Sunday, March 18, 2007


A Habit Koreans Can't Quite Quit

It was a typical Monday morning in most respects: I had just finished trying to help level 3 Korean students at the Chuncheon SDA Language Institute make correct grammatical sentences and I had an hour before I would try to help some level 2 students make sentences that were at least intelligible.

With that much time to spare, I decided to go to the market located on the first floor of the building next to our office, where I could buy a bottled drink that would accomplish the two-fold goal of boosting my energy levels while simultaneously corroding my tooth enamel.

However, this time, when I returned to the fourth floor of the building where our institute implants the use of Romanized characters into pliable Asiatic minds, I was a wanted man. “Pastor Kwan is looking for you,” the secretary told me as I stepped inside the office.

“Okay,” I said, and headed for the staff room to leave my caustic beverage on the table.

“The pastor was looking for you,” said one of my fellow foreign teachers upon my arrival.

“Yeah, okay, I heard,” I said, and then meandered toward the office where our institute’s head pastor and institute director makes our complicated cross-cultural endeavor cohesive.

I entered the room and saw Pastor Kwan sitting along with Kathryn, one of the Korean teachers who tries to make our level 1 students say sentences, any sentences, whether they are intelligible or not. Kwan, who next to me looks as tall as a soybean plant and just as heavy, sought to confirm the latest intra-institute intelligence he’d received. “I just heard terrible news,” he said. “They told me you’re leaving to go to Seoul.”

“Yeah, they’ve asked me to go to the main institute in Seoul and work in the textbook office,” I said.

“I think you’d better change your mind,” he rejoined. “I worry about your nose.”

It’s not that my nose has a tendency to wander when not watched carefully. He was referring to that fact that I have had two rough winters in Korea keeping flu symptoms at bay, and 40 years of rapid industrialization has left Seoul’s air quality about as clear as the Democratic Party’s plan for Iraq’s future.

“I’ll tell you what’s not good for my health,” I told him. “Teaching until 9 p.m. every evening and then getting up to do a 7 a.m. class is not good for me.”

“But I think hours will be worse in Seoul,” he said.

“They told me I would work from eight to six every day,” I countered.

“Yes, they told you eight to six but it will be more,” he struck back.

At this point Kathryn, who had been listening while downing noodles meant to sustain her through two more morning classes, spoke up. “Sometimes the Korean staff work extra hours in the textbook office, but it’s different for foreigners,” she said. “I think you will be okay.”

The pastor, somewhat stung at losing one of his hires and being contradicted by another, sunk into desperation. “Is there anything that can make you stay?” he concluded.

“You know, sometimes, when I’m teaching the adult students I think I’d like to stay in Korea and work for SDA forever,” I tell him. “Then, I go into the children’s classes in the afternoon and after about five minutes I think, ‘I’d like to leave today!’”

The discussion settled, the pastor wished me good luck and told me I’d be missed, while I told him Chuncheon would always be one of those special places in my heart that no one in the outside world has ever heard of.

I have held various jobs during the last 10 years, and circumstances inevitably require me to move on eventually. When I’ve told an employer that I’m moving on to a new place or a new job, the reactions that I have received from my supervisors are usually memorable. They run the gamut from “Sorry to hear that,” “Sound like a good opportunity,” “I’m sorry I can’t pay more,” to “I understand; I’m planning to quit in two weeks.”

However, this occasion with Pastor Kwan was an experience quite unlike any I’d encountered before. At first I was embittered, because it had been a difficult decision to make and I didn’t appreciate him trying to discourage me just because my leaving was inconvenient for him. However, a couple of weeks later, I was once again enlightened as to the culture of the Korean workplace.

On a Saturday before our church service began, he stood before the congregation and began speaking the native language. Amidst a smattering of words I couldn’t distinguish from one another, I heard the words “Rob York” and then Kathryn began to translate for him.

“Teacher Rob York will be leaving us to go to Seoul,” she said. “He’s not used to what Korean bosses do when an employee leaves, and that often involves begging them to stay. I begged him to stay because he’s done a lot for this institute.”

Then, wishing me good health, they presented me with a traditional Korean gift: a handkerchief.

I’m not a perfect employee; I’ve just had some very good employers who let me do what I needed to do and appreciated me for it, even if they showed their appreciation in vastly different ways.

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