boss came in and announced that the hwaeshik had been moved to two Thursdays from now: the CEO, who is often mercurial, had suddenly cancelled on all of us. Bullet dodged... for now. The event was supposed to take place at a restaurant that our company owns and runs; it's in an out-of-the-way location on the periphery of Seoul, which means that we'd all probably have to drive together in our supervisors' cars and/or take cabs over. I openly stated to my coworkers that I'm going to find out what public transportation is available in that area, then I'm going to leave the restaurant after an hour and head on home by bus, subway, and/or cab. No reason for me to stay longer than I have to at a function I've been forced to attend.

UPDATE: I've looked at Naver Map, and the walk back to my apartment is 19.86 km. That's about 12.4 miles, or a little over four hours' schlepping. I'll be walking back to my place, then, getting home around 1AM. There's a subway station not far from the restaurant, which is located on the edge of Gwacheon City and not far from Anyang City's center. Other coworkers who might want to escape from the dinner early can take a cab to Line 4's Indeokweon Station, then take the subway, with a couple transfers, back to Daecheong Station.



an utter fucking waste of time

[Originally posted on Friday, June 23, 2017, at 4:29PM.]

Last night, around 9PM, my boss called me up and said I'd need to attend a company-wide event taking place at noon the following day. I groaned inwardly but said yes, I'd be there—not that I had any choice. (My coworker, the lucky bastard, got Friday off to prep for his Saturday departure for the Philippines, so he was able to skip today's event.)

The event was a massive teleconference involving all seven cities in which our company has branches—a company that I've been calling "the Golden Goose" for the past couple of years. Just along the street I work on, in the Daechi-dong neighborhood of Seoul, there are three separate branches of the Golden Goose. Almost everyone from all three branches was there today, in a huge room occupying most of the floor of our "Parthenon" branch (our branches and programs are given strangely myth-related names), and on a huge screen at the front of the room, we could see video of the assembled workers from the branches in six other cities. The only positive observation I can make about the meeting is that, if you were Korean, then you probably enjoyed the three long hours. There was plenty of laughter at rapidfire jokes that went over my head, and some of the people who spoke (only some) remembered to lace their spiels with humor.

Otherwise, the entire event felt like a goddamn waste of time. Here's my introvert's standard for judging whether a meeting or event is useful: can the contents of the meeting/event be conveyed in an email? If the answer is yes, then there's no reason to gather. Today, alas, was a big yes to that question: there wasn't a single thing said during the event that couldn't have been written down and shotgunned to us staffers in a long memo. But this is Korea, where wasting time and company inefficiency have been elevated to an art form. I had to sit through nearly three fucking hours of speeches, lectures, chanting, and seemingly random applause. It probably would have helped my experience had I understood more Korean, but I fear that, even if I had understood more, the event would still have felt unproductive.

I've said it before in other posts: lecturing is the absolute worst way to convey information. I don't care how compelling a speaker you think you are: if you're lecturing, you're doing it wrong. (And yes, I could be called a hypocrite for writing at length, since that's merely a printed form of lecturing.) Want to engage people? Then stop lecturing and get your listeners actively involved—bodily and intellectually—in whatever point you're trying to make. Alas, the Korean notion of "engagement" is to stop the lecture, make the audience chorally repeat key words and phrases, then continue lecturing. This happened several times throughout the three hours; I didn't follow the crowd.

Our company's CEO had the floor for most of the event. He's a nice enough guy in person, but his lecture struck me as a sort of dramatic irony, i.e., the kind of irony in which the character in a story is unaware of the irony, but the audience is fully aware. The CEO lectured about language-teaching philosophy, and he actually said many things I agreed with, including the idea that teachers need to engage the students and encourage them to think instead of merely memorizing and parroting information. He also emphasized the need to make learning more free-form and less structured, another point I agree with. I call all this inadvertently ironic, though, because I'm pretty sure that that's exactly what's not happening in our company's classrooms, especially when a Korean person is doing the teaching. Part of the problem is the teacher's own English competency: many of our teachers—as is true at most hagweons in Korea—just aren't very fluent in English. As a result, they're not ready to judge the quality of student output: students might say something that sounds completely out of bounds to a non-fluent teacher, but which is in fact perfectly fine from the point of view of a native speaker.

Anyway, I came away from this experience having learned nothing new. If anything, and this may have to do with my being an introvert, I came away feeling a sort of creepy, cultish vibe: our CEO, like Donald Trump, likes to name things after himself (imagine an American CEO named Smith creating programs like "Smith's Essay Writing" and "Smith's Approach to Proper Grammar," etc.), and his image, along with sundry quotes and slogans, is permanently and gigantically displayed all over the walls of the various branches in a manner reminiscent of the Kimist cult north of the DMZ. Our live video feed showed us that faculty and staff in other cities had created ass-kissing "We Love You!" signs for the CEO, who seems not to mind all the attention he gets, however ginned-up that attention might be. I noticed with some amusement that the Western staffers in the other cities' branches shared my general lack of enthusiasm at being on camera and in a time-wasting setting: the foreigners didn't chant or clap nearly as lustily as the natives did.

You might be reading this and thinking that I'm just napalming the company I work for, ungratefully biting the hand that feeds me. If that's your impression, I apologize. To be clear, I generally like my current job and my current boss, and that's partly because I don't normally attend stupid, useless events like this one. Today was, in fact, the first such event at which my attendance was deemed mandatory after having worked at the Golden Goose for nearly two years. My hope is that this will be the last such mandatory event for a long, long while, because there's little in life that's more painful than sitting in a place you don't want to be, conscious that moments of your existence are slipping away, wasted and unrecoverable.



three days at KMA: the good, the bad, the ugly

[Originally posted on Saturday, March 18, 2017, at 2:40PM.]

My KMA sessions are normally quite positive, but this particular three-day session—in which I did a favor for another teacher, B, whose course I taught (B was out of the country)—was probably my first bad one. It wasn't necessarily bad because of the students, although two of the three students were sometimes lazy and distracted: it was bad because of one of the office assistants whom we refer to as jogyo. I've had problems with jogyo before; quite a few of them follow the ugly double standard of treating Korean faculty one way and foreign faculty another. Some jogyo are universally kind and humble; they're not the problem, and they're a reminder not to paint all jogyo with the same brush. It's the other jogyo—the ones who get too big for their britches—who spell trouble. When I was at Dongguk University, for example, there was one jogyo that I came to hate because of her arrogant attitude; that experience left a bad taste in my mouth. I didn't realize that KMA had its own version of that person.

This session, I taught almost 20 hours over the course of three days: four hours on Wednesday, then eight hours each on Thursday and Friday. I had three students: two men and a woman. All three students seemed addicted to their cell phones, and they used them in class even after I had asked them not to. That said, the students were all sharp, and we blew through the material much faster than planned. KMA courses are mandated to end at 6PM, but we've been told there's a bit of leeway, e.g., if we're done by 5:30PM, we can dismiss the class. The reason for this policy is that companies pay top dollar to send employees to these courses, so as a matter of public relations (i.e., how things look), it's not a good idea to dismiss classes too early. Aware of this, I nevertheless dismissed my class around 5:25PM on the first day, joking with my students that my boss might kill me for doing so.

On the second day, we got through the material even faster, partly because one of the guys had to leave after lunch because of work obligations (KMA students skip out all the time; this is normal, so I don't grouse about it). Because we had even fewer people—an already-small class of three students was now down to two—we finished phenomenally early, so I let my students out at 5:10PM: fifty minutes earlier than the mandated 6PM dismissal time.

The female student was still in the classroom while I was packing up and prepping to leave, and that's when a jogyo popped her head in and asked me whether I had ended class early. I said yes; she put on a shocked face and asked me whether I had ended early by not giving the students their regular ten-minute breaks throughout the day (some KMA teachers do this: to finish early, they opt to plow through their courses with no breaks). I truthfully said no: the students had had their breaks. The jogyo then said, in a tone that tried to combine suavity and haughtiness, "You're not allowed to do that!" She then launched into the reasons why the students were supposed to remain until 6PM—blah, blah, blah.

I was furious. The jogyo was making me out to be a lazy teacher who had cut class short for no good reason. I remained stonily polite while she scolded me. Afterward, my student looked at me mournfully and said, "She was too aggressive!" I nodded and said the jogyo had no right to talk to me as if she were my boss (a problem that, as I think I mentioned, crops up with jogyo who deal with foreign teachers). I've been in Korea long enough to have my own sense of myeongye and chaemyeon (roughly, "honor" and "face"), my own sense of when my dignity has been violated. I know for a fact that, had I been a fully racially Korean instructor who had let his class out fifty minutes early, I would never had gotten such an arrogant scolding from a lowly jogyo. Double standards, indeed.

So I stewed during the ride home and wrote a long email to my KMA boss about what had happened. He texted back that this was "no big deal" (in reference to my early dismissal of the class, not to how the jogyo had treated me), and told me that he trusted me to do what was right. This was reassuring, but at the same time, it showed that the jogyo had acted on her own initiative, so the incident had revealed something about her character. The more I thought about her words, the angrier I got. She had violated at least two rules of Korean etiquette: (1) you don't speak arrogantly to someone older than you, and (2) you don't speak arrogantly to someone higher than you on the totem pole. (A third rule, in the spirit of the first two, might also have been broken: (3) you don't embarrass a teacher in front of his students.) Technically, I should be higher than the jogyo, but as my boss at the Golden Goose cynically notes, we foreigners are always at the bottom of the totem pole, ostensible rank be damned. And being half-Korean is no defense against this.

The third day, Friday, I came in to teach. At the end of the day, when I stepped into the jogyos' office to give back the laptop and video camera we had used for the presentation workshop, my harasser sprang up from her seat, walked up to me, and handed me a plastic bag full of those bone-dry, flat, tasteless artisanal cookies-that-are-almost-crackers that Koreans seem to love. "You had said you were unhappy," she said, "and I'm very sorry." She handed me the cookies; I forced a smile, told her I'd enjoy the cookies, pivoted, and left the office. A few minutes later, the cookies were in the fucking trash, and I was on my way home.

I had so many things I'd wanted to say to the jogyo (whom my boss had obviously spoken with), but I decided it wasn't worth it to vent my spleen. Give me a few days, and the bitterness will dissipate. In the meantime, though... what a bitch.

My female student also startled me on Friday when we were walking out to lunch. "Kevin!" she said, "I think I have a problem with my colon!" So there I was, now imagining her rocketing skyward on a smoky pillar of shit, but she explained—in far more detail than I would have liked to hear—that she had bled heavily in the morning and, frightened, had called a friend of hers who was a doctor. "Is it cancer?" she asked her friend—the question we all ask the moment something mightily wrong has occurred. Her friend apparently reassured her that it couldn't be cancer, given the symptoms my student had described, but that it would be a good idea to visit a medical center to get checked out. The rest of that day, my student basically insisted she was fine, despite my urging her to go, go, go to a hospital or whatever, and she eventually convinced herself—after talking with my classmates—that the rectal bleeding probably had something to do with over-drinking the previous night. So she ended up remaining to the end of class, when I dismissed everyone at 5:30PM. I told her that I was glad she had lived through the three-day session, and that I hoped she would visit a medical center soon. Man, that was weird.

My evals from this class weren't stellar, either: this was my first-ever 82%, and none of the comments said anything about why the students' satisfaction level was so relatively low. (I normally score in the 95%-100% satisfaction range, which could simply be a function of grade inflation.) There were comments about how the course lacked audio files (I couldn't find them on my borrowed laptop, and no other staffers knew where the files might be, so there was nothing to be done but to improvise the audio scripts); there were comments about the need to tweak some of the course material, but that was it.

So all in all, this was my worst KMA session. The students were generally pleasant, but one guy left after lunch on Day 2; Day 2 then ended with my being arrogantly upbraided by a lowly office assistant; Day 3 presented me with tales of rectal bleeding and relatively low eval scores. I feel more comfortable teaching the two courses I designed as opposed to teaching B's courses (his material could use a proofreader), but I also wasn't going to say no to the chance to teach twenty hours at a pay rate of W70,000. After taxes, that's about W1.35 million in the bank (around $1,130). In the end, I suppose I'm a money-whore like so many others.



how bureaucrats think

[Originally posted on 1/19/17, 3:29PM.]

I'm a heavy guy, and Korea makes shitty office chairs. Result: I can destroy a Korean office chair within a few months to a year just by sitting in it for 8-11 hours a day. My boss—who is similarly large, and who enjoys a huge, luxurious, reinforced office chair—is actually nervous that I might gain an intra-office reputation as The Resident Destroyer of Chairs. Can't say I blame him, but the fault lies just as much in shoddy office-chair workmanship as it does in the number of molecules that constitute me. Because of the difference in workmanship, I've never had this problem in America.

A week or so ago, a single wheel popped off a double-wheeled castor on my current chair. No longer sanguine about sitting in that chair, I brought in a sturdy folding chair from my apartment (few moving parts + simple design = tougher). The boss said he'd get someone to look into fixing or replacing my chair; I said that all I needed was a new castor: replacing that part would be the simplest, cheapest, fastest solution. Several days later (remember: we're moving in bureaucrat time), a Korean guy came into our office along with my boss; a second Korean guy soon joined him, and the two guys looked over my chair, clucking and tutting. One of them said the entire chair would need to be replaced; I repeated what I'd told my boss, saying that all I needed was a new castor: I could easily pop the damaged one out and pop the new one in. The boss also spoke with the Korean guys, who eventually left our office, still clucking and tutting. The boss told me that he had asked the guys to get me a much better chair, but they had kept muttering about merely replacing it with something similar.

Another couple days went by... then the boss got a plastic bag in which were two castors, similar but not identical. One castor looked as though it went with my chair; the other castor—which also appeared scruffy and used—had a different coloration. Both seemed as though they'd work with my chair, so I popped out the damaged castor and popped in the newer-looking, matching-colored one. It worked fine, and I was back in business... at least until the next castor popped.

As Dr. McCoy grumbled at the very end of "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," "The bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in the universe." First: why did the chair problem require two guys to solve? Second: why did the guys mutter about needing to replace the chair if they were only going to end up following my suggestion to replace a single castor? My theory is that bureaucrats are trained to love inefficiency—trained to the point where a simple "A to B" straight-line solution is inconceivable to them. The upshot, then, is that I won't be getting the new, luxurious chair my boss had asked for. The only things I get are the castor and a used spare, which is fine by me. What's funny is that the Korean guys chose an inefficient way to arrive at what was ultimately the most efficient solution—my solution, which was merely common sense. Then again... common sense is rare among bureaucrats.



an unpleasant exchange on flag-burning (moved)

[Originally posted on November 14, 2016, at 11:36PM.]

Malcolm Pollack and I got into a debate on Twitter—which is the absolute worst forum on which to have anything approaching a substantive discussion—about flag-burning.

Malcolm had retweeted the following:


I responded with what I thought was a sympathetic tweet:


I was basically saying that it's symbol-minded (in the Carlinian sense of "simple-minded") to burn the flag, just as it's symbol-minded to fetishize the flag. Malcolm apparently took exception this, so he responded:


Thus began a long and tedious exchange about symbols and offense-taking, during which Malcolm accused me of getting things backward and knowing nothing about symbols, which were a substantial part of my grad-school work. I did my best to remain civil despite the uncalled-for condescension, and swallowed the urge to toss any verbal grenades back. Here's part of the dialogue, near as I can reconstruct it (BH = BigHo; MP = Malcolm P.):

BH: Sad. But as Carlin said: "I leave symbols for the symbol-minded." You're no less symbol-minded if you're burning a symbol. (The tweet that got MP's dander up.)

MP: Symbols are not nothing. (flat declarative)

BH: As a student of religion, I agree. But the power of symbols resides entirely in people; their power isn't engraved in the cosmos. (still trying to be civil, but sensing what's coming)

MP: So does everything else of interest about people. (first snarky salvo—reduce my utterance to meaninglessness by claiming it applies to everything)

BH: My point is: we shouldn't fetishize symbols. Attachment is what leads to the fury we're seeing. Let that go, and voilà: peace. (still doing my best to remain civilly focused on discussion)

MP: Human symbols aren't fetishes. They are compressed algorithms. (Malcolm loses me here. I have no clue what this even means, but he's talking from his tech background, so I suppose we're now going to spend the rest of the discussion speaking in two different languages.)

BH: But people *can* fetishize symbols. And once they're fetishized, people will fight over them or try to destroy them. (This seems self-evident to me.)

MP: Sure, anything can be fetishized. Point was that the original remark seemed too dismissive of something essential & universal. ("Anything can be fetishized"—again with the "dismissiveness" debate tactic. I'm happy to grant his point about my dismissiveness, though. He's got me there, but I'm not particularly ashamed of my attitude.)

BH: I'm not a flag-burner, and I don't like the act, but I think it's a type of free expression. There's the subtext for my tweet.

MP: It's a risky one. You think you are just burning the finger, but for many people you are burning the moon. (This is good, and it agrees with my point. Stop—right—there.)

BH: That's my point about fetishization and attachment. Burning a flag doesn't actually burn liberty. (I voice aloud what I'm thinking.)

MP: I'm starting to think you really don't understand how symbols work. (This is just fucking insulting. At this point, I really should have broken off the discussion. But I stupidly continued...)

BH: Symbols were a big part of grad school, but you & I may be talking past each other if you see things only thru a tech background. (Still—STILL—trying to be civil. And bringing up the "two languages" problem I mentioned parenthetically earlier.)

MP: Put it this way: obviously what you are burning is just cloth. But why burn THAT piece of clothing? Why not your socks?

BH: A symbol points beyond itself to a thing, but when we confuse the symbol for the thing, we're attached/fetishizing/cathecting/etc (didn't have room for a period)

MP: Everybody understands this. [It's] why the burners burn flags and not socks, and it's why it makes the patriots angry. (A third time being dismissive: "Everybody understands this.")

BH: Because both sides are attached. My original point.

MP: Which is how symbols work. Which is my point. Carlin can mock that all [he wants], but he's being stupid. (It's almost as if we're agreeing but refusing to admit we're agreeing.)

MP again: It's how humans are wired up, and very deeply so, even if it seems silly. (Which it isn't at all, I think.)

BH: Am trying to articulate the Buddhist perspective here. [Buddhists] don't have anything backward, IMO, & they've got the psych right.

MP: So next time you walk into a biker bar and start burning a flag, you can explain about articulating the Buddhist perspective. (Yet more fucking snark. What's the goddamn point of trying to have a respectful discussion if my interlocutor's going to shit on me? And despite it all, I'm STILL trying to be civil.)

BH: Won't be me who does that. But yeah, it'll still be attachment at work. That truth doesn't change.

MP: The point is the gesture. It is intended to be deliberately offensive *against the thing symbolized*. And everyone knows it. (OK, so "the thing symbolized" is an idea of America, right? Or is it America, concretely, whatever that means? The land? 325 million people? All of these things are either too big or too abstract to be insulted.)

BH: Really gotta go to lunch, but: if you saw someone burning a flag, would you go all Jack Bauer on him? (Obviously, I'm trying to get Malcolm to commit to a particular position. He's not stupid, though; he senses what I'm going for. I'm asking if Malcolm himself is willing to use violence to suppress another's free expression because he finds it personally offensive.)

MP: I would understand that his intention was to deliberately insult and provoke me. The symbol itself cancels out of the equation. (This is a dodge.)

BH: But would you physically attack the flag-burner as a response to his insult?

MP: It would depend on how I felt about people insulting the country. I'd be tempted.

MP again: As for me personally, I've been trained to have a pretty high threshold for physical violence.
(I guess that's an honest answer, but it's weaselly. Given Malcolm's come-on-strong tone during this discussion, to the point where he feels free to insult me and act dismissive about the points I'm making, why not have the balls to come right out and say, "I'd kick the ass of every flag-burner I saw in front of me"? Why should there be a judgment call at all—an "it would depend"? Just go to war on all flag-burners, because I guarantee that someone, somewhere, is burning a US flag right at this moment.)

MP continues: Go into a bar and say to Bubba: "This [beer mug] is your sister." Then put your [dick in the] mug. The symbol cancels out. (In life, you choose your battles wisely. Maybe for Malcolm, this is the moment to do battle, but for me, a guy fucking a mug isn't fucking my sister. I'd be more likely to laugh than to deck the offender.)

Anyway, the debate branched off into different threads and spilled over into a short exchange via Direct Message (where you can write up to 5000 characters). But I think you get the idea.

Malcolm has a techie's understanding of what a symbol is, and he's using it, along with a very mechanistic view of human beings, to suggest we're hard-wired into the offender/offended dynamic, as if these were the only choices available to us. By the end of the discussion, Malcolm is sick of symbols and is declaring them irrelevant to what he's really trying to say, which to me sounds like, "People are hard-wired to act like children." That's trivially true, if I may be as dismissive as Malcolm repeatedly was. And that's the point I was trying—and failing—to make about the Buddhist angle: there are other options available than automatically switching to combat mode when someone burns a flag.

If anything, when you react violently to a flag-burner, you're only proving that you're a slave to him—that he controls you and can easily provoke you. As I said above, I see flag-burning as a form of free expression. Burning a flag doesn't literally burn the country down, and if that's how people think, then they're pretty damn stupid. That sort of taking-offense is not actual patriotism: that's Carlin's symbol-mindedness. And if the implication of what I'm saying is that there're lots of stupid people out there, then yeah: you understand me clearly. There are smart ways to be a patriot. Allowing yourself to be goaded into fights isn't one of them.

Malcolm also seems to think that metaphysics goes out the window when it comes to provocations like flag-burning. As he wrote:

MP: The point, again, is that the flag being "just a symbol" doesn't matter. The intent to insult is the point. React how ye will.

And this is the unbridgeable gap between me and Malcolm. From my perspective, metaphysics undergirds everything we do, whether we're able to articulate a metaphysical position or not. Metaphysics is primary. Far from going out the window or "not mattering," it's the very thing that drives us to think and act as we do. I utterly reject Malcolm's position, here.

But hey, if you're so manipulable that all I have to do is burn a cherished symbol in front of you to get a rise out of you, then I pity you.

And with that... I do believe I'm done with Malcolm Pollack. I had thought of him as an intelligent, well-spoken, fascinating gent, someone I'd want to meet eventually, but if he's going to treat me with this level of disrespect, then I want nothing more to do with him. I'm closing comments on this post, unfollowing him on Twitter, and setting up a spam filter to divert any emails to my trash. I wish him good fortune with his future. He's still an excellent blogger, but I'm no longer convinced of his excellence as a person. And that's a shame.



the ties that don't bind

[Originally posted on October 7, 2016, at 9:25PM.]

As my boss likes to say: in Korea, a contract is just a piece of paper. The very notion of a contract is a foreign import into Korean society, so it should come as no surprise that, even after decades of dealing with contracts, Koreans still have little to no respect for them. Signing a contract in Korea finalizes nothing: if anything, signing a contract is merely a jumping-off point for further negotiations. "The circumstances have changed" is a common refrain heard and hated by Western businessmen doing business in Korea. "We know we signed for X number of this product at Y price," say the Korean interlocutors, "but now, things are different, and we can no longer move ahead at the quantities and prices stated in the contract." Westerners do not do well in East Asia if they fail to catch on to the fact that, the earth is always moving under their feet here. I tend to think, though, that the toughening experience of living in Asia can arm a Westerner with social, psychological, and cognitive skills that will prove useful back in the West.

That said, a contract is firmly a part of Koreans' business-related ritual behavior here. Most foreigners who work in Korea must work under contract; contracts are implied in the different visas that foreigners obtain to live and work in this country. I'm now on an F-4, so having a contract is no longer a top priority for me: in theory, I could quit my job, start an ashram in the mountains, and have wild sex with my female acolytes without attracting the notice or the ire of the Office of Immigration. In theory.

But a contract is still just a piece of paper, and Koreans themselves often don't make the contract a high priority, as I found out this year: my first contract with the Golden Goose ended this past August 31; had this been a university job, I would have signed a new contract before the ending date of the old one. But I work for what is essentially a hagweon, with all the smarminess and under-the-table-ness that that implies, and this hagweon doesn't seem to care all that much about drawing up contracts. Instead of signing my new contract the last week of August, I just signed the damn thing today. Yes: it took almost a month and a half for the silly folks in the human-resources department to draw up what was essentially the same contract I had signed last year. The only differences were (1) a higher salary and (2) a two-year term instead of a one-year term.

My boss had negotiated my raise and my two-year term at the same time. From the company's stingy standpoint, it would have been painful to offer a one-year contract, then listen to me ask for another raise after a single year. By making this a two-year deal, the question of a second raise is put off an extra year. No matter: my budget assumes I'll be getting only one raise—ever—and even though the boss has talked about expanding our department, putting people under me, and upping my pay to match my new hypothetical responsibilities, I don't see a second raise coming my way for a long, long while. And since I'm only at the Golden Goose until my major debts are paid off, I don't expect to rise high in the company.

So for what it's worth, I've signed a two-year contract that renews my commitment to the Golden Goose. This guarantees stability, especially since I'm now finally at the pay grade that had been promised to me. But I'm on an F-4 visa, and contracts are just pieces of paper here, so I'm feeling a measure of freedom and empowerment as I survey my future.