Friday, December 31, 1999

the case of little Pester

[Originally published at 12:48 a.m. on Tuesday, May 26, 2020.]

We'll call her Pester. That's pretty close to her real name (no guessing aloud in the comments, please). She's the topic of today's post, but we need a bit of background first.

I moved from the Classia building to the Mido building this past March; I had worked with an R&D team in Classia from March 2019 to March of this year, so that stint lasted about twelve months. While I was working in the Classia building, I took time off to take a little walk from Incheon down to Busan (read all about it). That was one of the best times of my life. But a couple months before that time, back during the July/August period when summer was at its nastiest, Pester came into our world, firing hot shit in all directions.

Pester was a twenty-something ex-gyopo, i.e., a Korean national who had spent most of her life in the States as the daughter of two Korean parents who, as far as I can tell, never got their US citizenship but nevertheless started up a Stateside business (a laundromat, I think... or am I engaging in stereotyping?). The term gyopo is rather vaguely defined; the Naver online dictionary unhelpfully defines it as "overseas Korean" or "Korean resident abroad." There may or may not be an implication that a gyopo is generally born in Korea, but my understanding is that it's enough to be ethnically Korean and born in the States (or some other non-Korean country) to qualify as a gyopo. I was once told that, technically, I'm a gyopo, too, thanks to my Korean heritage.* Pester, meanwhile, is an ex-gyopo because she's now back in Korea; she's a Korean national who's no longer an "overseas Korean."

Before Pester arrived at our office, one of our number told the rest of us that he'd heard about her: she had been hired at our company only a week before, but complaints about her erupted immediately: she wasn't punctual, she didn't get along with the students, she fought with her Korean (and maybe even Western) coworkers, and she was insubordinate to her immediate supervisors. In short: a bitch with severe attitude issues, if that's not a redundancy. Pester didn't look all that impressive: she was obviously trying for a pixie-ish, grinning approach when she first appeared among us, but it didn't take long for her true colors to show. She had been kicked out of her teaching job within a week of being hired, and she'd been given a 30-day notice to find a new job, so yes: she had basically been fired, and now, she was running down the clock. Her time in R&D would be spent (1) helping us generate teaching material, and (2) finding work elsewhere, with or without the help of her new, unwilling coworkers. Her presence reinforced my impression that R&D was essentially becoming a dumping ground for employees the top brass didn't know how to handle.

Pester proved to be a moocher right away, constantly asking to borrow things, up to and including $70 for bus fare to and from Busan once she had a lead on a possible job down south. Her US bank account was empty; she had pissed away her savings. Her Korean bank account, only recently established, was also empty. The $1000 credit card that her parents had given her was maxed out. The woman had no fucking clue when it came to money, and as I got to know her, I discovered that, while she'd been in grad school in the US, her parents had been giving her an allowance of $5000 every three months. That's an income of $20,000 a year—money she didn't have to work for at all. Astounding. But I grasped that this was why Pester was so bad with money: not only was she a grabby, mooching bitch—she was a spoiled bitch.

My coworkers did what they could to shrink away from Pester whenever she was in a mooching mood. I made the mistake of helping her out with one or two things, including buying her a $5 pair of hi-tech earphones so she could stop watching YouTube at high volume in our tiny office. Pester promptly snapped the earphones' cord, which was unsurprising by the time I'd gotten to know her. The woman couldn't be trusted to be responsible for anything.

Give Pester an inch, and she'd take a mile. Pester started opening our office windows up to let in the summer heat and humidity, this despite the fact that we had air conditioning churning away. She would allow the office door to hang open as well, letting all of our cold air out in a different direction. I was the only one to complain about these things, and Pester soon began adopting a passive-aggressive attitude, haughtily ignoring requests to close doors and windows. Tension between her and me grew.

I was starting to get sick of Pester after three weeks with her, and she and I finally had a verbal altercation. I basically told her to stop blaming everyone around her and starting looking in the damn mirror to see the source of her problems; she didn't want to hear that, and now that I think about it, that was one of the things our coworkers had warned us about before Pester arrived: she had a tendency to blame others instead of taking responsibility for her own words and deeds. So she and I sat in the office after our spat, fuming, when one of my coworkers popped in and started jabbering away, completely unaware that Pester and I were furious at each other. The next day, I swallowed my pride and offered Pester an apology, to which she replied with a delighted grin and a condescending "That was very mature of you!"—which made me want to twist her fucking head right off her fucking neck. Murdering her would have been a favor to the world, I think. And did she apologize for her own cuntery? Of course not.

Pester seemed to be the type to forget conflicts instantly, despite the fact that she was the source of so much conflict. Not long after our argument, she was back to chirping about how she wanted to start up her own clothing business. I bit my tongue. First learn to manage your own finances, bitch, THEN try running a business. I'd decided, though, that further open conflict would simply stress me out too much, so I elected to let Pester's foul emanations simply wash over me. I tolerated her presence until she left us around the first week of August 2019: she had indeed secured work at a language institute in Busan. I even gifted her with a few spare bags of couscous as a fuck-off-and-die gift. I tried cooking a small batch for her at the office, but she became wildly neurotic when it was time to clean the glass container I'd used: "No! Don't wipe it with a paper towel! You'll get little fibers everywhere!" she yelled. So even my attempt at being nice and serving her some food backfired. Kindness was wasted on her; she was immune to introspection and to reason. She was Murphy's Law incarnate when it came to all forms of human relationships. Anything positive, once brought near her, would curdle, shrivel, and die. I began to see Pester as a sulfurous lump of pure demonic malice.

She told us that her contract with the Busan hagweon was for ten or eleven months. I and my coworkers immediately suspected why the hagweon wasn't giving her the full twelve months: shorting her was a way to avoid having to pay her severance (according to South Korean labor law, you're legally entitled to one month's severance pay per year worked at a given job). But I didn't care; let Pester learn her own lessons about life, assuming she had the brains to learn (which wasn't obvious).

So Pester—the obnoxious, self-righteous bitch**—left us after nearly a month of hell. Some of us R&Ders jokingly bet that Pester wouldn't even make it halfway through her truncated contract at the Busan hagweon: she was a loser at our company, and she'd be a loser everywhere else. I forgot to mention: she had come to Korea after dropping out of her Master's program in California, with only a couple more courses to go. All that money her parents had spent on her—down the goddamn drain. What a waste of atoms Pester was.

Another thing I forgot to mention: she was obsessed with chasing down a young pastor she had dated, but then things got weird: she and the pastor broke up, but Pester said the pastor might have been quietly stalking her online. She bluntly texted him about his sneaky ways, and he went quiet. I told Pester that the pastor sounded both creepy and confused about what he wanted, which made him an unworthy object of pursuit. Did Pester listen to me? Of course not. She also said she felt that God was telling her to go down to Busan because that was her hometown way back in the day.

So that's the person who left our R&D team: a spoiled bitch with no money-management skills, no idea of her own gaping personal flaws thanks to an utter lack of introspection, and bizarre fantasies of chasing down a pervy pastor and starting up her own clothing business.

But at least she was gone. Peace once again returned to R&D.

Until this past week.

Around last Tuesday, my Kakao app flagged me and showed that I'd received a "Hello?" message from someone. As an introvert, I approach most of my unfamiliar messages with dread, but when I opened this particular message, my heart sank. It was Pester, happily declaring, "I'm back in Seoul! Can we meet over coffee?" My memories of Pester were all bad, but as I said above, she seemed to have the ability to block out the negatives in her life and soldier on. My father, another person who is not of sterling character, also has this ability; it's what prevents him from ever learning any moral lessons about life. He and Pester would make quite a pair, but I admit there are moments when I wish that I too could be so jolly and forgetful of past trauma and stress and conflict. But I can't. I have a long memory when it comes to things that are hurtful or traumatic, and I focus on the negatives much more than on the positives. Maybe for Pester, it was as if a reset button had been pushed: coming back to Seoul represented a new start, so the Kevin she wanted to meet would be a totally new Kevin.

I sighed and replied to Pester, committing myself to one meeting with her, and wondering all the while whether she wanted to meet because she wanted something more from me. I told Pester that I was super busy (not a lie), so we'd have to meet on Saturday. She was fine with that, and we ended up meeting at a Starbucks Reserve not far from where I work. I hadn't seen her for ten months, but Pester hadn't changed: she still had that same pockmarked face and that same attempt-at-a-pixie smile. I told her that this meet-up would be my treat (it would be gauche, in Korea, for an older person to make a younger person pay for coffee or a meal), and I cavalierly handed Pester my credit card, telling her I only wanted a hot chocolate, which is my usual coffee-house fare. Pester lit up and immediately asked me whether she could get a coffee... plus other things. I tiredly nodded yes, realizing that she hadn't changed a bit: she was still a moocher, still a taker. She ended up ordering a coffee, an expensive bottle of juice, and a slice of cheesecake for herself. I'm not a miser, but I realized I should've been prepared for Pester to be a spendthrift once she got hold of my card. Fortunately, she gave me back my card, so I guess I should be thankful for the small things.

Pester caught me up on her life, and I smirked inwardly: she had been fired four times since I'd last seen her. The R&D team's cynical prediction about her and her failing track record had come true in spades. When I asked her why she'd been fired (I was actually surprised she even admitted to having been fired), she shrugged and claimed not to understand any of it. From her perspective, her bosses and coworkers were too demanding, and because this is Korea, they "pulled rank," so to speak, and used Korean social hierarchy to make her do things she didn't want to do, e.g., clean up around the office and so on. I reminded Pester that she had Americanized after twenty-two years in the States, and that this was the Korean way when it came to the least senior member of the staff. You have to eat a lot of shit while you put in your time and work your way up the ladder, and in Korea, seniority is more important than merit. Anyway, Pester rattled on about her series of jobs, and she filled me in about her pursuit of the weird pastor: the pastor's mother basically intervened and told Pester that "you're not a good match for my son." Pester said she was pissed off to hear such a thing, but I secretly sided with the mother: Pester, evil as she is, isn't a good match for any man.

So the conversation turned to Pester's current job, which began with an offer to work in Seoul again, this time at an up-and-coming financial agency that helps people sort out their insurance policies. Pester said this was commission-based work, but she had failed to build up any sort of client network yet. She had been at her newest job for only a couple of months; I suspect she's going to get fired again if she fails to build up a client base. Pester, in talking about insurance, mentioned cancer, and then she used her knowledge of my mother's brain cancer to suggest that I should become one of her clients. "Because, well, excuse me for saying this, but your mother died of brain cancer, so there's a good chance you might die of cancer, too. You need your insurance to be in order!" I think Pester needs to work on her salesmanship. Using fear as a tactic to nab a client is not the way to go. Not only was Pester offensive in that moment, but she was also reminding me of the intense, intense distaste I'd had for her the previous year. The bitch was indeed back.

We had met at 3 p.m. Luckily, I had set a 4 p.m. limit on our talk: I had told Pester I was planning to walk out to the Jamshil Bridge and back to my place, and I wanted to do it before it got rainy (again, not a lie). At 4:05, I did my best "Oh, look at the time!" and told Pester I had to go. She said she wanted to sit for a bit longer, which was fucking fine by me, so I left her there. As I was leaving, she called out that I should consider becoming her client. Without even facing her, I gave a tight grin and said I'd think about it. And with that, I left.

Aftermath: very early this past Monday morning, around dawn, I sleepily pawed at my cell phone, called up the Kakao app, opened up Pester's text-message dialogue, and hit "BLOCK." Later that same morning, I went over to my computer, scrolled through my Gmail account to the "Filters" section, and created a "trash all emails from this person" filter—just for Pester. I don't think Pester knows where I live, and I don't think she has my phone number, so that ought to be the last of her. When a guy and a girl break up, and the guy breaks up by doing what I did, it's called "ghosting": the guy simply disappears from cyberspace without a word. In breakup situations, this is considered one of the most cowardly ways to end a relationship. But in my situation, I don't consider this cowardice because my relationship with Pester isn't a true relationship, per se: it's what comedian Dane Cook has called a relationshit.

Good fucking riddance, bitch.




*It turns out that gyopo is an anagram for goopy. I think I'd rather be known as goopy.

**She constantly talked about God and Jesus, by the way; she loudly made it clear she was a practicing Christian—one who did nothing but take-take-take, and who never once gave the way Christians are taught to give of their time, talents, and effort. In Korea, many of the worst people you'll meet are self-proclaimed Christians. True, there are many good eggs in the church, but God protect us, there are so many bad eggs.



sea change

[Originally posted on January 24, 2020, at 8:00 p.m.]

The good news from my ex-boss is that I'll be working with him again, possibly as soon as next week. While this means that I'll once again have to go through the stress of moving from one office building to another, that's not a huge inconvenience when seen from the big-picture perspective. The boss says he'll be sending guys over to help with the move, so I guess I have little to do but pack up.

I'm delighted that this is finally happening; I feel as if I've spent the past year just biding my time, waiting for the chance to jump ship and get back to doing more interesting work. Not that anything I do at this job is all that interesting, mind you: I feel no particular loyalty to my company, and the work is, frankly, boring compared to teaching. At the same time, I'll be glad to get away from toxic personalities like Trish (talked about here and, more recently, here), ditzy personalities like Pooh Bear, and even well-intended but neurotic people like Spike.

We'll be our own little department, apparently, and directly under the supervision of the CEO.* I'm being taken back by the boss, and another ex-employee is coming back as well. Our mission will be to make a series of textbooks for use at our Vietnam branch. The boss envisions an entire curriculum spanning the years from elementary to high school. He also wants me to finish the Gravoca series we'd started: we had already created eight out of nine textbooks when we were suddenly told that the ninth textbook wasn't needed because, by that point, Korean high-schoolers would be shifting their focus to college-entrance exams. In Vietnam, though, a complete curriculum apparently makes sense, so Gravoca 3C, the final book in the nine-book series, is back on the table.

Working under my ex-boss again will mean more leniency when it comes to taking breaks, e.g., accumulating comp hours and using them to have a three-day weekend. Vacations will be less of a hassle to arrange, and I won't have to work on any more national holidays, like when we worked this past solar New Year's Day. Overall, I'd say life is looking up, or at the very least, it's looking better than it had been for a year and a half.

The boss also said that mandatory retirement isn't the issue we'd thought it was. He can continue to work past age 60 (one ancient staffer in our company, the CEO's older brother, already does this), and he hopes to be part of the Golden Goose for years to come. For myself, I'm probably going to work only until the end of my contract: I've had enough of all the dysfunctionality and skullduggery, the asinine politics and the rampant backstabbing. While it's true that no company is ever bullshit-free, I feel even more motivated to figure out a way to become an independent worker, i.e., my own boss. For now, though, it's enough to know life is improving. This change, coupled with the imminent zeroing-out of my debt, will make 2020 a banner year. Fingers and tentacles crossed.



*Whether that's good or bad is yet to be determined. My ex-boss likes the idea because he won't have to answer to any of the other petty tyrants who manage other departments in our company. He considers himself buddy-buddy with the CEO, and he thinks that that coziness will shield him from the static of office politics, but I'm not so sure. After all, the CEO is the one who allowed my ex-boss to be ignobly put out to pasture for eighteen months, hung out to dry with nothing to do but sit quietly in his office napping and/or watching Netflix videos.



sidebar images

I'm uploading images here so I can link to them via the "img src" tag and place them on my sidebar. This marks a new era: the beginning of my migration away from Photobucket because, well, fuck Photobucket and its shitty service. I'll be quitting it as soon as I can.










might I be leaving my R&D team...?

[Originally posted on 12/19/19 at 4:45 p.m.]

At my job, a lot has happened over the past two years that I haven't felt comfortable talking about. I'm going to write about some of that now, but in a somewhat oblique way. As they say, "names have been changed to protect the innocent." And the guilty.

The boss I started out with at the Golden Goose—we'll call him Stack—called me today after a long period during which he was incommunicado. We'll talk about that call in a bit. First, some background. Stack is the one who persuaded me to join the Golden Goose; he's the one who had dangled the offer of a 5-million-won salary before my eyes, and by the time I was going to sign my contract, that offer had shrunk to 3.5 million—barely more than I'd been making as a prof at Dongguk University during the 2013-14 academic year. Generally, I like Stack, although I'm now aware that he sometimes promises more than he can deliver. It took three damn years for me to get to the initially promised salary level, but that's where I am now, and I'm closing in on zeroing out my massive scholastic debt. As of this month, the debt, which was originally close to $80,000, will finally be below the $20,000 mark. It's all downhill from there, and while I have no particular loyalty to the company I work for, I'd be remiss if I didn't feel thankful for the opportunity to, at long last, earn money at this level. Thankful mainly to Stack, that is, but also a little bit to the Golden Goose.

Stack managed just two of us, in the R&D department, until July of 2017, which is when our department moved to another building and a much bigger office. For a while, we had eleven people working together, and life was a lot noisier. We lost one staffer when he inexplicably "pulled a runner," as they say in these parts, and skedaddled back to America. (Turned out he was homesick, as he wrote in an apologetic email to Stack a few weeks after his disappearance.) Barely two weeks into the changeover, and still in July of that year, we lost another staffer when his contract ended, and he chose to try his luck as a German-language instructor in the States. We hired on a few female staffers to bulk our numbers up and help with the workload; they generally proved to be excellent workers—much better than Trish (not her real name), the bitchy graphic designer I've complained about before.

In 2018, there was a sexual-harassment incident involving Trish and a male staffer in our office. We'll call this guy Handsy; he had the air of a tall, lanky Australian drover (think: cowboy). The actual incident apparently happened in August, but it didn't get reported by Trish until October-ish. Stack was understandably upset about the situation; back in August, Handsy purportedly got drunk and, during an outdoor company activity, slapped Trish on the ass. Trish said nothing about this for months. During that time, Handsy, who was Trish's supervisor, kept getting on her case about being slow, sloppy, and generally lazy. I had no direct knowledge of that situation, but even from a distance I could sort-of agree with Handsy's assessment of Trish's horrible work ethic and bad attitude in the office. That said, Handsy should never have been so handsy with Trish (he's a married man with a wife and daughter in Canada), and he was obliged to apologize not only to Trish, but also to a couple other female staffers in our office who had complained about his untoward behavior. The fact that Handsy actually went through with those formal apologies indicates to me that he was indeed guilty of what he'd been accused of. This hurt me somewhat because Handsy and I had been on very good terms. He had biked the Four Rivers trail in four days, so I respected him for that achievement, and he respected the fact that I had walked the same route. So we had our little mutual-admiration society going, and we even hung out on occasion... and then all this shit happened.

The repercussions of this incident echoed strongly and, over the course of the following year, caused the destruction of R&D as we knew it. Every time I've hinted, on this blog, at certain transitions and upheavals, this was the reason behind them. Enough time has passed that I think it's safe to write in an oblique manner about the incident and its aftermath, but I still have to be sure I'm not revealing too much. The first repercussion was that Handsy got summarily fired—a rarity in South Korea (they usually just refuse to renew your contract, allowing you to "quit" with dignity). The second repercussion was that Trish got transferred out of our office. The third repercussion was that certain higher-ups put us all on lockdown, telling us just to do our jobs and not to talk about the incident with anyone. I may, technically, be violating that lockdown by writing this; the Golden Goose, which has gone through big-time legal troubles in the past (mainly dealing with copyright infringement), is intensely concerned about its reputation. That's why Handsy had to be jettisoned as soon as possible, and Trish was probably transferred as a way to keep her happy and stop her from talking trash about the company. (The question of why Trish waited several months to complain, if the harassment had been that traumatic, is an open one. I've heard enough female victims of sexual harassment claim there are legitimate reasons for a woman not to report such harassment immediately, so I'm not judging so much as remarking.)

The most significant fallout was the putting-to-pasture of Stack, my boss since 2015. All of this had happened on Stack's watch, and Stack was already under fire because the Korean upper echelon had never been able to stomach having a Korean-fluent foreigner that high up in the company. Stack's enemies now had the weapon they needed to push him out of his managerial position and sideline him, and they did so. Stack told us all, at a staff meeting, that this would be his final week with us, and that he'd been given the option to move back to the Mido Building (where I had originally worked) to live out a quiet life as a worker directly underneath the Golden Goose's CEO, taking orders directly from him and doing whatever projects the CEO assigned him. (As it's turned out, Stack has been given almost nothing to do. He tells me he spends his days practicing calligraphy and watching Netflix movies on his office computer. They still pay him his grandiose salary, though, so he says he's not complaining.) Stack packed up and left us, and another of my coworkers—let's call him Spike—suddenly found himself thrust into Stack's position, but without Stack's level of Korean fluency, and without the same deep knowledge of the company's inner workings. Spike's a nice guy, but R&D under his command became (and still is) something of a chaotic mess, with no clear vision as to where the department is going.

R&D, having lost most of its staff as other coworkers opted not to renew their one-year contracts (one distraught female coworker called the Golden Goose "a madhouse"), moved out of the large office around March and into where we are now, a tucked-away shoebox of an office in the Classia Building. Spike managed us until October, and while I was away on my walk, a new gyopo manager named Argo (not his real name) stepped in to sort-of take over Spike's position. I was unsure about Argo at first, but he's turned out to be a stand-up guy who is sympathetic to our situation. A laborer can trust management only so far, of course, so I'm still a bit circumspect, but in general, we all have a good relationship with Argo.

We're a small team now, and we have been since March. In the three weeks spanning the end of July to the beginning of August this year, before Argo's arrival, we were required to babysit a young woman I'll nickname Pester, who turned out to be a psycho bitch far worse than Trish ever was. I'm normally a calm guy, but Pester riled me to the point where she and I had a verbal altercation. I apologized, as a gentleman should, once I regained my cool; Pester of course did not apologize in return, basically because she was a cunt who, as comedian Bill Burr might aver, could use a good slap. When she finally left our office and got a job somewhere in Busan, all I could think was Good fucking riddance. She was a spoiled twat, and she'd been shunted to R&D after having been kicked off the teaching staff for being lazy, unruly, and adversarial with fellow teachers. Pester had been given a 30-day notice: "You've got 30 days to find a job." During Pester's brief reign of terror, I began to think of R&D as a dumping-ground for employees that the company doesn't know how to handle.

I have to admit that Pester did, in fact, produce decent work for our department; the problem wasn't the quality of her work so much as the leprosy in her soul. She professed to be a devout Christian, but she was arrogant, selfish, lazy, quarrelsome, and constantly mooching from us coworkers. She'd been spoiled by her rich parents, Korean business owners in San Francisco who had given her an "allowance" of $5000 every three months while she attended grad school. Pester dropped out of grad school, pissed away her bank account, maxed out her credit card, then found herself in our company, where she immediately incurred the wrath of her coworkers, who also saw her to be the utter bitch she was. Pester would cheerfully tell us about how she wanted to start an online clothing business; inwardly, I scoffed and wondered how a financially stupid person who was unable to manage her own money could possibly start and run a business. God, what a fucking idiot. Anyway, she's in Busan now, so there's that.

The other bit of bad news that occurred while I was out walking was the return of Trish to our R&D team. While our small team had moved to the Classia Building, Trish had stayed in the Cheongshil Building... but when the company decided the time had come to renovate Golden Goose offices at Cheongshil, that was the excuse to shuffle staffers around, and Trish was taken away from her post and re-inserted into R&D. Joy. I'll admit that Trish hasn't been that awful, of late, but she's still a lazy, constantly whining bitch who talks in a slow drawl like Eeyore from the Winnie the Pooh stories. Even so, keeping my temper around Trish is easier than it had been around Pester, who was orders of magnitude worse. I'll cope. I'll manage.

So we're a team of five: Argo, Spike, Trish, me, and one other coworker (mentioned here, section 2) who has also been with me since early 2016. We might acquire another graphic designer (as I said, Trish is glacially slow, and she's always got an excuse for being so slow), but if we do, we might have to move to yet another office. At this rate, I'm averaging almost one move per year, so life at the Golden Goose is never stable.

That's where things stand, which brings me back to the call I received from ex-boss Stack today. "Just between you and me," he said, "I've been given a new lease on life. The CEO wants me to make textbooks for our Vietnam branch, and I need my own R&D team to do that. You interested?" To be frank, I am. Life under Stack was a hell of a lot more stable and made a hell of a lot more sense. He's not a perfect boss, by any means, but he's the best boss I've ever had in Korea, and he and I get along pretty well despite an almost decade-wide age gap and occasional petty arguments over linguistic minutiae. Working with Stack again would mean that my work would be appreciated, which isn't the case where I currently work. Most of what I produce these days gets rewritten by lesser minds, and there's no chance that I'll ever create a product in which I can take some pride, like the series of grammar/vocab textbooks I had authored while working under Stack.

Anyway, Stack and I talked, and it sounds as if he wants to grab back a few of our R&D members, but in the end, I think I'm going to be the only one jumping ship. Trish, who hates Stack for the gruff and unsympathetic way he treated her during the sexual-harassment scandal, has been doing her best to poison my fellow staffers against him such that they, too, will all eventually hate Stack. Depending on how successful her campaign of hate has been, she might end up convincing everyone else in R&D to stay put and under current management. So as I said, I might be the only one jumping ship.

If I have any misgivings, they're related to the Vietnam angle. Our company's branch in Vietnam is not doing well at all, from what I've heard. It's a big-time money-loser, and part of the problem has been the utter lack of understanding that on-site Koreans there have about Vietnamese psychology and culture. I can't say that I know anything, either, but you'd think that, before taking the leap of establishing a branch in a whole different country, my company would have bothered to do extensive market research. That seems not to have happened. Strangely enough, I heard from Argo, my current supervisor, that the CEO—whose various speeches and blog posts Argo must translate into English—seems to have a fairly colonialist attitude toward the Vietnamese, whom he seems to see as little brown simpletons in need of Korean wisdom and savoir-faire. So while I'm happy to help Stack out with this new endeavor, I don't see the endeavor itself as panning out in the long term. But maybe that doesn't matter: Stack will be undergoing mandatory retirement in about a year, and I've got about 1.75 years on my current contract. I'll jump ship and milk this cow for as long as I can, I guess, if it means a return to sanity. Working in the Mido Building, alone with Stack in a small corner room, will feel like coming full circle to 2015. Not exactly progress, but maybe a better scenario than the one I'm currently living. We can only hope.



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?