[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.
Friday, December 31, 1999
[Originally posted on Friday, June 23, 2017, at 4:29PM.]
[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.
[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.
[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:
@bighominid Symbols are not nothing.— Malcolm Pollack (@mtpollack) November 13, 2016
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.
[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.
Three things to get off my impressively curvy chest.
1. When the Ship's Captain is a Landlubber
Sometimes, working at the Golden Goose means being pulled off one project and quickly reassigned to another as a favor to a different department head. My boss, who ranks as a shiljang (something like a department head—in my case, the department is R&D), is friends with a much younger female shiljang whom I'll call Pooh Bear. Pooh Bear is one of many Korean women blessed or cursed with a cartoonishly high, loud voice that sucks the dignity out of everything she says. The Korean word aegyo (a term for cloying cutesiness or over-adorability; think "Hello Kitty") was made for women like her: despite being married and having at least one child, Pooh Bear still seems to act like someone a third her age. It's funny and annoying at the same time.
Pooh Bear's latest project is admirably ambitious: she has started a program whose name I can't print here, but which I'll call FIDO. The program is supposedly aimed at elementary-age students. Pooh Bear said that the placement test currently being used to place students in the nine(!!) levels of FIDO is too easy. The phrase "too easy" was never clarified to my satisfaction, and my own boss doesn't seem to have specifics. My assumption, then, based on very little data, is that "too easy" means, statistically, that too many students are taking the current placement test and placing too high. Our office was then suddenly tasked with creating three newer, better placement tests for Pooh Bear and FIDO—something that (again, I'm just assuming here) would place the students into levels that fit a more proper bell-curve distribution. The idea was that there'd be a placement test for every grade, with each grade subdivided into three levels (hence the nine levels of FIDO).
My boss passed Pooh Bear's wishes on to me, and with those marching orders, I began designing the first of several newer, significantly harder placement tests. When I was done with the first draft of the first test, I showed it to the boss with the caveat that I may have aimed a bit high. He shrugged and said that, if the test was too hard for one level, it could be probably used for the next level up. He passed the new test along to Pooh Bear, who apparently became alarmed and thought the new test was far too difficult, even for the highest level. She said this, of course, without having bothered to do any actual testing, and with only her own poor English skills as a guide to judging the test's difficulty.
So instead of giving me a chance to revise the test downward, Pooh Bear suddenly switched gears and put our department onto a totally different task: designing some of the course material for a non-FIDO course on leadership that Pooh Bear was also managing. The new task involved selecting three examples of leaders (my boss and I, after some discussion, selected Oprah, Churchill, and Mandela), writing up a thousand-word bio on each leader plus a set of questions and homework/in-class exercises. Pooh Bear had divided this course into twelve levels (three grades, four levels each)—God only knows why. After creating the thousand-word bios, I was supposed to take each bio and revise it downward into 800-word, 600-word, and 400-word bios for the lower levels.
Thus far, I've written the thousand-word bios for Mandela and Churchill (which was very educational for me, as I learned a lot about both men that I hadn't known before), but Pooh Bear has told my boss that there's no hurry on any of this bio stuff, so my boss has reassigned me to working on our own grammar-vocab textbook again.
I'd be irritated about the immense waste of time caused by Pooh Bear's erratic, unprofessional, know-nothing behavior, but (1) this sort of beheaded-chicken-running-zigzags leadership is common in most Korean hagweons, and (2) I'm on salary, so I don't really give a fuck. Seriously, I don't care: I decided, when I was hired, that I would take no ownership of anything I did for the company. If my boss or any other bosses needed something done, I'd just do it, no questions asked. Yeah, yeah—call me Eichmann, just following orders, but I've adopted this attitude because I think it's the most conducive to mental health. Were I to act proprietary about everything I wrote for the company, nothing would ever get done, and personality conflicts would poison the office's atmosphere.
So please don't think I've written the above because I'm out-and-out bitter: it's more that I'm bitterly amused. Yeah, it's a bit annoying to be made to run in useless circles when you'd like to think of yourself as being a professional, but when you work in Korea, you have to realize that, thanks to the incestuous culture of cronyism, you probably are smarter than many of your so-called superiors in the company hierarchy. Just live with that knowledge.
My boss, however, isn't as sanguine as I am. He told me, right after one of Pooh Bear's zigzags, that he doesn't think he'll be saying yes to helping her with any more projects after the current one is done. He has also joked, in the past, that "Koreans like to build things from the outside in," i.e., in the case of a language- and math-oriented cram school, Koreans first create the outward trappings of a program, then fill in the substantive details later. The boss joked this way after I had peppered him with questions about FIDO: what sort of curriculum did it have? What kind of syllabi had been made to take the students and teachers from the beginning to the end of the hagweon's academic term? What were the standards for moving from one level to another? What placement-test stats did we have? What was the underlying educational philosophy behind the program? I got no straight answers from my boss, most likely because he had none from Pooh Bear. "From the outside in," indeed. Pooh Bear is steering without a rudder, barking insanely random commands while bound in a straitjacket, hanging high from the mainmast. She's a landlubber with no knowledge of the sea, and the parents enrolling their kids don't know any better. I'm so happy not to be a hagweon teacher. There's something fundamentally silly and twisted about hagweons in general—a truth that hasn't changed a whit since I first became familiar with hagweons in the 90s.
2. "You Must Learn to Govern Your Passions: They Will Be Your Undoing"
My new coworker, who arrived this past February, originally struck me as quiet, level-headed, and generally decent. Although he's slightly less senior than I am (I was hired only four or five months before he came on board), I don't supervise him or have any responsibilities related to him, so I never monitor his progress or critique his work. He and I have been assigned to completely different projects, so it's almost as if we occupy different mental universes, even though we sit at adjacent work stations.
About three times a day, though, my coworker and I go out for ten- or twelve-minute walks that allow us to stretch our legs, rack up a few thousand steps, and reset our brains. During our walks, we also tend to talk—mostly about nerd stuff like fantasy novels and video games. My coworker's knowledge of both of these subjects far outstrips mine, so I often end up listening more than talking.
On May 19, however, the conversation got political. I try to be mild-mannered and even-handed, but if someone spouts bullshit, I'm going to call him on it, and in this case, my coworker, whom I already knew to lean very much leftward, made the silly claim that even using the word "black" to describe black people was racist. I offered a polite objection, talking about how PC thinking tends to stifle freedom of speech and thought... this somehow got into a discussion of the term "SJW" (social-justice warrior) and Donald Trump. I'm not a Trump fan myself, so I initially didn't care too much when my coworker said he wanted to smash Trump's face in with a cinder block, but I could also see my coworker actually getting riled up as he went on about how "PC isn't a bad thing" and how "SJW is a label I wear proudly." I nodded and smiled while he worked himself up, then finally I said, "Okay, calm down, calm down"—to which my coworker replied, "No! Fuck you!"
This came as a shock, although perhaps it shouldn't have. Lefties often talk about how the right needs to be more civil when in fact it's often the lefties who are more prone to violence in language and in action. Suddenly, the cinder-block-smashing imagery made sense, and for a very brief moment, I wondered whether I was going to have to physically fight this guy. My coworker eventually calmed down, and since then, he's acted as if nothing had happened. I've become cooler toward him; we still go on our walks, but we no longer talk politics. From his perspective, I'm sure he thinks I was the provocateur, even though he's the one with the pronounced anger-management problem. I, meanwhile, think my coworker is a hypocrite for embracing the SJW label while doing absolutely jack shit about social problems in Korea—homelessness, domestic violence, stifling corporate culture, radically unequal pay for women, rampant racism, etc., etc. If my coworker were really all that passionate about social justice, he'd be all over these urgent problems instead of wasting his time reading fantasy novels and watching YouTube videos devoted to the latest video games. I'm sure that, if I confronted him with this hypocrisy, he'd hide behind the PC excuse that "you can't judge other cultures," which is nonsense: other cultures judge us, so it's only fair to judge them. That's what having values means: your values apply everywhere and to everyone—they're not "true for me but not for you." If honor killings and clitoridectomies are bad, then they're bad no matter where they occur, no matter who's perpetrating those acts. It takes balls to have values.
This Fuck you incident has, for me at least, fundamentally altered our working relationship. While it's not enough of a problem to make me want to seek another job, the working environment has become, since May 19, less than ideal. It doesn't help that my boss has complained to me about my coworker for a completely different set of reasons: apparently, the work my coworker has been doing for my boss has been sub-par in quality. (My coworker is supposed to be generating content—stories, exercises, etc.—for a fifth-grade textbook.) The English has been so poor that the boss has had to rewrite whole sections of my coworker's prose; he also complains that my coworker has, instead of writing his own original thoughts, been copying and pasting snatches of text from online sources—the sort of lazy, plagiaristic behavior I'd expect from a Korean college student, not from a fellow Westerner.
I'm not bothered deeply enough by this incident to talk to my boss about it. As I told some friends in a different context, I'm not the type to pussy out, run to authorities, and ask them to solve my problems for me. But for now, caution is the operative word.
3. Bye-bye, Lig
And lastly: I've called it quits with Ligament. This isn't something I want to advertise on my blog's main page, which is why I'm tucking this bit of news back here, in my archives. I'm not bitter; I'm not angry; I'm just tired of being ignored. Ligament has long had a problem with managing her time. She often claims she has absolutely no free time because she has to spend all day studying and prepping in the library at Ewha University. This is bullshit, of course; I remember having time for friends and family when I was in grad school because I knew how to manage my time by creating study plans and paper/test schedules, etc.
There were warning signs, as you might imagine. When I was living near Daegu in 2013, Ligament visited and told me the story of how she'd dumped her boyfriend of four years because she needed time to study for the graduate-admission exam. She broke up with a longtime boyfriend because of a need to study! She couldn't have told her boyfriend that she needed space, just for a while, just so she could study for her test? Apparently not. Apparently, it was all or nothing for Ligament, and I began to feel as if I were getting much the same treatment. So fuck it. Around Children's Day, May 5th, I ended things with her—politely and without any fighting.
It's a relief, actually, in terms of my finances. As I privately told some friends, I'm glad I won't have to spend piles of money at Costco each time Ligament comes over for a home-cooked meal. Women drain the wallet, whether they mean to or not. (At least until they marry you and begin managing the home finances, I guess!) There was one time when I asked Ligament whether she'd like to go to this high-end buffet, D'Maris, or whether she'd prefer a home-cooked meal. She opted for the home-cooked meal, which was an honor insofar as she was saying she preferred my cooking, but which was a burden insofar as the home meal was going to cost me twice as much as going to the buffet would have.
Anyway, I'm now free to ogle female flesh again. So there's that.
And those are my three burdens, now off my chest.
[Originally posted on March 11, 2016 at 9:12PM.]
Here, for your entertainment, are two pages with the same textbook content. One page was designed by me; the other was made by our contracted designer. I'm not going to say that I'm the Picasso of design, but I managed to use the Shutterstock graphic to better effect (instead of postage-stamping it into near-nothingness), and I made the text larger: even if you shrank the page so that it's closer to the dimensions of the designer's page, my text would still be larger. So which is better? I display; you decide.
The designer first:
I think you can do a lot if you just stretch your mind a bit. For me, an image has to pop, i.e., it has to pop out of the page in a dynamic way—perhaps through the use of bold colors or through some other technique that lends dimensionality to the image—like shadows or clever optical illusions. Kids are generally going to loathe their textbooks, but better design can make using the books a more tolerable experience.
If I were to be hyper-critical about either of the above-displayed pages, I might pick on the fact that the vampire has only a tenuous link at best to the concepts being taught on this page. The vamp is bursting through some sort of paper barrier as opposed to standing in front of a mirror and having no reflection. No graphic on the page is showing any sort of reflexivity at all. In that sense, this design might count as a failure. The picture serves as little more than a distraction; it's a visual punctuation mark and little else.
A better page would do something with mirrors, or there'd be a humorous pic of someone hitting him- or herself in the face with a tennis racket or a baseball bat or something. In my defense, though, I liked the vampire lady; she reminded me of the scary chick who vamps out near the end of "Fright Night." It seemed a shame not to use this Shutterstock image, and besides, illustrators do the image-as-punctuation thing all the time.
Not that this matters: I did the above page as an exercise in counterfactuals: the "would've"s and "could've"s. We're stuck with our designer, and that's that.
[Originally posted March 10, 2016, at about 8:00PM.]
My previous "frank" post showed off some of my cover-design work for a book that, alas, has been shot down by our CEO. I've been working, over the past month, on churning out the second of a projected nine-book textbook series that concentrates on grammar and vocabulary while also building students' writing skills.
Yesterday involved a paroxysm of proofreading effort—the final heave before the manuscript (I'll call that an "ms" from now on, as pro writers do; the plural is "mss") was to be hand-carried to Paju, where our designers are now based. I was at the office in Daechi-dong until almost 10:30PM last night, and I griped to my boss that the Korean designers were wasting opportunities with the photos I had gathered for them.
Let's back up a bit. The way it works is like this: I write most or all of the ms for every chapter in our ten-chapter textbook. Chapters are 15 pages long; we brought in a British guy who writes reading passages and reading-comprehension questions for each unit. He takes care of four pages per chapter; I do the other eleven—grammar sections plus a slew of exercises. I also go online at Shutterstock.com (our company has a Shutterstock account) to find photos and vector (basically, scalable) illustrations; I download these images—Shutterstock lets you download 25 per day—and populate each chapter with several (maybe eight to ten, usually one image per page). All of these chapters are done up as MS Word documents. All the Word documents together constitute the textbook's ms. The ms files are bundled up as a ZIP file, then uploaded to the unfortunately named "Webhard" (online hard drive; think of FTP space or Cloud storage, i.e. a physical place to store data that's not on my personal or office computer but is readily accessible from any Net-connected computer). The design team downloads my ms data and puts together their own draft ms, incorporating their own design elements. Fonts are changed; colors are added; text gets scrunched, pulled, and stretched like toffee to fit the constraints of the book's anticipated final physical dimensions; graphical elements like colorful borders, tiny cartoons, etc., are inserted to spice up each page, and the Shutterstock photos that I've chosen are integrated into the overall design as well.
What began to piss me off, however, was that, when I flipped through the designer's draft ms a couple days ago (they had sent their file as a PDF that we color-printed out in the office), I saw that the Shutterstock photos—on every page, without fail—had been reduced to the size of a postage stamp and tucked into spots where there was no text. It was the same dull, bland, uncreative procedure for every single photo: shrink-and-tuck, shrink-and-tuck. There had been no attempt to integrate the images with the text, no attempt to make the images pop for the reader—nothing. It was a phoned-in performance that bordered on insulting, almost as if the designer were saying, "Fuck this shit. This is beneath me. I'm not going to expend any thought on this." The pattern of behavior, increasingly visible as I flipped from page to page in the ms, was ruthlessly uncreative.
I had the impression that different designers were working on different aspects of the ms. There was someone who did the page borders, for example; someone else did the cute little cartoon characters that appeared every now and then. I was particularly enthralled by whoever had worked on the reading-passage title graphics: that person had very cleverly redesigned the letters in the title to create mini-illustrations that perfectly fit the topic and theme of each passage. Whoever had done that had been awake, in my opinion, and I told my boss via text that that person was the one who needed to be on Shutterstock duty, not whichever idiot was currently in charge of formatting and placing my photos.
Surprise, surprise: according to my boss, there was, in fact, a small design team, but the people doing the cartoons, the borders, the title graphics, and the photos were all one in the same lady. I was flabbergasted. How could she be so creative with her title designs and so disgustingly uncreative with the Shutterstock material?
I had relayed my reaction via text to my boss while he was out in Paju with the designer lady. Later in the afternoon, when the boss had returned, he told me that she had tried to stretch the Shutterstock photos out, but they had become too fuzzy and unusable. I smelled bullshit: the photos I had downloaded from Shutterstock were all 1000 pixels wide. Assuming 72 dpi (dots per inch)—which is screen resolution* for a given image—the images would be naturally about 13.9 inches wide. A standard A4-sized sheet of paper is about 8.27 inches wide, so that's a natural spillover of over 5 inches: the pics, at normal size, are too big for an A4 page. This means the pics need to be shrunk, not stretched, and shrinking a comparatively low-resolution image normally improves the quality of the image (the designer lady is right: stretching a non-vector image, like a JPEG, does lower the image's quality). So, yeah: bullshit. Besides, the images wouldn't all have to be stretched to fill an entire page, anyway: there are creative ways to incorporate slightly enlarged, or un-stretched, images into a textbook's page.
So with the designer offering a bullshit excuse for unimaginative work, all I can do is take some Shutterstock images myself and show my boss what an imaginative designer can do. I might work on that tomorrow (i.e., 3/11/16); we're now in a lull period because the ms has been turned in, the designer draft has been proofed and corrected (in Paju, my boss took my manually proofed copy of the designer's ms and went over all the corrections, page by page, for 180-some pages), and it's all in God's hands.
But will it be worth my while? Even if I convince my boss that it's possible to be an order of magnitude more creative with the Shutterstock images I downloaded, I think it's already too late for this book. Adding insult to injury, the designer told my boss that we'd need to download much larger images from Shutterstock (you can opt to download images at various sizes) if we want bigger, bolder page designs next time, almost as if her inability to work creatively were somehow our fault. Someone needs to be fucking slapped.
*Screen resolution is fine for things appearing on your monitor; many, if not most, monitors have a resolution of 72 dpi (more recent monitors have finer res). That dpi isn't so great, however, when it's time to print the image onto paper. For paper images, you normally want to shoot for about 300 dpi (much tinier pixels, which produce a finer-grained, cleaner-looking, generally sharper image). You could go up to 2400 dpi, which is about as fine a resolution as the human eye can discern, but that would be a waste of memory: 2400-dpi images make for huge—wastefully huge—data files.
While we're on the subject, I should note that "dpi" and "resolution," which I sloppily use interchangeably above, are not really the same thing. I could, for example, create a hi-res image with low-dpi pixels. Let's say my pixels are the size of a balloon, but my "painting surface" is the size of an entire football field. With balloon-sized pixels, I could create a very detailed, crisp-looking image. It would look amazing if I were floating several hundred feet in the air and looking down at my work. This football-field image would be high-resolution, given the fineness of the detail, but the dpi would be awfully low: in fact, with balloons, you'd have to talk about inches per pixel instead of pixels per inch.
I can't talk about this publicly, so I'm tucking this in my blog's archives. I told my boss at the Golden Goose that I'm decent with Photoshop, and he asked me to try my hand at designing a book cover for an upcoming textbook. The book contains chunks of text from thinkers throughout the ages: Darwin, Clausewitz, Goodall, Descartes, Eliade, King, Kennedy, Einstein, Gandhi, Douglass, Suzuki, you name it. The boss chose the title: Thoughts of Great Minds: From Reading to Writing. Not the most inspiring of titles, and the subtitle is a reference to what the students who use the book will be doing, i.e., reading the text, then writing an essay about what they've read. But the book's name is still serviceable, and I had a hand in compiling all the texts, in writing all the paraphrases of the texts, and in researching whom to consult re: obtaining permission to reprint some of the more recent extracts. Except for the Korean translations of the passages, I'm the primary force behind this textbook, so when my boss asked me to try my hand at designing a cover, I was delighted.
Background: we outsource things like cover art and interior illustrations to a designer that we've retained. The staffers at this company are used to doing art for children's books, but the textbook in question is more for high-schoolers, so it needs to be a bit more mature-looking. With that in mind, here's what the designer came up with, based on one of my boss's descriptions of what he wanted:
The boss had two thoughts on how he wanted the cover to go. First was a "brain motif," which you see realized, kind of, above. The idea was that the brain would signify "mind"—not an irrational thought at all. My own thought was to have the brain's outer edges be visible, surrounding the images of the luminaries found in the textbook. Instead, as you see, the designer went for a "radiating" approach that didn't strike me as artistically coherent. I also didn't like the color scheme or the rather childish font.
The boss's other thought was the one that I went with: a "cloud motif" in which the various luminaries would appear in a ghostly/misty sort of way, with the clouds abstractly representing the notion of "thought," and the images of the luminaries signifying the "great minds." I thought this sort of image made a lot more sense, aesthetically speaking, so I riffed off my boss's artistic premise and came up with this:
My boss was delighted! He told me he liked my design much better than the one done by his regular designer, so he's decided to go with my work instead of theirs. Not bad for yours truly, and now I have something new to put on my résumé: in-house graphic designer. My piece was apparently convincing enough to get my boss thinking that he'd like me to do this sort of thing from now on. I'm happy to make myself useful to the company... especially if this guarantees me my promised raise next year!
ADDENDUM: yeah, yeah—some of you will wonder whether this new duty comes with extra pay. As far as I know, the answer to that question is no, because I'd be doing design work during regular office hours, not as something above and beyond the call of duty. But if the work requires me to stay overtime, I might end up receiving either comp time or a per-project fee. We'll just have to see what the future holds.
[Originally posted at 4:30PM on Thursday, September 17, 2015.]
It's 3:45PM, and I'm home early from work. Why? your anus hisses, sibilantly inquisitive. Well, Asshole, it's because our office's air conditioner seems to have sprung a coolant leak. A sickeningly sweet, maple-syrup-like smell permeated our space and crept miasmically out into the hallway on incontinent cat's feet. My coworker and I elected to leave our door open to let out as much of the fume as possible (NB: our office has no windows). I also called the boss, at my coworker's behest, to let him know about the problem; el jefe told us to keep the A/C off until he got to the office, and that he'd look into the problem once there.
As it turned out, the boss didn't make it into the office until after 2:30PM today, so my coworker and I worked from 9AM until then in a chemical nimbus of maple syrup. It wasn't noxious enough to be oppressive or debilitating, but it was strong enough so that we never got used to the odor. When the boss showed up and smelled the problem, he immediately told us to pack up and leave: we were done for the day. "You can't sit here breathing in this shit," he said, now fully understanding the nature of the problem. So off we went. I told the boss not to stay too long in the office, but he had to stay at least long enough to call someone to handle the situation—an A/C repairman or someone like that.
So what did I do from 9AM to 3PM? Well, lunch was from 1PM to 2PM, so that kept me out of the office for an hour. During the remaining time, I practiced the Pomodoro Technique, a work-efficiency method that involves being on task for 25 minutes, then resting for five. Every 30-minute chunk of the day was to be divided up that way. I realized that I could walk around our entire building in almost exactly five minutes, which would be a great way for me to get my steps in: every five-minute loop would be 500 steps, since I seem to walk almost exactly 100 steps a minute. If, every hour, I was going out twice, that meant 1,000 steps an hour, or 8,000 steps by the end of the day. On a normal day at the Golden Goose, I rack up around 8,000-9,000 steps total, including the longish walk during lunch.
I would have had my 8,000 steps today had we not been sent home early. Not that I'm complaining about leaving early: it's always good to be out of the office. What this means, though, is that I may have found a way both to improve my performance at work and to pile on steps even during working hours.
The improvement in performance is no bullshit, either: I was easily a hundred times more awake and alert than I normally am when clacking away on my keyboard. I admit I sometimes swerve dangerously close to nodding off: proofreading, editing, and content creation aren't nearly as exciting or engaging as teaching is, and I do get cross-eyed. By walking every half-hour, though, I find that all fatigue simply disappears. The one down-side, of course, is that I get stinkier as the day goes on: half of our building casts a shadow as morning progresses into afternoon, so whenever I'm walking on the sunlit side, I inevitably sweat. Our office, because it lacks windows and proper ventilation, gets a bit ripe after the three of us large Western guys have been sitting in it for eight hours.
But, yeah: the Pomodoro Technique works. I use my cell phone's timer to count down 24 minutes because my lap around the building actually takes slightly longer than five minutes. I work on my projects, walk a lap, work, walk, work, and walk. Didn't get cross-eyed even once today, and I was quite productive while in my seat. I think I'll be doing this from now on, so long as my getting up almost sixteen times a day doesn't drive the boss crazy. (I say "almost" because there's lunch, during which I won't be Pomodoro-ing, and there's the end of the day, when the final Pomodoro-walk would coincide with Leaving for the Day.)
I'm trying to remember where I'd first heard of the Pomodoro Technique. I know Charles had written about it, but because I tend to read around a lot myself, there's a chance I'd learned of the technique even before I happened upon Charles's write-up. I no longer recall, and it doesn't really matter, anyway. However it was that I became aware of this system, the fact is that I do find it quite effective, and anything that helps to boost my step count back up to 15,000 steps a day can't be bad.
So I've got a bit of free time today. Here's hoping the office's air will be clean and fresh tomorrow, and that our A/C will go about its duties with nary a fart or grumble.
[Originally posted at 10:50PM on Monday, August 24, 2015.]
I've decided to link my fate to the Golden Goose, despite recent buttfuckery. The boss called me twice today to inform me that he's spoken with the housing people, and there are indeed empty apartments in Daecheong Tower. In theory, I ought to be able to move into my new place by this coming Friday or Saturday, which will put me ahead of my final cut-off date: Sunday, August 30. I look forward to getting my 3-million-won rental deposit back in early September: that'll be the first of several infusions of cash.
My boss continues to try to cajole me. He's aware of how pissed off I am, and he says he can get me up to W4 million a month after I've been full-time at the Golden Goose for a year. Maybe he can; maybe he can't. I'm skeptical, given the lack of power he has to make things happen. My boss also notes that the Golden Goose offers year-end bonuses that equal a month's pay. I'll believe that when I see it. If it happens, that'll be good: the bonus, plus my continuing work at KMA, will get me back on budget.
The boss also wants me to look at the big picture: the Golden Goose could be a career for me, he says. I recoiled in mild horror when I heard this; I just don't see myself becoming an old man while toiling for years inside a tiny, old, corporate office. The idea seems to be that I'd be groomed to replace my boss, who would be kicked upstairs, so to speak. The problem is that my boss, who is American and a well-networked individual, uses his extremely high-level Korean skills to maintain that network, and I don't have even half of his speaking ability. There's no way in hell that I could fill his shoes, and given the interpersonal conflicts that seem to come with his job, I don't see that as a legacy I'd like to inherit.
So, per a private discussion with Charles, my most likely strategy will be to stay with the Golden Goose for a year while seeking greener pastures. It's a shame, really. I had looked forward to this life-change with a great deal of excitement, but the returns have been diminishing even before I've gotten started with the job. And now that I've been thoroughly ass-raped, I no longer trust the Golden Goose or have any desire to work there for more than a single year. Sad but true.
[Originally posted at 7:05PM, Saturday, August 22, 2015.]
A few days ago, my boss reassured me that the "work 6 days a week" issue wouldn't be a problem: we'd find a way around it, so there was no need for me to "overthink" (my boss's words) the problem. Well, having a certain level of paranoia when dealing with a corporation that is part hagweon isn't, to my mind, overthinking: it's a matter of survival, and a matter of preserving dignity. If you're not careful, Korean businesses will fuck you.
And it seems my paranoia is justified. My boss at the Golden Goose just called, and now there's a new problem: he says that GG's HR department is having a hard time accepting the notion of paying me a salary of 4 million won a month. HR wants to cut my salary down from 4 million to 3.5. In the back of my mind, I've long suspected that GG might pull shit like this, because it's in the nature of Korean culture to engage in last-minute shenanigans.*
About the only people who seem to be on my side at GG are my immediate boss and Mr. Y. Human Resources doesn't know me; it doesn't care about me, and it incarnates everything that is dysfunctional about Korean hagweon-style thinking: eleventh-hour changes, budgetary stinginess despite rolling in millions of dollars, and general shadiness. My brother David was texting me the moment my boss called; when I texted David the bad news after my boss hung up, David replied, "It's shady to be fiddling with your salary this late in the game."
Yeah. No shit.
So with this further insult, I now have to start thinking seriously about alternatives to the Golden Goose, or about whether I should swallow my pride and take the truncated deal, which will severely throw off my budget. I just ran the numbers, and I will no longer be debt-free before I'm 50 if I accept this deal. I will, however, have a nearly free place to live, plus steady work. My net salary will now be well below the psychologically significant $40,000/year mark. It's possible that, if I continue to do KMA work, I might be able to bump up my salary with supplementary income. In the 2014-2019 budget that I designed last year, I didn't factor in any KMA income at all after 2015, which was my attempt at making a conservative budgetary assumption. A move from a gross of W4 million a month to W3.5 million a month means going from a net of about W3.6 million to an even W3 million. That's a loss of W7.2 million over twelve months. With KMA, which gives me work only infrequently, I might make back W3 million of that lost money, at most.
Also working against me is the faltering Korean won. Over the past year, the won went from 1,100 to the dollar to 1,200 to the dollar, which means I have to use more Korean money to wire home the same amount of American dollars. This also erodes my budget, and it's one reason why I'm keen to pay my smaller debts off as soon as possible: I'll be able to send less money home every month. It would be nice to see the won get stronger again. That might be a hardship for people coming from the US to vacation and shop in Korea, but it'd be good news for people in my predicament.
A lazy part of me thinks it would be best, for stability's sake, to accept the cruel pay cut and make do with a steady job. My Golden Goose boss, trying to soften the blow, suggested that, after a year at the reduced salary, he'd be able to pull some strings and pump me back up to a proper W4 million. Given his track record at making promises that his company is unwilling to keep, I have to take such talk with a big grain of salt. While I don't blame my boss for being generally supportive of me and for wanting to hire me on, he's proven to have very little power over important matters like the conditions that will be stipulated in my contract. W3.5 million a month isn't that much more than what Dongguk was paying me: Dongguk paid W3 million a month gross, and took out about 20% of that for various reasons: admin fees, insurance, tax, etc. The Golden Goose doesn't seem to deduct nearly as much from the gross, or that's what my coworker claims. He's a full-timer, and he says his net is about 90% of his gross (hence my W3 million figure above).**
A not-so-lazy part of me thinks it's time to look elsewhere for lucrative work. This involves a great deal of risk, though: I have no idea what guarantees, if any, I'd have regarding housing. I have no idea about work conditions (including whether I'd get along with my coworkers), and no idea about salary. I do know that, if I manage to get my F-4 visa, I'll have plenty of legal freelance options.
The other bit of bad news—or maybe it's just potentially bad news—relates to my F-4 visa. After watching with dismay as my control number began falling down the queue instead of rising to the #1 position, I wrote USCIS over a week ago, and the office finally replied:
This case was closed on 08/08/2015 and a final agency response was mailed the following business day.
This is frustratingly vague. My brother says he's received no mail from USCIS from August 10 (the "following business day" referred to in the quoted email) to now. Even the slowest form of UPS domestic mail doesn't normally take that long to reach someone. David should have received something by now. Also, the phrase "a final agency response" sounds ominous without actually saying anything.
Everything is for naught if it turns out that USCIS has merely sent a letter of regret to inform me that they never found Mom's paperwork. I hope that isn't the case. The other problem is that USCIS did send a CD-ROM with Mom's paperwork in PDF form on it, but the package could have gotten lost in the mail. That would truly suck.
So this weekend, things are a mite stressful here chez Kévin. The future is far from certain. Stay tuned for more news as it happens.
*I know I'd only just written that, after ten years in Korea, I've gotten used to last-minute changes and zigzaggery. But I still get annoyed when the nonlinearity deeply affects my life in some way.
**I can also lighten my debt burden by once again requesting a several-month forbearance on my Sallie Mae loan repayments. That would save me about $350 a month.
[Originally posted at 11:59PM on Tuesday, August 18, 2015.]
My Golden Goose boss told me, Tuesday afternoon, that things were starting to move forward on all fronts regarding my hiring, and this includes the crucial housing issue. The one thing I want to avoid doing is moving twice, i.e., moving out of Goyang City into a temporary dwelling in Seoul because I don't have a permanent place to stay lined up, then moving again a couple weeks or months later once that permanent place has been found.
So while all of this sounds fantastic, we nevertheless hit a major snag, and it's one that threatens to ruin my future: my boss suddenly dropped the bomb and told me that, because he's arguing for me to get a W4 million salary, there's a good chance I might have to sign a contract to work six days a week instead of the expected five days.
I was pissed off, to put it mildly. I felt blindsided and betrayed. Not that I blamed my boss, mind you; he's been agitating for me to join the company almost since we first met, and I get the impression that Human Resources has been feeding him information only on a need-to-know basis, i.e., he didn't know about this problem in advance.
So I stewed as I trundled home on the subway, then at around 10:30PM, I wrote my boss a long email thanking him for his support but laying out, in clear terms, that if the contract is going to mandate six days a week, I'm walking.
I hope I've made my value system clear on this blog, because I know I've said this several times: I cherish my sanity far, far more than I will ever cherish money. If high pay is attached to a deal with the devil, then I'm walking away from the deal. That's going to mean continued financial hardship, but here's the thing: one way or another, I'm going to get my F-4 visa, which means I can remain in Korea as a total freelancer if that's what I choose to do, and freelancers can earn a ton of money if they know where to look.
Another reason why I'd opt to walk away from the Golden Goose is that my boss really is a stand-up guy, and he expressed a willingness to cover for me, i.e., I might be on a six-day contract, but I'd come in for only five days, and no one would be the wiser. While that's a very tempting scenario, it puts a good man in an awkward position because, at the Golden Goose, full-time employees have to sign in for work every work day (there's no machine-driven punch-in/out system; it's just a sign-up sheet). Someone is bound to notice a sustained absence of "Kevin" signatures on Saturdays, and at that point, people are going to start asking questions. How long can that go on before the jig is up? I don't want to put my boss in that bind, so while it might seem like a slap in the face to walk away from the Golden Goose after my boss has spent so much effort to get me on board, I think this is, ultimately, the best way to thank him—by protecting him from scrutiny by the higher-ups.
The temptation to rationalize signing a bad contract exists, however. I could work 10-hour days for four days, then a regular 8-hour day on Fridays, I told myself a few hours ago. That'd be 48 hours, and I'd still have my Saturdays free. But even with free Saturdays, there would still be the humiliating knowledge that I'd been buttfucked.
So that's where things stand. My FOIA request is currently hovering in the queue—not going forward or backward. Still, I trust that my F-4 issues will resolve themselves before my E-1 visa runs out on September 30. By that point, I'll either be with the Golden Goose and settling in, or I'll be looking for work as a freelancer while still doing the occasional KMA gig. (About KMA: if I worked twelve days a month in Yeouido, I could earn nearly six million won a month—close to $70,000 a year, net. But KMA simply doesn't have that much work for me.)
It's all a tangle, with several things happening at the same time. Things will resolve themselves over the next 30 days, I suspect. Tomorrow, I'm sure my boss will write his usual terse reply to my lengthy email—something along the lines of "Relax. It'll all work out; just be patient." I do hope, though, that he understands how serious I am about exercising the nuclear option if the contract turns out to be a bad one.
[Originally posted Thursday, July 30, 2015, at approximately 2PM.]
So: an update on my work situation, with a wee bit of insider information.
It may be that my work for Mr. Y of the Golden Goose has paid off a nice dividend: now that he knows what I'm capable of, how fast I can deliver the goods to him at need, and what a nice guy I am, he's as eager to bring me on board as my immediate boss is. What this means, on a practical level, is that I might be hired as early as mid-August, which is cause for rejoicing. An August hire date beats an October hire date by a mile, and it also means that my "no debt by age 50" budget, which had been knocked back a few months during my last adjustment of it, will now be back on track. If all goes as planned, September will be an amazing windfall of a month. And here's why:
1. In theory, I'll be getting W4.7 million back for pension.
2. I'll be getting my first salary payment from the Golden Goose: about W3.7 million net.
3. I'll be getting back the W3 million won that I had deposited for my current studio.
4. I'll be getting THREE payments for three sessions done for KMA: W1.35 million.
That's a whopping net of 12.75 million won in my bank account, and yes, this may actually be happening: a perfect storm of income. Now, of course, this could still go wrong in many different ways: I've been disappointed before. Commenters have warned, for example, that my W4.7 million pension might not arrive because the pension office assumes I'm leaving the country. My friend Charles, however, assures me this isn't true, based on his own school-transition experience. Or perhaps the Golden Goose will drag its feet about hiring me. Or KMA might cancel the final two of my three aforementioned sessions. Murphy's Law is always lurking in the background, so the picture I painted above is admittedly a rosy, optimistic scenario. But at this point, it also seems to be a likely scenario, the way things are going.
My Korean-fluent American boss, who had been away for two weeks, told me the back story as to why Mr. Y appreciates what I did for him. The documents that Mr. Y had given me had been farmed out to a gyopo who works for the firm—a Komerican guy whom we'll call "B." B was supposed to create the TOEFL-style lessons for Mr. Y, who was slated to be teaching the material. Mr. Y's English isn't that great, but he's a wary man, and after reading through the documents that B had prepped, he suspected that he needed someone else, someone capable, to run through the documents and clean up any errors. When I first did this for Mr. Y, I failed to use the "track changes" function so that Mr. Y could see just how many changes had needed to be made. When Mr. Y gave me the second batch of documents, I clicked on "track changes," and sure enough, the MS Word files all ended up covered in red marks. This is typical for the work I do in Korea: when I proofread Korean documents that are written in English, I almost always end up having to rework them from top to bottom. When Koreans get their work back, they're always—always—shocked at how many mistakes I've found and how many corrections I've made. Mr. Y was no exception. And he was impressed. And he was apparently not pleased with the piss-poor job that B had done.
I've heard rumors that B—whom I've never met—is arrogant and a bit of a megalomaniac. I don't know whether he's going to suffer any consequences for his incompetence, but he might. My immediate boss told me—and I'm going out on a limb by writing this—that he suspects B didn't graduate from college, which would be absolutely revolutionary, and not in a good way, for a gyopo. Still, B is a teacher coordinator, and thus something of a big cheese, which I suppose proves the old "Law of the Septic Tank" once mentioned by my high-school biology teacher: the biggest pieces rise to the top.
Well perhaps, like that impish dwarf Tyrion Lannister, I'll have a chance to enter the company and, in my own small way, "do justice."
I'm keeping my fingers crossed that all stars remain aligned. Getting $11,000 in cash in a single month is quite a windfall; I'll have way more than enough to pay for a plane ticket, get my hanbok, and pay for hotel expenses while I'm in the States this coming October. And by the end of this year, I'll be able to pay off my first major debt: my car. With that debt out of the way, I'll free up about $215 a month, and that extra money will be going to pay off my second major debt: the OneMain Financial loan I took out in mid-2013. I'll be able to pay that fucker off by April of 2016, thus freeing up another $255 a month. And that's how I'll be working my way up the debt ladder, until I'm finally able to pay off my enormous Sallie Mae loan in 2018 or thereabouts.
The party I'm going to have, when I'm finally free of debt, will shake the heavens.
It'll shake the Kevins, too.
So I checked out the other mountain—the one that's just a few hundred yards away from my studio—in the hopes of finding a closer mountain that I could hike.
No dice. Nope. Not gonna happen. Here's why.
The mountain's trailhead wasn't hard to find. I took a fairly direct route from my neighborhood to the main road behind it. I crossed the main road, turned right on instinct, and found an access road breaking left and uphill. Guessing that this road would take me up the mountain, I followed it into a scrub-brush-y neighborhood—the mountain's slope to my right, the scrub to my left. Some dogs barked at me as I neared their ramshackle dwelling; a couple puppies, unleashed, ran over to me, tails wagging. I did what I normally do when I find myself on an unknown dog's territory: I avoided eye contact and kept walking (this is what kept me from getting mauled during a three-day Fribourg-to-Thun trek in Switzerland, a land in which the farm dogs are huge).
A random glance to my right, uphill, showed me a path that led to a shadowy set of stairs (you'll see the photo below). This was the trailhead proper. I left the road, went up the path, climbed the steps while the puppies' yapping receded behind me, and suddenly found myself on holy ground:
The above picture is of a sanso, or mountain gravesite. Each site has a family attached to it, and family members come out at special times of the year to bow to the graves and tend the area. I felt deeply guilty, as though I were trespassing, but not guilty enough to resist taking a naughtily surreptitious picture. If the dead were offended, they didn't say.
The trail was overgrown and covered with leaves; the cold air kept the ground hard, though, so even a heavy guy like me could find some traction as I worked my way upward. Some parts of the trail became steep, and I regretted not having brought along a walking stick. I puffed my way to what I initially thought was the mountain's summit, but when I looked to my right, I saw that the trail continued on to another rise that was even higher than the ground I was on. Korean mountains are often tricky that way: you think you've reached the top, but no: there's another, higher peak along the crest ahead of you.
What was remarkable was how empty the place was. Perhaps there would have been people had this been a different time of year, but today, in the bleakness of winter, there was no one at all, nothing to accompany me but the occasional halfhearted gust of wind. So I followed the lonely trail upward to what was definitely the summit this time, and as I noted the sun's position in the sky, I debated whether to turn back or continue on. Curiosity won out, and I decided to continue on.
That proved to be a mistake.
Cold weather tends to make me want to shit. I'm not sure why; I talked this over with another friend of mine, who confessed that cold weather made him want to piss for some reason. I don't know what it is about the cold, but if I feel cold, my bowels start to squirm. Add to that the fact that I was exerting myself by climbing this small mountain, and I could sense something beginning to build up inside me. This will be relevant later in the story.
The trail went downhill after the summit: where else could it go, after all, right? From the humble mountaintop, I found myself wending downward and leftward until I reached an imposing metal chain-link, razor-wire fence, behind which was a building. I recognized the building because I'd seen it from a distance, back when I had been in my neighborhood. Up close, I saw it had signs on it saying "Yuk Gun," i.e., Army (pronounce the "u" as "ooh" in both syllables). The fence was to my right, but the path I was following was just outside of the fence, so I assumed I was outside of the base's grounds and thus wasn't trespassing. I followed the path as it hugged the fenceline, but at one point, the path suddenly opened into a deep ditch in front of me. I could have hopped into the ditch and struggled up the other side, but I saw a different way to cross this obstacle: to my right, the fence sat upon a concrete wall, and the wall had a skinny, three-inch ledge projecting out from it. If I could grab the fence and keep my toes on the ledge, I could shuffle over and across the ditch unscathed.
The only question was whether the fence was electrified.
I'm nothing if not careless of my own life, so I eventually ended up touching the fence tentatively, then grabbing it in earnest like ill-fated Timmy in "Jurassic Park." Nothing. No current at all. (I hadn't heard any telltale humming, either, which would have been the first big hint of true danger.) So I took hold of the chain links, placed my toes on that concrete ledge, and shuffled ten feet across that ditch. The path picked up right there, and I continued walking as if I'd encountered no obstacles at all.
Eventually, the path began to edge right. It was still hugging the fence, but I noticed that the fence was about to end, and an access road leading up to a gate in the fence had become visible. My scruffy little trail led rightward and upward until it met that access road, which caused me to breathe a sigh of relief: I hadn't wanted to keep scurrying, like a criminal, around the base's perimeter, forever unsure of whether I was trespassing. The appearance of the access road, along with the way the fence angled away at ninety degrees to the right to form the gate, convinced me that I was technically on public ground. I walked onto the access road and turned around to look as the base's gate, closed off by that fence. I reached into my coat's pocket to pull out my cell-phone camera... then a voice in my head whispered that that might be a very, very bad idea. Photographing a military facility could be dangerous.
So I turned back around and continued downhill, now walking on a concrete access road. As I walked along, I passed some signs. Here they are:
The above sign's MOPP (with the attendant Korean translation) stands for "Mission-oriented Protective Posture." I looked it up. By contrast, the sign below was puzzling. If I'm translating it right, it says something like "Tips in case of enemy nuclear attack." But it doesn't list any actual tips. As I stared at the sign, I kept expecting to see small print somewhere—some clue as to what to do in case of nuclear attack. But there was nothing—no supplementary information. It didn't occur to me, at the time, that this might not be the sort of sign that the general public is supposed to see, but you can bet your ass I thought about that afterward.
By this point, the urge to shit was becoming impossible to ignore, and I was beginning to flip, Terminator-like, through my possible courses of action. I didn't know how long the access road was, so I didn't know whether I'd reach the bottom of the mountain before my ass exploded. I didn't know whether there'd be any public facilities for a bloke in my current urgent gastric condition, and given that this was obviously an army base and not a regional or national park, I didn't see the existence of such facilities as likely. So, as if I were hiking in the Shenandoahs, I began sizing up the forest for potential shit spots.
Then I came upon this sign, which hung at the border of another gravesite:
Very roughly, the sign warns you not to step upon the ground of the gravesite beyond, for if you do, you defile (literally, "damage") it. This had practical implications for me, as I now badly needed to take a shit and couldn't do it anywhere near someone's sacred grave. I mentally asked my colon to calm itself and continued downhill.
Here's a photo of the road I was walking down:
And that's when I ran into a major problem. The access road didn't go all the way down the mountain: it stopped at another gate that stood in my way, blocking the entire drive. As I stared at and through the gate, I saw more military buildings to my right, and a pair of SUVs. In the distance, I heard the hrrrgh sounds of two men playing tennis in the cold. They apparently didn't see me, and in the late-afternoon glare, I couldn't see them. An angry-looking sign on the gate said "No photos of military facilities" in English. I peered around the fence, but the wooded path I had traveled was gone. The way is shut, whispered Legolas. and it was at that point that I realized I had probably been trespassing on this base the entire fucking time. That realization helped my bowels not a whit.
With my colon now pulsating to the cadence of war drums, I had no choice but to about-face and march back uphill. I walked past the gravesite until the voices of the tennis players had faded, and I was alone again. I saw a path that split off from the main road; a tall, wooded berm blocked most of the path from view, and I knew that, if I was going to take a shit, I'd better do it here, where I'd be out of sight of the main road. I ducked onto that path and found a tree that I could grab on to to hold myself steady while I squatted. I removed my coat, hung it on a branch, undid my belt, and "dropped trou," as they say. I squatted while using one hand to hold on to the tree... and right as I was about to fire my payload, I heard the jingling sound of a chain collar. A dog was running toward me.
Fuck, I grated as I hurriedly pulled my pants up. Are people really walking their dogs here? NOW? This was a classic case of Murphy's Law. Attempting something awkward and private, in a public space, is a guaranteed way to summon people to your location. I had to see how many people were heading my way, so I casually stepped onto the road, into view.
It was just a stray. The dog, a dirty jindo, hurried past me at a lope, looking as nervous as I did, obviously aware that this wasn't its territory, and that it didn't belong here. I stared at the dog as it ran past, then listened for people. Nothing. The dog had been alone. I went back to my off-road location, squatted again... and this time, I triumphantly blasted out a pile of shit that, when I stared at it moments later, looked like oatmeal heavily sweetened with brown sugar. Almost appetizing. Thanks to the breeze, there was no odor. I had worried about the question of toilet paper, but the local mountain god had provided me a solution: some young-punk Army polluter had tossed fast-food napkins onto the ground; I dusted them off and deemed them perfectly serviceable, which they were. My ass agreed, smiling vertically. I wiped until I was sufficiently clean, buried my pile under some dead leaves, then plopped a rock on top to hold the leaves down. Satisfaction level: sublime.
I continued back the way I came. Right before the big ditch and ledge, I took a photo of an ROK Army balisage:
After that, it was just a matter of wending my way downhill. I found a stick that helped me with balance as I navigated the steep parts of the trail, eventually popping out at the trailhead, which you now see below:
Once I was back at the main street, I took stock of my situation and decided that this local mountain wouldn't be worth it for hiking: that second gate convinced me that I had been trespassing the entire time, and the last thing I want to do is face nervous guards who are pointing firearms at me. Plus, the mountain was simply too small to offer much of a workout, and the trails struck me as too steep and potentially dangerous, especially in rainy weather, for any sort of routine hike to be worthwhile. So, sadly, I decided to strike this mountain off my list of potential hiking spots.
But there's one more mountain that I'm going to explore, and it's within sight of this one:
So I was wrong when I had initially thought there was only one mountain in the area. In fact, there are three: the first mountain (Gobong-san, which I'd been calling The Lonely Mountain before I learned its Korean name), this second mountain (whose name I still don't know), and that third mountain in the distance. I know that Gobong-san has a military base on at least part of its surface area; I don't know whether there are any hiking trails on it that are open to the public. I'll ask some local taxi drivers. As for this third mountain... I don't know anything about it. But I soon will. One of the cool things about moving to a new area is discovering its delights. This adventure may have ended in failure today, but it's not over.
Not by a long shot.