Saturday, April 16, 2016

yesterday's Seoul-dae adventure

Yesterday, I took a day off from my full-time job at the Golden Goose (with my boss's kind permission) to go teach a résumé-writing clinic over at Seoul National University. The clinic was supposed to go from 10AM to noon, but because of circumstances that I will explain below, the class ended about forty minutes early.

As I'd done last time, I took the subway to Seoul-dae Ipgu Station. Despite the word ipgu (entrance) in the station's name, the station isn't anywhere near the campus entrance: from the subway stop, once you climb up to street level, you have to take a cab or a local bus to get on campus. (There are a few such "campus-ipgu" stations in Seoul: some of them lie about dropping you right at the entrance. One thing you quickly learn, when living in East Asia, is that it's bad policy to take anything literally.)

The cabbie got me to the Lotte International Education Building , which is not far from the campus's main entrance, before 9:15AM, giving me plenty of time to prep for the class. Room 208 was empty, but the huge projection screen was down and someone else's PowerPoint presentation was still being displayed by digital projector. I walked up to the front of the classroom, went to the multimedia desk-cum-lectern, closed the PowerPoint presentation, and tried to call up Google Drive so I could download and set up my own PowerPoint file.

First hitch: the computer didn't have the Google Chrome browser. No sweat, I thought as I tried to access Drive by typing "" into the Internet Explorer browser. I got to Drive, but—second hitch—I was unable to log in. I thought this might be because I was using the IE browser, so I went over to the Chrome-download webpage and downloaded Chrome. I then tried to log into my own account... and got—third hitch—a page demanding verification of who I was, as I was trying to access my own account from a different computer than my normal ones (I usually access my personal Google-related material via my phone, my home Mac, and my office Windows machine). The warning screen told me to select one of three or four options to receive a verification code; I chose "text message," but—fourth hitch—no code came. This was confusing, as I was sure I had set up Chrome to send verification-code text messages to my cell phone.

Since I could access Google Drive through my phone's browser, I downloaded my PowerPoint file into my phone with the hope of using a USB connection to get the file from my phone and onto the classroom's computer. The multimedia desk-cum-lectern had a USB socket, so I plugged my phone into that... and—fifth hitch—the computer failed to recognize the phone. Unsure what to do next, I decided to wait for Ms. Baek (not her real name), this program's coordinator, to show up. She did, a few minutes later; I explained the problem, and she plugged my USB cord directly into the CPU instead of into the desk's USB jack. Voilà: success. My phone's icon appeared on the computer screen, and I was able to search through my phone's folders to find my PowerPoint presentation (Ms. Baek actually saw the file first and pointed it out to me). Relieved, I downloaded my file onto the lectern's desktop. Everything worked fine, and Ms. Baek stepped out to do an errand. There were several remote controls on the desk, and I finally figured out which one managed the PowerPoint slide show. The controls were a bit finicky; sometimes, a single click would advance me forward by two slides. I practiced clicking through the entire presentation, learning how to rein in the button's tendency to advance the slides too quickly. I had wanted to take a trip to the restroom, but time was getting short, so I resigned myself to toughing it out for two hours.

As I was practicing with the remote, the first students began to trickle in, looking tired and not too enthused to be there. I had piled my worksheets on a desk at the front row, but the first student to come in informed me that there was assigned seating, so there might be people needing to sit in the front row. I spoke with this student in a mixture of English and Korean; her English was pretty shaky, which I once again found surprising for a Seoul National student, despite my previous teaching experience. As I collected my handouts and took them back to the desk/lectern, the student told me she was a German major, so I asked her a few basic questions in easy German (since easy German is the only German I know). Her replies were halting; she admitted she had begun studying German only a few months earlier.

By 9:55AM, about half of the students registered for the workshop had wandered in, many looking fairly bleary, but some looking more or less alert. I remembered back to my own college days; college had basically ruined my sleep habits, taking me from the morning person I had been in high school to a full-on vampire who dove into bed at the crack of dawn. I knew how these students felt. Ms. Baek had returned and settled herself at the very back of the classroom; I asked her whether it would be all right to begin despite the presence of only half the class. She said yes, so at 10 o'clock, I began.

I had planned the two hours to go like this:

1. How Not to Write a Résumé (25 minutes)
2. How to Write a Résumé (25 minutes)
3. Résumé Workshop (30 minutes)—partner and individual work
4. One-on-one Résumé Checking (40 minutes)

Ms. Baek had mentioned earlier that many of the students would be testing that day, and she was worried that the one-on-one checking would go overtime, thus making some students late for their tests. Why she hadn't told me this before, I'll never know. As I quickly discovered, though, this was a minor problem. The major problem was this: even though I had asked Ms. Baek, weeks before, to tell the students to bring both their own résumés and their own laptops (with the résumé files on them), only two of the students present had actually thought to bring their résumés. When I asked the students why so few had bothered to bring résumés and laptops, they claimed that this course was "short notice" to them: they had heard about it only last week. I growled a low growl when I heard that: Ms. Baek had asked me to teach this course back in January. There had been plenty of time to market the course widely.

So most of my workshop was fucked from the very beginning. I shrugged and did the only thing a person can do in such a situation: I improvised. Parts (1) and (2) of the course were essentially a PowerPoint lecture, so I took the students through that. Those parts went without a hitch, except for one amusing hangup: when I gave the students a pile of sample résumés to distribute among themselves, they weren't able to do it!

Let me explain. I had photocopied two sample résumés that I had found online—one by a fictional guy named Jose, and another by a fictional guy named John. Each résumé was two pages long; I had stacked photocopies of them together to alternate John-Jose-John, with all the Johns perpendicular to all the Joses. All each student had to do was pluck one John and one Jose for him- or herself, then pass the stack over to the next student. Somehow, this task was beyond them, and they ended up getting confused. Some students were pulling out only one page of each résumé; others pulled out two Johns for themselves, ignoring poor Jose. I shook my head and mocked them: "You're the country's smartest students?" Several students giggled and smiled sheepishly.

Back to the PowerPoint lecture. It went smoothly. I had created an animated slide show that analyzed all the problems in John's résumé (John's résumé was the bad one; the students had to figure out which résumé was good and which was bad), interspersed with images I had plucked from online—a crying baby; the horrific, tongue-cutting girl from the remake of "Evil Dead"; Deadpool giving a thumbs-up; and so on.

After the slide show was done, I still had over an hour to go and nothing to do, so I told the students to look at John's bad résumé and figure out ways to improve it. I gave them fifteen minutes to work together with partners; the students all spoke to each other in Korean, which bothered me, but there was little I could do: this was a résumé clinic, not an English class. After I called time on the partner work, I went around the room, asking pairs of students for their suggestions on how to improve John's piss-poor CV. After that, I did a Q&A that was dominated by one male student who had a slew of questions (to be fair, they were good questions). I had the chance to talk with the students about cover letters, which I hadn't originally planned to do (two hours isn't a long time to cover résumés, let alone résumés plus cover letters), and by the time we'd finished all that, it was 11:20AM, and I dismissed the class.

Later on, I emailed Ms. Baek to thank her for her help, and she emailed back that the students had said they'd really enjoyed the class, which was a good thing. I had actually found it hard to tell whether the kids had enjoyed the class; they had all had a wanna go home expression on their faces by the end of the session.

A few students hung back after most of the crowd had left. The two students who had bothered to bring their résumés were among them, and I did a bit of consulting work. Two other students had further questions about cover letters and letters of recommendation, so I fielded those questions as well. Not long after that, Ms. Baek asked me whether it'd be all right for her to have a copy of my PowerPoint presentation; I said that would be fine. She left soon after, and I was alone in the classroom. I collected my things and headed for the nearest restroom, both to relieve myself after two hours of holding things in and to change clothes, as I wanted to walk most of the campus's lovely perimeter road before my next appointment of the day—with my buddy Charles, at 1PM.

I took my time in the toilet stall, partly to seek blessed relief, and partly to change my clothes. While I was in there, I heard several guys come in and use one of the stand-up urinals. They all apparently chose the same urinal to use (not at the same time, mind you), and a weird thing happened with every use: the urinal screamed.

I wrote about this on Twitter, but I don't think anyone who read those tweets believed me. The noise was obviously coming from some pipe, but the sound was almost exactly that of a high-pitched, feminine scream: "Aaaaaaaaaagggghhhh!!!" These were "sensor" urinals; the sensor would activate the moment someone stood in front of the porcelain, water would begin to flow... and the screaming would begin. It was surreal. It was comical. It was a bit unnerving, thanks mainly to the unearthly realism of the screams, and to the fact that I couldn't see what was going on. That urinal probably screamed three or four times before I finally let myself out of my cubicle, refreshed and now wearing a scruffier set of clothes.

With my two satchels slung over both shoulders, I lumbered out of the Lotte International Education Building, walked up to the perimeter road, turned left per my traditional walk (around 2003 or so, I used to live in the Nakseongdae neighborhood, not far from Seoul National, so I'd walk the perimeter road), and started marching around the campus. The idea was to do as much of the perimeter as possible, then turn into the campus around 12:45PM or so and head straight for Charles's building to meet him for tea at 1PM ("meet for tea" always sounds a bit pretentious and pinky-twiddling and oh-so-veddy-English to me, whereas "meet for a cup of coffee" sounds more homey and relaxed; problem is, I don't drink coffee).

I noticed right away that, despite the perimeter road's hilliness and my huffing and puffing and sweating, I was experiencing no chest pains. Two weeks on my regime had improved me at least in that respect. I managed to chug past clusters of students who were walking more slowly and desultorily, which made me a bit proud of myself, even though I knew my pride was founded on an illusion: any one of those kids, had he or she had a mind to, could have easily kicked my ass up and down the street, out-hiking me without even breaking a sweat.

One older ajumma in front of me had had the same idea of walking the perimeter road. I gained on her and was about thirty meters behind her when she stopped, turned, and noticed me. She looked like a frumpy Korean version of Susan Boyle. I ended up walking past her, but a few moments later, she ran past me, having decided that I had become her competition. She slowed back down to walking speed once she had gotten sufficiently ahead of me. This sort of small-minded competitiveness is common among Koreans, but I don't occupy any moral high ground in observing this: when I drive in the States, I become just as competitive. It's why I have several speeding tickets to my name.

Susan Boyle got ahead of me and stayed ahead: she now knew what pace I was setting, so she was determined to stay in front of me, even if this meant she could no longer enjoy a leisurely stroll. Our competition (well—her competition, as I never changed my pace) ended when Ms. Boyle decided to take an inward-turning downhill road toward the center of campus, while I continued up and up a large hill on the perimeter road. I swiveled my head and caught her staring at me. She must have realized that I had chosen the more difficult path while she had elected to pussy out. I gave Ms. Boyle my own tight, small-minded grin and continued uphill, after which I forgot about her until I began writing this part of the current blog post.

I think I had gone at least two-thirds of the way around the perimeter when I checked the time: 12:50PM. I was late. I had wanted to turn toward the center of campus about five minutes earlier but had gotten too absorbed in walking. I called Charles soon after, telling him I would likely be late, and that there were no off-roads on the part of the perimeter where I was, so it'd be a few minutes before I could veer campus-ward. Charles, annoyed but trying to hide his annoyance, reminded me that he'd suggested I go counterclockwise around the perimeter so as to make it easier to reach his building. I didn't take that advice because, first, it would have meant doing a much smaller fraction of the perimeter before veering off; and, second, clockwise is how I've always walked that road. Sorry, but that's how it is.

I called Charles again once I had left the perimeter road and started to wend my way among the campus's jumbled buildings. He pointed me in the direction I needed to go, and I found his building with no trouble thanks to his instructions. Sweaty and stinking, I arrived at his office; we jawed for a while, talking about students, teaching, Charles's upcoming stint at Harvard University, and other things. Charles served me a bottle of cold water and a piping-hot cup of "Freak of Nature" oolong tea which, as its name suggested, didn't taste like typical oolong. Soon enough, it was time to head off to my next appointment of the day, and Charles guided me out to the perimeter road. We shook hands, and off I went.

My next appointment was with friend and author Young Chun (see here, too), who had promised to give me a hard copy of his book (I had bought the e-book version, and had acted as the proofreader for his manuscript back when the ms was still a draft). I walked down the perimeter road to the building where Young works. Friday wasn't a work day for Young: it was actually his first day of a two-week vacation, so he had chosen to come out to the campus expressly to met me and hand off his books. I had asked for two copies: one for me, the other for my buddy Tom, who was interested in Young's harrowing story of being drafted into the Korean army despite being an American citizen.

Young and I talked about some his projects. He's working on a few different things, including an English-language textbook that addresses common student errors, a Korean translation of his army-nightmare story, and a novel that Young says has been back-burnered for years. I had to envy his ambitions. I used to have ambitions like that once.

I got Young to sign the two books; he left a very kind message in my copy. Young doesn't know Tom, so I told Young to write "Fuck you, you dingleberry dickhead" in Tom's copy. (On the day Tom and I first met, Tom used the expression "dingleberry dickhead" to describe one of the managers at the hagweon where we first worked in the early 1990s. We've laughed about that ever since.)

Soon enough, it was time for me to hit the road. Young and I said our goodbyes, then I grabbed a cab and headed back to Seoul-dae Ipgu Station. After that, it was a short subway trundle to my apartment. In all, it had been a satisfying day: a good class to start the day off, a nice walk around most of the campus's perimeter road (despite Susan Boyle's small-minded attempt to ruin my day), and two good-but-brief meetings with friends. Young mentioned that I ought to come out to SNU more often; the campus really isn't all that far away from where I live, so that's definitely a thought. Oh, yes: I was also happy because Friday was the final day of my 14-day regime, and I couldn't wait to eat something real on Saturday.


1 comment:

Charles said...

I wasn't annoyed--just kind of surprised that after my careful explanation you elected to go clockwise anyway. But "annoyed" would imply that you inconvenienced me in some way, which you didn't. If there was any inconvenience, it was that I didn't get to spend as much time with the Hominid as I had hoped, but there is always next time.