Friday, December 31, 1999

the utterly useless workshop

[Originally posted on Thursday, December 14, 2017, at 12:50AM.]

In case I didn't make it obvious the last time I wrote on this topic, I can't stand corporate workshops, especially the Korean-style ones. Don't give me any fucking games to play, or chants to chant, or slogans/buzzwords to repeat mindlessly. And for the love of Cthulhu, don't make me participate in the CEO's cult of personality.

On Wednesday, all this and more came to pass: a few weeks previously, our CEO had sent around an email "inviting" my company's teachers—and those of us who work in R&D—to attend a workshop to "learn" about our CEO's notions of how to teach grammar—an approach that the CEO describes as "mƏssage grammar."* I initially had no idea what "mƏssage grammar" was, but I understood that the CEO, who only recently got his doctorate, has been pushing this notion, which is a central concept in his dissertation on language education.

As is par for the course with Korean events, the venue location was changed at the last minute from one of our company-owned spaces to another. I'm not sure whether to be thankful that the new space was closer to my current office, but it turned out to be a walk of barely 150 meters to the "Classia" Building, which houses a bakery that I like.

That morning, I was lucky to wake up on time: both my cell phone and my analog alarm clock failed to wake me at 7AM; I ended up arising of my own accord at 7:50AM, which gave me time to shower, dress, and catch a cab to reach the meeting place. I got there with about five minutes to spare. Many expat teachers were already in the building, gathering by the tiny elevator to go up to the fourth floor. I took the stairs; no one followed me.

When I reached the fourth floor, the pre-meeting chaos hit me with a wall of sound. Expats were everywhere. My twatty coworker was there; she told me there was a seating chart (a chart for hundreds of people!) that specified I should be seated in the goddamn front row. Fuck whoever made that chart. I stepped into the large room, which was filled with row upon row of two-seater desk/tables, and made my way slowly to the front. The room was full and getting fuller; it was quite the crowd. Teachers had come to the event from all of the nearby campuses; some had come from as far away as Ilsan, where I used to live during my second semester of teaching at Dongguk University. That's a long subway ride for a meeting beginning at 9AM.

If you've never been to a Korean corporate workshop, it usually works like this: there are speeches, possibly followed by some lectures. For a mostly expat meeting, there will be group activities; for Korean employees, there's usually just more lecturing, possibly by a series of speakers. Along the way, there will be collective chants—often of dumb slogans seemingly made up on the spot. For Koreans, the idea of "together-action" (dong haeng) is an important one: in a crowd, you energize each other, and the convivial glow of this energy somehow infuses the group with a welcome synergy. This is about team-building; this is about becoming one with the corporate entity. As a coworker of mine said at the meeting: "It's like church."

Our meeting roughly followed the above-explained format, but the CEO, knowing that he was dealing with Westerners, often stopped his discourse to interact with teachers whom he knew by name. There was lots of laughter at the CEO's lame jokes, and we finally got a glimpse of what the CEO was talking about with his "mƏssage grammar."

As it turns out, the CEO's most cherished innovation is no innovation at all. Let me explain. When he finally talked about what "mƏssage grammar" was, the CEO said it had everything to do with how utterances change meaning in context. Example: if I issue a flat declarative like, "That pizza looks delicious" while I'm staring at a photo of a pizza on a menu, then the utterance gives you a clue as to my state of mind. If, however, you've got a pizza in front of you, then I come up, stare lovingly at your pizza, and intone, "That pizza looks delicious," I obviously mean that I want to eat some or all of your pizza. The social context helps determine the meaning of the utterance. The CEO calls this context-dependency "mƏssage grammar" because the context governs what "message" you're sending... but there's already an entire branch of linguistics called pragmatics that studies this very phenomenon! The CEO's big idea has been around for ages! The man merely borrowed or stole it.

With that realization, I became even more convinced that this entire event was a waste of time. My rule is this: if you can say it in an email, then you don't need to have a meeting. It didn't help that the CEO was presuming to teach us about grammar despite how poor his own English was. It also didn't help that the CEO, at one point, utterly misinterpreted and misused the concept of a dangling modifier. He said—and I wrote this in my lecture notes to preserve this gem for posterity—that we should "learn how to use dangling modifiers properly." Had I not been in the middle of a creepy cultic ritual, I'd have laughed out loud. A dangling modifier is a mistake that needs to be corrected, not a concept to be employed properly. In the end, I didn't have the courage to stand up and call out the CEO for his bullshit.

The North Korean-style ass-kissing by the Westerners at the event was painful to watch. Our company is filled with lifers who either adore the CEO or make a good show of such adoration. I watched expat teachers who, when handed a microphone, did little more than praise the CEO for his depth of knowledge and inspirational character. Later on, after we had done the workshop-style group activities, there was a Q&A period during which I heard boot-licking questions like, "What inspired you to create this company?"

Above, I mentioned a group-work activity. Almost three hours into the meeting, we had to break up into groups and go into separate classrooms for this part of the workshop. Our task—creating a lesson plan to teach kids how to summarize news articles—was actually somewhat interesting, but it was also fairly high-pressure work, as we had little more than 25 minutes for a group of fifteen of us to create a lesson plan, decide how to present it to the audience, and devise a chant to, uh, energize the group. Our team's chant, in the Korean corporate ass-kissing tradition, contained our CEO's name.

The event had been scheduled to end at 1PM, but as per Murphy's Law, we ran overtime. That was one last kick in the ass. My only consolation is that the workshop took place during work hours, unlike that weekend retreat.

To anticipate the unsympathetic reader: no, signing up to work in a Korean company does not mean that I've agreed to join the hive mind. Even many Koreans, when privately questioned about their attitude toward these events, will tell you they think such workshops are a waste of time. We're all individuals in the end—even the most group-oriented among us. Many of us can't stand being part of a cult of personality, which is another reason why I'm probably not going to renew my contract come September 2018.

*I'm writing it as "mƏssage," not "message," to make the term harder to Google, especially given the tone and content of this post. Ass coverage.

regarding office twats and disenchantment

[Originally posted on October 20, 2017, at : PM]

1. Twattage

Even since our R&D department expanded to its current size of about ten staffers, things have been different. Before the expansion, life was library-quiet, and interpersonal interactions were uncomplicated. Now, we've got complex cross-currents of conversation, coffee cliques (or klatsches), and a hell of a lot more office politics, with all the bullshit that that implies. I suspect the boss enjoys this ambiance, given his grandiose personality, but I'm finding it less and less appealing. More on this later.

One of my new coworkers, whom I'll call Trish, has an interest in hanja, i.e., Sino-Korean characters. She found out that I have a similar interest, and we decided to engage in a silly little project to fortify our knowledge. I suggested that we use the mostly Sino-Korean names of the subway stations of Line 3 (Seoul's orange line) as the content for our study, and Trish agreed. Line 3 has 44 stations; we divided the line in half such that Trish would study the names of 22 stations, and I would study the names of the other 22. For the most part, we would be studying separately (making flash cards and the like), but we would also be writing up one station name per day on the office's white board, listing each Chinese character, its pronunciation, and its meaning in Korean (along with English if necessary).

The project also had an element of competition: after we finished our 22 stations, we would then quiz each other using an agreed-upon quiz format. The winner would receive something from the loser. Trish said she wanted her favorite coffee; I said I wanted a hand drawing from Trish, who is our graphic designer. I said that hand-drawn, hand-crafted items have great meaning for me (they do). We both agreed to the stakes, then we got to studying our hanja.

Some weeks later, we finished our respective halves of Line 3, but as I told Trish, I had also made flash cards for her half of the subway line as well. After all, why not gain as much benefit from the exercise as possible? We agreed to quiz each other after Chuseok break, but just before break (and therefore, just before my four-day walk to incheon and back), Trish made a request of me: could I please give her all the info for the half of Line 3 that she hadn't done so that she could design my quiz? I initially said okay because I always say yes to the ladies, but the more I thought about Trish's request, the more convinced I was that she was asking me to give her information that she could have gotten herself had she not been so lazy as to do only her assigned side of Line 3.

I wrote an Trish email in which I tried to be jokey, but I made it clear that I thought she should have done her own damn work, and that it took some nerve, during a competition, to ask me for the extra information. I gave her the link to a website where she could find, and note for herself, all the info she had requested of me, and I ended my missive by gleefully trash-talking her, e.g., by saying that I looked forward to kicking her ass on the quiz. After a day's pause, Trish wrote me an angry reply in which she called my email "condescending," said she had thought we had been engaged in a "FRIENDLY" competition (her all-caps), and that she wasn't getting a "good vibe" from any part of my email. Finally, she said she was no longer comfortable working on this project with me anymore, but (bizarrely) she hoped this didn't affect "our professional relationship."

My own reaction to Trish's email was that it had been written in the emotional tenor of a five-year-old: "You're mean! I don't wanna play with you anymore!" I also thought she had no idea how to handle trash-talking. Normally, someone with self-confidence would respond to my ass-kicking gibe by saying something like, "Yeah, keep thinking that while you're lying face-down in a puddle of my piss!" That's how trash-talking is supposed to work, and it is an example of "friendly competition." Trish had instead decided to play the wounded victim, which I found unbecoming of her. I also found her accusation of condescension to be hypocritical: she had obviously thought I was just a sap who would do her bidding, giving her information she hadn't earned. That's condescending.

What I did, though, was write Trish a full, gentlemanly apology, to which she hasn't been mature enough to reply. We've spent most of the past couple of weeks ignoring and avoiding each other, like a couple that's broken up but must still work together. (That was, in fact, how I felt about Trish's angry email: it had the traits of a breakup letter, and she and I aren't even going out). Only recently has Trish seen fit to acknowledge my presence with a mumbled "Hey" in the hallway. Personally, I see no reason to speak to her unless spoken to, and while I'll still work with her when needed, that's the only level of interaction I'm interested in.

2. Disenchantment

As I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post, things are getting a bit too noisy and chaotic at the office for this old, crotchety introvert. The R&D department is now stocked with plenty of smart, over-achieving, garrulous people who constantly shout across the office and/or visit each other's cubicles. While there are lulls in the general hubbub, most of the day is noisy as hell, and I'm glad I come in as late as I do: when most of the staffers leave at 5PM, things quiet down radically, and I'm finally able to be productive for a few hours.

Honestly, though, I don't know how much longer I can function like this. R&D is under the microscope because we're on the cusp of producing a brace of textbooks with which our company's reputation may stand or fall, so there's a lot of pressure on us. Even more, we're the country's only textbook R&D department composed entirely of native speakers (as the boss never ceases to remind us), so the Korean upper management is scrutinizing us even more closely than they would a Korean team. With the plethora of assignments and the crush of wave after wave of deadlines, life has gone from one of placid tranquility to the sort of high-pressure ambiance endured by short-order cooks. This is, less and less, the Golden Goose with which I had signed on in 2015, and I'm not loving my current situation.

I mentioned cliques. Some of us go walking together twice a day—just little ten-minute strolls in the neighborhood next to our building. Others go en masse for coffee and/or lunch, which is (according to my spies) where these cliques talk shit about other people in the office. While I don't think our office has reached a stage I'd describe as "toxic" or "dysfunctional," I can definitely see that there's a danger of things deteriorating. There are already some fissures forming; I won't elaborate on that until we have a collapse or an explosion.

Anyway, I'm pondering whether I'll be renewing my contract with the Golden Goose in September of 2018. Employment often works in three-year cycles for me; I find it hard to settle into any one job (which, of course, makes it hard to build up any funds for retirement). If I choose not to renew, I'll just go back to university teaching. This would mean a cut in pay and a delay in my being able to pay off the rest of my major debts, but it might be worth it just for the peace of mind: teaching twelve hours a week and receiving four months of vacation a year (with the option of earning big money by teaching during vacation) is nothing to sneeze at. If, however, I can arrange to work more closely with high-paying KMA (whose gigs are currently my side job), I'll likely jump over to them in Yeouido. KMA would be a dream job for me; despite the one unpleasant incident with a lowly staffer, I love the work I do there and get along well with almost everybody.

I can ponder my options in a more leisurely way now that I've got an F-4 visa: the visa allows me to remain in Korea even if I'm jobless. With other visas like the E-1 or E-2, you're tied to your employer, who is basically sponsoring your stay in the country. With the F-4, I have most of the rights and privileges of a Korean citizen, except that I can't vote in elections—which is fine by me, given my general incomprehension of Korean politics.

So that's where things stand: I'm on one twatty coworker's shit list (and she's on mine), and I'm probably going to run out the clock on my current contract.

in the aftermath of the retreat

[Originally posted on September 24, 2017, at 5:25PM.]

I spoke on Skype with my brother David on Saturday morning, before I left to go to the office for our retreat. (The boss had told us to assemble at the office; a company bus was to be there to take us all down to Anseong.) I bitched to David about how much I resented having to go through this bullshit theft of my weekend, and I took David through some possible scenarios when the time came to announce to the boss that I intended to walk out of this farce and head back to Seoul. "Maybe their bark will be worse than their bite," David ventured.

My brother turned out to be right, but Saturday still sucked. In my mind, the ideal scenario would have been this: arrive at the hapkido master's compound by 4PM, get the workshop portion of the day over with by 6PM (dinnertime), then walk out without having dinner. This would have given me time to get on a bus at Anseong's main bus terminal; the final bus was scheduled to leave the terminal by 9:20PM, and the walk to the terminal was thirteen kilometers, or about 2.5 hours on foot.

What actually happened was close to the worst-case scenario: we arrived a bit after 4PM; the workshop dragged until about 8PM; dinner came and went (I refused to eat because I knew I'd be walking, and I didn't want to have to poop by the roadside); the workshop restarted after dinner and dragged even more until 10PM. I was increasingly agitated as the clock ticked onward. Sitting through the workshop was an exercise in not hulking out and throwing tables around the room. I was at the limits of my self-restraint when the boss finally declared that the workshop was over for the night.

But unlike our recently disappeared coworker, I wasn't planning on just fading away from the retreat without a word. That would have been the coward's way out. So I sat outside while everyone else went inside to play beer pong, and I waited for the boss to come out and find me, as I knew he would. (I'm never far from his mind. He had texted me several times during dinner to find out where I was; I was in an upstairs room meditating, and the boss texted with irritation that "This is not a Buddhist retreat" and that I needed to come down to dinner to show some solidarity. I came down, saw everyone was eating, and went back upstairs for another 40 minutes' meditation.)

Sure enough, the boss came out into the darkness around the house and sat next to me on the open-air shwim-teo where I had parked myself. I told him flat-out that I was going to be leaving now, and he tried to persuade me to stay. "There's plenty of room upstairs if you want to sleep alone," he offered. I said no—I'd rather just go. The boss quizzed me as to why my coworkers were so fearsome to me (he normally tries pushing emotional buttons in a debate situation, so it's no surprise that he'd try to paint me as a scaredy-cat); I explained that it wasn't the coworkers, per se, as it was the forced togetherness of the situation, which made me feel like a trapped animal. I told him quite frankly that I thought the retreat was bullshit, even as I acknowledged the work that he and another coworker had put into crafting the retreat (the two had planned the activities, shopped for the food, prepped the huge dinner, and bought supplies for breakfast the following morning).

Eventually, the boss relented. "I just don't want you leaving here angry," he said into the night. I told him that I did resent the theft of my weekend, but that I wasn't furious with anyone. In fact, I was fairly relieved that the boss hadn't adopted a more aggressive or threatening posture: had he done so, I would have told him he'd be getting my sajik-seo (letter of resignation) on Monday. That's my nuclear option: I can walk away from this job shedding nary a tear because I have no particular loyalty to the company, and I have an F-4 visa that allows me to stay in Korea even if I'm jobless. The Golden Goose has dicked me over several times—beginning with their refusal to give me my promised salary—as is consistent with how hagweons normally operate, and I have a long memory for such things. None of this makes me feel any particular warmth toward the company. If I work hard in the office, it's out of a sense of pride and professionalism that isn't linked to my place of employment. Besides: I have no friends at the company, so there's nothing to lose, socially speaking, by leaving.

The boss and I talked about other, more personal, things, and then I said it was time for me to go. By that point, it was around 10:30PM. I was miffed about leaving so late: I had wanted to leave about four or five hours earlier. The country roads were initially dark, and we were far enough outside of Seoul, away from the city's light pollution, that it was possible to look up into the night sky and see more than a few stars overhead. I ended up walking much more slowly than planned: the 2.5-hour walk expanded into a nearly 4-hour walk. The path that Naver Map had chosen for me took me first along those country roads, then alongside a freeway for a kilometer or two, then into the downtown part of Anseong City, and finally along a creekside bike path that pointed me toward the bus terminal. I wasted three kilometers, at one point, when I had to backtrack so that I could leave the bike path and walk along the main road for the final part of the walk. This added forty or so minutes to the walk.

I knew the bus terminal was going to be closed at that time of night, but my assumption was that, as is true for most bus terminals, there would be a nearby neighborhood with motels and yeogwans. My plan was to hit a motel, then grab a bus the next day. As it turned out, though, Anseong resides in the Twilight Zone, and there was absolutely nothing next to the bus terminal except for a huge crossroads where two major arteries met. Too tired to do otherwise, I waited at the crossroads for a cab. One arrived within a few minutes; it was nearly 2AM by that point. The cabbie cheerfully asked me what the hell I was doing out at that hour. "Nobody else is out here!" he exclaimed. True: the paths I had walked had been largely devoid of people, but some random folks had been out and about. I didn't say this to the cabbie, though. I told him to take me to the nearest motel; he said, "We'll have to go downtown, then," i.e., we'd have to go back to the part of the city that I had already walked through. I smiled at the thought of backtracking yet again.

The cabbie dropped me off at Yes Motel, in central Anseong, where I paid W50,000 for a fairly decent room. I popped out to a convenience store to buy ice and drinks, then I settled into my room, sipping contentedly, happy to be away from that goddamn retreat. The boss had texted me while I was walking, telling me to message him when I had arrived safely at a motel. I did so. Bizarrely, he replied to my text around 3:30AM with a "See you Monday." I had thought he'd be asleep. As for me, I didn't get to sleep until after 5AM (too much Coca Cola in my system: I had hit a couple convenience stores as I was walking). Before I crawled into bed, though, I laundered my clothes, just as I'd done while on the trail, and hung them to dry.

The next day—this morning, in fact—I got out of bed around 9:30AM, showered, dressed, dropped my room key off with the yeogwan ajeossi, and caught a cab to the bus terminal. I went to the ticket window, got a ticket for Seoul's Express Bus Terminal (which runs along Line 3, which takes me right to my apartment), climbed into the bus, and rode back to Seoul. I was more than an hour ahead of my coworkers, who were scheduled to leave the retreat compound at noon and arrive in Seoul around 1PM.

I'll be curious to see how people react, on Monday, to my having skedaddled. They might see my walk-off as childish and cowardly, or they might see it as ballsy and rebellious. I don't particularly care what they think, but it'll be interesting to tally reactions all the same.

According to the boss, there was supposed to be another workshop activity on Sunday morning. I accused him of lying to me: I had specifically asked him, a few days before the retreat, whether we'd be doing anything on Sunday, and he'd said that Sunday would be no more than waking up, eating breakfast, and piling into the bus. During the conversation I'd had with the boss just before I walked off the compound, he flip-flopped and said there'd be some kind of lesson-planning activity. This sort of flip-flopping is par for the course with my boss, who will often say whatever it takes to persuade someone to do something. (This is how he cajoled me into working for the Golden Goose in the first place: with a "promise" of five million won a month. I'll be more wary of over-promising people next time.)

Anyway, I think I left the compound on more or less amicable terms with the boss. There had been no fight, no shouting match, no nuclear option. In the end, he relented and let me go, telling me he didn't want to make me do something I was dead set against doing. That's all to his credit; the bark had indeed been worse than the bite. For me, my nighttime walk was accompanied by a flooding sense of relief and liberation, but there was still some lingering frustration at my having had to start the walk so late at night.

I'm back now, and the work week awaits. I hope everything just goes back to normal.


[Originally posted on Friday, September 22, 2017, at 1:31AM.]

I don't want to fight my boss, but he's putting me in a position where I'll Have to Do What I Have to Do.

This weekend, we're supposed to go on a retreat to Anseong, south of Seoul. As I've written before, I have a severe aversion to doing retreat-y things. If I'm with a small group of people whom I know and like, that's one thing. Spending a day, a night, and a morning with coworkers, though, is quite another. It's not that I hate my coworkers, to be sure: it's more that I don't like being coerced into having fun.

The retreat isn't all about fun, though: there's going to be a workshop portion during which we'll seriously discuss the future of our R&D department. We'll be divided into semi-permanent teams, and we'll learn about our upcoming projects, as the boss has many ideas for new textbooks (and the revision/updating of old textbooks). As Obama might say, let me be clear: I'm perfectly OK with the workshop portion of the retreat. My interpretation of my business contract is that, if we have job-related matters to attend to, then I must of course attend to them. There is, however, nothing in my contract stipulating that, when the boss orders you to have fun, you must have fun.

I deeply, deeply resent being forced to spend a weekend with my coworkers. As I said above, this isn't because I hate the people I work with. The issue is one of human freedom: can I or can't I decide when I'm going to sit down and relax? In Korea, where there's a group-first culture, the assumption is that it's fine to trample on an employee's weekend because, hey—job-related group activities are fun! How can they not be? Koreans, being group-first people, are emotionally tone-deaf when it comes to personal preferences. It was, frankly, disappointing to discover that my boss had decided to do the Korean thing and host this retreat. I've spent the past couple weeks feeling betrayed.

So I'll be happy to take the bus down to Anseong with my coworkers and do the workshop portion with them. I consider that part of the retreat to be de rigueur. As for the rest—well, there's supposed to be grilling, followed by chilling, i.e., we'll just sit around and... somehow get to know each other. Then we'll retire to our communal sleeping area (oh, joy), wake up and have a hearty breakfast, then take the bus back to Seoul and arrive by 1PM. My thought: fuck that. I'm planning to walk out right after the workshop is done.

Which might lead to a showdown if the boss tries to stop me. Of course, if he tries to stop me, he'll only be making the coercive nature of the retreat obvious. And what's he going to threaten me with? Firing? Hell, I'm willing to walk away from this job if the boss is truly that petty. I'll hand him my letter of resignation the following Monday, work my remaining thirty days, then move on to some place of employment that isn't quite so ridiculous.

My hope is that it doesn't come to that. The boss hasn't been amenable to reason up to now, but there's a chance he'll just let me go once he sees how determined I am to leave.

We'll see how this all turns out on Saturday. I'm going to have something very interesting to write about this weekend.

a possible reprieve...?

[Originally posted on August 26, 2017, at 8:08PM.]

Our mercurial CEO has apparently decided that the R&D department doesn't have to attend this coming Thursday's heretofore mandatory shindig. It would have been bad, had we had to attend: I heard that each department was supposed to put on some sort of dance number or skit. My boss was envisioning some kind of "Stomp"-style routine while I slowly withered inside. Then the news came, later in the day, that R&D was off the hook because most of the event would have been incomprehensible to us foreigners. This is when I realized that we hadn't been invited to a simple "dinner with the CEO": this was going to be a full-on MT.

I had spent much of yesterday stewing, so even though the news of our reprieve came as a something of a relief, I was angry when I started my nighttime creekside walk, and it took a couple hours, plus a lot of sweat, to cool off. I also know that the current reprieve could very easily be taken away from us if the CEO changes his damn mind yet again, so whatever relief I might feel is contingent on what happens over the next few days. If the event happens on Thursday without us, then I'll feel some bona fide relief.

just gets better and better

[Originally posted on August 24, 2017, at 9:05PM.]

It's not enough that our company's CEO wants to make us all suffer through a mandatory dinner: my immediate boss has plans, in September, to have us do an overnight "MT"-style* event out on the property of his hapkido master. This is the kiss of death, as far as I'm concerned, and I've told the boss as much, so I've made no secret of my aversion.

Now I have two mandatory events to look forward to, which is depressing. I plan on handling both in similar ways: for the first event, I aim to leave after an hour, maybe pretending to seek out the restroom or something. Since that event—the CEO's dinner—will take place about 20 km away from my apartment, I'm simply going to walk back to my apartment from there. It's a decent four-hour trek, so I'll get home by about 1AM. As for the second event, my immediate boss's planned overnighter, I'll likely walk out of that one, too. I think it's going to be much farther away from my apartment, so I might need almost two days to walk the whole route. Or: I can plot a route to the nearest place of public transportation and hop on some vehicle there—a bus, a train, whatever. The boss won't be happy and might think what I've done is an insult, but it's insulting to force people to do things they haven't chosen to do—an aspect of Korean culture that I despise. You might argue that, by choosing to work for a Korean company, I've also chosen to attend these events, but I call bullshit on that. I put a lot of work into this company, routinely going above and beyond the call of duty. If the company can't appreciate my efforts and still wants to coerce me, then fuck the company.

I doubt it'll come to this, but if my job ends up on the line because I refuse to play the company's reindeer games, I'm fully prepared to walk away. If this is a company that insists on coercing its employees, then it's not as if I'm "walking away from a good thing." No: I'd be walking away from a very bad thing. Besides, what am I losing in terms of interpersonal relationships? I have nothing but a professional relationship with my boss and coworkers; we're not buddies, pals, or friends. And we sure as hell aren't family—that's the sort of delusion that Korean managers are under when they do these MT events: they think they're cultivating some sort of familial esprit de corps. I'm not buying it, and as I noted in another post, many Korean employees don't buy that bullshit, either.

Back in 2015, when the company dicked me over in terms of my salary (offering me, at the very last minute, W3.5 million instead of the promised W4.0 million), I wasn't in a position to walk because I hadn't yet acquired my F-4 visa. I now have that visa, which makes me a free agent. I can forge my own future in South Korea; I have options that I didn't have before. So, yeah: I'm not worried about how all of this might end, and if I do end up leaving, there won't be any sentimentality to make the departure difficult. As Koreans like to say in parting: "Geu dongan gamsahamnida." For that duration, thank you.

*Don't worry if you're a native speaker of English but have no idea what an "MT" is. This is Konglish: a Korean locution masquerading as something English-esque. "MT" stands for "membership training" and is a big part of corporate life in Korea. It means different things for different companies, but the basic idea is that the employees go on outings—maybe to a retreat in the mountains or somewhere else—where they engage in a series of group activities designed to break the ice and/or develop team spirit. Think: games, singing, chanting peppy company slogans, drinking, hiking in teams, etc. If you're a group-oriented extrovert, and that sounds fun to you, then God bless you. To me, that sounds like a nightmare. Why would I do supposedly "fun," hive-mind-y things with people who aren't even my friends?

bullet dodged... for now

[Originally posted on August 22, 2017, at 5:10PM.]

My boss told me last night that we workers had all been invited by the CEO to a mandatory hwaeshik (standard, and unsatisfactory, romanization: hoesik), i.e., a company outing usually involving dinner and, probably, drinking. I don't drink, and I'm not particularly sociable, and like you, I don't think the words "invite" and "mandatory" really go together, so as you can guess, I wasn't thrilled to find out that my Wednesday evening has been planned out completely without my consent. Office dinners and weekend team-building activities are bullshit wastes of time, as far as I'm concerned. Koreans—or at least Korean bosses—apparently love such activities because (1) Koreans tend to be reflexively sociable, group-first creatures, and (2) such events promote the illusion that the employees are part of a large family. In truth, quite a few Korean employees secretly despise these activities as well, but they're too conditioned or socialized to moan and groan about them publicly.

I joked to my coworkers, who found out about Wednesday's activity only this morning, that I'd had time to go through the five stages of grief and had finally reconciled myself to wasting time at this fucking dinner. Later on, our boss came in and announced that the hwaeshik had been moved to two Thursdays from now: the CEO, who is often mercurial, had suddenly cancelled on all of us. Bullet dodged... for now. The event was supposed to take place at a restaurant that our company owns and runs; it's in an out-of-the-way location on the periphery of Seoul, which means that we'd all probably have to drive together in our supervisors' cars and/or take cabs over. I openly stated to my coworkers that I'm going to find out what public transportation is available in that area, then I'm going to leave the restaurant after an hour and head on home by bus, subway, and/or cab. No reason for me to stay longer than I have to at a function I've been forced to attend.

UPDATE: I've looked at Naver Map, and the walk back to my apartment is 19.86 km. That's about 12.4 miles, or a little over four hours' schlepping. I'll be walking back to my place, then, getting home around 1AM. There's a subway station not far from the restaurant, which is located on the edge of Gwacheon City and not far from Anyang City's center. Other coworkers who might want to escape from the dinner early can take a cab to Line 4's Indeokweon Station, then take the subway, with a couple transfers, back to Daecheong Station.

an utter fucking waste of time

[Originally posted on Friday, June 23, 2017, at 4:29PM.]

Last night, around 9PM, my boss called me up and said I'd need to attend a company-wide event taking place at noon the following day. I groaned inwardly but said yes, I'd be there—not that I had any choice. (My coworker, the lucky bastard, got Friday off to prep for his Saturday departure for the Philippines, so he was able to skip today's event.)

The event was a massive teleconference involving all seven cities in which our company has branches—a company that I've been calling "the Golden Goose" for the past couple of years. Just along the street I work on, in the Daechi-dong neighborhood of Seoul, there are three separate branches of the Golden Goose. Almost everyone from all three branches was there today, in a huge room occupying most of the floor of our "Parthenon" branch (our branches and programs are given strangely myth-related names), and on a huge screen at the front of the room, we could see video of the assembled workers from the branches in six other cities. The only positive observation I can make about the meeting is that, if you were Korean, then you probably enjoyed the three long hours. There was plenty of laughter at rapidfire jokes that went over my head, and some of the people who spoke (only some) remembered to lace their spiels with humor.

Otherwise, the entire event felt like a goddamn waste of time. Here's my introvert's standard for judging whether a meeting or event is useful: can the contents of the meeting/event be conveyed in an email? If the answer is yes, then there's no reason to gather. Today, alas, was a big yes to that question: there wasn't a single thing said during the event that couldn't have been written down and shotgunned to us staffers in a long memo. But this is Korea, where wasting time and company inefficiency have been elevated to an art form. I had to sit through nearly three fucking hours of speeches, lectures, chanting, and seemingly random applause. It probably would have helped my experience had I understood more Korean, but I fear that, even if I had understood more, the event would still have felt unproductive.

I've said it before in other posts: lecturing is the absolute worst way to convey information. I don't care how compelling a speaker you think you are: if you're lecturing, you're doing it wrong. (And yes, I could be called a hypocrite for writing at length, since that's merely a printed form of lecturing.) Want to engage people? Then stop lecturing and get your listeners actively involved—bodily and intellectually—in whatever point you're trying to make. Alas, the Korean notion of "engagement" is to stop the lecture, make the audience chorally repeat key words and phrases, then continue lecturing. This happened several times throughout the three hours; I didn't follow the crowd.

Our company's CEO had the floor for most of the event. He's a nice enough guy in person, but his lecture struck me as a sort of dramatic irony, i.e., the kind of irony in which the character in a story is unaware of the irony, but the audience is fully aware. The CEO lectured about language-teaching philosophy, and he actually said many things I agreed with, including the idea that teachers need to engage the students and encourage them to think instead of merely memorizing and parroting information. He also emphasized the need to make learning more free-form and less structured, another point I agree with. I call all this inadvertently ironic, though, because I'm pretty sure that that's exactly what's not happening in our company's classrooms, especially when a Korean person is doing the teaching. Part of the problem is the teacher's own English competency: many of our teachers—as is true at most hagweons in Korea—just aren't very fluent in English. As a result, they're not ready to judge the quality of student output: students might say something that sounds completely out of bounds to a non-fluent teacher, but which is in fact perfectly fine from the point of view of a native speaker.

Anyway, I came away from this experience having learned nothing new. If anything, and this may have to do with my being an introvert, I came away feeling a sort of creepy, cultish vibe: our CEO, like Donald Trump, likes to name things after himself (imagine an American CEO named Smith creating programs like "Smith's Essay Writing" and "Smith's Approach to Proper Grammar," etc.), and his image, along with sundry quotes and slogans, is permanently and gigantically displayed all over the walls of the various branches in a manner reminiscent of the Kimist cult north of the DMZ. Our live video feed showed us that faculty and staff in other cities had created ass-kissing "We Love You!" signs for the CEO, who seems not to mind all the attention he gets, however ginned-up that attention might be. I noticed with some amusement that the Western staffers in the other cities' branches shared my general lack of enthusiasm at being on camera and in a time-wasting setting: the foreigners didn't chant or clap nearly as lustily as the natives did.

You might be reading this and thinking that I'm just napalming the company I work for, ungratefully biting the hand that feeds me. If that's your impression, I apologize. To be clear, I generally like my current job and my current boss, and that's partly because I don't normally attend stupid, useless events like this one. Today was, in fact, the first such event at which my attendance was deemed mandatory after having worked at the Golden Goose for nearly two years. My hope is that this will be the last such mandatory event for a long, long while, because there's little in life that's more painful than sitting in a place you don't want to be, conscious that moments of your existence are slipping away, wasted and unrecoverable.

three days at KMA: the good, the bad, the ugly

[Originally posted on Saturday, March 18, 2017, at 2:40PM.]

My KMA sessions are normally quite positive, but this particular three-day session—in which I did a favor for another teacher, B, whose course I taught (B was out of the country)—was probably my first bad one. It wasn't necessarily bad because of the students, although two of the three students were sometimes lazy and distracted: it was bad because of one of the office assistants whom we refer to as jogyo. I've had problems with jogyo before; quite a few of them follow the ugly double standard of treating Korean faculty one way and foreign faculty another. Some jogyo are universally kind and humble; they're not the problem, and they're a reminder not to paint all jogyo with the same brush. It's the other jogyo—the ones who get too big for their britches—who spell trouble. When I was at Dongguk University, for example, there was one jogyo that I came to hate because of her arrogant attitude; that experience left a bad taste in my mouth. I didn't realize that KMA had its own version of that person.

This session, I taught almost 20 hours over the course of three days: four hours on Wednesday, then eight hours each on Thursday and Friday. I had three students: two men and a woman. All three students seemed addicted to their cell phones, and they used them in class even after I had asked them not to. That said, the students were all sharp, and we blew through the material much faster than planned. KMA courses are mandated to end at 6PM, but we've been told there's a bit of leeway, e.g., if we're done by 5:30PM, we can dismiss the class. The reason for this policy is that companies pay top dollar to send employees to these courses, so as a matter of public relations (i.e., how things look), it's not a good idea to dismiss classes too early. Aware of this, I nevertheless dismissed my class around 5:25PM on the first day, joking with my students that my boss might kill me for doing so.

On the second day, we got through the material even faster, partly because one of the guys had to leave after lunch because of work obligations (KMA students skip out all the time; this is normal, so I don't grouse about it). Because we had even fewer people—an already-small class of three students was now down to two—we finished phenomenally early, so I let my students out at 5:10PM: fifty minutes earlier than the mandated 6PM dismissal time.

The female student was still in the classroom while I was packing up and prepping to leave, and that's when a jogyo popped her head in and asked me whether I had ended class early. I said yes; she put on a shocked face and asked me whether I had ended early by not giving the students their regular ten-minute breaks throughout the day (some KMA teachers do this: to finish early, they opt to plow through their courses with no breaks). I truthfully said no: the students had had their breaks. The jogyo then said, in a tone that tried to combine suavity and haughtiness, "You're not allowed to do that!" She then launched into the reasons why the students were supposed to remain until 6PM—blah, blah, blah.

I was furious. The jogyo was making me out to be a lazy teacher who had cut class short for no good reason. I remained stonily polite while she scolded me. Afterward, my student looked at me mournfully and said, "She was too aggressive!" I nodded and said the jogyo had no right to talk to me as if she were my boss (a problem that, as I think I mentioned, crops up with jogyo who deal with foreign teachers). I've been in Korea long enough to have my own sense of myeongye and chaemyeon (roughly, "honor" and "face"), my own sense of when my dignity has been violated. I know for a fact that, had I been a fully racially Korean instructor who had let his class out fifty minutes early, I would never had gotten such an arrogant scolding from a lowly jogyo. Double standards, indeed.

So I stewed during the ride home and wrote a long email to my KMA boss about what had happened. He texted back that this was "no big deal" (in reference to my early dismissal of the class, not to how the jogyo had treated me), and told me that he trusted me to do what was right. This was reassuring, but at the same time, it showed that the jogyo had acted on her own initiative, so the incident had revealed something about her character. The more I thought about her words, the angrier I got. She had violated at least two rules of Korean etiquette: (1) you don't speak arrogantly to someone older than you, and (2) you don't speak arrogantly to someone higher than you on the totem pole. (A third rule, in the spirit of the first two, might also have been broken: (3) you don't embarrass a teacher in front of his students.) Technically, I should be higher than the jogyo, but as my boss at the Golden Goose cynically notes, we foreigners are always at the bottom of the totem pole, ostensible rank be damned. And being half-Korean is no defense against this.

The third day, Friday, I came in to teach. At the end of the day, when I stepped into the jogyos' office to give back the laptop and video camera we had used for the presentation workshop, my harasser sprang up from her seat, walked up to me, and handed me a plastic bag full of those bone-dry, flat, tasteless artisanal cookies-that-are-almost-crackers that Koreans seem to love. "You had said you were unhappy," she said, "and I'm very sorry." She handed me the cookies; I forced a smile, told her I'd enjoy the cookies, pivoted, and left the office. A few minutes later, the cookies were in the fucking trash, and I was on my way home.

I had so many things I'd wanted to say to the jogyo (whom my boss had obviously spoken with), but I decided it wasn't worth it to vent my spleen. Give me a few days, and the bitterness will dissipate. In the meantime, though... what a bitch.

My female student also startled me on Friday when we were walking out to lunch. "Kevin!" she said, "I think I have a problem with my colon!" So there I was, now imagining her rocketing skyward on a smoky pillar of shit, but she explained—in far more detail than I would have liked to hear—that she had bled heavily in the morning and, frightened, had called a friend of hers who was a doctor. "Is it cancer?" she asked her friend—the question we all ask the moment something mightily wrong has occurred. Her friend apparently reassured her that it couldn't be cancer, given the symptoms my student had described, but that it would be a good idea to visit a medical center to get checked out. The rest of that day, my student basically insisted she was fine, despite my urging her to go, go, go to a hospital or whatever, and she eventually convinced herself—after talking with my classmates—that the rectal bleeding probably had something to do with over-drinking the previous night. So she ended up remaining to the end of class, when I dismissed everyone at 5:30PM. I told her that I was glad she had lived through the three-day session, and that I hoped she would visit a medical center soon. Man, that was weird.

My evals from this class weren't stellar, either: this was my first-ever 82%, and none of the comments said anything about why the students' satisfaction level was so relatively low. (I normally score in the 95%-100% satisfaction range, which could simply be a function of grade inflation.) There were comments about how the course lacked audio files (I couldn't find them on my borrowed laptop, and no other staffers knew where the files might be, so there was nothing to be done but to improvise the audio scripts); there were comments about the need to tweak some of the course material, but that was it.

So all in all, this was my worst KMA session. The students were generally pleasant, but one guy left after lunch on Day 2; Day 2 then ended with my being arrogantly upbraided by a lowly office assistant; Day 3 presented me with tales of rectal bleeding and relatively low eval scores. I feel more comfortable teaching the two courses I designed as opposed to teaching B's courses (his material could use a proofreader), but I also wasn't going to say no to the chance to teach twenty hours at a pay rate of W70,000. After taxes, that's about W1.35 million in the bank (around $1,130). In the end, I suppose I'm a money-whore like so many others.

how bureaucrats think

[Originally posted on 1/19/17, 3:29PM.]

I'm a heavy guy, and Korea makes shitty office chairs. Result: I can destroy a Korean office chair within a few months to a year just by sitting in it for 8-11 hours a day. My boss—who is similarly large, and who enjoys a huge, luxurious, reinforced office chair—is actually nervous that I might gain an intra-office reputation as The Resident Destroyer of Chairs. Can't say I blame him, but the fault lies just as much in shoddy office-chair workmanship as it does in the number of molecules that constitute me. Because of the difference in workmanship, I've never had this problem in America.

A week or so ago, a single wheel popped off a double-wheeled castor on my current chair. No longer sanguine about sitting in that chair, I brought in a sturdy folding chair from my apartment (few moving parts + simple design = tougher). The boss said he'd get someone to look into fixing or replacing my chair; I said that all I needed was a new castor: replacing that part would be the simplest, cheapest, fastest solution. Several days later (remember: we're moving in bureaucrat time), a Korean guy came into our office along with my boss; a second Korean guy soon joined him, and the two guys looked over my chair, clucking and tutting. One of them said the entire chair would need to be replaced; I repeated what I'd told my boss, saying that all I needed was a new castor: I could easily pop the damaged one out and pop the new one in. The boss also spoke with the Korean guys, who eventually left our office, still clucking and tutting. The boss told me that he had asked the guys to get me a much better chair, but they had kept muttering about merely replacing it with something similar.

Another couple days went by... then the boss got a plastic bag in which were two castors, similar but not identical. One castor looked as though it went with my chair; the other castor—which also appeared scruffy and used—had a different coloration. Both seemed as though they'd work with my chair, so I popped out the damaged castor and popped in the newer-looking, matching-colored one. It worked fine, and I was back in business... at least until the next castor popped.

As Dr. McCoy grumbled at the very end of "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," "The bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in the universe." First: why did the chair problem require two guys to solve? Second: why did the guys mutter about needing to replace the chair if they were only going to end up following my suggestion to replace a single castor? My theory is that bureaucrats are trained to love inefficiency—trained to the point where a simple "A to B" straight-line solution is inconceivable to them. The upshot, then, is that I won't be getting the new, luxurious chair my boss had asked for. The only things I get are the castor and a used spare, which is fine by me. What's funny is that the Korean guys chose an inefficient way to arrive at what was ultimately the most efficient solution—my solution, which was merely common sense. Then again... common sense is rare among bureaucrats.

an unpleasant exchange on flag-burning (moved)

[Originally posted on November 14, 2016, at 11:36PM.]

Malcolm Pollack and I got into a debate on Twitter—which is the absolute worst forum on which to have anything approaching a substantive discussion—about flag-burning.

Malcolm had retweeted the following:

I responded with what I thought was a sympathetic tweet:

I was basically saying that it's symbol-minded (in the Carlinian sense of "simple-minded") to burn the flag, just as it's symbol-minded to fetishize the flag. Malcolm apparently took exception this, so he responded:

Thus began a long and tedious exchange about symbols and offense-taking, during which Malcolm accused me of getting things backward and knowing nothing about symbols, which were a substantial part of my grad-school work. I did my best to remain civil despite the uncalled-for condescension, and swallowed the urge to toss any verbal grenades back. Here's part of the dialogue, near as I can reconstruct it (BH = BigHo; MP = Malcolm P.):

BH: Sad. But as Carlin said: "I leave symbols for the symbol-minded." You're no less symbol-minded if you're burning a symbol. (The tweet that got MP's dander up.)

MP: Symbols are not nothing. (flat declarative)

BH: As a student of religion, I agree. But the power of symbols resides entirely in people; their power isn't engraved in the cosmos. (still trying to be civil, but sensing what's coming)

MP: So does everything else of interest about people. (first snarky salvo—reduce my utterance to meaninglessness by claiming it applies to everything)

BH: My point is: we shouldn't fetishize symbols. Attachment is what leads to the fury we're seeing. Let that go, and voilà: peace. (still doing my best to remain civilly focused on discussion)

MP: Human symbols aren't fetishes. They are compressed algorithms. (Malcolm loses me here. I have no clue what this even means, but he's talking from his tech background, so I suppose we're now going to spend the rest of the discussion speaking in two different languages.)

BH: But people *can* fetishize symbols. And once they're fetishized, people will fight over them or try to destroy them. (This seems self-evident to me.)

MP: Sure, anything can be fetishized. Point was that the original remark seemed too dismissive of something essential & universal. ("Anything can be fetishized"—again with the "dismissiveness" debate tactic. I'm happy to grant his point about my dismissiveness, though. He's got me there, but I'm not particularly ashamed of my attitude.)

BH: I'm not a flag-burner, and I don't like the act, but I think it's a type of free expression. There's the subtext for my tweet.

MP: It's a risky one. You think you are just burning the finger, but for many people you are burning the moon. (This is good, and it agrees with my point. Stop—right—there.)

BH: That's my point about fetishization and attachment. Burning a flag doesn't actually burn liberty. (I voice aloud what I'm thinking.)

MP: I'm starting to think you really don't understand how symbols work. (This is just fucking insulting. At this point, I really should have broken off the discussion. But I stupidly continued...)

BH: Symbols were a big part of grad school, but you & I may be talking past each other if you see things only thru a tech background. (Still—STILL—trying to be civil. And bringing up the "two languages" problem I mentioned parenthetically earlier.)

MP: Put it this way: obviously what you are burning is just cloth. But why burn THAT piece of clothing? Why not your socks?

BH: A symbol points beyond itself to a thing, but when we confuse the symbol for the thing, we're attached/fetishizing/cathecting/etc (didn't have room for a period)

MP: Everybody understands this. [It's] why the burners burn flags and not socks, and it's why it makes the patriots angry. (A third time being dismissive: "Everybody understands this.")

BH: Because both sides are attached. My original point.

MP: Which is how symbols work. Which is my point. Carlin can mock that all [he wants], but he's being stupid. (It's almost as if we're agreeing but refusing to admit we're agreeing.)

MP again: It's how humans are wired up, and very deeply so, even if it seems silly. (Which it isn't at all, I think.)

BH: Am trying to articulate the Buddhist perspective here. [Buddhists] don't have anything backward, IMO, & they've got the psych right.

MP: So next time you walk into a biker bar and start burning a flag, you can explain about articulating the Buddhist perspective. (Yet more fucking snark. What's the goddamn point of trying to have a respectful discussion if my interlocutor's going to shit on me? And despite it all, I'm STILL trying to be civil.)

BH: Won't be me who does that. But yeah, it'll still be attachment at work. That truth doesn't change.

MP: The point is the gesture. It is intended to be deliberately offensive *against the thing symbolized*. And everyone knows it. (OK, so "the thing symbolized" is an idea of America, right? Or is it America, concretely, whatever that means? The land? 325 million people? All of these things are either too big or too abstract to be insulted.)

BH: Really gotta go to lunch, but: if you saw someone burning a flag, would you go all Jack Bauer on him? (Obviously, I'm trying to get Malcolm to commit to a particular position. He's not stupid, though; he senses what I'm going for. I'm asking if Malcolm himself is willing to use violence to suppress another's free expression because he finds it personally offensive.)

MP: I would understand that his intention was to deliberately insult and provoke me. The symbol itself cancels out of the equation. (This is a dodge.)

BH: But would you physically attack the flag-burner as a response to his insult?

MP: It would depend on how I felt about people insulting the country. I'd be tempted.

MP again: As for me personally, I've been trained to have a pretty high threshold for physical violence.
(I guess that's an honest answer, but it's weaselly. Given Malcolm's come-on-strong tone during this discussion, to the point where he feels free to insult me and act dismissive about the points I'm making, why not have the balls to come right out and say, "I'd kick the ass of every flag-burner I saw in front of me"? Why should there be a judgment call at all—an "it would depend"? Just go to war on all flag-burners, because I guarantee that someone, somewhere, is burning a US flag right at this moment.)

MP continues: Go into a bar and say to Bubba: "This [beer mug] is your sister." Then put your [dick in the] mug. The symbol cancels out. (In life, you choose your battles wisely. Maybe for Malcolm, this is the moment to do battle, but for me, a guy fucking a mug isn't fucking my sister. I'd be more likely to laugh than to deck the offender.)

Anyway, the debate branched off into different threads and spilled over into a short exchange via Direct Message (where you can write up to 5000 characters). But I think you get the idea.

Malcolm has a techie's understanding of what a symbol is, and he's using it, along with a very mechanistic view of human beings, to suggest we're hard-wired into the offender/offended dynamic, as if these were the only choices available to us. By the end of the discussion, Malcolm is sick of symbols and is declaring them irrelevant to what he's really trying to say, which to me sounds like, "People are hard-wired to act like children." That's trivially true, if I may be as dismissive as Malcolm repeatedly was. And that's the point I was trying—and failing—to make about the Buddhist angle: there are other options available than automatically switching to combat mode when someone burns a flag.

If anything, when you react violently to a flag-burner, you're only proving that you're a slave to him—that he controls you and can easily provoke you. As I said above, I see flag-burning as a form of free expression. Burning a flag doesn't literally burn the country down, and if that's how people think, then they're pretty damn stupid. That sort of taking-offense is not actual patriotism: that's Carlin's symbol-mindedness. And if the implication of what I'm saying is that there're lots of stupid people out there, then yeah: you understand me clearly. There are smart ways to be a patriot. Allowing yourself to be goaded into fights isn't one of them.

Malcolm also seems to think that metaphysics goes out the window when it comes to provocations like flag-burning. As he wrote:

MP: The point, again, is that the flag being "just a symbol" doesn't matter. The intent to insult is the point. React how ye will.

And this is the unbridgeable gap between me and Malcolm. From my perspective, metaphysics undergirds everything we do, whether we're able to articulate a metaphysical position or not. Metaphysics is primary. Far from going out the window or "not mattering," it's the very thing that drives us to think and act as we do. I utterly reject Malcolm's position, here.

But hey, if you're so manipulable that all I have to do is burn a cherished symbol in front of you to get a rise out of you, then I pity you.

And with that... I do believe I'm done with Malcolm Pollack. I had thought of him as an intelligent, well-spoken, fascinating gent, someone I'd want to meet eventually, but if he's going to treat me with this level of disrespect, then I want nothing more to do with him. I'm closing comments on this post, unfollowing him on Twitter, and setting up a spam filter to divert any emails to my trash. I wish him good fortune with his future. He's still an excellent blogger, but I'm no longer convinced of his excellence as a person. And that's a shame.

the ties that don't bind

[Originally posted on October 7, 2016, at 9:25PM.]

As my boss likes to say: in Korea, a contract is just a piece of paper. The very notion of a contract is a foreign import into Korean society, so it should come as no surprise that, even after decades of dealing with contracts, Koreans still have little to no respect for them. Signing a contract in Korea finalizes nothing: if anything, signing a contract is merely a jumping-off point for further negotiations. "The circumstances have changed" is a common refrain heard and hated by Western businessmen doing business in Korea. "We know we signed for X number of this product at Y price," say the Korean interlocutors, "but now, things are different, and we can no longer move ahead at the quantities and prices stated in the contract." Westerners do not do well in East Asia if they fail to catch on to the fact that, the earth is always moving under their feet here. I tend to think, though, that the toughening experience of living in Asia can arm a Westerner with social, psychological, and cognitive skills that will prove useful back in the West.

That said, a contract is firmly a part of Koreans' business-related ritual behavior here. Most foreigners who work in Korea must work under contract; contracts are implied in the different visas that foreigners obtain to live and work in this country. I'm now on an F-4, so having a contract is no longer a top priority for me: in theory, I could quit my job, start an ashram in the mountains, and have wild sex with my female acolytes without attracting the notice or the ire of the Office of Immigration. In theory.

But a contract is still just a piece of paper, and Koreans themselves often don't make the contract a high priority, as I found out this year: my first contract with the Golden Goose ended this past August 31; had this been a university job, I would have signed a new contract before the ending date of the old one. But I work for what is essentially a hagweon, with all the smarminess and under-the-table-ness that that implies, and this hagweon doesn't seem to care all that much about drawing up contracts. Instead of signing my new contract the last week of August, I just signed the damn thing today. Yes: it took almost a month and a half for the silly folks in the human-resources department to draw up what was essentially the same contract I had signed last year. The only differences were (1) a higher salary and (2) a two-year term instead of a one-year term.

My boss had negotiated my raise and my two-year term at the same time. From the company's stingy standpoint, it would have been painful to offer a one-year contract, then listen to me ask for another raise after a single year. By making this a two-year deal, the question of a second raise is put off an extra year. No matter: my budget assumes I'll be getting only one raise—ever—and even though the boss has talked about expanding our department, putting people under me, and upping my pay to match my new hypothetical responsibilities, I don't see a second raise coming my way for a long, long while. And since I'm only at the Golden Goose until my major debts are paid off, I don't expect to rise high in the company.

So for what it's worth, I've signed a two-year contract that renews my commitment to the Golden Goose. This guarantees stability, especially since I'm now finally at the pay grade that had been promised to me. But I'm on an F-4 visa, and contracts are just pieces of paper here, so I'm feeling a measure of freedom and empowerment as I survey my future.

it comes in threes

Three things to get off my impressively curvy chest.

1. When the Ship's Captain is a Landlubber

Sometimes, working at the Golden Goose means being pulled off one project and quickly reassigned to another as a favor to a different department head. My boss, who ranks as a shiljang (something like a department head—in my case, the department is R&D), is friends with a much younger female shiljang whom I'll call Pooh Bear. Pooh Bear is one of many Korean women blessed or cursed with a cartoonishly high, loud voice that sucks the dignity out of everything she says. The Korean word aegyo (a term for cloying cutesiness or over-adorability; think "Hello Kitty") was made for women like her: despite being married and having at least one child, Pooh Bear still seems to act like someone a third her age. It's funny and annoying at the same time.

Pooh Bear's latest project is admirably ambitious: she has started a program whose name I can't print here, but which I'll call FIDO. The program is supposedly aimed at elementary-age students. Pooh Bear said that the placement test currently being used to place students in the nine(!!) levels of FIDO is too easy. The phrase "too easy" was never clarified to my satisfaction, and my own boss doesn't seem to have specifics. My assumption, then, based on very little data, is that "too easy" means, statistically, that too many students are taking the current placement test and placing too high. Our office was then suddenly tasked with creating three newer, better placement tests for Pooh Bear and FIDO—something that (again, I'm just assuming here) would place the students into levels that fit a more proper bell-curve distribution. The idea was that there'd be a placement test for every grade, with each grade subdivided into three levels (hence the nine levels of FIDO).

My boss passed Pooh Bear's wishes on to me, and with those marching orders, I began designing the first of several newer, significantly harder placement tests. When I was done with the first draft of the first test, I showed it to the boss with the caveat that I may have aimed a bit high. He shrugged and said that, if the test was too hard for one level, it could be probably used for the next level up. He passed the new test along to Pooh Bear, who apparently became alarmed and thought the new test was far too difficult, even for the highest level. She said this, of course, without having bothered to do any actual testing, and with only her own poor English skills as a guide to judging the test's difficulty.

So instead of giving me a chance to revise the test downward, Pooh Bear suddenly switched gears and put our department onto a totally different task: designing some of the course material for a non-FIDO course on leadership that Pooh Bear was also managing. The new task involved selecting three examples of leaders (my boss and I, after some discussion, selected Oprah, Churchill, and Mandela), writing up a thousand-word bio on each leader plus a set of questions and homework/in-class exercises. Pooh Bear had divided this course into twelve levels (three grades, four levels each)—God only knows why. After creating the thousand-word bios, I was supposed to take each bio and revise it downward into 800-word, 600-word, and 400-word bios for the lower levels.

Thus far, I've written the thousand-word bios for Mandela and Churchill (which was very educational for me, as I learned a lot about both men that I hadn't known before), but Pooh Bear has told my boss that there's no hurry on any of this bio stuff, so my boss has reassigned me to working on our own grammar-vocab textbook again.

I'd be irritated about the immense waste of time caused by Pooh Bear's erratic, unprofessional, know-nothing behavior, but (1) this sort of beheaded-chicken-running-zigzags leadership is common in most Korean hagweons, and (2) I'm on salary, so I don't really give a fuck. Seriously, I don't care: I decided, when I was hired, that I would take no ownership of anything I did for the company. If my boss or any other bosses needed something done, I'd just do it, no questions asked. Yeah, yeah—call me Eichmann, just following orders, but I've adopted this attitude because I think it's the most conducive to mental health. Were I to act proprietary about everything I wrote for the company, nothing would ever get done, and personality conflicts would poison the office's atmosphere.

So please don't think I've written the above because I'm out-and-out bitter: it's more that I'm bitterly amused. Yeah, it's a bit annoying to be made to run in useless circles when you'd like to think of yourself as being a professional, but when you work in Korea, you have to realize that, thanks to the incestuous culture of cronyism, you probably are smarter than many of your so-called superiors in the company hierarchy. Just live with that knowledge.

My boss, however, isn't as sanguine as I am. He told me, right after one of Pooh Bear's zigzags, that he doesn't think he'll be saying yes to helping her with any more projects after the current one is done. He has also joked, in the past, that "Koreans like to build things from the outside in," i.e., in the case of a language- and math-oriented cram school, Koreans first create the outward trappings of a program, then fill in the substantive details later. The boss joked this way after I had peppered him with questions about FIDO: what sort of curriculum did it have? What kind of syllabi had been made to take the students and teachers from the beginning to the end of the hagweon's academic term? What were the standards for moving from one level to another? What placement-test stats did we have? What was the underlying educational philosophy behind the program? I got no straight answers from my boss, most likely because he had none from Pooh Bear. "From the outside in," indeed. Pooh Bear is steering without a rudder, barking insanely random commands while bound in a straitjacket, hanging high from the mainmast. She's a landlubber with no knowledge of the sea, and the parents enrolling their kids don't know any better. I'm so happy not to be a hagweon teacher. There's something fundamentally silly and twisted about hagweons in general—a truth that hasn't changed a whit since I first became familiar with hagweons in the 90s.

2. "You Must Learn to Govern Your Passions: They Will Be Your Undoing"

My new coworker, who arrived this past February, originally struck me as quiet, level-headed, and generally decent. Although he's slightly less senior than I am (I was hired only four or five months before he came on board), I don't supervise him or have any responsibilities related to him, so I never monitor his progress or critique his work. He and I have been assigned to completely different projects, so it's almost as if we occupy different mental universes, even though we sit at adjacent work stations.

About three times a day, though, my coworker and I go out for ten- or twelve-minute walks that allow us to stretch our legs, rack up a few thousand steps, and reset our brains. During our walks, we also tend to talk—mostly about nerd stuff like fantasy novels and video games. My coworker's knowledge of both of these subjects far outstrips mine, so I often end up listening more than talking.

On May 19, however, the conversation got political. I try to be mild-mannered and even-handed, but if someone spouts bullshit, I'm going to call him on it, and in this case, my coworker, whom I already knew to lean very much leftward, made the silly claim that even using the word "black" to describe black people was racist. I offered a polite objection, talking about how PC thinking tends to stifle freedom of speech and thought... this somehow got into a discussion of the term "SJW" (social-justice warrior) and Donald Trump. I'm not a Trump fan myself, so I initially didn't care too much when my coworker said he wanted to smash Trump's face in with a cinder block, but I could also see my coworker actually getting riled up as he went on about how "PC isn't a bad thing" and how "SJW is a label I wear proudly." I nodded and smiled while he worked himself up, then finally I said, "Okay, calm down, calm down"—to which my coworker replied, "No! Fuck you!"

This came as a shock, although perhaps it shouldn't have. Lefties often talk about how the right needs to be more civil when in fact it's often the lefties who are more prone to violence in language and in action. Suddenly, the cinder-block-smashing imagery made sense, and for a very brief moment, I wondered whether I was going to have to physically fight this guy. My coworker eventually calmed down, and since then, he's acted as if nothing had happened. I've become cooler toward him; we still go on our walks, but we no longer talk politics. From his perspective, I'm sure he thinks I was the provocateur, even though he's the one with the pronounced anger-management problem. I, meanwhile, think my coworker is a hypocrite for embracing the SJW label while doing absolutely jack shit about social problems in Korea—homelessness, domestic violence, stifling corporate culture, radically unequal pay for women, rampant racism, etc., etc. If my coworker were really all that passionate about social justice, he'd be all over these urgent problems instead of wasting his time reading fantasy novels and watching YouTube videos devoted to the latest video games. I'm sure that, if I confronted him with this hypocrisy, he'd hide behind the PC excuse that "you can't judge other cultures," which is nonsense: other cultures judge us, so it's only fair to judge them. That's what having values means: your values apply everywhere and to everyone—they're not "true for me but not for you." If honor killings and clitoridectomies are bad, then they're bad no matter where they occur, no matter who's perpetrating those acts. It takes balls to have values.

This Fuck you incident has, for me at least, fundamentally altered our working relationship. While it's not enough of a problem to make me want to seek another job, the working environment has become, since May 19, less than ideal. It doesn't help that my boss has complained to me about my coworker for a completely different set of reasons: apparently, the work my coworker has been doing for my boss has been sub-par in quality. (My coworker is supposed to be generating content—stories, exercises, etc.—for a fifth-grade textbook.) The English has been so poor that the boss has had to rewrite whole sections of my coworker's prose; he also complains that my coworker has, instead of writing his own original thoughts, been copying and pasting snatches of text from online sources—the sort of lazy, plagiaristic behavior I'd expect from a Korean college student, not from a fellow Westerner.

I'm not bothered deeply enough by this incident to talk to my boss about it. As I told some friends in a different context, I'm not the type to pussy out, run to authorities, and ask them to solve my problems for me. But for now, caution is the operative word.

3. Bye-bye, Lig

And lastly: I've called it quits with Ligament. This isn't something I want to advertise on my blog's main page, which is why I'm tucking this bit of news back here, in my archives. I'm not bitter; I'm not angry; I'm just tired of being ignored. Ligament has long had a problem with managing her time. She often claims she has absolutely no free time because she has to spend all day studying and prepping in the library at Ewha University. This is bullshit, of course; I remember having time for friends and family when I was in grad school because I knew how to manage my time by creating study plans and paper/test schedules, etc.

There were warning signs, as you might imagine. When I was living near Daegu in 2013, Ligament visited and told me the story of how she'd dumped her boyfriend of four years because she needed time to study for the graduate-admission exam. She broke up with a longtime boyfriend because of a need to study! She couldn't have told her boyfriend that she needed space, just for a while, just so she could study for her test? Apparently not. Apparently, it was all or nothing for Ligament, and I began to feel as if I were getting much the same treatment. So fuck it. Around Children's Day, May 5th, I ended things with her—politely and without any fighting.

It's a relief, actually, in terms of my finances. As I privately told some friends, I'm glad I won't have to spend piles of money at Costco each time Ligament comes over for a home-cooked meal. Women drain the wallet, whether they mean to or not. (At least until they marry you and begin managing the home finances, I guess!) There was one time when I asked Ligament whether she'd like to go to this high-end buffet, D'Maris, or whether she'd prefer a home-cooked meal. She opted for the home-cooked meal, which was an honor insofar as she was saying she preferred my cooking, but which was a burden insofar as the home meal was going to cost me twice as much as going to the buffet would have.

Anyway, I'm now free to ogle female flesh again. So there's that.

And those are my three burdens, now off my chest.


a study in contrasts

[Originally posted on March 11, 2016 at 9:12PM.]

Here, for your entertainment, are two pages with the same textbook content. One page was designed by me; the other was made by our contracted designer. I'm not going to say that I'm the Picasso of design, but I managed to use the Shutterstock graphic to better effect (instead of postage-stamping it into near-nothingness), and I made the text larger: even if you shrank the page so that it's closer to the dimensions of the designer's page, my text would still be larger. So which is better? I display; you decide.

The designer first:

Now me:

I think you can do a lot if you just stretch your mind a bit. For me, an image has to pop, i.e., it has to pop out of the page in a dynamic way—perhaps through the use of bold colors or through some other technique that lends dimensionality to the image—like shadows or clever optical illusions. Kids are generally going to loathe their textbooks, but better design can make using the books a more tolerable experience.

If I were to be hyper-critical about either of the above-displayed pages, I might pick on the fact that the vampire has only a tenuous link at best to the concepts being taught on this page. The vamp is bursting through some sort of paper barrier as opposed to standing in front of a mirror and having no reflection. No graphic on the page is showing any sort of reflexivity at all. In that sense, this design might count as a failure. The picture serves as little more than a distraction; it's a visual punctuation mark and little else.

A better page would do something with mirrors, or there'd be a humorous pic of someone hitting him- or herself in the face with a tennis racket or a baseball bat or something. In my defense, though, I liked the vampire lady; she reminded me of the scary chick who vamps out near the end of "Fright Night." It seemed a shame not to use this Shutterstock image, and besides, illustrators do the image-as-punctuation thing all the time.

Not that this matters: I did the above page as an exercise in counterfactuals: the "would've"s and "could've"s. We're stuck with our designer, and that's that.


designer-related woes

[Originally posted March 10, 2016, at about 8:00PM.]

My previous "frank" post showed off some of my cover-design work for a book that, alas, has been shot down by our CEO. I've been working, over the past month, on churning out the second of a projected nine-book textbook series that concentrates on grammar and vocabulary while also building students' writing skills.

Yesterday involved a paroxysm of proofreading effort—the final heave before the manuscript (I'll call that an "ms" from now on, as pro writers do; the plural is "mss") was to be hand-carried to Paju, where our designers are now based. I was at the office in Daechi-dong until almost 10:30PM last night, and I griped to my boss that the Korean designers were wasting opportunities with the photos I had gathered for them.

Let's back up a bit. The way it works is like this: I write most or all of the ms for every chapter in our ten-chapter textbook. Chapters are 15 pages long; we brought in a British guy who writes reading passages and reading-comprehension questions for each unit. He takes care of four pages per chapter; I do the other eleven—grammar sections plus a slew of exercises. I also go online at (our company has a Shutterstock account) to find photos and vector (basically, scalable) illustrations; I download these images—Shutterstock lets you download 25 per day—and populate each chapter with several (maybe eight to ten, usually one image per page). All of these chapters are done up as MS Word documents. All the Word documents together constitute the textbook's ms. The ms files are bundled up as a ZIP file, then uploaded to the unfortunately named "Webhard" (online hard drive; think of FTP space or Cloud storage, i.e. a physical place to store data that's not on my personal or office computer but is readily accessible from any Net-connected computer). The design team downloads my ms data and puts together their own draft ms, incorporating their own design elements. Fonts are changed; colors are added; text gets scrunched, pulled, and stretched like toffee to fit the constraints of the book's anticipated final physical dimensions; graphical elements like colorful borders, tiny cartoons, etc., are inserted to spice up each page, and the Shutterstock photos that I've chosen are integrated into the overall design as well.

What began to piss me off, however, was that, when I flipped through the designer's draft ms a couple days ago (they had sent their file as a PDF that we color-printed out in the office), I saw that the Shutterstock photos—on every page, without fail—had been reduced to the size of a postage stamp and tucked into spots where there was no text. It was the same dull, bland, uncreative procedure for every single photo: shrink-and-tuck, shrink-and-tuck. There had been no attempt to integrate the images with the text, no attempt to make the images pop for the reader—nothing. It was a phoned-in performance that bordered on insulting, almost as if the designer were saying, "Fuck this shit. This is beneath me. I'm not going to expend any thought on this." The pattern of behavior, increasingly visible as I flipped from page to page in the ms, was ruthlessly uncreative.

I had the impression that different designers were working on different aspects of the ms. There was someone who did the page borders, for example; someone else did the cute little cartoon characters that appeared every now and then. I was particularly enthralled by whoever had worked on the reading-passage title graphics: that person had very cleverly redesigned the letters in the title to create mini-illustrations that perfectly fit the topic and theme of each passage. Whoever had done that had been awake, in my opinion, and I told my boss via text that that person was the one who needed to be on Shutterstock duty, not whichever idiot was currently in charge of formatting and placing my photos.

Surprise, surprise: according to my boss, there was, in fact, a small design team, but the people doing the cartoons, the borders, the title graphics, and the photos were all one in the same lady. I was flabbergasted. How could she be so creative with her title designs and so disgustingly uncreative with the Shutterstock material?

I had relayed my reaction via text to my boss while he was out in Paju with the designer lady. Later in the afternoon, when the boss had returned, he told me that she had tried to stretch the Shutterstock photos out, but they had become too fuzzy and unusable. I smelled bullshit: the photos I had downloaded from Shutterstock were all 1000 pixels wide. Assuming 72 dpi (dots per inch)—which is screen resolution* for a given image—the images would be naturally about 13.9 inches wide. A standard A4-sized sheet of paper is about 8.27 inches wide, so that's a natural spillover of over 5 inches: the pics, at normal size, are too big for an A4 page. This means the pics need to be shrunk, not stretched, and shrinking a comparatively low-resolution image normally improves the quality of the image (the designer lady is right: stretching a non-vector image, like a JPEG, does lower the image's quality). So, yeah: bullshit. Besides, the images wouldn't all have to be stretched to fill an entire page, anyway: there are creative ways to incorporate slightly enlarged, or un-stretched, images into a textbook's page.

So with the designer offering a bullshit excuse for unimaginative work, all I can do is take some Shutterstock images myself and show my boss what an imaginative designer can do. I might work on that tomorrow (i.e., 3/11/16); we're now in a lull period because the ms has been turned in, the designer draft has been proofed and corrected (in Paju, my boss took my manually proofed copy of the designer's ms and went over all the corrections, page by page, for 180-some pages), and it's all in God's hands.

But will it be worth my while? Even if I convince my boss that it's possible to be an order of magnitude more creative with the Shutterstock images I downloaded, I think it's already too late for this book. Adding insult to injury, the designer told my boss that we'd need to download much larger images from Shutterstock (you can opt to download images at various sizes) if we want bigger, bolder page designs next time, almost as if her inability to work creatively were somehow our fault. Someone needs to be fucking slapped.

*Screen resolution is fine for things appearing on your monitor; many, if not most, monitors have a resolution of 72 dpi (more recent monitors have finer res). That dpi isn't so great, however, when it's time to print the image onto paper. For paper images, you normally want to shoot for about 300 dpi (much tinier pixels, which produce a finer-grained, cleaner-looking, generally sharper image). You could go up to 2400 dpi, which is about as fine a resolution as the human eye can discern, but that would be a waste of memory: 2400-dpi images make for huge—wastefully huge—data files.

While we're on the subject, I should note that "dpi" and "resolution," which I sloppily use interchangeably above, are not really the same thing. I could, for example, create a hi-res image with low-dpi pixels. Let's say my pixels are the size of a balloon, but my "painting surface" is the size of an entire football field. With balloon-sized pixels, I could create a very detailed, crisp-looking image. It would look amazing if I were floating several hundred feet in the air and looking down at my work. This football-field image would be high-resolution, given the fineness of the detail, but the dpi would be awfully low: in fact, with balloons, you'd have to talk about inches per pixel instead of pixels per inch.


I may be the new in-house graphic designer!

I can't talk about this publicly, so I'm tucking this in my blog's archives. I told my boss at the Golden Goose that I'm decent with Photoshop, and he asked me to try my hand at designing a book cover for an upcoming textbook. The book contains chunks of text from thinkers throughout the ages: Darwin, Clausewitz, Goodall, Descartes, Eliade, King, Kennedy, Einstein, Gandhi, Douglass, Suzuki, you name it. The boss chose the title: Thoughts of Great Minds: From Reading to Writing. Not the most inspiring of titles, and the subtitle is a reference to what the students who use the book will be doing, i.e., reading the text, then writing an essay about what they've read. But the book's name is still serviceable, and I had a hand in compiling all the texts, in writing all the paraphrases of the texts, and in researching whom to consult re: obtaining permission to reprint some of the more recent extracts. Except for the Korean translations of the passages, I'm the primary force behind this textbook, so when my boss asked me to try my hand at designing a cover, I was delighted.

Background: we outsource things like cover art and interior illustrations to a designer that we've retained. The staffers at this company are used to doing art for children's books, but the textbook in question is more for high-schoolers, so it needs to be a bit more mature-looking. With that in mind, here's what the designer came up with, based on one of my boss's descriptions of what he wanted:

The boss had two thoughts on how he wanted the cover to go. First was a "brain motif," which you see realized, kind of, above. The idea was that the brain would signify "mind"—not an irrational thought at all. My own thought was to have the brain's outer edges be visible, surrounding the images of the luminaries found in the textbook. Instead, as you see, the designer went for a "radiating" approach that didn't strike me as artistically coherent. I also didn't like the color scheme or the rather childish font.

The boss's other thought was the one that I went with: a "cloud motif" in which the various luminaries would appear in a ghostly/misty sort of way, with the clouds abstractly representing the notion of "thought," and the images of the luminaries signifying the "great minds." I thought this sort of image made a lot more sense, aesthetically speaking, so I riffed off my boss's artistic premise and came up with this:

My boss was delighted! He told me he liked my design much better than the one done by his regular designer, so he's decided to go with my work instead of theirs. Not bad for yours truly, and now I have something new to put on my résumé: in-house graphic designer. My piece was apparently convincing enough to get my boss thinking that he'd like me to do this sort of thing from now on. I'm happy to make myself useful to the company... especially if this guarantees me my promised raise next year!

ADDENDUM: yeah, yeah—some of you will wonder whether this new duty comes with extra pay. As far as I know, the answer to that question is no, because I'd be doing design work during regular office hours, not as something above and beyond the call of duty. But if the work requires me to stay overtime, I might end up receiving either comp time or a per-project fee. We'll just have to see what the future holds.