Friday, December 31, 1999

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Charles said...

You were too polite. She harangued you in front of the students? I would not have let that slide. I realize you don't want to make a scene, but is it better to remain polite and then stew in fury? I mean, we're not talking about a run-in with a higher-up. This is a freaking jogyo.

Kevin Kim said...

It's not as though I did nothing: I contacted my boss about the problem, and he spoke to the jogyo.

(For what it's worth, there was only one student present: Miss Colon Problem. Really, though, whether this happened in front of a student or not is immaterial. It simply shouldn't have happened.)

Charles said...

Well, yeah, I'm not saying that it would have been OK had it not been in front of a student, but that does make it significantly worse. And taking the high road and talking to your boss about it is admirable, but... maybe what I'm trying to say is that I would not have been able to remain quiet. I honestly find the situation hard to imagine.

Kevin Kim said...

"I honestly find the situation hard to imagine."

As did I, even while it was happening.

Korean fluency would have helped. I thought of a whole harangue-back that I could have given with the Korean I have... but that was while I was riding home in a taxi. L'esprit de l'escalier—too little, too late.