Nothing is ever simple in Korea (or in life, but we’re talking about Korea).
Things have improved tremendously for Tara and myself since we started our new jobs. We’re happy and stable and we have great friends, and though we no longer work at the same site, we can appreciate the differences in our routines and the divergent perspectives that grants us.
That said, I sometimes feel like I’ve been stuck in a dinghy while Tara rides in a more seaworthy vessel. Not everything, sad to say, is sunshine at CIS Uijeongbu. A few weeks ago, we had something of a “regime change” in our office. Our previous vice-principal (who was essentially managing the company in all but title) quit abruptly, and the man who stepped in to fill his shoes and direct this crazy show is none other than Mr. Kim, the company’s owner. Despite predictions to the contrary, I have seen him in the office pretty much every day and he does appear to be filling that role.
Life under Mr. Kim hasn’t changed all that much, from one perspective. The drinking fountains still dispense water. the wifi signal still won’t reach my classroom consistently. The building remains firmly rooted to its foundations. The furniture in the office has moved around, but everybody sort of agrees that it kind of works better that way. But despite the outward appearances, we have had problems. Whether it’s Korean supervisors not being paid, or management “forgetting” to pay into our pension funds on time, or last minute announcements of new teaching assignments and the drastic curtailment of prep time, the new regime has often found itself in the position of apologizing and pleading for accommodation from us.
Mr. Kim’s preferred venue for such discussions is taking everyone out to dinner. His preferred tack for navigating these discussions is to buy lots of meat and booze and encourage us to have fun. Making plans on a Friday night is dangerous, because it’s becoming increasingly common for Mr. Kim to spontaneously decide we need to go out. This means free meat and booze, and that’s kind of OK. It’s just one of the features of the new regime, along with uncertainty over teaching hours and a dream-like sensation of floating through a sort of shadow-realm. I’m betting most of my co-workers don’t even get that last one.
We’ve learned lots of things about Mr. Kim from these dinners. For one, he is generous: not “pay your Korean staff on time” generous, but “everybody’s invited, let’s go get hammered!” generous. Our last outing ended up turning into one of those boy’s nights you hear so much about in Korea, despite our staff being preponderantly female; on the other hand, our old vice principal used to sneak out of the office so that he wouldn’t have to tell all the girls we were going out.
Another thing we’ve learned about Mr. Kim is that he owns a norebang (that’s Korean for Karaoke club, for those who don’t know). The first time he treated the entire staff (plus Tara) to dinner, he led us to the norebang for a glorious after-party. Mr. Kim’s Norebang (the establishment’s actual name*) is sort of a shrine to Jeff Beck, for some reason, with other mid-70s guitar heroes accorded prominent, but lesser, status on its walls. And when you go up to sing your heart out in front of everyone, you’re accompanied by an actual guitarist. I don’t think Mr. Kim technically owns the guitarist too, but I’m not going to commit to that conclusion. Either way, Mr. Kim is committed to the idea that his labor force will be content and his school will function well as long as everyone is having a great time.
Basically, Mr. Kim is Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School. The metaphor is not perfect, but the mental imagery is just about.
Anyway, that’s how things are on my front. Although things are weird here, and I’m going to have to figure out new and creative ways to politely drink less before these Friday nights kill me, we’re surviving and adapting. I don’t know how long the new regime will last before Mr. Kim is sick of doing everything himself, but change is definitely a constant in our lives.
*as far as I am concerned.