Friday, October 26, 2012

Feeling Korean

On Thursday, our English department head told us, laughing, that English department heads always get cancer because foreigners give them so much stress. Maybe, she added, I’ll get breast cancer. Ha! Ha! Ha!
            We tried to smile politely because, being veterans of Korea, we know sometimes things are lost in translation. But still we’re not sure if it’s a joke or what the joke is or why our department head is both laughing and why she thinks the very simple issues we’ve raised are nuisance enough to kill her. Surely it’s more stressful for a foreigner to live in Korea than a Korean to interact with a couple foreigners. Surely our requests for our contract to be honored are reasonable. Surely.
            The longer I’m in Korea, the more I see and feel Korean. Not only do I finally notice my small face and high nose; I’m happy to have them. Although a medically dubious claim, our department head’s stress to the point of cancer is beginning to make a lot more sense to me.
            When Koreans are told to work overtime, they do it. And they do it without overtime pay, incentives, or ill-will toward their company. Overtime isn’t good news to them, but there’s no furrowing of the brows that says, “Why should I? Is this the best way to increase productivity? Have you thought about x, y, and z?”
            Time is not yours to arbitrate in Korea; you are too far down on the totem pole for that. You may want more time to sleep or to be with friends, but you are a student now: time is dictated by your professors. Now you’re a company worker: time is given to you by that company. You have to earn time; it is not an essential right. Right now the company is busy, so, company employee, you stay until 11 each night instead of the tacitly assumed 9:30 and, for fun, we’ll have a mandatory company retreat on Saturday and Sunday. We’ll play games and drink soju and it will increase productivity through team spirit. You will not experience more stress.
            Why don’t you quit? I asked my friend. She works in a hospital, and for about two months every year they work three hours overtime every day without pay. She shrugged.
            “There’s more work for the hospital at that time,” she explained. “And if I quit . . . other companies are worse.” She laughed. “I finish work at seven or eight on a bad day but on Facebook I see my friends at Seoul writing ‘Early day’ and like that when they finish work so early.”
            Here at Kosin, while we foreigners are dragging our feet on some random government or school stipulation, weighing the benefits for our students and the logic behind the decision, the Korean teachers don’t bat an eye. They certainly don’t raise questions like, “Is it ethical for a Christian school to violate a contract—taking away pensions and severance—in order to save money?”
            Our department head blinks at us when we do. “Everyone is taking a pay cut. No one gets a pension anymore. Even Korean teachers. Actually, three art teachers were changed to part time recently.”
            “In violation of their contract?” We are horrified.
            She didn’t understand why. The next issue—getting into the English department office when the secretary locks us out—was similarly thorny.
“Our secretary . . . I cannot convince her. She is stubborn. The secretary wants extra pay for coming to extra events,” our department chair said, shaking her head in disappointed frustration.
Now it was our turn to be baffled. Convince her? Of what? Why shouldn’t she get pay for extra work?
Photo unrelated except as evidence to my parents that I'm still alive.
It all makes me hate those geography textbooks we had growing up that covered every spare inch of their spreads with colorful pictures of cultural dress and drama and transportation methods of other cultures to explain their differences with America: windmills for the Dutch, yellow and blue-jerseyed Soccer players for Brazil; the Nutcracker for Russia; Sushi and chopsticks for Japan. The unknown and unheard-of traditions. As if those things separated us; as if any of the unknown clothes, language, dancing, chopsticks—were the barrier that kept us from understanding one another.
As if it weren’t the known—the assumptions, the unquestioned—that was the real problem. 

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