I Don’t Get It Yet? Pal…

Just before Chuseok I met this guy on the subway; I was in a bad mood, because I’d wasted a bunch of time (because not one but two institutions were completely and utterly disorganized and inconsiderate). I was on the way home from that, and this guy introduced himself to me on the train. I did not want to talk to him at first, but he was nice, so I explained my situation.

Which was a rant I won’t inflict on you now, but involved the usual disorganization and short-sighted stupidity one comes to expect from the Kafkaesque bureaucracies so common here, but also the kinds of retarded policies that make it easier for, say, an unemployed Korean (with serious cash flow problems) a lower credit risk than a gainfully employed non-Korean — which, in other words, require we do everything through Koreans, as dependents, instead of in our own names.

(Both of which — the bureaucracies, and their retarded policies — I’ve had quite enough, thanks.)

The weird thing, though, was that this guy I was ranting to assumed that (a) I couldn’t read Hangeul, and (b) I had no understanding of Korean society.

He smiled proudly to himself and said, “Well, I’ve adapted. I’ve pretty much gotten used to Korean society now, I have a pretty good understanding of the culture.” He said this as if he were proud to contrast himself with me, a know-nothing Westerner who didn’t get it yet. To which I was so dumbfounded I didn’t quite know what to say.

Then he showed off his Chuseok presents to me, bragging that his boss had spent W150,000 on him, and told me of his deep-seated desire to please his Korean boss (at the private company where he was working), and “bring home the bacon” by forcing the boss’s unwilling employees to improve their English against their will and despite the fact they have little need of it. When he confessed anxieties about some students who didn’t seem to want to learn, and I mentioned, “No matter what, you’ll always have students who don’t truly want to learn, or have the capability, or even need it…” he just smiled and said something like, “Well, I’m just trying to bring home the bacon. I wanna do a good job and make my boss happy.”

Uh, okay. But maybe you’re the one who doesn’t get it yet, pal.

Honestly, he didn’t seem like a completely bad guy — not someone I’d want to have a beer with, necessarily, but he seemed just a little clueless and overly earnest, and of course a touch arrogant — but I have to ask: what is it about Westerners in Korea that makes them think that within a year or two, they know all there is to know?

(And yeah, I probably went through that too. I like to think I’m not still in that state.)

7 thoughts on “I Don’t Get It Yet? Pal…

  1. maybe because contrasted with how they were during their first six months, the level at which we function after two years DOES seem extremely high. then after four years, we contrast ourselves with that two-year person, and feel good about ourselves, because the number of people who have been here longer than four years is small. Then at six years… and so forth… until we reach the Marmot’s level, where he readily acknowledges, “The more I know about Korea, the less I realize I know about Korea” or maybe the angry blogger’s “The more I know about Korea, the less I understand about Korea” — “knowing the culture” is a sliding scale.

    1. Roboseyo,

      Maybe. I’m not sure I behaved in quite that way, to a total stranger, back when I was a couple of years in, or four, or six, but you’re right that I surely mistook my own level of understanding and functioning after two years, looking back on it, and four, and six. The overestimating, I can understand. The arrogance, though… Ugh.

      Though I will say, for me it’s more like, “The more I understand, the more I find it incomprehensible…” (and in terms of some things, I prefer not to understand how people could behave or think the way they do).

  2. Interesting. I’m inclined to agree with Roboseyo, but saying that as someone who a) has been here less than a year, b) has a native wife who is his front for dealing with the culture. (And this might make me more confident than I should be. Of course she has her own problems dealing with the bureaucracy after being away for so long.)

    I can understand the “I wanna do a good job” sentiment but see it more as a manifestation of insecurity, than confidence. Like most arrogance it’s probably over-compensation for insecurity.

  3. Justin,

    Yeah, I’ve thought it over and agree Roboseyo has a point, though I also think a lot of Westerners in Korea overstate their grasp on things, and competence, as a rule. And I think while some people do it less and less over time, some get more set in their opinions and do it more and more over time.

    They’re the absolute worst to be around. And sometimes I’m one of those. (Which is one reason I think I should leave the country soonish, at least for a while.)

    As for wanting to do a good job: well, I certainly want to do a good job in the classroom, but it’s not out of any desire to make some admin at the university happy. (Indeed, I suspect some of what we cover in classes would give several admins a cardiac arrest.) I want to do a good job in teaching because my students pay in money and time, and because I tend to get a high number of students who actually do seem willing to work their tails off.

    I think it’s a context thing. When you’re teaching English to a bunch of office workers, half of whom aren’t interested and the other half of whom may not use it more than once a week, how do we define “good job”?

    To me, it’s a difficult question because I’m not sure exactly what kind of function one is expected to serve.

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