Friday, December 31, 1999

the ties that don't bind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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