Friday, December 31, 1999

the story of my foot

[Originally posted on Friday, September 16, 2022, at 3:18 a.m.]

The following is a scary and disgusting tale—not for the squeamish. You've been warned. 

Some weeks ago, I noticed a disturbing change happening in/on/around my right big toe. The usual callus was there, but much of it was black, and there was a small, unwontedly soft region that seemed to be filled with pus. No smell despite the blackened skin, so this wasn't gangrene—a thing we diabetics all fear because gangrene heralds the loss of an appendage. 

But what was it? I probed and prodded my foot several nights in a row, and eventually, I narrowed things down to two possibilities: (1) another toe infection, but with a bleed happening underneath the callus (hence the black color), or (2) a diabetic ulceration, which would also explain the pus. If this was the latter, then it was possible that gangrene was on its way. In either case, the treatment would require debridement and disinfection. 

Debridement refers to the removal of foreign matter and/or dead tissue from around a wound. I've removed toe callus with clippers before; I sometimes do a sloppy job of it, which occasionally leads to infections like the severe one that put me in the hospital early during the pandemic. There was, bizarrely, a hole in one part of the callus, like a cave for a very tiny troll—a good place to start clipping away. But before I started clipping, I somewhat unwisely began picking at that hole with my fingers, probably because it represented a weak point in the callus (and picking at it was psychologically gratifying). Eventually, the picking morphed into a full-on attack, by which I mean the debridement of all the thick, blackened skin and most of the surrounding callus as well. This wasn't pretty, as you'll see below.

The all-out assault meant relying on the various clippers in my mani-pedi kit, as well as a mess of disinfectant wipes, alcohol swabs, and first-aid ointment. I also had to lay out a tissue on which to deposit all the dead skin I was cutting off my toe. Nice. I eventually managed to cut away all the callus, exposing the fresh skin (smelly thanks to the blackened blood, but clean after some alcohol-swabbing) under which lay that deposit of pus. 

Out of morbid curiosity, I sterilized a dental probe (the kind with a sharp-pointed hook) and poked into the skin, hoping to lance the area and let the stinky pus run. But something strange happened: no pus came out, no matter how deeply I dug into the hole I'd made, and no matter how much I pushed on the sides of the pus zone. I shrugged, swabbed the poke-hole with alcohol, slathered on some antibiotic first-aid cream, and bandaged my foot. 

For several days after that, my routine became to wash, swab, apply cream, and re-bandage my foot. About two weeks later, I carefully checked the results of my efforts, and my foot seemed to be as good as new, except for a few stray black spots (see the final pic in this photo essay). That's a relief. I won't be losing my toe after all, but this feels a bit like a warning from Mother Nature. Losing parts of yourself is a nasty reality for diabetics who don't make an effort to reverse their diabetes (and by the way, the notion that diabetes is reversible is still not accepted by all doctors). Self-care, in all its forms, is paramount.

So, Dear Reader, steel yourself. Here are some pics, mostly of my initial efforts to remove all that callus, much of which had blackened. I'll leave you to imagine the smell of the exposed fresh skin underneath the callus and the congealed blood. The first four images were taken on August 23 as I was cutting most of the callus away. After August 23, I worked on my toe some more, debriding even more callus, until my big toe was relatively smooth. Somehow, maybe because I was being more cautious than usual, I managed to avoid bleeders this time. The fifth and final image is from September 9. This had been a long ordeal, but everything ended happily, so all the effort was worth it.

Last chance, now—these images might make you squirm. I have a clinical fascination with this sort of thing, and I'm weirdly proud of my... well, not quite self-surgery, but intense self-maintenance. I had thought I might need to visit a specialist, but it turned out that I was competent enough to take care of myself (with a little help from Google as to what to do). Next step: stitching wounds closed, Rambo-style.

OK... you've been warned. Brace for impact.

clipping away and lifting up some of the blackened callus

Above, you can start to see the pus-filled area peeking out from under the callus. Even before I removed the callus, I was able to palpate the area and feel the soft region that contained the pus. It's just so weird that no pus ever came out.

taking a closer peek (I was using my convex clippers to hack at the callus)

There was definitely a smell as I peeled away the blackened skin. I swabbed at every stinky area with my alcohol wipes and my regular disinfectant wipes, and you can bet I washed my feet thoroughly both before and after this procedure. You'd think the exposure of the fresh, tender skin would have been painful, especially with the alcohol-swabbing, but there really was no pain. (I suffer from some diabetic numbness, but not much.)

Here, I've succeeded in cutting away most of the surrounding callus.

There was a sickening moment during which I wondered whether bone might actually poke through. That's back when I was obsessed with the idea that this was a diabetic ulcer (I'm no longer convinced that that's what it was; a serious ulcer would probably have sunk deeper). At the same time, if this had been an infection, there should have been other symptoms like general redness, swelling, and fever (as happened in 2020). But this time around, there was no fever, and for the record, no pain as I was clipping away at the skin.

All in all, I thought this wasn't a bad job.

Before I show you the final photo, I'll note that the four pics above represent only the first stage of the debridement. You see all the other callus around that wound? I went back and took care of that, too, between August 23 and September 9, but I didn't bother to take any pictures. In the end, my big toe was about as callus-free as it's been in a long time. Once I finished my debridement, I continued washing, disinfecting, and bandaging the toe. None of this ever affected my ability to walk, so I continued distance walking as I healed, even though that meant the eventual return of some callusing. 

Below: and now, at last, my toe as of September 9—just a few days ago. The flecks of black can be clipped away if I so desire, but they're not significant: they don't run deep into the toe at all, so I'm not worried about them. I tentatively conclude that my self-care regimen took care of the problem. Whether this was an ulcer of some sort or an infection like the one from 2020, debridement, disinfection, and constant washing seemed to be the ticket to regaining my toe. I'm letting the toe build its usual callus back up again; that's probably a good thing for the upcoming month of walking on Jeju Island and along the Nakdong River.

And I really need to start using other pedicure tools like my nail file and those cheese-grater doohickeys to smooth out my callused skin. A now-healthy toe, about two weeks later:

I hope you weren't eating as you went through these photos. If you did make it through them, well, that's a real testament to your dedication to this blog. Next time I have a sucking chest wound, I'll be sure to document that as well.

an old debate with my boss: is hangeul an alphabet?

[Originally posted on March 21, 2022, at 3:20 a.m.]

My boss has his good points, but he can be an attention-seeking troll when he wants to be, and this is nowhere more obvious than when he rolls out another one of his crackpot linguistic theories unsupported by actual scholarship. Years back, he and I argued over some of his stupider claims, like the idea that jondae-mal (the respectful register when talking) doesn't exist in English.* Another of his nutty notions is that hangeul is not an alphabet, or not a true alphabet, whatever that means. Why? Because the jamo/letters of hangeul are not true letters. To be a true letter, the logograph should be able to stand on its own, but as we see with a vowel like ㅏ, the vowel can't be pronounced until you pair it with the consonant ㅇ. No disrespect to my boss, but this is just dumb,** and scholars of Korean have no trouble calling hangeul an alphabet. My boss, though, wants to be the lone voice crying in the wilderness because it gives him some sort of perverse, self-righteous sense of superiority: I know something you don't, and all of you are wrong. Me, I think it's just a stupid claim.

We'd had the debate about hangeul years back, and I reminded my boss of that fact. (Being an argumentative person, he gets in so many arguments with so many people that he of course can't keep track of whatever debates he has with me.) It wasn't a topic I wanted to revisit, but my boss was provoked by the jokey dedication I'd put in his personal copy of Think Like a Teacher, part of which said that he routinely drove me up the wall with his crackpot linguistic theories. Seeing my sentiment in print probably triggered something in him, and we ended up debating the alphabet thing again last week, to no avail. I say he's obviously wrong. He tried to show that some scholars side with him, and to prove his point, he searched online (probably for all of five minutes) and found one linguistics paper by an Insup Taylor (see here) with the title "The Korean Writing System: An Alphabet? A Syllabary? A Logography?" He didn't want to shell out the money to download the entire PDF of Taylor's paper, so all I got was the 2-page preview, which I didn't read deeply until the very end of the day, when everyone had left.

Basically, Taylor's paper is horribly written and doesn't actually support whatever case my boss is trying to make (I don't think my boss actually read the paper; he was in a snit and simply wanted anything that might even seem to help his case). Taylor even gets basic terminology wrong, like the difference between voiced/voiceless and aspirated/unaspirated*** when talking about Korean consonants. Taylor argues that, by adding a single stroke to a Korean consonant, it goes from unaspirated to aspirated, which may in fact be true in limited case (or is it?). But what about when you go from ㅈ to ㅊ, or from ㄷ to ㅌ? That's a move from voiced to voiceless! In the case of both pairs, all the consonants are aspirated.  More: Taylor actually uses the term "alphabet" in direct reference to hangeul, almost as if it were a settled question for him: "Hangul appears to be the only alphabet, indeed the only writing system, in which the shapes of symbols reflect the articulations of sounds." See? Taylor ponders the question of whether it's better to describe hangeul as an "alphabetic syllabary," which my boss triumphantly felt made his case. There are two responses to this. First, Taylor only poses the question; he doesn't answer it in this section of his paper, and I'd need to read his conclusion (assuming I can get through the bad writing). Second, note that, even with that terminology, you can't escape the concept of an alphabet.

Anyway, I made my boss aware that my old undergrad Korean prof edited a book titled The Korean Alphabet, and the title alone settles the question for me. When I Googled "hangeul isn't an alphabet" online, I found a non-scholarly discussion in which one discussant put forth the idea that hangeul, despite being written in syllabic clusters, still follows the same write-one-letter-at-a-time rule that is followed in other alphabetic systems like Arabic, Greek, Cyrillic, Hebrew, English, etc. And all the scholars in The Korean Alphabet actually use the term "Korean alphabet" in their respective papers. I checked. 

To me, this is an open-and-shut case, but the backfire effect means that I can give my boss all the evidence in the world to show he's wrong, but the fact that I declared him wrong at the beginning means he'll only double down in the face of all that evidence. This is the sort of shit I occasionally have to deal with in the office. It's not horrible compared to how things could be, I guess; at least my boss isn't a raging alcoholic or otherwise unprofessional. This is, in fact, a pretty nerdy disagreement. Still, it's annoying, and crap like this erupts in the office several times a year, making me wonder, now and then, why the hell I still work here.

We all have problems, right?


*My boss argues that American culture is "horizontal" while Korean culture is "vertical," and that formality in English has to do with how socially intimate or distant you are from the person you're talking with, not where you stand on an invisible hierarchy. Personally, I don't think that calling the American situation "horizontal" changes the basic reality of verticality: primates all follow dominance hierarchies, and even in English, we express verticality when we say things like "top dog." And there's an obvious difference between greeting your boss with, "How are you today, Mr. Henderson?" versus "Yo, Frank." The former is an obvious version of jondae-mal in English.

**Horrible time to rely on postmodernism, but this idea probably comes from the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, who might be thought of as an inadvertent recruit into the PoMo camp because of his influence on poststructuralist/deconstructionist Jacques Derrida. Derrida's concept of différance (deliberately misspelled)—that things are both different and deferred—relies on the idea that you can't know the valence of something until you know its context, e.g., the letter "c." How is that letter pronounced if you don't see it in a word like trace or cat or Ricci or Bach? So the same would apply to my boss's contention about the Korean vowel, which means the Korean vowel is a true letter in a real alphabet, after all.

***A voiced sound involves a vibration you can feel in your throat. Take the sound "j" in jump. When you say the "j," you can feel your voice at work in your throat. Now take the sound "ch" in child. You can pronounce this phoneme without using your voice at all. Now contemplate the "t" in table. That's an aspirated sound because the "t" is plosive, i.e., a puff of air comes out when you say it. Compare that  to the "t" in scarlet. Your speech organs close after you say that "t," meaning it's unaspirated. See the difference? Think about the ㄱ in the surname 박 (Pak, Park). That's an unaspirated ㄱ. But put the ㄱ in a verb like 가다 (gada, to go), and it's aspirated. Now refer to the jump/child distinction, above, as you ponder the ㅈ/ㅊ difference.

you know it's bad when the non-complainer is complaining

[Posted on July 16, 2021, at 9:30 p.m.]

My Korean coworker is fairly quiet, partly because he's the only full Korean on our team. Our boss is American, but fluent in Korean, so my coworker can speak with him naturally. My Korean coworker speaks with me in Korean, but I'm far less fluent, so conversation between us is clunky and requires a lot of patience and forgiveness on his part. Generally speaking, my coworker isn't the type to speak up when things are difficult. Like a lot of Koreans in the corporate world, he simply sucks it up and takes it, which means we never hear him complain.

But now, things are different.

The problem is our American coworker, whom I think I've mentioned before. Our American coworker is a nonstop chatterbox, and while I generally screen him out unless he's addressing me directly, his mouth is starting to get to my Korean coworker, who has taken to complaining to me about our American colleague. You know it's got to be bad when someone who normally doesn't complain about anything is now complaining about a coworker. We both agree our American colleague is a good guy, and his heart is in the right place, but things may be coming to a head soon, especially if no one says anything. 

My problem is that my Korean coworker doesn't really want to speak up because he's a kind-hearted, gentle soul (i.e., he has no spine when it comes to confrontations), and he'd be mortified if I told our American coworker that our Korean coworker was having trouble concentrating on his work because of all the chatter. So I think what I'm going to have to do is take the burden of assholery upon myself, tell my American coworker to dial the chatter back 90%, and not mention my Korean coworker at all.

This problem therefore becomes my cross to bear, and as I said, while I too don't like all the chatter, I mentally screen most of it out. My Korean coworker apparently can't do that, but that's understandable. In this situation, I wish for several things: I wish my American coworker had the perceptiveness to know when to stop running his goddamn mouth; I wish my Korean coworker had the spine to stand up for himself and tell my American coworker to please stop talking so fucking much. But neither of those wishes is going to come true, so next week, I'll be the asshole who tells my gabby American coworker to learn the virtues of silence.

Probably should've said something months ago.

...and can you guess what these are about?

Here's another set of images that I did for my friend. Can you guess the idiomatic expressions they represent? Good luck!

Answers (highlight to see):

1. kangaroo court

2. taste of your own medicine

3. you are what you eat

4. under a cloud

drawings for a friend

A friend asked me to make some illustrations for a project he's working on (a textbook? a lesson?), and it has to do with idioms. Here are the pics below; can you figure out the idioms? (I'm placing the images in my hidden space because they'll ultimately be published, and depending on what agreement I strike with my friend, they might have to be taken down.)

Those idioms (highlight to see):

1. the big cheese

2. a bird's-eye view

3. a cock-and-bull story

4. airing your dirty laundry

5. at the drop of a hat

Have fun!

the slog

[Originally published on Wednesday, April 28, 2021, 1:14 a.m.]

I think it's official:  proofreading is my least favorite thing to do at the office.  What sucks is that, despite the astronomical number of errors I catch, I'm always left with the feeling that I haven't caught them all, and this occasionally gets confirmed when we print a manuscript, and someone tells us that "There's a mistake on page 32."  Fuck.

The errors I deal with come mainly from my coworkers:  my American coworker and my Korean coworker—and also sometimes my boss (who is a Korean-fluent American).  I make mistakes, too, when contributing my part of the textbook's manuscript, but I'm a fanatical perfectionist, so my own errors are very rare.  My coworkers, by comparison, are sloppy as hell, and they often make the same mistakes over and over again:  omitted or inappropriate words, a legion of comma errors along with other punctuation-related gaffes, weird grammar, and so on.  I'm not just a proofreader, though:  I'm also an editor, which means I have to make sure that the reading-comprehension questions (written by Person B) match the content of the reading passage (written by Person A).  When there are mismatches, I have to fix that by either altering a given question to something that jives with the text, or altering the text so that the question makes sense.  I also have to make sure the answer key actually has correct answers.  This was a shit show at first, but my American coworker has greatly improved his game since last year, and the answer keys are now almost perfect, barring a few tiny errors.

My Korean coworker is our in-house designer; he takes the content that has been partially formatted by my US coworker and tweaks the formatting in Adobe InDesign, adding his own graphics (and some of my illustrations at the end of each chapter) plus the stock photos from—images that we pay to use legally in our course material.*  He then prints out the not-quite-finalized material for me to proofread, and that's when I make my tweaks and edits.  I do this old-school, i.e., pen to paper.  I can, if necessary, proofread electronically in Adobe Acrobat, but it's not my preferred method.  Manual is better.  Alas, my Korean coworker often makes boneheaded mistakes—always of the same type—and never seems to learn his lesson.  He's hampered by the fact that his English isn't much beyond beginner level, so I can't get too angry at his mistakes.  He's dealing with a torrent of English.  How would I function in Korean?  That said, he's not careful about text formatting, and this is a constant problem:  he takes a text formatted in Apple Pages, copies and pastes the text into InDesign, and automatically loses the text formatting:  anything that had been italicized or bolded, for example, gets rendered into InDesign as plain text.  The coworker then has the unenviable task of combing through every page in an effort to restore all the lost formatting.  Needless to say, because this coworker can't function well in English, he misses stuff.  All the damn time.

What's worse is when my Korean coworker tries to transfer over a page from one file, but somehow manages to transfer only two-thirds of the page while filling in the final third of the page with content from a totally different chapter of the textbook.  Part of the problem is how my coworker uses InDesign:  every page of every textbook is a confusing mass of text boxes, at least thirty per page.  So it's not a simple matter of copying an entire page from the Pages file and dropping it straight into InDesign:  my coworker has to port the content over, text box by text box, and this is where the errors creep in.  Imagine trying to keep track of thirty text boxes on a single page, then imagine trying to copy and paste text—box by box—into those thirty text boxes.  I don't use InDesign, so I don't understand how it works, but you'd think there'd be some easier way to grab a bunch of text, port it over, then tweak it quickly so that it's all in the right format.  But my coworker can't or simply doesn't do that.  Because of his piecemeal methodology, the probability that confusion and simple forgetfulness—combined with English-blindness—will cause errors is very high. And I have to proofread all that.

I've seen pages that I'd written get butchered by this process.  In Section 1, the instructions are correct, but the exercise questions are all from the wrong part of the book.  In Section 2, the questions are fine, but the instructions come from somewhere else.  In the advanced-level version of a book, there are no problems with the multiple-choice reading-comp questions; in the intermediate-level version of the book, those multiple-choice answers now have doubled periods and stray letters hanging off them.  In some cases, the entire page is from a different chapter.  How the fuck does this happen?  I'm genuinely curious.  I'd like to sit with my coworker and watch what he does, step by step, so I can understand what zaniness is pinging around inside his brain and causing him to make these gaffes.

Don't get me wrong:  I like my Korean coworker.  He's a very good guy, a good soul, and I can see he's stressed, overworked, and starting to burn out as this crunch period wears on and on (late May is when we'll see a light at the end of this tunnel).  He needs a break—at least two days off—so he can rest his head and then leap back into the fight.  My American coworker is burning out, too, and he's already taken a mental-health day off (something I refuse to do in the middle of crunch period, but that's another issue for a different blog post).  I'm getting a bit cross-eyed myself; this week, I decided to come into work two hours earlier than normal so I can proofread an entire chapter's worth of work per day—i.e., advanced, intermediate, and basic versions of the same chapter—and be done in a timely manner each day.  But what's happening is that I'm coming in early and staying late.

Take now, for instance. I'm still at the goddamn office, after midnight on Wednesday morning, writing this blog post because, despite coming in at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, I worked until 11:30 p.m.  Why?  My Korean coworker couldn't print out the material to proofread until 5 p.m.  I know he feels guilty about this, and his guilt is adding to his stress, but there's nothing to be done, I guess:  you can't whip the guy to make him generate material faster.  Graphic design, even at the best of times, is slow work and can't be rushed.  Unfortunately for me, this means that coming in two hours early doesn't help:  I'm still going to end up working late.  Ideally, my coworker ought to print out the three versions of a chapter by 2 p.m.  Instead, he's printing them out at 5 p.m., which ensures that I'll be in the office well past 10 p.m.  As I said, I worked until 11:30 tonight (technically, last night, as it's now past midnight).

OK... just blowing off some steam.  I do eventually plan to use the comp hours I'm racking up through all this extra work.  I'd like to use the hours in early May (when I hope to walk to the Andong Dam), but because we'll still be in the middle of crunch time, it's going to have to be late May when I finally take a much-needed break.

I have two more chapters of Book 6 to get through, which means I'll finish proofing Book 6 this Thursday.  On Friday the 30th, I have to go back and proof parts of Book 6 that hadn't been created until very late (my boss was lagging behind).  I'll therefore start proofing Book 2 this Monday, May 3 (Mom's birthday is May 4; she would have been 78).  It'll take ten business days to get through Book 2, which is also ten chapters long and three levels deep.  Ideally, this means I'll be done proofing on May 14, a Friday.  I had wanted to do my Andong Dam walk the week of Children's Day, which happens on May 5.  Originally, I was going to take the 6th and the 7th off as well so as to have a five-day weekend during which to hike and take advantage of the lingering coolness before the heat of late May sets in.  That's no longer in the cards, alas.  Anyway, Book 2, being a lower-level text, has less material in it, so it ought to be slightly easier (and maybe faster?) to proofread.

See you on the other side.


*My company had been sued, some years ago, for using copyrighted material from The Economist.  We had ripped off the material, placed the material into our textbooks, made money off those textbooks, and failed to give the magazine a single iota of credit for the material we had stolen.  I say "we" because I'm part of the company now, but the lawsuit, and the accompanying scandal, had happened before I came on board.  I think we've learned our lesson, which is why textbook-generation has since become a much higher priority.

the trouble with Hans

[Originally published on Saturday, April 17, 2021, 3:15 a.m.]

We'll call my American coworker Hans.  Hans may be well-intended, and he may be a hard worker, and he may be extremely smart and very good with computers, but he has a few problems—what the French would call défauts de caractère, i.e., character flaws.  Hans lived in Germany and speaks fluent German; he also didn't hesitate to tell me he has an IQ of 143.  (I nodded when I heard this and said nothing about my IQ, not wanting to be involved in that pissing contest.)  He's married to a professionally trained chef (she specializes in Korean and Japanese food, but she's also great with Western food), and he has a young daughter who's a bit past toddler age.  With a wife and daughter who love him, Hans is no one's idea of a bad guy.  He's actually a decent fellow—well-intended, as I said above.

But Hans is a talker.  He loves, loves, loves to talk.  I no longer initiate conversations with him because I know that a single remark or question will trigger a torrent of unwanted verbiage.  Hans will launch into lengthy, unsolicited disquisitions on subjects that hold zero interest for me:  bicycle gear ratios, the science of fermentation (Hans is both an avid cyclist and an avid home-brewer), and politics from a libertarian perspective.  I've made the mistake, on several occasions, of engaging Hans by interjecting my own insights and disagreements, but the results have never been a conversation:  Hans has no idea how to converse with people.  His sole mode of interaction is lecture.  He might politely stop to allow me to have my say, but the moment I'm done, it's back to the peroration.

It's hard to concentrate on my work with Hans always prattling in the background.  He doesn't pick up on the various hints that I'm utterly uninterested in what he has to say:  my lack of eye contact, my grunts and monosyllabic responses, my stony silence.  Hans is charmed by the sound of his own voice, and he's perfectly happy to blather obliviously to no one in particular.  I've tried telling Hans to pipe down, dial it back, let me work in peace.  To no avail.  Hans can't take a hint, nor does he respond to direct statements that it's hard to concentrate when he's going on and on and on.

The reason Hans likes to lecture leads me to another of his défauts de caractère:  Hans is arrogant.  Despite having a Korean wife, despite living in a country where social life is stratified and hierarchical, where respectful language is the currency that gets one through the day, despite not being able to speak much Korean, Hans is completely lacking in humility.  During his discourses, he'll make haughty pronouncements about Korean culture, politics, or life in general.  He'll needle and challenge me when he reviews textbook material I've written, then back off and insist he meant no offense when I bristle at his more impolitic utterances.  Hans is an ass-kisser to our boss, but to his coworkers, he alternates between solicitous and supercilious.  I've lived in South Korea for sixteen years, so I'm sensitive to the hierarchical nature of interpersonal interactions.  Hans assumes he's among fellow Americans, I guess, so he feels free to treat his coworkers as equals or as inferiors.  My prickliness when Hans gets out of line keeps him from going overboard, but left to his own devices, Hans would have no sense of boundaries.

And that's the main problem with Hans:  his lack of sense.  Koreans use the term nunchi (sounds like "noon chee") to denote perceptivity in the social sense:  understanding when it's time to shut up, for example, or sensing when someone is upset or deep in thought.  I'd been thinking this for the better part of a year:  Hans has no nunchi.  Today, astonishingly, my Korean coworker came up to me after Hans and the boss had left and said exactly that:  "Hans has no nunchi."  In my coworker's case, he was upset by Hans's constant use of vulgar language, a habit that doesn't bother me at all because I have a salty tongue myself (and, truth be told, so does our boss).  Friday afternoon, just as he was leaving, Hans said, "Right, I'm gonna get the fuck outta here."  To me, this was nothing, but as my Korean coworker—we'll call him Ewan—explained, he had asked Hans not to talk that way in front of him.  Now, Ewan's English isn't that great, so it's not hard to imagine that, when he made his request, he wasn't very clear.  But it's equally easy to imagine that Hans barely registered the request, which is why he felt free to announce he was getting the fuck out of here.  Ewan said to me, "In an office, Korean employees just don't talk that way."  I explained to Ewan that, in many American offices, especially if there are no women present, guys often default to raunchy, salty-tongued language.  American employees also tend to address each other as equals; there's much less hierarchical language unless the CEO happens to be standing there.  

So, I said to Ewan, there are cultural differences to keep in mind.  (Aside:  I didn't imply that all American offices are this way, with every guy swearing like a sailor.  There are certainly offices where the ambiance is buttoned down, and people practice a delicate verbal politesse.)  Ewan didn't look mollified, but when I suggested that he take the matter up with our boss or with Hans directly, he said that Hans's lack of nunchi wasn't a huge problem, and he (Ewan) would talk to Hans if the need arose.  Ewan is a quiet, artistic type; he's our in-house graphic designer and a long-time friend of our boss, brought on board last year.  He's a very tolerant fellow, so if we've reached a point where Hans is bothering Ewan so much that Ewan feels it's necessary to vent to me, well... things must be pretty bad.  I asked Ewan whether he'd like me to address the problem directly with Hans or the boss; Ewan demurred.  For now, all we can do is endure.  Talking to Hans hasn't worked, and the boss seems to like Hans a lot, probably because of all the ass-kissing.  I'm in a bit of a bind:  at this point, with Ewan not wanting me to say anything to the boss, it becomes difficult to approach the boss on my own behalf (because, after all, I have basically the same complaints that Ewan does).  Were I to complain independently, Ewan might find out and think I had violated his trust.  Oy gevalt.

Hans makes office life unnecessarily difficult.  He tries to be a nice guy; he'll praise the food I bring to the office, and he'll compliment some of the textbook material I've written.  He's not an evil character by any means.  But he really needs to dial the blah-blah back about 90%, and he could use several whale-sized doses of humility.  Hans apparently grew up with fourteen siblings; maybe that at least partly explains his behavior.  In a large, rowdy family, everything becomes a contest for attention or an opportunity to prove oneself.  Such an environment can be a breeding ground for insecurity, hence the need to wave one's intelligence rudely in other people's faces.  (I don't question that Hans is a smart guy; he obviously is, and we'd be hard-put to survive without his computer-related expertise.  But while he's smart in some ways, he's rather dumb in others, especially when it comes to reading people.)

I'm taking the view that Hans is a test sent from the heavens to see how patient we can be.  But if Ewan's patience has been strained to the point where he's venting privately to me about Hans, how long can I be expected to last before I blow a gasket?

today will not live in infamy

[Originally published on December 7, 2020, at 4:10 p.m.]

The saga involving my boss's (and our department's) future has come to an end—for now.  I'll get right to the point:  the boss can stay on, but he'll be losing a third of his salary (which was a cool W15 million per month, or about $13,900 per month at the current exchange rate).  He goes from earning three times as much as I earn to earning only twice as much.  

It's hard to feel sorry for him:  from my perspective, his income looks stratospheric.  Then again, he lives with a wife and two sons in a palatial apartment in an expensive part of town, so I suppose the loss of a third of his income will cause him some hardship.  

The boss's new contract will be for a year—with the possibility to renew at the end of the year—and he has demanded that it stipulate that our current R&D team not be broken up (at least until our respective contracts run out).  So from the point of view of us proles, nothing has changed, and we can continue to soldier on as before.

The boss, meanwhile, will be on a "freelancer"-style contract that allows him to be absent from work several times a week.  He's more like a project manager now, so I guess we'll be seeing less of him during the week:  he'll pop in only when necessary, unless he loves office life so much that he just can't stay away.  

On the downside, the boss must now undergo a performance review after six months.  This will be based on whether he can produce books according to the schedule laid out during our PowerPoint presentation this past Friday.  Barring any sudden changes (which always happen in this country full of zigzaggy, nonlinear people who can never quite manage to go straight from A to B), we ought to be able to keep to that schedule.

So that's the news.  I'll celebrate tonight by going out for a walk to the Jamshil Bridge and back.  In Korea, if you're an expat, nothing is ever guaranteed unless you stick to university work, and even there, things can be tenuous.  For now, though, life is back to an even keel.

uncertain future

[Originally published on 11/10/20, 9:55 p.m.]

When I came back from my walk, one of the things my boss told me was that he might be on his way out due to yet more bullshit office politics.  Our CEO is trying to appear aloof from it all, but I suspect the man is the quiet impetus behind the campaign to force my boss into early retirement.  My boss—who says that, for years, he worked at this company with no contract at all—accepted being put on a contract over a year ago, and from my point of view, things have turned to shit since then.  While I'm back to working with my boss after a long stint in a different R&D department (where I was no more than a proofreader and scut-worker, doing nothing but minor, brainless tasks that any monkey can do), I should have realized that this wouldn't be a stable situation.  Hearing the news of possible bosslessness after my return from the walk was depressing, but not surprising.  Of course, my boss is at least partially the author of his own difficulties:  he can be loud, boorish, and stubborn, and despite having Koreanized after three decades in country, he's still locked in mortal combat with certain aspects of Korean corporate culture because, at heart, he still thinks like an American, and he isn't afraid to express his point of view.  Forcefully.

We'd heard last week that the CEO wanted to talk with my boss today (Tuesday).  The CEO called my boss earlier today to move the meeting to Wednesday, then he called again to move the meeting all the way to Friday the 20th at 9 p.m., which is the day I've scheduled for an in-office pre-Thanksgiving celebration.  I get the feeling that the CEO is dicking my boss around, purposely treating this meeting as a low priority.  It's unprofessional behavior, borderline childish, yet unsurprising from a Korean CEO.  My boss still seems under the delusion that he and the CEO are somehow simpatico; I lost that delusion the first time around, when our R&D team got displaced to a different wing of our company, and our boss got sidelined for a year, stuck in a quiet, empty office with nothing to do, nothing to work on.  It's as if the company bigwigs don't know what to do with a high-ranking foreigner in their midst, and this is, in fact, one of my boss's major complaints:  Korean executives don't like the idea of a high-ranking foreigner, so they'll do what they can to keep him down.  In this case, the HR department told my boss that, if he renews his contract, he can stay on for half his current salary, which is a deep and deliberate insult.  They obviously want him out of here.  The boss, meanwhile, thinks the CEO believes that the boss won't call his bluff and leave, but my boss says he's prepared to leave if half a salary is all he'll get.

The best-case scenario, from my point of view, is that the boss gets to stick around, at full salary, for another year, allowing us to work our way through most or all of the eight-book series of textbooks we're currently hammering out.  From my selfish standpoint, that'll allow me to work through the end of my current contract, which expires on my birthday, August 31, next year.  I can save a bundle of money up to that point, then decide what I'm doing next.*  In all likelihood, I won't be renewing with this company, which has dicked me around as well.  If I do renew, it won't be for more than another year or two:  I don't see myself growing old and dying while working in this dysfunctional shithole.  No fucking way.  The worst-case scenario is that all negotiations between my boss and the CEO fall through, and the boss leaves at the end of his contract, i.e., this coming December 4.  When he leaves, there'll be nothing to hold our R&D team together, and we'll either be shunted back to the R&D department I'd worked in in 2019 or be scattered to the four winds.  We'll see what happens, I guess.  It sucks not to feel as if the ground beneath my feet is solid, but welcome to expat life in Korea.  Stability is hard to attain even in the best of times.  Unless you're Korean.

*Leaving this job would mean receiving my twoejik-geum, i.e., my severance pay, which equates to one month's salary per year worked on contract, according to Korean labor law.  For me, that means three months' pay as one lump sum although, in reality, taxes and fees will be taken out, so I won't receive anything near the full amount.  My final payout will probably be closer to two months' pay, all told.  If that.  Always brace for Murphy's Law, and keep your expectations low.  Korean corporations have a million ways to fuck you, so cynical mistrust is the name of the game, like it or not.  Sunny optimism is for suckers.

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.