Friday, August 21, 2015

yesterday's Seoul-dae adventure

Yesterday kicked my ass. I'm not in my twenties anymore, that's for sure.

I had stayed up until about 3:30AM the night before my big Seoul-dae gig, printing out fifty-something student résumés, putting them in alphabetical (ganadanical?*) order, circling salient points that I might want to ask questions about as a way of individualizing each interview. Thursday's gig involved going to the great and powerful Seoul National University, there to conduct mock job interviews for students in a summertime "employment camp," i.e., a camp devoted to helping students find jobs. The gig was to start at 10AM. I woke up around 5:30AM—after a two-hour sleep—with the intention of being on SNU's campus by 8:30AM at the latest. I was groggy; morning prep was slow. By the time I left my place, it was close to 6:30AM. I waited several minutes for the local 080 bus to Madu Station; it was twenty-five minutes to Madu, followed by a backwards, three-stop leap to Daehwa Station, then the short, transfer-heavy route down to Seouldae-ipgu Station. En route, I missed the Line 6 train and had to take the next one, which threw my schedule off another few minutes. Ended up arriving at my destination around 8:45AM.

The Korean term ipgu refers to an entrance, and most subway stations located close to university campuses will have ipgu in their names. But SNU is an exception in that the station is located rather far from campus: you can walk the distance, in principle, but when it's 8:45AM and you're in business attire, trying to arrive early for a 10AM gig, walking that distance on a hot summer morning isn't in the cards. Knowing this, I elected to take a cab.

Several taxis passed me, frustratingly, and picked up people who stood not far from where I was standing. It took me a few angry, seething minutes to cotton on to the fact that there were actual, designated taxi-stop areas painted onto the street next to Exit #3 of the station. When I moved to one of the designated areas, the taxis stopped arriving—a classic example of the cosmic nature of Murphy's Law. But as Bruce Wayne said in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, the world doesn't make sense unless you force it to, so I walked around the corner, away from the taxi stands and the Kevin-ignoring taxis, over to one of the streets that fed into the intersection I'd been standing at. I figured I'd have a much higher chance of catching a taxi at my new spot, and sure enough, I caught one right away.

The driver dropped me right next to the building I needed to enter: the Lotte International Education Building, not far from the campus's main entrance. I had been told by my SNU contact, Miss Baek (not her real name**), that the mock interviews were to be held in Room 208, so I went there, found the spacious area gloriously empty, and began to settle in. Ms. Baek herself rushed into the classroom barely a few minutes later. As the day went on, I began to realize that rushing was her default mode, the poor woman.

"Kevin Kim?" she asked as she ran up to me on shuffling feet, beaming. I nodded. "I thought you were Korean!" she chirped, referencing our email exchange, in which I had apparently written in passably mistake-free (or mistake-minimal) Korean. Then she laid it on me: "We've changed rooms! We're in 205 now!" I sighed, shrugged, and packed up my stuff, then headed out as Ms. Baek led the way to 205, a much smaller room with a closet-y vibe, mainly thanks to the ranks of stacked furniture lining the walls, obstructing the classroom's bookshelves. Two rows of large table/desks faced each other on opposite sides of the classroom. The chairs at each desk were high-backed and luxurious—the sort of padded swivel chairs that you might find at an office. I began to lay out my paperwork again in a second attempt to settle in.

"Oh, no!" said Ms. Baek. "I printed all those out for you!" She looked with dismay at my pile of fifty-some student résumés. "There have been some changes in the student roster, too, so you're going to have to use my printouts." She had the grace to look apologetic, and I've lived in Korea long enough that I'm not as annoyed as I used to be when it comes to last-minute changes in plan. Koreans are zigzaggy people, and if you want to live in this culture and keep your sanity, you just have to accept that fact. She rushed out, then rushed back in with stacks of résumés that she plunked down on my desk. Among the résumés were a few other sheets of paper with crucial information on them: a schedule sheet that showed the order in which the groups of students would be appearing, a map of my building's interior so that I could find my way to lunch, a four-page student roster.

I thanked Ms. Baek and got to work redoing everything I had done the night before. I also hunted around for a wall socket so I could recharge my phone (it's over two years old, and the battery drains quickly these days), and was happy to discover not only an outlet but also an extension cord so that I could keep the phone on my desk while it charged. With barely thirty minutes before go time, I plowed through the stack of CVs, trying to remember what salient points I had marked on them the previous night.

The schedule sheet showed that there would be four groups of kids coming for interviews. The smallest group on the roster had only eleven students; the other groups all had thirteen or fourteen kids. For whatever reason, I was to be going backwards through the groups: Group D would be first, followed by Group C, then B, then A. There was to be a one-hour lunch break after Group C. I soldiered on with my prep.

Ten o'clock rolled around, and Group D came in. Another change: Group D was supposed to have eleven students, but only nine showed up. I made a few humorous prefatory remarks in English and Korean, introducing myself and explaining our procedure for the next 90 minutes, then we all settled in and got to it.

I interviewed the students for five minutes, one at a time, American-style. Korean job interviews tend to be with several students at once, but since I'm not very familiar with how such interviews go, I elected to go with what I knew. There was some fun during the interviews: I made no attempt to lower my voice as each student sat in a chair across from me and my small desk, and whenever I joked about something, the entire room would erupt with laughter, proving that the other students were listening closely to each exchange.

The students themselves were among the most interesting I've ever encountered anywhere, but I suppose that's not surprising, given that Seoul National enjoys its status as the top university in South Korea. What was surprising, though, was the high proportion of students with very shaky English. None of the kids actually failed at communicating, but many of them stumbled along with what I would rate as low-intermediate English. They tripped over words and ideas; they fumbled when trying to form complex thoughts into complex sentences; they stammered and paused and hemmed and hawed. I had thought, before yesterday's visit, that almost all the students at SNU would speak nearly flawless English, the way good gyopos do. During my final 90-minute session, I asked after two students who were absent, and one of the young ladies replied that they were afraid to interview because they were afraid to use English. That didn't sound at all SNU-ish to me, and I said as much, griping jocularly in Korean, "That's no reason not to come. Why would you go through 99% of a program, then drop out right before the last activity?"

I had established my rhythm by the end of the first session. The second session began late because Group C was held back during the activity right before mine. I grimaced: a fifteen-minute late start would mean a 45-minute lunch because I wouldn't be able to delay the 2PM start of the third session. 45 minutes proved to be plenty of time for lunch, however; I finished plowing through the last half of the résumés while I sat by myself in the room that had been set aside for us professors. Three other Korean gentlemen were in the lunch room with me; they'd already gotten started on their doshirak lunch boxes before I lumbered in. I downed the bulgogi, rice, seaweed soup, and sides while I worked. The three profs left the room before I did; in all, we had exchanged no more than a dozen words.

Despite the linguistic hangups (and to be fair, many of the students did speak English quite fluently), the students were impressive. Quite a few were nervous, but many seemed eager to show off their skills and knowledge. I met kids who were accomplished in other languages like Chinese, Russian, German, and Spanish (although, unfortunately, no one spoke French). Other kids regaled me with tales of their overseas experience, or they wowed me with stories of how they'd managed a large event or had worked a variety of small jobs. The final session, which was supposed to have fourteen people, had only eight, so we ended about ten minutes early. One charming and intelligent young lady, a Russian speaker from Group B, hung back after the end of the session to pepper me with some questions about overseas employment. She wasn't the only one to hang back, either: in all four sessions, two or three kids would remain to ask further questions, demonstrating a level of curiosity that I've never seen at any of the three universities at which I've taught.

Ms. Baek came into class during one of the later sessions and sat down to observe for a few minutes; she laughed along with the students as I made jokes in two languages. I needled her because she insisted on speaking to me only in Korean, and I publicly accused her of secretly knowing English while forcing me to speak Korean.

And then it was done. I finished the fourth session at 4:50PM. Ms. Baek burst into the room as the kids left; she said the ritual "Sugo manhi hashyeosseoyo" ("You worked very hard"). I nodded and thanked her for all her help. Despite her rushed, breathless nature, and despite the annoying last-minute changes to the day's agenda, Ms. Baek truly had been very helpful and very solicitous, and I definitely appreciated her kind efforts.

Having had only two hours' sleep, I was drained. John McCrarey and Young Chun were supposed to get together (with other people?), and both had invited me to join them, but I knew I'd be too tired to do anything but go home, so I turned them both down with regret. I took a cab to Seouldae-ipgu Station, trained over to Gyodae Station, then got on Line 3 toward Ogeum, the southeast terminus, with the intention of getting out and finding a seat on the first empty train heading toward Daehwa, the northwest terminus. As I trundled eastward from Gyodae to Ogeum, I nodded off.

The next thing I felt was someone insistently tapping me several times on the thigh. I woke with a start, and saw it was the subway's conductor. We had apparently advanced into the maintenance tunnel—that mysterious, "Here Be Dragons" region beyond the final stop into which many subway trains will mysteriously disappear. I had always imagined these normally off-limits places as occult, chthonian hideaways dominated by weird spiritual powers from Korean folklore. As images of orgies and human sacrifice filled my head, I stared out the subway car's window and saw nothing but more tunnel. "Just wait a minute," the conductor said before leaving. Obviously, the train was going to reverse out of the tunnel and start back toward some destination to the northwest—either Gupabal or Daehwa.*** I was thrilled to finally find myself in the forbidden zone, but as the train hummed and then slid back out to the boarding platform, I nodded off again. I woke up, confused, and heard that my train had now become the train to Gupabal, so I got off and wandered over to the other set of tracks to await the train for Daehwa.

Several Gupabal-bound trains departed before a Daehwa train appeared. I boarded and immediately resumed sleeping, waking up when we were past Gupabal. When the train finally hit Madu Station, I stumbled out of the car, blinking furiously to clear up my dried, mucus-filled contact lenses. I got up to street level, clomped onto the 080 bus going to my neighborhood, got off, and trudged over to a local burger place to have some Korean-style burgers. My brother David texted me while I ate; I cut the conversation short because I was just too damn tired to concentrate, and I walked home after the meal, unlocking my door just a little bit before 9PM. It had been a long, long day for me—hence yesterday's terse blog post.

So it was a good gig, all in all. I'd be happy to do it again, but this appears to be a summertime-only sort of job, i.e., once a year. Many thanks to Young for putting me in contact with Ms. Baek; she's a good lady who just needs to learn to relax.

*If you don't get the joke: the first three letters of the Korean alphabet are the letters "g," "n," and "d." When Koreans type out lists and use their equivalent of "A, B, C" to mark list items, they stick the vowel "ah" onto the first three consonants such that, when Koreans speak of "the ABCs," they say, "Ga, na, da," which does sound a bit like "Canada" said slowly, in an exaggerated manner, with a Korean accent.

**Miss Baek's real name has to be one of the strangest Korean names I've ever encountered.

***Subways in Korea don't always run as far as the terminus: they often stop several stations short. Any given subway's designated terminus is written on an electronic marquee on the side of the subway, easily seen by passengers looking to board the train. Daehwa is the absolute final stop on Line 3, so to get to Madu Station, which is three stops short of Daehwa, I'd need to take a Daehwa-bound train. Were I to take the Gupabal train, I'd have to get off at Gupabal, then wait for a Daehwa-bound train. That would be a pain in the ass because it would mean losing my much-coveted seat at the end of the row.


1 comment:

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

That was indeed a long ass day. At least you were busy (being sleepy and bored is a tough combination as I can attest from personal experience).

I had invited my boss to join Young and I but she was unavailable. By the end of the evening Young was friends with everyone in the bar of course and I'd deem it a good time...