Monday, May 13, 2013

two different worlds

I'm back from my reconnaissance mission to both Hansung University and Hanyang University, and I've gained a few important insights.

First insight: I'm glad I decided to do this. It was the right thing to do, and I look forward to visiting HUFS-Yongin tomorrow. I'll elaborate on this point—the rightness—a bit later. First, let's talk about the trip to Hansung.

Hansung University is located very close to where I live: about two subway stops down, then almost a mile's walk from the subway station. As sweaty as I tend to get, and given that we're now on the cusp of Korean summer, there was no way in hell that I was going to walk a mile in my slacks and tie, only to appear before the Hansung faculty and staff completely drenched and stinking like the damned. So I cabbed it. The cabbie said he couldn't take me into the campus; he dropped me at the front gate.

The campus neighborhood I was in was a close cousin of the neighborhood my apartment is in: somewhat old, shabby, musty, and run-down, as is true of much of the Gangbuk ("river-north," i.e., north of the Han river) region. Not very lively. I asked a lanky student where the Jilli-gwan (진리관, "Hall of Truth") was; he gave me directions that, thankfully, I could follow easily enough: through the passage between two buildings, then turn left after the lawn and keep going. The walk through the passageway was, fortunately, downhill; as I rumbled along, I took in the fact that Hansung's campus was small and cramped, tucked away next to a middle school and a high school. There really weren't that many main buildings, from what I could see. The ambience seemed a bit subdued; the students I saw, in pairs and clusters, talked quietly. As I approached the Jilli-gwan, I was relieved to see a boisterous group of guys playing soccer. The ball bounced my way; I picked it up and threw it back to the student who came racing over to me.

And then I was inside the Jilli-gwan. I had called ahead to the office to ask which building I needed to visit; this time around, no one asked me why I was calling and what the purpose of my visit was; the staff could have stopped me cold, like a disinvited vampire, had they thought to ask.* The office I wanted to hit was on the third floor; to my dismay, there was no elevator. Don't get me wrong: I'm not so fat that I can't walk up a few flights of stairs like a normal person. But I do generate a lot of internal heat when I make that sort of effort, and that translates to sweat. So, worried about the sweat I would soon be exuding, I took it slow, stopping in the stairwell on every floor and staring out the window, taking in the breeze and allowing my body heat to be whipped away by convection. I did what I could to minimize my sweatiness, then stepped onto the third floor.

My first impression of the third floor of the Jilli-gwan was that it was gloomy. This didn't bode well. My next impression, following hard upon the first, was that the place was old and grimy. I saw one classroom full of flat-screen monitors that looked halfway hi-tech, but otherwise the third floor was a throng of rickety plastic-and-chrome chairs, battered desks, and overly humid classrooms (I stepped into an empty classroom in an effort to cool down further; this didn't work, given how warm the room was). The lack of light, activity, and air conditioning gave an overall impression of tight budgets and near-poverty. I began to wonder what sort of strain I would put on Hansung's coffers were I to work for the uni at the salary it was offering.

I found Room 306, knocked quietly, and opened the door. The office I entered was divided into cubicles and staffed by students. Like timid gophers, four guys and one girl slowly poked their heads out from their work stations to greet their visitor. The only light in the office was the sunlight forcing its way through the large, frosted (or was it frost-taped?) glass window. No profs were in sight. I spoke in Korean with the tallest dude, who stood up and asked me what my visit was about. I said I was there just to say hello; I told him I had sent my application documents over several days ago, and I explained my situation: time was short, an interview soon would be better than an interview later, etc. Another guy, probably because he saw me mopping my brow, quietly offered me a cup of cold water; the lone girl giggled. The conversation switched awkwardly back and forth between English and Korean; the guy told me he wasn't sure whether Skype interviews would be possible, which was disappointing. I told him jokingly that I hoped he would remember my face, and I gave him my name, email address, and US and Korean cell-phone numbers. Then, with nothing else left to do (I wasn't about to demand to see the department head), I bowed myself out.

I came away from that encounter with a general feeling of foreboding. As I texted my buddies Tom and Charles later: "Bad vibe." I think it's safe to say that Hansung and I aren't made for each other, and if Hansung rejects my application, it'll be no big deal.

I grabbed a cab back to the closest Line 4 subway station (Hansung University Front, Handae-ap), then began the long, long trek to Ansan, where I next planned to sneak-attack the ERICA** campus of Hanyang University. Hanyang is a fairly young school, but it's positively swimming in money—hence the two campuses. The subway ride down to Ansan would be over an hour, giving me plenty of time to think. I decided that, since I knew which building on Hanyang's campus I needed to hit, I would once again take a cab, but this time I'd take it right to my target. However, if I grabbed the cab from the subway station that was right in front of campus, I feared the cabbie would get pissed off about the super-short ride, so I decided to get off one stop earlier than Handae-ap Station: a longer cab ride, but one that would be justified from the cabbie's point of view.

I got off at Sangnoksu Station, and immediately felt a good vibe. I couldn't explain that feeling; maybe it was just the bright sun and the pleasant breeze, but something felt more positive about being down in Ansan. The subway station itself was elevated, so it was a comfortable downstairs walk to ground level. At ground level, I saw the station had some cheerful-looking food stands, which also seemed to bode well. I walked out, turned, and went partway under an overpass, there to catch a cab. One rolled up rather promptly; I got inside, noticed the plush leather seats and the blasting air conditioning (hell, yeah!), and told the driver where I was headed.

Ansan has its share of looming concrete apartment buildings; in my opinion, these structures are a blight on the landscape, as geometric and unwelcoming as a virus in a human body, but given Korea's population density, the country has little choice but to house its citizens by stacking them. I saw all the same types of shops and restaurants one would normally see in Seoul, but it was obvious that, as was true in Yeosu, the pace of life was different here. Ansan was Seoul without the big-city neurosis. I asked the driver whether he knew the building I was trying to find: the Shilyong Yeongeo Gyoyuk-gwan (Practical English Education Center); he didn't know it.

We pulled up to the main entrance and rolled down the window to talk with a 60-something campus guard on a moped. The guard told me to get out of the car, so I paid the driver, who shrugged and went on his way.

"You're looking for what building?" asked the guard. Another tall traffic guard stood some ways away, using his whistle to direct traffic onto and off the campus grounds.

"The Practical English Education Center," I said.

"What building?" barked the tall traffic guard, interested in our exchange.

"The Practical English Education Center," I called. The traffic guard thought a bit, then tried to say something, but the incoming cars grabbed his attention and he had to break off.

Meanwhile, the guard on the moped thought a bit, started giving me directions to a particular building, then stopped: "Wait—you didn't say you were going to the Research Center, right?" I nodded: I hadn't said that.*** He radioed for someone to come help him while he pondered a bit, and he told me to wait where I was. I said I was going to take a look at the huge campus map right there at the front entrance, and he waved me over to it, lost in his own thoughts.

On the map, I found my destination right away: Building Number 4. The guard walked over and saw where I was looking; "Number 4," I said. "Ah! That's the place I was telling you to go to at first!" said the guard, relieved. "Just walk along this sidewalk, break left, and it's just behind that big building over there."

That sounded easy enough. I bowed to the guard and thanked him for his efforts on my behalf, then lumbered along the path he'd indicated.

The Practical English Education Center was right where the map and the guard said it would be. I tried a side door: locked. I walked around to what I assumed was the building's front door, and it was wide open. A breeze wafted through the lobby, which was shady and pleasant. I gave myself a few moments to cool down, surveying the lobby for an elevator. There was none, same as at Hansungdae. Once again, I took my time walking up the stairs, enjoying the breeze and the PEEC's much brighter, more cheerful interior.

Room 403 was right next to the stairwell, and also right next to Room 402. On Room 403's door was a sign in both English and Korean that said, "Keep this door closed at all times." That seemed rather forbidding, but after hesitating a moment, I knocked and let myself in. A mousy Korean girl sat at a terminal; I began to give her the same spiel I'd given to the Hansung-dae student staffers. A moment later, however, a bright-eyed Western woman in her late 40s or early 50s walked in and greeted me in Korean: "Annyeonghasaeyo!" I smiled and bowed cheerfully to her, returning her greeting in Korean, but she immediately reverted to English. Her name was Lydia (not her real name; henceforth nothing but pseudonyms); she politely listened to the short version of my story, then told me I should speak with one of the directors, a guy named Andy. Lydia bade me wait while she attempted to get Andy on the phone to tell him I was there; she couldn't reach him. Another teacher, an Englishman named Martin, sauntered over and offered to help Lydia by texting Andy. I was wowed by this: two teachers were now helping me to get in touch with their director! In the end, neither teacher could get hold of Andy, so they apologized and asked me to wait. I spoke briefly with Martin, who called himself the least senior member of the foreign faculty because he had been there for only a semester and a half. He had worked at a rinky-dink school before making the switch to Hanyang, which he described as "a definite step up." Hanyang's campus, quite unlike Hansung's tiny, run-down, depressing, soccer-field-sized patch of ground, was modern, sprawling, well-groomed, perky, and technologized. I took a liking to the campus immediately, and felt an overwhelming desire to just run around randomly and explore.

I was again told to wait for Andy to appear from wherever he had disappeared to. I saw some interesting novels on one bookshelf, and I pulled them down for perusal: Jurassic Park, Seabiscuit, and Into Thin Air. I had only just begun flipping through Jurassic Park when the office door opened and the Big Boss stepped in: Dr. Yi. A slight woman of indeterminate age (I'd guess she was in her forties), Dr. Yi quietly approached the round table where I was sitting. I stood up in recognition of her authority, removing my hands from my pockets; Lydia (a UK-born Aussie, as it turns out) introduced me to the department's director. When I said who I was, she interrupted: "Yes, I remember your application." That was reassuring.

For a second time, I explained why I had come while Dr. Yi listened patiently. I also mentioned that I was only in Korea until this coming Sunday. "Really?" she said. I reminded her that I had said as much in the email that accompanied my application. Her lack of memory of this crucial point wasn't so reassuring: it indicated to me that she hadn't really bothered to read my email (and possibly my application materials) thoroughly. After she'd heard my story, which I told partly in English and partly in Korean (she complimented my Korean, which was having a good hair day), she said that Hanyang had already narrowed the applications down to a "short list" of ten or so. "So whether we interview you depends on whether you're on the short list." Alas, she couldn't seem to remember whether I had made that cut. Either that, or she was, for some reason, unwilling to reveal my status. "How about I call you tomorrow?" she offered. I said that would be fine. "If you're on the short list," Dr. Yi added, "We'll try to interview you before you leave."

Bingo. That's what I was fishing for.

I left the building soon after that conversation. Lydia said she was sorry I hadn't had the chance to speak with Andy, but cheerfully noted that it was probably better that I had spoken with Dr. Yi, who is the overall department director. I can only hope I made a decent impression. On my way off campus, I took the following pictures. One shows the PEEC building; another shows a closeup of the name of the building; the third pic shows a nice view of the campus from the main entrance road:

As I walked out the main entrance, that same tall traffic guard saw me. "Find what you were looking for?" he barked. "Yes; thank you," I smiled. He nodded grimly, then went back to directing traffic.

Let's go back to the beginning, then, and talk about what insights I gained from this little outing. As I said earlier, I'm glad I did this. My reconnoiter of Hansung University, and my interaction with its torpid, lackadaisical staff, left a bad taste in my mouth. The Hansung job looks good on paper, but actually working in such an environment would quickly become depressing. Hanyang U., by contrast, was bright, open, clean, and dynamic—overall, a much happier, livelier campus. Upshot: the trip to doleful Hansung wasn't a waste. I learned a great deal about the school and the students—none of it good.

Another reason why I'm glad I took this trip was my discovery that Dr. Yi hadn't read my email very carefully. Had I not come, had I not said anything, she would have blithely assumed that she could safely ignore my application. In coming to Hanyangdae, I did exactly what I'd set out to accomplish: I made the faculty take me seriously by foisting my large, imposing presence on them. It's interesting to think about whether I was actually on Dr. Yi's short list of applicants. Was I? I have a sneaking suspicion that I wasn't, but that, because of this visit, the director will be reconsidering having cut me. That's Korean psychology, you see: it's always hard for Koreans to say "no" to someone's face, because the Korean impulse is toward the promotion of harmonious group feeling. Upsetting gigantic Kevin isn't conducive to promoting harmonious group feeling. So the way I see it, Dr. Yi has the following options: (1) call me and tell me I'm slated for an interview later this week, or (2) email me to say I didn't make the cut. She had asked me whether I had Net access, so I assume she's giving herself an "out" in case it turns out she does have to reject my application. Email is the coward's way out (ask any girlfriend who's ever been dumped by her guy via email), but it minimizes the social trauma, like a quick surgical amputation.

I thought, at first, about titling this post "batting .500," mainly because I hadn't had the chance to talk with Hansung's faculty. But the more I reflect on my day, the more I think today's mission was a total success: I discovered that Hansung is a school I wouldn't want to work at anyway, and I was delighted to discover Hanyang University's ERICA campus, which radiates competence and professionalism. Sheol versus Paradise. If I were a betting man, I'd bet that Hanyang will be notifying me that I'm on the short list and am slated for an interview later this week.

*That's basically what happened with Seoul National University last week: the lady on the other end told me I didn't need to come to the SNU office, and that Skype interviews were possible. So that was that for SNU.

**ERICA stands for "Education Research and Industry Cluster at Ansan."

***One of the most hilariously confusing aspects of adapting to East Asian culture is learning how East Asians handle yes/no questions. If a Korean poses a yes/no question in the negative to you, you have to respond "yes" to confirm the truth-value of the negative question. Example: X says, "You didn't do your homework?" In Korea, Y should say, by way of confirmation, "Yes, I didn't." This is, when you think about it, a much more logical way to communicate than what we do in America. In America, the exchange would go: "You didn't do your homework?" "No, I didn't." From a logical standpoint, that "No" makes no damn sense. No wonder Mr. Spock has—and some Koreans have—such trouble dealing with anglophone humans.



John said...

Productive day it sounds like. Keep thinking positive thoughts about Hanyang.

So, are saying that if Hansung called tomorrow and offered you the job you'd say no?

Kevin Kim said...


Thanks for slogging through a rather long and boring post.

Yes: if Hansung called tomorrow with a job offer, I'd turn them down. They were just... that... bad. So: one university down.

But guess what? Sungkyunkwan University is advertising a position at its Suwon campus again! Shall I try to apply a third time? I believe I shall.

Charles said...

That's awesome, dude. I'm glad to hear that some of my fears were unfounded, at least with Hanyang

I will offer up a prayer to the elder gods that they might overthrow the minds of whatever other shortlist applicants there may be for the job.