My Girlfriend’s Grade

So my girlfriend informed me that she got her grade for her residency feedback. Though it wasn’t a “bad grade”, it was lower than I expected, and I have to admit that I was quite surprised. She had some trouble when doing her hospital work during her studies, because she tended to do things her way, and some of the staff at her earlier training hospital didn’t like that. But since coming to Seoul, people have really appreciated her work. More than one time, she’s been encouraged by a Department Head to specialize in his area, because she’s doing such a good job, and not only nurses but also residents and supervisors have often declared what a great job she’s doing. With all of that positive feedback, I’d expected a top grade, especially in comparison to some of the idiots she’s had to work with. She’s told me several times of people who simply ignore calls on their pager, sleep while on-duty, fuck up massively, and so on.

So, I was surprised. With all that praise, you’d think she’d have gotten a top grade. But, as she said, “You know, I think it’s a pretty good grade, considering I didn’t do any drinking or stay late at dinner parties.” You see the residents, they’re the ones who do the grading. So the guy who slept through the pages and calls, who screws up every case he gets involved with? He’s buddies with the right resident in his hospital, and the hospital is an extension of the University where he graduated from, so of course, this useless dork got a top grade. And Lime didn’t. And she’s happy about it.

“In this society, in this medical system, if I got an a top grade, it would be a shame, a dishonour,” she noted, explaining further just exactly what kind of absolute horseshit that female interns have to deal with.

Oh yes, there is always that. After seeing what I wrote, she wanted me to note that this sort of thing is, well, unusual, that it’s not constant… but it’s certainly present. There are professors that female interns get whispered warnings about. Residents and Department Heads who try these sorts of things on female interns. All of the examples that follow are things that have happened to people she’s worked with:

Being dragged out for dinner and drinking every night until 2:00 am, 3:00 am, 4:00 am when they have to get up for work at 7:00 am the next morning; having their asses slapped by department heads; being solicited to “go off somewhere alone” with supervisors during drunken karaoke parties; being asked, “How many men have you slept with?” by residents over all too much liquor. This can happen with men five years old, or thirty years older.

Happily, my girlfriend knows how to handle herself, and she can keep these jerks away just by clearly advertising with body language that she’s not interested in any of that crap, and by refusing to drink (she’s claimed that she’s allergic to alcohol, which is about the only claim that one can use to avoid drinking in Korea aside from psychotic religiosity) and by leaving early from the dinner parties that she is stuck attending. Unfortunately, by not playing ball, she gets a lower grade than her abilities and work actually warrant — even by the somewhat embarrassed admission of one of the residents who graded her!

I expressed, well, disgust with all of this, and asked her why she thought nobody got angry enough to expose this kind of shit, to name names and to air it all in public. Of course, it’s not hard to know why, but I do know that, say, in the states, this kind of thing would be enough to get a department head fired — inviting an intern out for sex, or slapping her ass, would get him in serious trouble, anyway. But no female intern dares report it because, of all cultures in Korea, medical culture is the most conservative of all, and because, after all, this is Korea.

So more than ever, I understand her desire to not have to work in this system. As for me, it seems like more of the same frustrating corruption that confronts me these days. Even if these things are extreme cases, it worries me that this is a society in which an egomaniacal fraud like Dr. Hwang could actually be the head of a department in a University — because so far absolutely nobody seems to have brought the ridiculousness of his actually holding that position, and what it says about academic standards here. That this is a society in which irrelevant English scores on an irrelevant and besides ridiculous business English test determine employability, even for jobs in which little or no English is actually used, and for which a whole industry exists teaching people who can’t understand the test at all how to game it for better grades than they can understand by actually comprehending their own answers. A society in which a single exam that tests simple rote memorization skills at age 18 determines a person’s future. Is this a society in which how much you drink, with whom, is widely acknowledged to determine how far ahead you can get, and actual skills count for much less? A society where — yes, even if it is a rare, extreme case — women have to put up with being slapped on the ass in front of co-workers, and where their bosses can arrogantly solicit sex from them without fear of reprisal — and where most women treated this way actually feel themselves to have no reasonable, effective recourse?

That’s the impression I’m getting. And all of this, especially the last point, really worries and angers me, all the more because it would be changeable if people were willing to get angry about it. “But that’s just the way it is,” Lime says to me, when I urge her to write about it, to publish a book pseudonymously about these experiences. My own frustrations, I’m saying, coincide with Lime’s, but I come from a society where this is, at least in theory, unacceptable, and against which one hopefully can and does fight. But of course, if any of the women my girlfriend knew accused their supervisors of sexually harassing them, they’d have trouble practicing medicine later on, down the road, right? So nobody says boo…

The one reassuring thing from the conversation was this: when I complained that, say, if I develop bowel cancer and go to the hospital, I don’t want some idiot who does everything halfway, but managed to get a top grade because he was a supervisor’s buddy, to be the one treating me. I want a good doctor, someone who was careful, who has experience, who knows what she is doing. “Oh, don’t worry. All the doctors who get the top grade all want to make a lot of money,” she said, “So they never specialize in anything that has to do with life-saving procedures. They all become plastic surgeons and things like that. So you don’t need to worry about life-threatening illness. The doctors who got top grades will never be the ones you meet.” I know that there is some bias and probably some unfairness in the evaluation of medical residents in Western countries. I’m sure some doctors, those who are judged as more attractive by those evaluating, will get higher grades. But it seems to me that the corruption is probably much less. Or, rather, that it’s much more pronounced here than in the West.

I think my girlfriend basically wanted me to remember that, even if the evaluation system is flawed, it’s still somewhat functional. It still weeds out the most imcompetent, one would hope, over time. But to me, that’s hardly reassuring, in that it suggests to me that the evaluation system doesn’t reflect much of anything. It’s scary that such a flawed system is what finally determines who’s going to see you after you’re in a major car accident, or when you have a heart attack, or whatever.

This, I guess, is what I’m thinking: the crack in all meritocratic systems is that meritocracy ranking is determined by objective evaluation, except that evaluation is anything but objective when you mix in ageism, sexism, and various forms of nepotism and corruption. In a social structure where supposedly objective test-evaluations are applied to everyone, the tests can easily be constructed in such a way as to maintain current social strata, to maintain current regional bias, to maintain the status quo and keep whoever’s being imposed upon in the lower position. A false-meritocracy, one rendered false by corruption, seems inevitable when evaluators have nothing acting upon them to prevent corruption; and there is, in most of the meritocratic systems in use here and now, no failsafe. Corruption seems, instead, to be built into those evaluation systems and protocols. The corruption is assumed and even has a kind of prearranged, well-known, and agreed-upon function. Everyone knows this… and just goes along with it, because, that’s the way it is.

Which once again brings me back to, “So how do people change that?” I don’t mean, I emphatically don’t mean, “How can I change that?”, but rather, I wonder how people go about changing that. And why they don’t. It reminds me of a book I skimmed, once, that suggested, given just barely enough freedom, say, like one day to reverse the world by placing the Lords of Misrule on the throne for one day, people will put up with almost anything for the rest of the year. I shall have to read up on that again, and see how much of it applies to Korean society today.

But if anything, this makes me appreciate (a) how far the West has come in grappling with these problems — we haven’t solved them, but we’ve made great strides, I think, and (b) why my girlfriend and I agree our children should not have to grow up in, and be educated within, such a powerfully negative, disempowering, unreasonable, and counterproductive system.

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