One of the biggest surprises I had when I first came to Korea was more of a general realisation of what I now believe to be a global truth concerning work and colleagues. What a long-winded introductory sentence, sorry. In short, it has become clear to me that everybody’s normal until you get to know them.
A long, long time ago, on the other side of the planet, I held down a variety of part-time jobs while I was a student. I worked in a large pet store (one of a franchise), a travel agency, a corner shop, and several branches (in two countries) of a well-known supermarket. This collection of experiences formed my first impression of The Workplace, and it was this: how come I always end up working in a real-life sitcom?
In my mind, the majority of people in the world had nice, normal jobs, where they worked with nice, normal people, talking about nice, normal things and doing nice, normal chores. I, on the other hand, had already noticed a pattern in my workplaces, which was that I tended to end up doing the most ridiculous jobs (counting individual dog biscuits, writing notices to warn people about escaped snakes, persuading a random Polish guy to act as a translator by buying him a couple of sausage rolls from Gregg’s, doing what I can only describe as ‘reverse shopping’ – i.e. walking round the supermarket with a full trolley, putting the items back where they came from…) while having bemusing conversations and witnessing the kind of dramas and incidents I thought only happened on Friends. It was disconcerting, but unspeakably fun. I don’t think I could have endured 5 years of scanning groceries, stacking shelves, and being assaulted by the general public if that had been all there was to it. Still, though, I was convinced that none of this was ‘normal’. One day, I would find a real job and my life would become just like everyone else’s.
Then I got my first ‘real’ job, doing admin at an interior design company, and found myself in a surreal parallel universe where nothing made sense for quite a long time. The number of highly amusing, ridiculous, odd, unexpected, or just plain confusing incidents in any given week gave me plenty to blog about, and despite the fact that the job wasn’t right for me at all, I generally loved being there just for the feeling it gave me of being somehow privileged – I wasn’t trapped in that dull, colourless world of ‘normality’ that ‘normal’ workers inhabited every day.
You can imagine my surprise, therefore, when I discovered that even over on the other side of the world, in a country with a culture and a system very different from ours, I still managed to end up in a slightly nutty work environment. Things do not happen the way you’d imagine they’re supposed to, in a ‘normal’ workplace. I think this is because when I pictured a ‘normal’ workplace, I never thought to factor in individual personalities, instead imagining a bunch of faceless drones going about their daily routines. It has been both a revelation and a delight to discover that those surreal workplace moments I so enjoy are not so much surreal as, well, real!
Getting spanked by a farmer on a literal ‘field’ trip. Being severely scolded by the cooking lady when she serves the one soup I dislike and I don’t eat it. Hiding in a dark corner of the corridor to eavesdrop on an entertainingly psycho parent going ballistic in the director’s office, while my colleagues provide whispered translations and try to bleep out the swearwords. Arriving at work on days like today after what feels like a brisk uphill swim in a monsoon, and having our morning coffee together as we fight and bicker for a good drying position in front of the fan. Saying sternly “Now look, you know she’s scared of bananas, stop torturing her” as I remove the offending piece of fruit from in front of a trembling colleague. A child bringing two extremely noisy quail chicks in a box to class (having purchased them as pets after morning school without consulting her mother), and my colleague not even asking any questions when I pop my head into her classroom and ask “Can I just leave these birds here for a while? They’re disrupting my class.”. Rearranging the office furniture with the director and the secretary, because they were ‘bored with it’, only to find that nothing fits anywhere other than its original place… then repeating the entire procedure a year later (the very definition of insanity). Finding three colleagues performing a K-pop dance routine in the corridor and just quietly walking on by without raising an eyebrow. My director calling me into the office and asking quite seriously: “Why didn’t you tell me your toilet was moving?”. Having a colleague at whom I can yell “HEY, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” in Korean at any given moment, knowing that she will respond with the next part of the baseball chant, which basically means “Damn you, you total loser!”. Having another colleague who reacts with laughter when, in response to someone saying that she appears to disapprove of something, I remark “That’s just her face.”. The almost daily fight that the director and I have with the photocopier that needed to be replaced over a year ago, always accompanied by apparently genuine surprise from her, as if it’s the first time she’s seen it chew up my papers. Being worried about causing offence at the lunch table as I finally say in a meek voice: “Please could we move this plate of chicken feet to the other end of the table?” Being handed a fortnight’s supply of some healthy yoghurt drink along with a chart to monitor its effects on my bowel movements, with no explanation whatsoever. Sitting in a classroom, at the kids’ desks, with several colleagues after the two weeks are up, filling in our response questionnaires and behaving like schoolchildren. Finding a cage with a squirrel in it in the corridor, and receiving no explanation for it at any point. Tears of laughter at least once or twice a week at the staff lunch table, and the slightly frightened faces of the children who pass through, staring wide-eyed at their teachers. Teaching a class with mashed potato paste oozing from my shrink-wrapped arms.
For me, the best of life is to be found in these little moments. I’ve visited so many places in Korea that it’s now difficult for me to find anywhere new to explore (or not), but I know that in years to come, when I think back over my time here, it will not be the temples, or the scenery, or the architecture, or the museums that come to mind. It will be my day-to-day life in an ordinary Korean workplace, and my discovery that I was probably right in thinking that everyone else worked in a “normal” workplace – I was only wrong in assuming that “normal” was different from everything I’d experienced!
And honestly, if I had to pick the most important lesson I’ve learned so far in my adult life, it would be this: people are silly, strange, wonderful, confusing, maddening, hilarious, quirky, funny, odd, frustrating, and generally quite bizarre – and that’s normal! And for some reason it delights me to know that no matter where I look in the world, there will be “normal” workplaces filled with “normal” people… but in a very different way than I’d always imagined.