Sunday, February 22, 2004

when esprit de corps attacks!

My buddy Jang-woong had a good laugh at me: I'd gotten Saturday tickets for the Korean movie "T'aegeukgi Huinallimyeo" ("And Our* Flag Waves"), and had told Jang-woong and his wife Bo-hyun that it was a 6:40PM showing. WRONG! While I was waiting by the ticket counter around 6PM, convinced I was early, I glanced up at the movie charts and saw a showing for 4:40PM, then whipped out my tickets (which I'd bought on Friday) and saw they too said 16:40.

Shit. 21,000 won down the drain.

So Jang-woong had a good laugh, I got called "school boy" several times for my stupidity, and we ended up eating a Western-style dinner in Itaewon. We first went to a spot called The Gecko's Terrace, which was noisy, smoky, and full of 20-something white folks. It reminded me of a noisier version of the Tombs at Georgetown University, which can get pretty raucous after 10PM. The Gecko's Terrace was deemed Hominid-unfriendly by Jang-woong's wife (my friends know I prefer quiet spots), so we old farts ended up at a calmer joint called Helios, after Jang-woong vetoed the Indian cuisine of Ashoka (which had been my suggestion).

While we chowed down on quesadillas, burgers, and spaghetti, I asked Jang-woong and Bo-hyun what day we could next try seeing "T'aegeukgi." We won't have another opportunity for over a week: Jang-woong, as it turns out, is going away for company "training" for 20 days, but not just any training. This won't be like motivational workshops at your typical American company: no, this promises to be boot camp all over again. Very physical. The most gruelling task is a three-day, 40-kilometer hike through the mountains. Many of the workers on this trip are in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. They've fattened up and forgotten their military training, and are better drinkers and smokers than mountaineers. Jang-woong himself, while still healthy in terms of body fat, is a drinker and smoker, so he's very worried about getting winded too easily. I can sympathize. The sudden jolt into hyper-physical activity isn't going to be pleasant for the unconditioned.

The hike is designed to bring you to the brink of exhaustion: not only are you hiking almost 15 kilometers a day (about 8-9 miles) along steep mountainous terrain, but you're only allowed one hour of sleep each day. Lord knows what you're forced to do while at camp.

I can't imagine what purpose all this serves... maybe it's one drill sergeant's version of generating what in Zen is called "the great doubt"-- that crucible-period in your meditative training where the mind is aboil and a breakthrough is imminent. Or maybe this is simply corporate sadism. All I know is that Jang-woong sure isn't looking forward to the next few days. I can only hope that his seniors and superiors have been putting him on about the training, and it'll turn out to be a cake walk.

Unlike the military, Jang-woong said, you're allowed to drop out of this training at any point, pack your bags and go home. The price of going home, though, is blacklisting-- your failure goes on your employee records, and what's worse is that you are automatically signed up to do the course over from the beginning. This isn't stopping some of the higher-ups in Jang-woong's company from conjuring up various excuses not to participate. Knee problems are appearing everywhere in the office.

Oy. Jang-woong leaves for Kumi tomorrow; I think the hiking actually occurs sometime this week. This kind of training is one-time-only, so I told Jang-woong just to get the shit over with. He's young and tough and he'll survive just fine.

I hope.

Damn, I'm glad I'm not a Korean "salaryman." The crap you have to go through...

*TRANSLATION NOTE: The word "t'aegeukgi" would literally translate as "flag of the Great Ultimate" because the t'aegeuk is the T'ai Ch'i, the yin-yang symbol representing the Great Ultimate (or more nastily, the Great Pole, since geuk can mean "pole" or "antipode"). The South Korean flag sports a t'aegeuk at the center of a white field, surrounded by four i-jing trigrams (heaven, earth, fire, water). It's a beautiful and very philosophical emblem-- sure beats the hell out of a hammer and sickle. South Koreans all refer to their own flag as the "t'aegeukgi," and this is why I've chosen to translate the expression as "our flag," because to name the film "And the Flag of the Great Ultimate Waves" doesn't make much sense or have any viscerality. It's a soldier's movie, so "our flag" will resonate with an American audience, and this makes the title reminiscent of "...O say does that Star-spangled Banner yet wave..." I'll be curious to see what the "official" English title will be, though at a guess from the promo flyers, it's simply "Taegukgi."


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