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I had an epiphany yesterday: bookstores deserve to die.
I have wanted to be an author my entire life. I work in a bookstore. In the brewing war between traditional brick stores and ebooks/online retailers, I would have previously been galloping into battle alongside fellow bookstore lovers. I love browsing, I love discovering books I’ve never seen before, I love the different moods and characters of independent stores. I love the musty smell and quiet atmosphere of a second-hand store – I recall one store in Marylebone that was so cram-packed full of books that you literally couldn’t get down the aisles. I love the jumbled decorations and hipster music of stores like Readings or Planet Books. I love being in a foreign country and tracking down an English-language bookstore, a homely refuge of familiar Western culture – the best English-language bookstore in Asia, by the way, is What The Book in Seoul.
All that was my point of view as a reader, a consumer and a customer. I’d be lying if I said I never used online retail – it’s vastly cheaper than inflated Australian retail prices, and I’m more or less guaranteed of finding the book I need. But I felt guilty about it, especially using The Book Depository, which I’m pretty sure is deliberately selling books at a loss in order to gain a market share. I still shop at independent stores, and when I use Abe Books I always try to shop from stores in Australia or New Zealand. I’m no hippie, but I don’t feel comfortable having a book flown all the way from England or the US just to save myself a few extra bucks.
But my point of view as a bookseller? I’ve worked at my current store for about six months. Recently our stock manager went on holiday for a few weeks, and I accepted the offer of covering for her, since it meant regular hours and less customer service. Yesterday I tackled the thousands upon thousands of overstock books in our warehouse and spare room.
When a book in a bookstore is not sold, it is not marked down – at least, not at my store. It is “returned,” and packaging and sending returns is a huge part of a stock manager’s job. Nobody had done returns at my store for months, which was why we could barely move in our back room. Yesterday I went through the shelves and pulled all the books that had been there for more than five months; some had been there longer than a year. Today I packaged some to be mailed back tomorrow. I filled 33 large cardboard boxes merely with United stock (Allen & Unwin, Simon & Schuster and Penguin). The place is still drowning in a swamp of books from Harper Collins, Hatchette, Random House and dozens of smaller publishers.
I would estimate that we sell less than 30% of the books that enter our store. The rest, ultimately, become returns. As I understand it, the distributors send them to other stores after they’re returned; maybe they return them too, and the cycle goes on until the books are all sold. Or maybe they get pulped. The number of books that get damaged during shipping, or when I’m scraping price stickers off with a razor blade, means a large number of them probably get pulped anyway.
But their ultimate fate is irrelevant. What I’m getting at is that the system in place is monumentally inefficient. We ship massive numbers of new releases and promotional stock into the store, sell a handful of them, eventually relegate them to the normal shelves, sell a few more, then – once they’ve been out for a month or two – leave a few copies on the shelf and shove the rest onto the teetering piles in the back room. Allegedly they’re kept there to restock the shelves when those few copies out there are sold, but in reality those copies don’t sell, and the extra two dozen copies out the back sit there until they’re returned.
If you’re even remotely environmentally conscious, consider the impact of all those trucks and planes going back and forth, ferrying unwanted piles of books between suppliers and stores, all so we can have a fully-stocked promotional display for Paulo Coelho’s new book, or because the last Harry Potter movie was released and there might be a few families left out there who don’t own the books, or because somebody at head office had a gut feeling that “Last Man In Tower” would sell 140 copies (I’m not exaggerating, we literally got 140 copies).
It might seem like a leap to go from complaining about this, to saying that bookstores deserve to die. We live in an interlinked, global society, and probably everything you or I own was manufactured overseas and shipped to us in the first world. There are already tens of thousands of cargo ships criss-crossing the oceans, gradually killing them; already thousands of planes in the sky, already millions of trucks on the road. What does it matter if the bookstore supply model is part of that ravenous machine?
It matters, I think, because we have a more efficient alternative. We have e-readers – which I’m not a fan of, but which are unquestionably more efficient in terms of both transport and raw materials, and which will probably endear themselves to the next generation. Closer to my point, we have online retailing, which still provides readers with the comfort, style and possession of a physical book. Ordering books from Amazon or The Book Depository or Abe Books still involves mailing them out to you, still involves that global supply chain – but there is no wasted travel. You select the book online, pay for it, and it’s sent directly to you. None of this zig-zagging back and forth like Odysseus, shuttled from store to warehouse to supplier to store, in the vain hope of finding a buyer.
All this makes me sound like some kind of efficiency-devoted robot who cares nothing for books and literature, but that’s not the case. We will always have second-hand books, and as James Bradley argues, we’re likely to see physical books become more of a status or prestige item in the coming years. I always notice when browsing at Readings that they tend to stock nicer editions of books; hardbacks, and books with interesting covers, like this edition of “The Slap.” I think independent bookstores will persist for some time yet, out of customer loyalty if nothing else; I know of nobody who was sad to see Borders and Angus & Robertson close down (apart from their shareholders), but there were plenty of long faces when Reader’s Feast closed its doors. For dedicated book lovers, I suspect there will always be a few places in any major city where they may indulge themselves.
But for casual readers, who comprise the vast majority of the buyers – people who buy paperbacks from supermarkets and newsagents and chain bookstores like Dymocks – a more efficient model has emerged. The online retailer is more environmentally friendly, more likely to have the books in stock that the reader wants, and has low overhead costs which are passed on to the consumer. Bookstores (like all stores, I suppose) were the only option for many centuries. That’s no longer the case. Like recording companies and real estate agents and video stores, they are middle-men, struggling to stay afloat after being rendered useless by a ubiquitous global communications network.
There are three responses I can see people making to my argument. The first is, as always,“But jobs will be lost!!!” This is never an excuse for anything. Eventually technology renders jobs obsolete. Deal with it, and get a new job. As I said, I hope there will still be a few independent and second-hand stores around, providing jobs for those who are truly passionate about being booksellers. For the vast majority of booksellers who work for companies that treat books like potatoes (which includes mine), there will always be plenty of other general retail jobs.
The second response is that I may be wrong about the scope and extent of the inefficient system, and it may simply be that my company is exceptionally badly-run. This would come as no surprise; they run a wide variety of retail stores, and head office often fails to grasp a lot of the fundamentals of being a bookstore (because, as Henry Rosenbloom points out, books are a hands-on, detail-intensive business which can only be run successfully by people who love books and know their stuff). Our staff turnover is amazing, and one of our senior employees told me the other day that she has never in her life worked for a company more poorly run than this one. Maybe other stores sell a lot more than 30% of their stock. If anyone well-informed would like to correct me, please leave a comment.
The third response is that it’s hypocritical of me to say that bookstores deserve to die out while still hoping that plenty of cool independent stores and second-hand stores survive. Well, you try spending all day boxing up Eckhart Tolle books and Snooki’s autobiography and see how you feel at the end.
As somebody who works in retail – in two jobs, no less – I should really loathe Christmas. I did last year. My current lust for money is somewhat overriding this, since I’m getting a lot of extra hours and stores in Western Australia are allowed to open on Sundays in December (with extra compensation for casual workers like me). So it’s a love-hate relationship. I am fucking sick of Christmas carols, though. Does anybody actually enjoy them? I hear them getting piped out of the store’s speakers and I feel like I’m in a Christmas movie that’s trying to establish the scene.
I’m still working at a supermarket deli, the job I had for two years in university and went crawling back to after fleeing the frying pan of Korea to the fire of near-recession Australia. I’m comfortable there: I know what I’m doing, I’m good at my job, I love my coworkers and I have a fantastic department boss and a pretty good store boss. The other job that I picked up in my desperate scramble for extra work back in October is at a newsagency at the local shopping centre, where, in the Christmas season, I’m entirely relegated to the Siberian outpost that is a stand in the main concourse hocking calendars. I dislike this job because it’s fucking tedious. I stand there for five hours twice a week with literally nothing to do except ring up the occasional transaction. It eats away at the mind. At least in the deli I always have something to do.
We had some retarded woman who worked for our seafood supplier standing outside the deli hocking her particular brand of prawns earlier this week. I was talking to one guy about placing a Christmas order when she rushed up and started gabbing to him about WEST AUSTRALIAN EXMOUTH PRAWNS. I’m standing there trying to give him an order form, with customers mounting up along the counter, and she has his full attention waffling on about how if you’re a patriotic West Australian you shouldn’t be buying those prawns from South Australia, and they’ve probably been “sitting on a tarmac for hours, but these are fresh from Exmouth.”
Okay, first of all, if you want to support the West Australian economy, you should be shopping at IGA – not at fucking Coles, headquartered in the ivory tower of Toorak, Melbourne. Second of all, EXMOUTH IS LITERALLY AS FAR AWAY FROM PERTH AS THE SOUTH AUSTRALIAN BORDER IS. This is one of the biggest fucking states in the world. You might want to reconsider your “sitting on a tarmac” spiel, because those prawns didn’t fly down from Exmouth on no fucking pegasus.
I can’t stand people who demand to buy Australian stock. The first popular explanation is that they want to support the economy, because, as a special unique snowflake, they obviously have an impact on that sort of thing. The second is that they simply distrust seafood imported from Asia because of some vague environmental xenophobia – I once had a woman decline to buy scallops from Taiwan because they could have been “swimming in the Yangtze.” Apart from the fact that the Yangtze is not in Taiwan, and that scallops live in the sea, do you really think there’s the slightest chance Coles might be selling food that would make you sick and therefore get them sued?
There’s signs around my workplace that say “DON’T TAKE CHANCES – WE NEED YOU.” That makes me laugh. Not “DON’T TAKE CHANCES – WE ARE CONCERNED ABOUT YOU AND DON’T WANT YOU TO GET HURT,” but rather, “DON’T TAKE CHANCES – WE CAN’T AFFORD TO LOSE THE MANPOWER.”
My dad’s starting to get his annual haul of Christmas gifts from clients, which basically amounts to fuckloads of whiskey that he freely shares with me. When I came back from Korea and went into instant $SAVINGS$ mode, I basically went from being a borderline alcoholic to a complete teetotaller. Now it’s flowing back into my life and it feels mighty fine. I missed that undescribable warm, blurry glow it gives you. I also miss raspberry wine. Oh God, how I miss raspberry wine. I had a dream about it a while back and, as I was dreaming, I thought to myself: “Man, I used to guzzle this nectar down. I should totally buy a bottle. Why don’t I drink it anymore?” Then I woke up and thought, “Oh yeah, because I can’t.”
I feel more inclined to write when I’ve been drinking. At the moment I’m using that to vomit out frivolous shit about my job rather than work on End Times or any number of short stories, but hey, baby steps.
A guy I knew on the Internet died recently. Zach Recht. It’s a very weird feeling. He was a published author and I recall commenting on the very first fiction posts he made at Hotel 23, that rabid nest of right-wing survivalists, back in… oh, 2005, I suppose. I haven’t spoken to him in years but it feels very odd that he’s dead, considering I used to have a regular dialogue with him. I’m not sad, because I didn’t really know him, but it was quite shocking to see news of his death when I was only logging into Hotel 23 for my monthly dose of crazy Republican ranting to angry up the blood. Very disconcerting. So, yeah, I just thought that merited a mention at the end of this flow-of-thought blog post. Brave pioneers of the Internet, we are.
Chris and I have started planning our trip in more detail, plotting out a route across the globe like a dashing young Burke and Wills. Here’s our loose itinerary:
Fly from Perth to Kuala Lumpur. Take a leisurely sleeper train up the peninsula into Thailand, and laze around on beaches, snorkelling over tropical reefs and eating cheap Thai cuisine until we get tired of the unrelenting swarms of fellow Western backpackers. Cross the border into Cambodia and explore the crumbling, overgrown ruins of Angkor Wat. Head east into Vietnam and follow the idyllic coastline north, before cutting west into Laos where hill tribes and French colonial towns are nestled in deep jungle. Travel north into China, and explore the rugged wilderness of the west, Jade Snow Mountain and Tiger Leaping Gorge. Budget and Chinese government permitting, take the train up into the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, where Buddhist monks pray under the unblinking eyes of the PLA. Descend from the roof of the world into Beijing, and take the Trans-Mongolian Express to Ulan Bator. Spend some time wandering around the plains of Mongolia, with horse nomads and yurts and such, then continue on the Trans-Siberian into Russia. If the Russian visa system proves to be anything other than a Kafkaesque ordeal, devote a few weeks to kicking around Siberia and Lake Baikal. After the train eventually spits us out in Moscow, catch a plane to Cairo.
Giza, the pyramids, the Red Sea, the Sahara Desert and the Nile should provide plenty to see and do before continuing our journey south into Africa. If overland travel through Sudan proves possible, we’ll move through there as quickly as possible (not much to see, and one of only eight countries DFAT thinks you absolutely shouldn’t visit) into Ethiopia. If not possible we’ll just fly from Cairo to Addis Abbaba. Moving through the highlands of Ethiopia, we’ll travel south into Kenya, then again into Tanzania, which encapsulates everything African in one nation (minus the warfare and all that): Mt. Kilimanjaro, Lake Victoria, the Serengeti and Zanzibar. Once that’s been exhausted, cross the border south into Mozambique, where 15th century Portuguese forts sit in marshy river deltas. Cross the border into South Africa, which is a first-world (read: expensive) nation and offers nothing African we haven’t already seen, so make a beeline for Jo’burg or Durban so we can fly to our next stop: Buenos Aires or Santiago, depending on which is cheaper.
Upon arrival in South America, head south into the mountains and glaciers of Patagonia, before swinging north again up the Andean spine through the high altitude Atacama Desert. Pass through Bolivia if we feel like it, then enter Peru. Just as Tanzania encapsulates Africa, Peru encapsulates South America: snow-capped mountain peaks, unexplored jungle, coastal deserts, the ruined Incan city of Macchu Picchu and the mountainous shores of Lake Titicaca. When we’re ready to leave, we’ll travel downriver along the Amazon, ideally swinging in hammocks in a two-storey saloon boat piloted by a gruff old jungle expat, cutting through the heart of the world’s largest rainforest. After reaching Belem on the Atlantic coast, we’ll either island-hop through the Caribbean or (more realistically, less awesomely) fly direct to the USA. Whether by hitchiking or buying the cheapest car we possibly can, we’ll head north along the Appalachians to New York City, then cut cross-country to Los Angeles, stopping along the way in Las Vegas and the various natural parks of the nation’s west. From LA we plan to head north along the west coast, detouring into Wyoming for Yellowstone National Park, and then crossing the border into Canada. Our funds will be near exhaustion by then, if not before, so we’re limited only by our bank accounts and our imagination before returning home.
My absolute minimum budget for this trip is $15,000, and even that is shaky, influenced more by Chris’ unwavering demand that we leave as soon as possible. I’d be a lot more comfortable with $20,000. As of now, the beginning of December, I have $10,700. I have dramatically slashed my outgoing expenses and usually earn at least $500 a week. I’m on holiday for two weeks in January, but even then I should be able to earn another $7000 by the end of March, the latest possible departure date I’ve coaxed out of my compatriot.
It’s sort of hard to tell how much these things will cost. We’ll be travelling almost exclusively through third world countries where you can live on dollars a day, plan to use couchsurfing.com extensively, and have a total of three definite flights: Australia-Malaysia, Russia-Egypt, South Africa-Argentina/Chile. (I don’t include the flight from Canada back home as part of expenses, because I’ll either be broke and have to wire my Dad for some money and then pay him back when I get home, or I won’t be tired of travelling and will get a working holiday visa and try to find a job in Canada.) The vague estimates you can get from online travel calculators and guides suggest the $15,000 to $20,000 figure is fairly accurate.
Chris is several thousand dollars ahead of me, since he had a long period of gainful employment at Mornington Wilderness Camp at the same time that I was cutting my losses and escaping a South Korean hagwon in the dead of night. He also has stuff like a guitar and piano and motorcycle and 4WD he can hock before he leaves, whereas I have a Hyundai Excel worth maybe $400 and absolutely nothing else. He also earns roughly the same amount as me, so I don’t really have any chance of catching up to him unless I break his arms and put him out of work for six weeks. Ideally we’d both have some cash left over at the end of this trip, but I can’t help but look at that long list of countries (and more than a year of travelling!) and believe that either of us will have a cent to our name when we’re done.
Money’s a weird thing.
Today marks one month since my daring escape from South Korea, and my return to a humdrum suburban life in Western Australia. I’m not unhappy at all – I’m hanging out with my best friend again, I’m in a relationship for the first time in more than a year, and I’m generally enjoying a return to normalcy, peppered with news from my past about other native teachers at my school quitting in frustration. The only thing that bothers me is that I still don’t have a job.
After several weeks of failed applications I went crawling back to my old supermarket job, but they can only offer me enough shifts to stay afloat, not to actually save enough money for travelling in 2010. (Besides which, I’m sick of working at Coles.) So the jobhunt continues. I’ve lost count, but I think I’ve applied for around 30 positions so far. In the last ten days alone, I’ve applied for bookstores, wine stores, a video rental store, a pharmacy, a travel agent, two telemarketing jobs, three copywriting jobs, JB Hifi, an editorial internship, a bar on Rottnest Island, and a slew of generic marketing/sales/PR/promotional positions.
Of my entire jobhunt so far, I’ve had two interviews. One of these I got through a friend. The vast majority of applications are either ignored entirely or rejected by email. I’m becoming more and more depressed and convinced that I’m unemployable.
Of course, this is the first time I’ve ever actually had to hunt for a job. My first two I got through friends, and my third I got in a strange and illogical country where anybody with a police clearance and a university degree can earn $24,000 a year.
And of course the most important thing is that I’m not a prisoner of Wonderland anymore – that I escaped intact – that I can thank God that I am…
It’s a complicated situation. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to explain even to myself the tangled briar of ennui, naivete and determination to prove something that made me go there in the first place, or the subsequent knot of stress, misery, exhaustion and antipathy that drove me home again. But I can take a crack at it.
Firstly, the hagwon industry is one of the most unappealing I have ever encountered. The entire thing left a bad taste in my mouth. Koreans believe, for some reason, that the best way for kids to learn English is to have a foreign “teacher” (actually anyone bright enough to get through three years of university and not answer the phone drunk). Okay. That’s not so unreasonable – exposure is a great way to learn a language.
But the Korean mindset twists this into something that is borderline racist. Having a foreign teacher at a school is a massive selling point. Schools with more English-speaking teachers are more appealing to the pushy parents who want their precious flowers to receive what they are told is the best education their money can buy. Here’s something else about Korea: looks are everything. Makeup goes on like concrete, plastic surgery is rampant – and I was apparently hired because I am attractive. While that’s flattering, it doesn’t speak highly of my employers’ business ethics. Korea is also an extremely homogenous society. The idea of other races walking amongst them is still a novelty and as such they haven’t really grasped the idea that stereotypes aren’t true. It’s apparently harder for black and Asian Westerners to find work in Korea, even if they were born and raised in the US and went to Harvard. This is because they don’t fit the notion of what an English teacher should look like. Again: it’s all about looks.
Combine this with the actual poor level of education I was giving the kids (considering I was given no training, feedback or supervision whatsoever), the way we had to bow to every pedantic whim of the parents, the presence of CCTV cameras in every room so the parents could watch classes, the fact that I was told to adjust tests to a level where the kids could easily pass (so they would feel good), and the time I was told, when sending the kids’ completed textbooks home, to tear out any incomplete pages (so the parents wouldn’t realise they’d missed anything) and you’ll see how my hagwon was not concerned with how well the kids were learning English, but rather with the impressions their parents received. For the third time: in Korea, looks are everything.
I don’t mean to suggest that it’s a completely corrupt institution so hungry for cash that it steals the kids’ lunch money. My coworkers and employers obviously cared deeply for the kids and many of them were learning English very well, particularly those who started from a young age. But the primary concern was always, always, always keeping the kids and parents happy in order to retain clients. Everything else was secondary. It’s a highly competitive market, supported by a disturbing amount of zeal in wider Korean society. Before I came, I found it convenient that these strange foreigners would give me a job based on nothing more than my white skin and pretty face. Now that I’ve actually been there and done it, it makes my skin crawl.
Basically, I felt like I was working for the bad guys.
I never felt particularly welcomed by the school. Aside from the fact that they threw me into the classroom on my first goddamn day, they also housed me in one of the shitty apartments on top of the school, which was the plumbing hub of the entire building, so there were pipes running across the ceiling and the place alternately smelt like sulphur, salt or human faeces. Or all three at once! And while living upstairs saved me a commute, it also meant I was stuck in that awful place 24/7, blurring the boundary between home and work.
Nor were they particularly helpful. They made us pay for our own medicals. It took them three weeks to reimburse my airfare and they dragged their feet all the way. When Valerie arrived, she gave them her passport, and a week later she received her alien card. They paid for it and did all the work for her. When I got there, I was told to go and get it done during the holiday break, and was left to my own devices to figure out where the immigration office was, find out which documents I needed, and go there to get it and pay for it myself. In a country where I don’t speak the language. It didn’t cost much, and it wasn’t that hard to figure out, but it wasn’t very accommodating of them when I’d just arrived in the country. Throw in the fact that was generally treated by Korean administration as a pretty white face/walking dictionary/swine flu vector, and you can see why I don’t feel particularly guilty about leaving my bosses in the lurch.
The job itself was awful. I worked 40 hours a week, for roughly $2000 AUD a month. That works out to about ten bucks an hour. And before you scoff at the lazy 20-year old who thinks working a 40-hour week is a terrible injustice, bear in mind that I was teaching (not for the entire 40 hours, but still for a good chunk of it). And teaching, for me at least, was mentally and physically exhausting. You have to be switched on 100% of the time. You have to be checking every kid every spare second you have, because they’re talking or drawing or wandering off to pick through the crayons. I already thought the people who write letters to the West Australian whining about how teachers have it so easy are wankers; now, I’d actually take a swing at them.
I could handle exhausting and stressful work if I enjoyed it, or had a passion for it, or was building towards a career. But I hated it. I like to think I’m okay with kids – not great with them, but not bad either. That’s when I have one or two of them, and I’m just playing and messing around with them. Not when I have a class of ten and my job is to actively prevent them from having fun. I took a few videos of myself teaching, and my clear lack of passion is painfully obvious (it had my relatives in stitches).
The country itself? Not great. Seoul is a much cooler place to live than Perth, but then, Leicester is a much cooler place to live than Perth. In many ways Seoul is what I imagine Perth to be in a hundred years time: a huge city, but with with no heart or spirit to it, just endless repetitive apartment blocks and freeways and franchise stores that were all cut from the same mould, sprawling out across every horizon, with every district looking pretty much the same as every other district, the sheer blandness driving the populace to alcoholism. I’m not alone in commenting on the Korean landscape’s uniformity; apparently is has something to do with Confucianism, which is also responsible for the shitty ant-colony hierarchy system. Confucius sucks. (Cultural apologists can fuck off. Civis Occidentalis sum.)
Okay, so I’m being a little harsh. My job negatively coloured my experience of the country as a whole. I don’t mean to say that Korea is a bad or uninteresting country. There’s lots of cool things to see and do here if you know where to look, and while the culture can border on infuriating at times, so can every culture. It’s just not amazing enough to outweigh all the negative aspects of my personal situation. Few countries would be.
To sum it up, I simply wasn’t happy there. Towards the end, in fact, I was starting to have a mental breakdown. I could do it. I probably could have done it till the end of my contract, although my brain would have been stretched and warped beyond recognition by then. I just didn’t want to. Life is too short to spend a year doing something you detest.
So why did I just run, rather than give notice? Well, in addition to paying my airfare back, I would have had to stick around for another month while they sought my replacement. Given their behaviour towards me, and how displeased they would be at my decision to leave, I wouldn’t be surprised if they decided not to pay me for that final month. There would have been very little I could do it about this; in Korea, the legal system is quite heavily stacked against foreigners. I preferred to take matters into my own hands and rob them of the chance to exploit me any further.
I feel bad for my fellow teachers, who will have to cover my shifts for a while. I also feel bad for the kids, who don’t deserve that kind of upheaval in their lives (although, in the long run, they’ll be much better off with a teacher who actually cares about his or her work). I don’t feel bad about admin at all. Maybe they should treat teachers better if they want to retain them. The Korean faculty actually fared a lot worse than the foreign staff; all the Korean teachers quit shortly before I arrived, and one of the new ones was talking about quitting right before I left. Several times the director or the supervisor would ream them out in Korean in the office in front of everyone. I don’t feel any remorse whatsoever for abandoning rude, arrogant people who treat their employees like dirt.
Tony, who isn’t any happier there than I was (but who is a lot more committed and determined) contacted me on Facebook after the run. He seemed to find it funny and congratulated me on having balls. He mentioned that a few of the other teachers said what I did was unprofessional, which is true, but guess what? I’m not a professional! I’m a 20-year old kid they plucked out of a supermarket because I had a university degree and a pretty white face. You reap what you sow.
I don’t regret going to Korea. It wasn’t an enjoyable experience, and I could count the number of times I was genuinely happy there on one hand – walking down Cheonggyecheon, exploring the city on my first weekend, hanging out in Hongdae with Alex and his friends, the few times I went out for drinks with some of my fellow teachers and drunkenly bitched about management. But even considering that 99% of my time there was awful, I learned a lot, grew a little and got a lot of great stories out of the experience. I’ve proved to myself that I can do things on my own, that I can live overseas, that I’ll be able to take another crack at a working holiday as long as I land a job that doesn’t wear my sanity down like a belt-sander.
In the meantime, it’s fucking amazing to be back home. I went for a drive along West Coast Highway on my first day back (which was probably a bad idea given that I was on 60 hours of no sleep, but whatever). I had my window down, Triple J playing, the salty wind coming in off a beautiful blue and indigo ocean. Rottnest on the horizon. You could see the sky and the air smelt good.
Perth has a lot of problems, and I don’t want to live here for the rest of my life. But this city will always be my home.
I went for a walk tonight, listening to my iPod and ruminating on my destiny. It started raining. The wind swept a few yellow leaves down from the trees, the first casualties of autumn. By the time I was on the street back towards my school/apartment, it was lashing down with rain, melting the headlights and traffic lights and neon hangul into one huge colourful blur.
It was just a simple circuit around Eungam – the canal, Emart, the dozens of interchangeable streets with identical franchise stories and creepy red crosses and noraebongs and PC bangs. Yet somehow it seemed different. I was looking at it through less jaded eyes, through a temporary lens. A man who understands he will not be here for long and needs to soak up what he can, whether he likes the place or not.
I love big cities. And I love living overseas: I love not being able to understand what people are saying, I love being a stand-out face in a crowd of black Asian eyes, I love being constantly bombarded with strange glyphs and signals that mean nothing to me. I love being in a place I don’t and can’t understand.
And I’m not done with it yet. My plans for this weekend are not a rout; they are a retreat. I’m not going back to Perth forever. It’s just a fallback point where I can figure out my next adventure. I tried Korea, I gave it my best shot, and it didn’t work out. Such is life. I don’t regret it one bit.
Tony got into a fight with admin today. Two of the kids were screwing around in his class, and one of them slipped over in the puddle of water which pools beneath the broken air-conditioner (I also teach that class, and have been urging the school to fix it all week because it’s a fucking liability, along with the whiteboard hanging from a single bolt in my other kindy class, just waiting for the chance to buckle and injure a child). The kid hurt himself moderately, and Tony was blamed for it because he was sitting down at the time.
Apparently we’re not supposed to sit down. This is news to me. Maybe we really aren’t supposed to and they never told us that, or maybe it’s a bullshit buck-passing backpedal made by a gaggle of morally bankrupt weasels. Tony was understandably pissed, especially when they handed him an official warning letter, and he responded by announcing that he is quitting on Monday.
He went off to have a meeting with admin after work hours, and I don’t know how that turned out. Maybe they reached a resolution, maybe not. Like me, Tony has never been particularly happy here, but unlike me, he always takes a “let’s solve this” attitude as opposed to my own preference, the “withdraw all my cash, book plane tickets and leave in the dead of night” approach. (And I prefer to think of my way as “cavalier” and “adventurous,” rather than “irresponsible” and “selfish.”) But he doesn’t actually want to quit – he said that to me several times – which is the thick line dividing the two of us. As we were discussing this over dinner I considered revealing my own plans to him, but the conversation never went that way, which is probably for the best.
So basically Monday will either be a shitstorm, or a Category-5 Kimchi Bowels Splatterfest.
It won’t make much difference to me. Leaves are falling all around, and it’s time I was on my way. YEAH I WENT THERE. I’VE HAD A BIT TO DRINK OK.
Time in korea is odd. I guess any time when you’re not enjoying yourself stretches out, but in Korea a week feels like a month. It’s an agonising crawl across a hellish wasteland with no end in sight. Harpies shriek and dive at you while the relentless sun beats down, and you’re dragging yourself across the hard-packed clay with shredded fingertips, but it NEVER ENDS BECAUSE THERE IS NO END IT’S ONLY HERE AND NOW FOREVER AND EVER AND EVER
I’m a little drink. I guess. What’s wrong with that? You want to start something? I have less than 100 hours to shove some mpre glorious raspberry wine down my throat, rapsberry wine being the ONE AND ONLY good thing about Korea (okay, barbecue restaurants are cool too).
(and kiwi soju)
Anyway. Anyway. I was going to talk about how… I don’t know, I think about how I’m starting to count off the ‘lasts?’ last Monday, last Tuesday, last Wednesday. Last time I’ll eat at the awesome restaurant downstairs with those onions soaked in that glorious vinegar sauce. last time I’ll have to sit through a bullshit meeting. Last time I’ll haave to draw up a bullshit weekly plan, write some bullshittests, serve some bullshit lunch to the kids which apparently doesn’t count as work seriously come the cufk on charles all the other kids were done fifteen minuts ago and you’re jsut sitting there slowly shovelling it down what are you storing it for winter i want to have my lunchtim nap hurry the fuck up.
I had my last gym class today. I’mnot meant to teach gym but “the government passed laws saying all teachers have to speak English” (translation: we felt like firing the extra teachers to save money and getting you waegukin monkeys to do their jobs 9instead) so i’m meant to teach them gym/PE every wednesday. They gave me this bullshit curriculum which basicaly said “make tghem stand one leg the whole time” and said the exact same thing for the next week, so I jsut let them run around and play instead. God knows they get precious little of that in the grand master plan for Asian ant colony supremacy, STUDY STUDY STUDY, FIVE-YEAR OLDS! Nice break for me too because I get to wander around and give them dizzy-whizzies or let them stand on my feet while I walk around. THIS is when I’m good with kids, when I get to let them play. Not when I have to actively prevent them from hacving fun and force them through a textbook way too hard for them. Every five minutes or so I have to solve some dispute about toys or who hit who, but their language skills are pretty limited (and when they’re in tears they tend to clam up and only speak Korean) so I generally let anarchy rein. I am an indifferent and impotent god, children.
Am I really going? Am I really doing this? it seems so easy when I’m drunk, or when I don’t think about it. I’ve tracked down every single story of a midnight run on the Internet. Not once have I come across anyone feeling guilty and awful about abandoning theirnfellow teachers, even people who were close to the end of their contract. Not once. Am I close to these people? Not really. Do I feel bad about walking out unexpectedly. yeah. A lot. Does that make it okay?
Maybe… it does?
Moot point because I’m doing it anyway. Today was exhausting and felt like an entire year of my life was drained from me. I was banging my head on the table at some points, I didn’t care about the kids or the windows or the Orwellian CCTV cameras. I don’t care anymore. I just want out. This is killing me.
88 hours to go.
I made the mistake of talking to Swine Flu Sally for a few minutes during one of my breaks (after all, she lives next door to me). Somehow the director found out and organised an emergency meeting during the lunch break to discuss about how deadly serious the swine flu pandemic is, how it could shut the school down if even one child gets infected, and how under no circumstances must we break their half-assed quarantine by having any contact with Valerie. A paranoid hypochondriac who has no concept of how respiratory diseases and airborne pandemics work, fed on a diet of media hysteria, ranting at us for half an hour in Korean. This is why I love my job. Sarah awkwardly translated for her, but she was only saying like three sentences after a ten minute spiel. It was like that scene in Lost In Translation where the commercial director is talking to Bill Murray for ages and then the translator says “Um, he wants you to look at the camera.”
I suspect Sarah was toning down the recommendations a little, because she knew the native faculty would find the original script ridiculous. “Be careful in public,” I’m pretty sure, was originally “Don’t go to Itaewon or Hongdae.” Maybe even “don’t leave your apartments unless absolutely neccesary.” They have this perception that Korea is a hermetically-sealed, sterile bubble, and that only foreign contaminants could possibly be vectors for swine flu – probably from Japan, that’d be typical, just like those bastards to infect Korea with disease.
Like I said, they clearly have no idea how the spread of disease works. Let’s say that Valerie really does have swine flu (which she doesn’t). Even if I don’t have any contact with her this week, she’s still going to visit Homeplus to buy groceries to stay alive – where she’ll infect the staff and the customers, who will then pass it on to me when I pop in the next day to pick up my usual shopping load of alcohol and chocolate. Once the disease is in the country, it’s in the country. I’m more likely to catch it from the kids than they are to catch it from me, because they have contact with far more people in more diverse locations than I do (my average working day consists of teaching at the school, going to Homeplus, and then sitting in my apartment drinking wine and wondering why I decided to exile myself to this awful place). If you really want to ensure that there is no chance your students will catch swine flu, you need to dress them in biohazard suits and shuttle them from school to home along enormous plastic tunnels like the government used in E.T. Not slap one of your teachers in bullshit “quarantine” because she went on a weekend jaunt to Japan. For fuck’s sake. There have been four thousand cases of swine flu in Korea and only 4 of them were fatal. It’s not like we’re in the deepest basement levels of the CDC and sombody dropped a fucking test tube. It’s a standard flu strain that’s slightly stronger than usual, which happens roughly every three years. The only difference between now and the last thirty years is that we have a 24-hour news cycle that encourages us to freak the fuck out over every little thing. And like many other things that also exist in the West – an obsession with physical appearance, racism, excessive nationalism – Korea takes media-inspired panics to a whole new level. Throw in their natural hypochondria and it’s a recipe for frustration.
For the record, my flu-like symptoms disappeared with a good night’s sleep, leaving me with nothing more than a scratchy voice and a metric fuckload of phlegm in my sinuses. Naturally I tried to cough and sniff as much as possible during that farce of a meeting, but it’s just not the same as shivering weakly with pale white skin.
I went to the Korea vs. Australia international friendly match at World Cup Stadium on Saturday. We lost 3 to 1, with an own goal to boot. Translate whatever kind of symbolism for my own personal battle you want out of that.
Went out drinking afterwards, at some expat bar where the music was awful and the women too intimidatingly beautiful. Stumbled home drunk at 3.00 am and woke up at 9.00, like I do every day, whether I want to or not. My window faces directly towards the rising sun and my blinds aren’t worth a damn. I’d cover it with garbage bags and duct tape… if I was here for much longer. I realised today that I’m leaving in a week, and it made me happy. Really happy. I’m still nervous about it, of course. I still feel like I’m doing the wrong thing, I still worry that something will go badly awry, and I know that there’ll be other issues to face when I get home. But all of that is blown away by the merciful thought that I won’t be working at this hagwon anymore. I won’t have to go in every day and spend nine hours at a job I’m clearly unfit for, slaving away for brazen charlatans, trapped in a classroom with the rude, spoilt, taekwondo-trained brats of Korea’s upper tax bracket.
If I make it out.
Korea’s going through something of a swine flu scare at the moment. Take the kind of media hype about swine flu you see in the West, and now imagine it applied to a nation that is already full of kneejerk reaction hypochondriacs. One of my coworkers had a trip to Japan planned this weekend, for quite some time now, and on Friday the director informed her that she could not go – because, obviously, the world beyond Korea is a flu-ravaged wasteland similar to Stephen King’s The Stand, with the few lucky survivors battling it out in corpse-strewn cities for the last remaining fuel and water resources. She flat out refused, because everything was planned, and the director relented and merely imposed a one week quarantine on her. I’d complain about having to pick up some of her shifts thanks to completely baseless Korean paranoia, but since I’m about to inflict the same thing on everyone else for a lot longer, I’ll let it slide.
Anyway I mention all this because I woke up with a terrible hangover/head-cold this morning, which didn’t go away, and by sunset I had acquired – in addition to a runny nose and constant hacking of phlegm – a sore throat, a headache and pervasive chilliness in spite of the heat and humidity. While I was eating dinner I even felt nauseous. It’s gotten better in the last few hours but that might just be because I took some Nurofen. Basically I’m terrified that I have swine flu (or indeed any flu). It wouldn’t normally bother me, because like SARS and bird flu, swine flu is trumped-up media bullshit that’s about as likely to kill you as a lightning strike or a clocktower sniper. But it sure is an issue if I’m getting on a plane in seven days. I’ll be drawing enough attention to myself without sneezing all over the place.
Admittedly, I would personally find it very satisfying for the school to have one teacher go to Japan and come back healthy as a clam, and the other stay in Seoul all weekend and come down with swine flu. But not quite satisfying enough to lie in bed feeling awful all week.
Becky: Mitchy teacher! Charles… star! (points at whiteboard)
Mitch: Charles! Did you wipe out one of Becky’s stars from the whiteboard?
Everyone: Yes! Charles Becky star!
Mitch: Charles! Look at me! Did you wipe out one of Becky’s stars?
Mitch: Your silence convicts you. YOUR SILENCE CONVICTS YOU.
Sunny: Teacher! Break one minute?
Mitch: No! OK, look, kids! This has to stop! You ask me every five minutes if break is in one minute, including when I walk in the door! It is halfway through the period! We have been in class for 20 minutes! That means we have another 20 minutes to go! Okay? You just… you have no concept of time, do you? Break twenty minutes – no, don’t yell out in excitement. Twenty minutes is a long time. Okay? Please, just… learn how to understand the passage of time.
Sunny:…Teacher, break one minute?
Mitch: (slams head repeatedly into table)
Mitch: Danny! I said face the wall and don’t move! DON’T MOVE! Fu… Danny! You are REALLY pushing it!
Danny: (long, drawn-out groan; tries to climb onto adjacent desk)
Mitch: Danny! Get OFF the desk! (physical altercation, shoves Danny against wall) Now stay here and don’t move – DON’T MOVE! Christ. Christ, I wish I could hit you. I can’t wait for your military service, Danny. It’s going to be fantastic. They’re going to dehumanise you, break you down into your component parts, and then reassemble you as a functional human being. Either that or they’ll end up hanging you to set an example to the other men.