Friday, December 31, 1999

it comes in threes

Three things to get off my impressively curvy chest.

1. When the Ship's Captain is a Landlubber

Sometimes, working at the Golden Goose means being pulled off one project and quickly reassigned to another as a favor to a different department head. My boss, who ranks as a shiljang (something like a department head—in my case, the department is R&D), is friends with a much younger female shiljang whom I'll call Pooh Bear. Pooh Bear is one of many Korean women blessed or cursed with a cartoonishly high, loud voice that sucks the dignity out of everything she says. The Korean word aegyo (a term for cloying cutesiness or over-adorability; think "Hello Kitty") was made for women like her: despite being married and having at least one child, Pooh Bear still seems to act like someone a third her age. It's funny and annoying at the same time.

Pooh Bear's latest project is admirably ambitious: she has started a program whose name I can't print here, but which I'll call FIDO. The program is supposedly aimed at elementary-age students. Pooh Bear said that the placement test currently being used to place students in the nine(!!) levels of FIDO is too easy. The phrase "too easy" was never clarified to my satisfaction, and my own boss doesn't seem to have specifics. My assumption, then, based on very little data, is that "too easy" means, statistically, that too many students are taking the current placement test and placing too high. Our office was then suddenly tasked with creating three newer, better placement tests for Pooh Bear and FIDO—something that (again, I'm just assuming here) would place the students into levels that fit a more proper bell-curve distribution. The idea was that there'd be a placement test for every grade, with each grade subdivided into three levels (hence the nine levels of FIDO).

My boss passed Pooh Bear's wishes on to me, and with those marching orders, I began designing the first of several newer, significantly harder placement tests. When I was done with the first draft of the first test, I showed it to the boss with the caveat that I may have aimed a bit high. He shrugged and said that, if the test was too hard for one level, it could be probably used for the next level up. He passed the new test along to Pooh Bear, who apparently became alarmed and thought the new test was far too difficult, even for the highest level. She said this, of course, without having bothered to do any actual testing, and with only her own poor English skills as a guide to judging the test's difficulty.

So instead of giving me a chance to revise the test downward, Pooh Bear suddenly switched gears and put our department onto a totally different task: designing some of the course material for a non-FIDO course on leadership that Pooh Bear was also managing. The new task involved selecting three examples of leaders (my boss and I, after some discussion, selected Oprah, Churchill, and Mandela), writing up a thousand-word bio on each leader plus a set of questions and homework/in-class exercises. Pooh Bear had divided this course into twelve levels (three grades, four levels each)—God only knows why. After creating the thousand-word bios, I was supposed to take each bio and revise it downward into 800-word, 600-word, and 400-word bios for the lower levels.

Thus far, I've written the thousand-word bios for Mandela and Churchill (which was very educational for me, as I learned a lot about both men that I hadn't known before), but Pooh Bear has told my boss that there's no hurry on any of this bio stuff, so my boss has reassigned me to working on our own grammar-vocab textbook again.

I'd be irritated about the immense waste of time caused by Pooh Bear's erratic, unprofessional, know-nothing behavior, but (1) this sort of beheaded-chicken-running-zigzags leadership is common in most Korean hagweons, and (2) I'm on salary, so I don't really give a fuck. Seriously, I don't care: I decided, when I was hired, that I would take no ownership of anything I did for the company. If my boss or any other bosses needed something done, I'd just do it, no questions asked. Yeah, yeah—call me Eichmann, just following orders, but I've adopted this attitude because I think it's the most conducive to mental health. Were I to act proprietary about everything I wrote for the company, nothing would ever get done, and personality conflicts would poison the office's atmosphere.

So please don't think I've written the above because I'm out-and-out bitter: it's more that I'm bitterly amused. Yeah, it's a bit annoying to be made to run in useless circles when you'd like to think of yourself as being a professional, but when you work in Korea, you have to realize that, thanks to the incestuous culture of cronyism, you probably are smarter than many of your so-called superiors in the company hierarchy. Just live with that knowledge.

My boss, however, isn't as sanguine as I am. He told me, right after one of Pooh Bear's zigzags, that he doesn't think he'll be saying yes to helping her with any more projects after the current one is done. He has also joked, in the past, that "Koreans like to build things from the outside in," i.e., in the case of a language- and math-oriented cram school, Koreans first create the outward trappings of a program, then fill in the substantive details later. The boss joked this way after I had peppered him with questions about FIDO: what sort of curriculum did it have? What kind of syllabi had been made to take the students and teachers from the beginning to the end of the hagweon's academic term? What were the standards for moving from one level to another? What placement-test stats did we have? What was the underlying educational philosophy behind the program? I got no straight answers from my boss, most likely because he had none from Pooh Bear. "From the outside in," indeed. Pooh Bear is steering without a rudder, barking insanely random commands while bound in a straitjacket, hanging high from the mainmast. She's a landlubber with no knowledge of the sea, and the parents enrolling their kids don't know any better. I'm so happy not to be a hagweon teacher. There's something fundamentally silly and twisted about hagweons in general—a truth that hasn't changed a whit since I first became familiar with hagweons in the 90s.

2. "You Must Learn to Govern Your Passions: They Will Be Your Undoing"

My new coworker, who arrived this past February, originally struck me as quiet, level-headed, and generally decent. Although he's slightly less senior than I am (I was hired only four or five months before he came on board), I don't supervise him or have any responsibilities related to him, so I never monitor his progress or critique his work. He and I have been assigned to completely different projects, so it's almost as if we occupy different mental universes, even though we sit at adjacent work stations.

About three times a day, though, my coworker and I go out for ten- or twelve-minute walks that allow us to stretch our legs, rack up a few thousand steps, and reset our brains. During our walks, we also tend to talk—mostly about nerd stuff like fantasy novels and video games. My coworker's knowledge of both of these subjects far outstrips mine, so I often end up listening more than talking.

On May 19, however, the conversation got political. I try to be mild-mannered and even-handed, but if someone spouts bullshit, I'm going to call him on it, and in this case, my coworker, whom I already knew to lean very much leftward, made the silly claim that even using the word "black" to describe black people was racist. I offered a polite objection, talking about how PC thinking tends to stifle freedom of speech and thought... this somehow got into a discussion of the term "SJW" (social-justice warrior) and Donald Trump. I'm not a Trump fan myself, so I initially didn't care too much when my coworker said he wanted to smash Trump's face in with a cinder block, but I could also see my coworker actually getting riled up as he went on about how "PC isn't a bad thing" and how "SJW is a label I wear proudly." I nodded and smiled while he worked himself up, then finally I said, "Okay, calm down, calm down"—to which my coworker replied, "No! Fuck you!"

This came as a shock, although perhaps it shouldn't have. Lefties often talk about how the right needs to be more civil when in fact it's often the lefties who are more prone to violence in language and in action. Suddenly, the cinder-block-smashing imagery made sense, and for a very brief moment, I wondered whether I was going to have to physically fight this guy. My coworker eventually calmed down, and since then, he's acted as if nothing had happened. I've become cooler toward him; we still go on our walks, but we no longer talk politics. From his perspective, I'm sure he thinks I was the provocateur, even though he's the one with the pronounced anger-management problem. I, meanwhile, think my coworker is a hypocrite for embracing the SJW label while doing absolutely jack shit about social problems in Korea—homelessness, domestic violence, stifling corporate culture, radically unequal pay for women, rampant racism, etc., etc. If my coworker were really all that passionate about social justice, he'd be all over these urgent problems instead of wasting his time reading fantasy novels and watching YouTube videos devoted to the latest video games. I'm sure that, if I confronted him with this hypocrisy, he'd hide behind the PC excuse that "you can't judge other cultures," which is nonsense: other cultures judge us, so it's only fair to judge them. That's what having values means: your values apply everywhere and to everyone—they're not "true for me but not for you." If honor killings and clitoridectomies are bad, then they're bad no matter where they occur, no matter who's perpetrating those acts. It takes balls to have values.

This Fuck you incident has, for me at least, fundamentally altered our working relationship. While it's not enough of a problem to make me want to seek another job, the working environment has become, since May 19, less than ideal. It doesn't help that my boss has complained to me about my coworker for a completely different set of reasons: apparently, the work my coworker has been doing for my boss has been sub-par in quality. (My coworker is supposed to be generating content—stories, exercises, etc.—for a fifth-grade textbook.) The English has been so poor that the boss has had to rewrite whole sections of my coworker's prose; he also complains that my coworker has, instead of writing his own original thoughts, been copying and pasting snatches of text from online sources—the sort of lazy, plagiaristic behavior I'd expect from a Korean college student, not from a fellow Westerner.

I'm not bothered deeply enough by this incident to talk to my boss about it. As I told some friends in a different context, I'm not the type to pussy out, run to authorities, and ask them to solve my problems for me. But for now, caution is the operative word.

3. Bye-bye, Lig

And lastly: I've called it quits with Ligament. This isn't something I want to advertise on my blog's main page, which is why I'm tucking this bit of news back here, in my archives. I'm not bitter; I'm not angry; I'm just tired of being ignored. Ligament has long had a problem with managing her time. She often claims she has absolutely no free time because she has to spend all day studying and prepping in the library at Ewha University. This is bullshit, of course; I remember having time for friends and family when I was in grad school because I knew how to manage my time by creating study plans and paper/test schedules, etc.

There were warning signs, as you might imagine. When I was living near Daegu in 2013, Ligament visited and told me the story of how she'd dumped her boyfriend of four years because she needed time to study for the graduate-admission exam. She broke up with a longtime boyfriend because of a need to study! She couldn't have told her boyfriend that she needed space, just for a while, just so she could study for her test? Apparently not. Apparently, it was all or nothing for Ligament, and I began to feel as if I were getting much the same treatment. So fuck it. Around Children's Day, May 5th, I ended things with her—politely and without any fighting.

It's a relief, actually, in terms of my finances. As I privately told some friends, I'm glad I won't have to spend piles of money at Costco each time Ligament comes over for a home-cooked meal. Women drain the wallet, whether they mean to or not. (At least until they marry you and begin managing the home finances, I guess!) There was one time when I asked Ligament whether she'd like to go to this high-end buffet, D'Maris, or whether she'd prefer a home-cooked meal. She opted for the home-cooked meal, which was an honor insofar as she was saying she preferred my cooking, but which was a burden insofar as the home meal was going to cost me twice as much as going to the buffet would have.

Anyway, I'm now free to ogle female flesh again. So there's that.

And those are my three burdens, now off my chest.



Surprises Aplenty said...

Big Ho, I read your blog on Feedly and in the past, your 'private' posts didn't show up, only the Clint image alerting me to such posts did. Today, I saw that BigHominid had two new posts and the first one was of Clint and the second one was this one. I did not have to hunt for this one; Feedly helpfully had it displayed for all to see.

Surprises Aplenty said...

Continuing from the previous comment, I clicked on this post on Feedly and was taken to an error page. To get here, I have to visit Bighominid, then go to the archives to visit this actual page.

John Mac said...

I had to laugh at your description of working for a Korean company. It sounds an awful lot like working for the U.S. government. You have the exact same attitude as I've developed--I'm here for 8 hours everyday so I'll fill those hours doing whatever the hell they want, no matter how ridiculous. When I do get frustrated I just mutter "I don't mind wasting time, as long as I'm doing it productively."

Your co-worker sounds like a typical lefty prick. No talking to people like him, it's great you found that out early. Although they want to describe the right as extremist, fuckers like him are more apt to do violence (or talk of it, he's probably just a whining pussy) than a righty who's willing to engage on the issues (as you attempted to do). But what pray tell do you call a black person if not black? Is it also racist to describe someone as being white? You should have told him to check his privilege!

Finally, sorry to hear about you and Lig. I don't know her, but I know the type. I've found Korean women to be cold hearted when it comes to relationships. I recall the time when a woman who had been living with me for over a year decided to call it quits--via email. Ah, you just got to get lucky at love once I suppose...

Hang in there. Great post!

Charles said...

Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela... and Oprah Winfrey? Sure, Oprah is awesome, but she just seems a little out of place in this list. I'm curious why you chose her out of all the other women you could have picked?

Kevin Kim said...


Yes, Frank from Lost Nomad made me aware of the newsfeed problem a while back. If you can think of a better way to hide posts on Blogger, I'm definitely all ears. For now, though, I'm not too worried: the people who put my blog on a feed probably have benign intentions, and when I look at my hidden posts' hit count, I see that only four to six page views ever occur, as opposed to the dozens or hundreds of page views I get for regular posts. For the general public, then, these posts are effectively hidden.


Funny thing: my previous coworker probably leaned harder left than the new guy, and he and I disagreed all the time on political matters, but he was unfailingly civil, even when he thought I was wrong. I take this to mean he was much more secure in himself (and in his views) than the current coworker is. A lot of anger and violence arise from insecurity, after all.

Kevin Kim said...


I'm actually fairly blind and deaf to Oprah's awesomeness (am part of the Kathy Griffin School when it comes to Oprah), but the boss said we already had a 1000-word essay on Oprah that would save me from writing a third big piece. Oprah was therefore chosen for practical reasons.

What I'm hung up on is the irony of the lack of competent leadership shown by Pooh Bear, even as she's designing a course on leadership.

As you know, the way it works in Korea is that, instead of efficiently planning and executing a project, a project is built "from the outside in," and in the following months and years, the inside gets fleshed out through a painful series of trial-and-error events. This results in something that limps along and is eventually deemed a "success," or the project finally crashes, burns, and quietly fizzles away. With enough determination, Pooh Bear might pull off the FIDO and leadership projects, but there's going to be a lot of wasted motion and smoking wreckage along the way. Meanwhile, I feel bad for all parents who think sending their kids to cram schools is a good idea.

Charles said...

Ah, yes. It all makes perfect sense now.

And I've never really been an Oprah fan, either, but there's no denying that she is a very successful woman.