Saturday, November 01, 2003

eat the baby. eat the baby. eat the baby.

This isn't a reference to North Korean famine-induced depravity. It's a reference to the toddler who was sitting beside me for the past two hours while his parents obliviously tooled around on their computers at this PC-bahng. The toddler was loud, screechy, and obviously pampered, like most Korean sons, especially these days.

I'm all for smacking & spanking kids when they're discipline problems. Pain is a wonderful teacher, and contrary to popular PC wisdom, it doesn't necessarily lead to kids who hit back. I doubt I'd go so far as my French buddy, who sometimes disciplines his son with some rather tough blows to the face ("Tu veux une claque!? Non? Alors tais-toi!"), but I don't think a parent should try reasoning with tiny kids. This teaches them very little, in my opinion, because they have no appreciation for reason-- reasonableness is something a wishful adult is projecting onto the kid. True, some kids are precocious, perceptive, and awfully sweet, but I'm not talking about them. Believe me, if you were here with me tonight, you'd be publicly advocating strict physical discipline, too.

But this particular situation had me pissed not only at the kid, but at the parents, who (1) weren't supposed to bring children into a smoky PC-bahng after 10PM anyway (let's not get started again about rule-ignoring in this society), and (2) didn't seem to pay the kid much attention once they became absorbed in their computer activity (electronic games of Korean "go-stop"). The kid stared at me a lot, looking for a playmate. In other circumstances, I might have wanted to cart the kid out and play with him. But not while I'm blogging. And not when the parents are being negligent assholes.

Korean parents don't have trouble with their toddlers staying up past midnight. Maybe this makes sense, given how, as elementary schoolers, the kids often have to stay up past midnight to keep up with homework. It's training, when you're two, for the grind that begins at age four. It also helps adult Koreans handle those impossible work schedules: up at 4AM to beat traffic, stumble to work by 7:30AM, stay until 10PM, go out drinking with the boss, schlep home by 1AM... repeat as necessary (I'm recounting how some workers at SsangYong Paper Company were living life in the mid-90s; not all Koreans are at the office this early, but many, many, many Koreans end up working late, and of those, most end up going out with co-workers and/or friends for a few shots, or the "il ch'a, ee ch'a, sam ch'a" of Korean pub crawling).

I wonder what Koreans think of American parents who make their children go to bed before 9PM on weeknights. "What, they don't have enough homework!?"-- I'm sure that'd be the first question. (On a separate note, I do think that we're big wusses about the courseload we give our kids; they can handle a helluva lot more than our school systems give them credit for, and they'll still "be kids" at the end of the day.)

Which brings up a deeper issue, something I've been wrestling with for years: the notion that Koreans are hard workers. I think they are. I've seen too many instances of Koreans energetically going about tasks that Americans would perform only sullenly, blubberously, and halfheartedly, grumbling childishly about "rights" and other bullshit excuses that really have little to do with the task at hand. But while Koreans work hard, I'm not convinced they work efficiently. Some of that hard work comes about because, say, office workers have spent the daylight hours looking busy for their bosses while not actually doing much, then trying to cram a day's effort into the final hours before p'ojang-mach'a time.

And Koreans don't want to hear it from Americans about their inefficiencies. On a case-by-case basis, it's hard to argue that Koreans work less efficiently than Americans: I've often found myself stumped by a problem, only to have a Korean friend or relative or co-worker suggest an easy and obvious solution. But when you factor in social constraints, the picture becomes more complex, and the inefficiencies begin to appear.

Example: while I was working as a teacher and proofreader at SsangYong Paper in 1996 (the sweetest, cushiest job I've ever had in Korea, aside from teaching English to the hwaejang-nim of Jaeneung Gyoyook for over $80 an hour, a stint that unfortunately lasted only two months), I'd work on proofing international faxes with a Korean partner. This guy spoke decent English, and his grasp of written English was quite good. The big boss, Mr. Park, would have to give final approval on any English-language fax before it was sent. My partner and I would draft the faxes as a team.

Expats who're in the know can anticipate what I'm going to say next: the process of writing a simple three-paragraph fax about a totally mundane subject would require about six drafts (I'm not joking), in which both my Korean partner and Mr. Park would argue with me over the "nuances" of the words I'd chosen in correcting awkward diction. This was quite time-consuming and made the fax-sending seem more important than it really was.

Submit, reject, discuss, redraft. Submit, reject, discuss, redraft-- the Sisyphean process in a nutshell.

I suppose I shouldn't complain; the process consumed hours, and it didn't involve much brainpower, and I was getting paid the whole time. But while writing a damn fax doesn't seem like the likeliest place to call upon your negotiating skills, that's essentially what I was doing: haggling with Koreans less fluent in English than I was about supposed "nuances" they thought they saw in the most minor of documents. Christ. I guess the annoyance stems from a typically American resentment of micromanagement-- a phenomenon, we must admit, that's almost as common in American offices as it is in Korean ones.

OK, enough ranting about nothing. The toddler's gone now, so I can't eat it, Fat Bastard-style. Maybe I should just waddle on home.

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