Saturday, August 15, 2015

my trip to Ulsan

When KMA, my #3 employer, says "Jump," I say, "How high?" I go where they send me, and if they tell me I have to go to Ulsan—a city I've never visited before—then off I go to Ulsan, no questions asked. My KMA boss had asked me to teach my Persuasive Business Writing course on site instead of doing what we usually do, i.e., teach our courses at our headquarters in Yeouido, central Seoul. KMA is an extremely organized company,* so I'd learned about this latest gig a couple of months ago. I was told that I'd be teaching my 7-hour course, but that the course would be divided over two days—3.5 hours per day. My boss, who's a very nice guy, did all the arranging: he purchased my train ticket, reserved my hotel, and communicated with the on-site coordinator at Korea EWP (한국동서발전—hanguk dongseo baljeon: Korea East-West Power Company). I would have to pay for the hotel and taxi fare, but KMA would pick up the tab once I presented all my receipts. All I had to do was prep my lesson, dress properly, hop on an express train, reach the site, settle in, and teach.

Here's a shot of the KTX train I took from Seoul down to Ulsan. One of the cool things about leaving Seoul on the KTX is that, if you get to the train early enough, it's usually empty. I got to my train about 30-40 minutes before departure, hence the empty car:

Below, a shot of yours truly, settling in for the two-hour ride down south.

Next, a slightly more candid shot. When I uploaded this to Instagram, I wrote something like, "You don't wanna be inside my head." Well, it's kinda true.

The trip plunged us passengers into bad weather. Conditions had been decent in Seoul, but the farther south we went, the more it pissed down rain. The weather was positively English—overcast and drenched—by the time we arrived in Ulsan. Luckily, there was a covered walkway outside of Ulsan Station, so I was able to walk to the taxi stand without having to use my umbrella. The ride from Ulsan Station to EWP was much longer than I expected (about 20 minutes), and I ended up paying almost W18,000—to be reimbursed, of course.

The EWP building was large and imposing: it felt more like a fortress or edifice or ziggurat than a simple building. Its interior was spare and clean; this was obviously a new place. I walked up to the receptionist's desk—the lady seemed kind of lonely, sitting there in the midst of all that vastness—and told her I had come to teach a class and to speak with Ms. Jeong, the coordinator assigned to help get me settled in. I was told to wait a few minutes; Ms. Jeong came down, bright and perky and speaking English quite competently, and she helped me arrange a guest pass, which I got in exchange for handing over a business card (good thing I had one!). Ms. Jeong then led me up to the second floor, through several layers of security and past dozens of CCTV cameras, to the room I'd be using for the workshop.

While waiting in the lobby, I took the following pic of EWP's slightly Konglishy motto: "We make energy for happiness." Grammatically, there's no problem with that sentence at all, but culturally, it sounds strange to a Westerner. "Happiness" doesn't seem like a serious enough concept to slap on a wall and represent the ambitions of a large, powerful corporation. Something like "Powering the future" might have been better. Then again, Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, noted that happiness is the highest human good—that state of being in which we participate for no sake other than itself. Everything else that we do in life, we do to attain happiness, Aristotle contended. It sits at the top of the hierarchy of human motivation... so perhaps, in that philosophical sense, EWP's motto is perfectly appropriate.

Here's a look at my classroom—very clean, very neat, very nicely teched out, even though my workshop wasn't designed to use any tech other than good old pen and paper. (It's a very basic, very meat-and-potatoes course that I teach.)

The only drawback with the room was the near-total lack of air conditioning. This became a problem for me over both days that I taught: I sweated my way through seven hours of course material, incessantly wiping my face with three different cloths: a paper towel and two handkerchiefs. Normally, I prefer the room temperature to be down around 22ºC (72ºF), but I think this room was at around 26ºC (about 79ºF). It was hot. I'm half-Korean, and Koreans don't sweat easily, but I failed to inherit the no-sweat DNA. I also found it ironic that a power company didn't use its abundant electricity to crank up the air conditioner. When I mentioned this jokingly to a student the following day, she laughed, "Yes; we say that EWP is the only company to tell people not to use its product!"

The first day of class went fairly well. There had been 20 people on the roll, but only 19 people showed up (including the helpful coordinator, Ms. Jeong, who also sat for the class after working so hard to prepare the room and to help me out). Class ended with applause, which I normally take to be a good sign.

Ms. Jeong very kindly called for a cab to take me to my hotel. The ride from EWP to the hotel went more quickly than the ride from the train station to the company; I noted that the hotel seemed to be in a fairly downtown-ish area. It was called the Ulsan Hotel—a name so generic that I had to wonder whether that was its actual name. It occurred to me that I might have misunderstood: maybe I was being taken to "an Ulsan hotel" and not "the Ulsan Hotel." But no: the hotel really was named Ulsan Hotel. The cabbie dropped me off after laughingly giving me shit for having lived ten years in Korea without ever having visited Ulsan before. I lumbered into the lobby, paid for my room in advance, and made my way to Room 706.

Here are three exterior shots of my hotel as I pan ever upward:

Sorry for the lack of focus in these shots; it was dark and rainy—not optimal lighting conditions for a finicky digital camera.

Here's the hallway which, luckily, wasn't all red-lit:

After I'd settled in and hooked up to the hotel's free (but slow) WiFi, I decided to head out for dinner. The hotel sat next to a rotary, in the center of which was some sort of monument. I never got a close look at it, so I don't know what it commemorated, but that's homework for my next visit to Ulsan, whenever that might be. The monument shot:

Dinner was at a local donggaseu place. The menu offered wang-donggaseu (king-sized panko-fried pork cutlet), but the pork that came out wasn't king-sized at all. Still, it was uncommonly tasty: it's easy to do donggaseu badly, and this place did it well. I probably should have ordered two plates, though.

I went back to my room, and even though I was tired after a long train ride followed by several hours of workshop activities, I still had to tutor my student, Amy, who would be contacting me via Skype. (I've written about Amy and her brother Sam here.) She's in the US, so we'd agreed to have our sessions at 10PM, Korea time, which would be 9AM, US east coast time.

The slow WiFi connection meant that our Skype talk was broken up by multiple interruptions. We ended up using Kakao Talk's voice-call function to complete the hour; I've been helping Amy prep her college-admissions essays, so we've been going through all the brainstorming, outlining, drafting, and so on. Her parents had kindly paid for ten 1-hour sessions; Amy's a really good student, and she's applying to a wide range of colleges, including one Ivy League university. I'm sure she'll get in somewhere; I hope she makes it into her dream school, which is Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.

Exhausted after tutoring, I still had one more chore: I needed to wash my clothes so that I wouldn't stink the following day. I had brought along some detergent powder, so I laboriously hand-washed all my clothing in the hotel's bathroom sink. I had told the lobby receptionist that I needed a fan for quick-drying purposes; she took me to the fourth floor, where we picked up a large electric fan. After washing my clothes and torquing them to squeeze out as much water as possible, I hung them up to dry, arranging and rearranging them in such a way as to get the maximum drying effect from the fan.

Despite the fact that this was a much higher-class hotel than the yeogwans I usually use, I noted with amusement that my room had that same naughty red mood lighting for when it's sexy time. I've already blogged about this, though, so I won't repeat myself here.

I went to sleep a bit after 3AM. My clothes were nice and dry when I woke up, late, around 10AM, and hastily prepared to check out. After packing everything up and checking to make sure I hadn't missed anything, I heaved the tall, heavy electric fan back down to the fourth floor, then went down to the first floor to check out. Checkout was as simple as handing over my room key and saying goodbye. I walked out to the street and grabbed a cab to go to EWP.

Ms. Jeong once again met me in the huge building's (stronghold's) lobby. She had already prepped the classroom for the Day Two session, so there was little for me to do but start sweating again. We ate a small lunch together in the first-floor snack bar and talked a bit about ourselves; Ms. Jeong, it turns out, spent six months in Spain and speaks Spanish quite well. I teased her in class by spouting what little Spanish I knew.

Somewhat disappointingly, only about half the students came back for the second day (an early start on vacation?), and the numbers fluctuated wildly throughout the 3.5-hour workshop: we had eight people, then twelve (after a few Day One students came back an hour or so late), then eight again, then six, then eight when some stragglers who had never shown up on Day One suddenly appeared for Day Two. It was an attendance nightmare, and I don't know how much the inconstant students benefited from the course, but by the end of Day Two, there was applause again, and some students said the course had been very helpful. One student even said it had been "an honor" to learn from me; I smiled, sweat dripping down my face, and told him it had been an honor for me as well.

Although the attendance issue was a bit frustrating, I suppose there's little I can do about it: these aren't young high-schoolers or college kids; these are busy, responsible adults who are always on call, which is why they were constantly darting out of the classroom whenever their phones vibrated for attention. I'm not sure, but I might institute a no-phones policy from now on, just to cut down on all the distractions. And based on the sudden drop in student numbers from Day One to Day Two, I might recommend to my boss that, if we ever do on-site training again, we should make sure it's all done on a single day for shorter classes like mine.

Below is a shot of the electronic panel outside our classroom, which shows the room name, the course name (somewhat cut off), the student demographic, the coordinator's name, and the time during which the room had been reserved. Like KMA, EWP strikes me as a very organized, very professional place. With all of the in-building security systems, I can see why it might be important to know how long an event might take: if you come too late, the doors will probably be locked!

And at long last, a picture of Ms. Jeong herself. She was gracious enough to permit me to take this pic and upload it to my blog:

Ms. Jeong deserves a medal for all her hard work.

This next shot is clickable: click to enlarge. It's a shot of my Day Two students, who were all kind enough to give their permission for me to upload their images to my blog. I see eleven students in this picture... the twelfth had probably already wandered off. Some of the students disappeared mysteriously, without a goodbye, and never came back. This was both sad and amusing at the same time.

The students often asked interesting questions or made interesting comments. One lady noted that many of the English errors we were examining were minor in nature—did it really matter that much that we correct them? I replied that, yes, the errors were generally minor, but even tiny errors can leap out for a native speaker, and a series of such errors just compounds the problem and gives the reader an impression of incompetence. To illustrate my point, I wrote "안뇽하세요?" on the board—a misspelling of the standard "Hello" in Korean (annyeong-haseyo? roughly translates as something like, "Do you do peaceably?"—obviously, "Hello" is a much better translation, but if you're a non-Korean-speaker, you might be wondering how it is that "Hello," which is declarative in English, is rendered as a question in Korean). The whole class immediately reacted to the misspelling, even though all I had changed was a single vowel, and that's the point I drove home to my student: the small stuff does indeed matter.

One of the older gentlemen in the class, a man who occupied a rather high position in the company, seemed to light up on Day One after we had gone through my unit on logical fallacies (my course is based on Aristotle's notion of rhetoric which, for Aristotle, contains three elements: ethos, pathos, and logos, i.e., authoritativeness, emotional force, and logic; it was during the logos section that we reviewed ten common fallacies)... but for him, the important thing wasn't to avoid committing the fallacies, but to learn how to keep an opponent off-balance by using the fallacies as a weapon to distract and confuse. Not exactly the lesson I'd hoped he would take from my course material, but I had to laugh. The same gentleman also excitedly parsed some recent speeches by Korean politicians, using the fallacies he'd just learned about to note that those speeches contained a fair amount of bullshit. I'd say that's true for most politicians, be they American, Korean, or whoever.

Anyway, the course is done. This was either KMA's first attempt at teaching an on-site workshop, or it was among the first attempts. I was, essentially, an ambassador for KMA; how well or poorly I was received by EWP's workers would reflect on KMA as a company and would determine whether KMA did more such on-site classes. Overall, I'd say the experience was positive. I thoroughly enjoyed my students, who were all marvelous—yes, even the ones who eventually disappeared, or who were constantly distracted by their cell phones. If EWP ever invites me back to teach another course for them, I'll be more than happy to do so. I had a great time in Ulsan, and it's sad that my time was so brief.

The course finished at 5PM on Day Two; I cabbed back to Ulsan Station and hopped onto the 6:22PM KTX bullet train back to Seoul. The trip took longer going north than it had going south; we didn't get back until a little after 8:30PM. I ate at the Seoul Station Burger King, then made my way to Gwanghwamun to take the bus back to Goyang City. By the time I got off the bus, it was after 11PM, and I was once again dead tired.

Here's a (clickable) shot of a huge, electronic Korean flag, which was on display on the building directly across the street from the front of Seoul Station. This August 15 is gwangbok-jeol, or Liberation Day (alternatively known as Independence Day). It's special because, this year, Korea celebrates its 70th year of freedom from Japanese tyranny.

Ulsan is a major port city, like Pohang and Busan. I didn't get to see much of the city during this trip, but I'm intrigued enough to want to come again. And if the EWP staffers I'd met during my course were any indication, then I came away with a good impression of the people of Ulsan as well. I'm sure I'll be back down here someday.

*I cannot emphasize enough how much I love working for KMA. It's a very professional organization that, I think, is one of the rare places that pays people what they're worth (so take that, Karl Marx, you fucking asshole). KMA lays out its teaching calendar at the beginning of every calendar year, so I know almost all of my teaching dates well in advance. True: this Ulsan gig wasn't on the original calendar, but KMA had told me about the gig back in May or June, so I had plenty of time to mentally prepare. I hate working for a disorganized, unprofessional, zigzaggy company that doesn't seem to know where it's heading. KMA is easily the best gig I've ever done on a steady basis. It's reliable, and it pays reliably, too—no foot-dragging, no indefinite answers when it comes to pay dates, etc.



John (I'm not a robot) said...

Nice report. I've never been to Ulsan either. Isn't there where Jenn (of the defunct "Ive Got 2 Shoes" lived?

Oh my, Ms. Jeong radiates Korean sweetness!

Kevin Kim said...

Yes, this is Jelly's Ulsan. I've had very intermittent contact with Jelly since she left the peninsula; she seems to be dealing with her own issues and isn't very reliably communicative at the moment.