I just finished one of the more strange and frustrating conversations that I’ve ever had with a coworker. Although not a typical conversation, it perfectly exemplifies my frustrations with working in Korea.
Mr. Choi and I recently came in second place in a nation in a teaching competition with over a thousand schools. We worked together to create an innovative lesson plan. Mr. Choi has received many special honors, but I’ve mostly excluded because I’m not a Korean or a career teacher. To make sure I don’t feel too left out, the National Office of Education wanted to do something special for me.
This was my conversation with Mr. Choi today:
Choi: Taft, I have good news! The representative from the NOE was impressed with your teaching. She was sad that you could not attend the meetings or celebration, so her office gave approval to give you a special gift.
Me: Wow, that’s really nice. What is it?
Choi: She said you can choose anything you want. The budget allows up to 400,000 won (about $375). She suggested a coffee maker.
Me: That’s generous, but I don’t drink coffee. Maybe something different? Since I’m moving soon, maybe we could request something nice for the teachers’ office that all of the teachers want.
Choi: Ok, let me call and ask…. No, I’m sorry that’s not acceptable. It must be something just for you.
Me: I am moving soon, and I’m short on room, so maybe not a thing. I’ve been dying to go skiing. How about an extra day of vacation and a ski pass? That’s much less than 400,000 won.
Choi: Ok, let me call and ask…. No that’s not acceptable either. They cannot give you an extra day off because of your contract.
Me: How about just a ski trip, then. Even if they include transportation, admissions, and rental it would only be 250,000 won.
Choi: Ok, let me ask…. No, they can’t do a ski trip. They said it’s not a good gift. They suggested a coffee maker again, but she said you can pick whatever you want.
Me: No, apparently I cannot pick whatever I want. How about a gift certificate to a restaurant? I would definitely use that.
Choi: Ok, let me call and ask…. No, they said that a gift certificate is not acceptable because it’s not really a gift. It must be a physical item. Maybe you want some electronics.
Me: I’m so over this. Pick something you want for your family and request it. Tell them it’s what I want.
Choi: No, that’s against the rules. They would not allow it.
Me: I have an idea. I want to buy a new suit before I leave. The one I want costs about 330,000 won. That is a physical thing. It is within the price range. And it’s something I actually want.
Choi: Ok, I’ll check… No, they said that’s not a typical gift. You should pick a normal gift.
Me: That’s it. I’m done. This is completely insane. Tell them I would pay them 400,000 won to never talk about this again.
Choi: But you must pick something.
Me: I already did. Their move.
I love the lifestyle in Korea, but I won’t miss working here. Everybody talks about “the rules” constantly, but I’m starting to suspect that there are no codified rules. The “rules” are whatever the person in charge happens to decide at the moment.
Until next time.