Thursday, March 29, 2012

Appling County Trip 1: Forgive Us Our Trespasses

There is a forest in Southeastern Georgia, located in Appling County, called the Moody Forest. It’s owned jointly by the Nature Conservancy and the State of Georgia. This forest contains the last stand of old growth, virgin, long-leaf pines in the state. It also has two hiking trails. There isn’t much information about Moody Forest available on the internet. My mom and I found the most information here and here, and decided to take a trip to Appling County to visit the Moody Forest. We also thought about checking out the Hatch Nuclear Power Plant, as it’s located there, too, and I have rather an absurd interest in traveling to nuclear power plants. (This one, admittedly, is safer than the Chernobyl reactors, which I visited back in August.)

As the Nature Conservancy site didn't include directions, we copied the following directions from, and set off for Moody Forest:

From Baxley: Go 7 miles north on U.S. 1. Turn right on Lennox Rd, go 4.2 miles. Turn left on Davis Landing Rd., go 2.3 miles. Turn left on East River Rd., go 0.8 miles to kiosk.

Now, as you see, these directions are very specific. There’s no “approximately two miles” – instead it’s “go 4.2mi.” Unfortunately, at the 4.2 mile mark, there was no Davis Landing Road, or any other road. It was close to a Penny Morris Road, but not exact. We did eventually find Davis Landing – about three miles from its specified location. From there on out, the directions did match what we saw in real life… however, when we finally came to the “kiosk” it was nothing more than a small board with a bit of an overhanging roof, with a clipboard attached to it. The clipboard read ‘Moody Forest Turkey Shoot Sign In.’ Next to this “kiosk” was an open gate. We drove through it, and down the winding, narrow track (which passed through young planted pines – certainly not virgin old growth) until we came to the power-lines (the lines running from the Hatch Plant cut a rather big swath through the countryside down there, as the plant provides a lot of power). Next to the power-lines was a fenced off area (preventing one from driving on) and a sign that said ‘parking’ and nothing else.

Mom: “This is IT???”

Nothing looked like a trail. There were no maps or brochures or informative signs. There certainly weren’t any old growth long-leaf pines. Only young slash pines and power lines.

We decided to drive further down the road. Even though we’d found our “kiosk” on the right at exactly .8mi down East River Road, it really did not seem to be the right place. So, we kept driving down East River Road. We passed numerous areas which were being logged. We also passed the crumbling remains of an old homestead. After eventually deciding that there really wasn’t another kiosk any further down the road, we turned around and decided that, since we were there, we’d explore the remains of the homestead.

The first step in this process was climbing over a locked gate. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, right? Teehee. There was a crumbling old farmhouse (surrounded by poison ivy), a fairly newish barn, and a crumbling old barn. Definitely fun to poke around in and photograph.




Eventually we climbed back over the gate, got back in the car, and decided to head for the Altamaha River. Davis Landing Road would have a boat landing, surely? Well, the “landing” turned out to be a private fishing community, surrounded by tons of ‘no trespassing’ signs. We drove on in. The community consisted of numerous trailers (in varying states of disrepair) up on stilts. It was incredibly photogenic, but I didn’t take any photos as it looked very much like the sort of place where one might get shot.

Back at the intersection with East River Road, we decided to head east. This merely took us to the Appling County Landfill and a Baptist church with a fairly interesting old cemetery.


Having explored in all three directions from the intersection, we pretty much gave up, and began heading back the way we came. Heading back down Lennox Rd, no longer concentrating on the search for Davis Landing Rd, we noticed a bright red building and slowed down to check it out. The sign on it read ‘Ten-Mile School 1929-1958.’ We parked the car and got out to take a look. Then, as the gate wasn’t locked so well (forgive us our trespasses?), we wandered on in. And as the building itself wasn’t locked….


Old Blackboards!

About a quarter mile (or maybe even a little less) down the road from the school was another old homestead, surrounded by brush and obviously abandoned. We pulled over and poked around.


Then a fellow (late 50s early 60s) rode up on a three-wheeler.
Mom: “Is this your property? We were just taking photos.”


I always let my mom do the talking when we get caught trespassing. Really.

The guy turned out to be quite nice – and fairly interesting. We talked to him for a good hour. He told us about the house (it had been his grandparents’ house), and about the school (which he had attended for two years before it closed). He told us a little of the history of the Moody Forest and Swamp, and he gave us directions to the Moody Forest which he wasn’t completely sure were correct as he hadn’t been down there in a while, but which went in the opposite direction from the ones mom and I had followed earlier in the day. Also, he was retired from the Hatch Plant – so he gave us directions to it as well. Of course I told him I’d been to Chernobyl, so we discussed nuclear reactors, containment vessels, and the current state of the sarcophagus covering the Chernobyl reactor. Because when you get busted for trespassing by a guy on a three wheeler, these are the things you talk about.

After saying goodbye to this fellow, we set off following his directions. They weren’t entirely accurate (we needed the second intersection with a tree in the center of the road, not the first), but hey! It lead us there. (At the second tree, when we were thinking we were totally lost, we asked two people who were riding past on four wheelers; they told us go left for the Moody Forest Conservation Center, go right and take our first left to get to the river.)

We went left – and hadn’t gone far at all – when we saw a sign at a driveway that said ‘Nature Conservancy,’ as well as the remaining buildings from the old Moody farm. We were thinking Whew! Finally! as we pulled up to the Nature Conservancy building. There were at least six cars parked next to it. The light was on. The door was locked. Peering in, we saw that lunch was literally on the table. On the back porch, a glass with the dregs of cola sat on the table, next to a pair of sunglasses. A water glass sat on the hood of a State of GA truck. No one was around.



This was the point where I started feeling like we’d fallen into the Twilight Zone. Or like we were in the beginning of a cheesy horror flick. It was unbelievably eerie. There should have been people bustling about. It looked like they’d just dropped everything and left – although they would’ve had to have left on foot (or perhaps on ATVs), as all their cars and trucks were there. Additionally, even though there had been the one sign stating ‘Nature Conservancy’ there were no other signs, maps, pamphlets, brochures, information…. Nothing. The only reason we knew that the old buildings were part of the old Moody farm were because the man who busted us for trespassing had told us that the old Elizabeth Moody house was located next to the Nature Conservancy office.

Elizabeth Moody House

We looked for trails. We finally found one – unmarked – behind one of the storage sheds by the office. We walked down it a ways, finding only one or two old pines, a lot of young pines, and some mutant oaks with scary gargantuan shiny leaves. Must be the radiation. Eventually we came to a place where the trail was crossed by a wide swampy stream. We decided to turn around at that point.


It's shaped like an oak leaf. It has oak bark.... but I have NEVER seen oak leaves that size. Or that shiny. Must be the radiation. Unless, of course, this isn't an oak.

We got back to the car, and I was convinced it wasn’t going to start. Had this been a horror movie, it wouldn’t have. Luckily, it started right up. We decided to get the hell out of there (as it was really starting to creep us out) and head for the river. Take the right fork and then the first left to get to the river… well, you know where that first left was located? Right across from that gate we’d climbed over earlier in the day. We were going in circles. I should mention that the entire are around the old homestead (where we climbed the gate) was being logged. We began to wonder if there really were any virgin old growth longleaf pines, or if they’d all been logged. It would certainly explain the inaccurate directions – keep people away, they’ll never know how we’re making our fortune! Bwahaha!


We were almost to the river when we saw a sign saying ‘River Trail’ and pointing us to the right. A short drive later, we found a parking area, a kiosk, maps, and brochures. Woohoo! If only it weren’t so late in the day. We hadn’t had lunch yet, and neither of us was up to a two mile hike on an empty stomach. We’d have to come back.

We kept on driving towards the river. We eventually found it, but there wasn’t anywhere to park, so we drove on a short ways… only to find a rather hard-to-read sign stating “Leaving Moody Forest” – Really?? We’d yet to see an elderly longleaf pine. Shortly past the sign was an area where I could pull off the road to park. Mom and I got out, planning to walk back to the river so I could get some pictures. However, at this point, another fellow (probably late 50s) rode up on a four wheeler and asked if we were lost. Mom asked told him about what we’d found at the Moody Forest office, and how we’d been looking for the two trails all day and had only just located the River Trail. She asked if he knew how to find the other trail, and of course he did. Better yet, his house was in that direction, so how about we just follow him, and he’d show us where to go. We decided we’d check out the river some other time, and got back in the car to follow him.

He headed right back towards where we’d come from. We decided that if he turned into the Nature Conservancy office area we weren’t going to stop, and were just going to drive off as quickly as possible like a couple of madwomen. Luckily, he drove past the office. Eventually we came to some more homestead remains (according to this fellow, they were of the Wade Moody house), another parking area, and another trailhead with a kiosk, sign, brochures, and maps.

At this point it was definitely too late in the day to do any hiking. We talked to this fellow for a while (he told us about how he used to know Wade and Elizabeth Moody before they died, about drawing water from the well for them – which he warned us not to fall into – and about how the land had become part of the Nature Conservancy. He also assured us that there really were old growth long leaf pines down this trail (Tavia’s Trail), and that the area that was being logged was not part of the land owned by the Nature Conservancy.

After he left, mom and I explored the buildings by the trail head (and found the well, which we didn’t fall into), found the cemetery in which Elizabeth and Wade are buried, and again decided that it was DEFINITELY too late in the day to go hiking.

Wade Moody House Remains

Elizabeth Moody and Wade Moody

At this point, we followed the directions from the second man – keep following the road we were on westward, and we’d come to US 1. Really, access to the main area of Moody Forest really is that simple: Drive north from Baxley about 8 miles on US 1. Turn right on East River Road (yes, this was East River Road again). The park is on your right. Period. Easy. Simple. Not like our crazy ass directions to the middle of nowhere.

Instead we went and drove past Plant Hatch. I really wanted to get a picture, but cars on that stretch of US 1 were just flying by, and I didn’t want my little two door Toyota to get pummeled if I tried to slow down and pull off to the side of the road. I did, however, manage to get some nice shots of the amusing no trespassing signs surrounding Plant Hatch. Apparently they don’t forgive trespassers; they shoot them.


Sunday, March 25, 2012

Son of a Bee.

I really like my “new” house quite a lot. My favorite thing is the sound of the trains. The Small Southern Town is a railroad hub, and is home to a fairly large railroad hub. My street dead-ends into the last turn a double set of tracks make on their way into said hub. As such, I get a LOT of train noise. This would probably drive some people crazy. It’s probably why this part of town, while not anywhere near as ghetto as my previous home in this town, is still fairly low-rent. To me the sound of trains rumbling along, sometimes squealing along the tracks, frequently blowing their whistles – is an absolutely wonderful, soothing sound. It does not disturb my rest at all.

What does disturb my rest is a barely audible scritch-scritch-scritch coming from my window frame.

At first I was wondering if I was simply hearing things. When I decided that something was indeed making these noises, I though that perhaps a branch was scraping against the window frame. After about a week and a half of being disturbed by intermittent sounds I could barely hear, I finally ventured around to the right side of my house. (The right side of my house isn’t easily accessible. There are all sorts of bushes and brambles on that side. Near the front, access is fenced off; at the back, Viktor’s doghouse sits wedged into the space between my house and the fence. Getting to the window involves climbing over the doghouse.) The first time I went out there, the only thing unusual that I saw was a rather large hole (about the size of my pinky finger), bored into the window frame.


Thinking something must have burrowed in there, being the cause of the annoying scritch-scritch-scritch, I went back inside to fetch the Raid. How I wish I had also fetched my camera! I sprayed the hole full of Raid… and out came a ginormous bee. He sort of fell to the window stoop, and stood there, trying to shake his wings free of bug spray. I should have finished him off. Instead I maneuvered him onto a stick and plopped him into my neighbor’s yard. (The house to the right of me is empty… surely it could have at it over there, right?) I hurried inside to get my camera, but he was gone by the time I got back.

I looked it up online. Turns out it’s a carpenter bee. [See wikipedia.] I wished I’d gotten a photo.

But dammit if that night I didn’t hear scritch-scritch-scritching from the window frame.

(I should mention that it’s been bugging the hell out of Charlie, too. She keeps swatting at the window frame, or sitting on the window sill, cocking her head, listening. Sometimes she tries to climb atop the lower window frame, which inevitably ends in an awkward crash and some feline indifference-pretending-butt-licking.)

The next morning, as I sat on my bed, I saw the bee fly away from my window. I grabbed a paper towel, wadded it up, scurried outside, climbed over Viktor’s house, and stuffed it into the hole. The entrance to the hole was packed solid with paper towel.

And dammit if that night I didn’t hear scritch-scritch-scritching from the window frame.

Sunday afternoon, I was out back working with Viktor, trying to get him to sit on command and to not drag me around the yard when on a leash, when I heard Mochi barking from inside. Mochi is normally very quiet, and only barks when someone knocks at the front door, so I went inside to see what was bothering him.

In the center of the living room floor, Charlie and Mochi had a ginormous bee on its back. Charlie was batting it around. It seemed unable to right itself. Mochi was barking with excitement. I grabbed the nearest scrap of paper I could find, scooped it up and tossed it out the front door.

As it flew off I thought, “That looked an awful lot like my carpenter bee…” I went into my bedroom, and sure enough – it had drilled a hole INTO MY HOUSE. There was a hole, and a small pile of sawdust.


I called my mother for the purpose of saying, “That fucking bee drilled a hole into my bedroom!” and was on the phone with her… when it came in from the other side. I wish I’d grabbed my camera and started filming; as it is, I simply narrated this to my mother as it happened. I could hear it in there, scritching. It began poking its legs up over the edge of the hole. Then (and I kid you not) it stuck its ass out through the hole and sprayed shit into the air.

Time for you to go, bee.

I tried to capture it on video, but it didn’t do much. You can kind of hear it buzzing:

Then I sprayed wasp spray (the scary kind that can shoot for 30 feet and that claims to kill wasps on contact) into the hole from both directions.

An hour later, I swear I heard it scritching in there. Not to mention my bedroom now smells like scary poisonous wasp spray.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

All animals, all the time.

If you're one of my facebook friends, you can see that my current jobs are listed as volunteer positions here and here. All I do for the latter is update their websites periodically. For the former... well... I have no idea how my mom does it - and work full time - when I'm not here, because I pretty much spend all day, every day taking care of the critters. I don't mind this at all, but it's a lot of work. (BTW, if you're a facebook user, click here and like us!)

I wake up in the mornings and take care of the critters at my house. In addition to Mochi and Charlie, there is now Viktor - the rather useless, if quite friendly, girnormous pit bull living in my back yard - and a stray orange and white cat who likes to eat on my front porch and flirt with Charlie through the windows.

Charlie on my bed

He doesn't sit, he doesn't walk well on a leash (he pulls, and he is 60lbs of muscle!), he chews, he digs, he would chase cats if he had the chance... but he is very friendly. Anyone in the Southeastern US want a pit bull? I will drive him to you.

Remember when Mochi was too scared to go outside? He loves going outdoors now!

This stray cat has apparently been in my neighborhood for a few years.

When my mom's at work, I get to check on the critters at her house. She's got Brin, the prodigal pit mix, who has to be confined to a bedroom (now with boarded up windows to keep him from escaping), as well as 7 other dogs and about 14 or so cats there. There are pictures of all mom's cats on the facebook page if you're interested. Here are two pictures I liked:

This is Abs. He was found as a kitten on the side of the road in 2010 before I moved to Korea. His right eye was so badly injured that at first I actually thought he only had one eye. However, it has since healed up quite nicely, although his inner eyelid never fully retracts.

This is Reddy, who loves to show off for the camera. After I took this shot, he accidentally rolled down the hood of the car. Then, true to kitty form, he pretended he'd done it on purpose, then nonchalantly licked his ass.

I should also mention that my only internet access is at my mom's house... and compared to the crazy wonderful fast internet service of Korea, it is sooooooo painfully slow. After mom's - for animal care and interneting - it's out to the land, the rest of the cats, and the horses.
Teardrop, resting inside the A-frame

Sava is completely feral (well, except that we feed her).

Mochi has a great time playing with his new feline friends out at the land.

Bagira, atop one of the feeding stations (a giant spool left behind when the electric company finished running the wiring out to the land).

I've only been riding once since I've been home. The area around mom's land is nothing but planted pines and rather iffy access roads - an excellent place for riding! This is horse-cam from atop Merlin.

My friend C went riding with me - here she is on Honey.

Unfortunately, we're breeding crazy big mutant mosquitoes out at the land. They are vicious, and not intimidated in the least by Deep Woods OFF. This is a small one.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Pain, Suffering, and Pit Bulls

Do you remember Brin? (If not, refresh your memory here and here.) Brin is a pit bull mix, although he is an absolute sweety who loves nothing more than curling up on the couch with a cat, dog, or human. He also got out of the house several weeks ago (while my mom was at work, and under rather bizarre circumstances), and while he was out, a neighbor fell off his bicycle, hurt himself, and called 911. By the time the Sheriff’s department and Animal Control showed up, Brin had mysteriously disappeared. He was gone for two weeks. We’d given him up for dead.

The neighbor, meanwhile, was walking about the next day. He told my mom that he was fine, and that it had been his fault; he had run into the dog with the bike, and had then fallen over.

This neighbor also has schizophrenia. And – we found out last Friday – this neighbor is now attempting to sue my mother for “pain and suffering” caused when Brin “attacked” him. After he said he had hit the dog with his bike. Yeah. We should be suing him for the pain and suffering his bike caused to our dog, and to us during the two weeks that Brin was missing.

Brin, back in his home.

Meanwhile, because we obviously needed more dogs in general – and more pit bulls in particular – mom and I picked up another pit on Saturday. Given the lack of functional animal control in our neck of the woods (and the fact that so many people seem irrationally opposed to spaying and neutering around here), the stray animal population around here is absurd. I could easily have added about 5 more cats and dogs (each) to my household just in the past few days without even trying very hard. Knowing that I’ll be moving in a few months to a place where I’ll be restricted to two pets (Charlie and Mochi) and not wanting to leave my mom with more than she already has, I’ve restrained myself (although I have fed some strays on my front porch). At least in the city there is the small hope that someone will take them in or put out food. Where mom and I were on Saturday morning – the middle of absolute nowhere, surrounded by nothing but planted pines – there wasn’t much hope that someone else would come along to take responsibility for the gargantuan injured pit bull that came loping down the road towards our car.

I opened the car door, and he hopped right in and began licking my mom in the face. Mom blames me for opening the car door. I like to point out that she was the one who had stopped the car in the first place. As a result, we now have (in addition to two pits, two shepherds, a hound, Mochi, and three little Mochi-sized canines), a gigantic pit, who had either been a fighter or a hog hunter. I’m hoping he was a hog-dog, as that will make dealing with him in conjunction with the rest of our beasts substantially easier. We drove him directly to the vet to get patched up and neutered. Unfortunately, he tested positive for heartworms, which we'll be treating beginning today with Ivermectin - hopefully he'll make it. He shows absolutely no dog aggression (at least not when he met Mochi). I'm keeping him out back, though, because Brin is the only big dog I'll ever trust around my cats. However, since I'll be moving in a few months, I need to find a home for the gargantuan beast (whom I'm calling Viktor, and which must be pronounced with a thick Russian accent) - so if you're in the southeastern US and interested, let me know!

Viktor at the vet

Viktor at home

Once he fills out, he's going to be quite a behemoth!

Introducing the Small Southern Town

I have been incredibly busy in the week that I’ve been home – and that, combined with limited internet access – has caused me to fall behind in updating facebook, not to mention this blog. But I’m working on catching up. So here we go:

For the next 5 months, I will be living in what I shall refer to as the Small Southern Town. This is the town in which my mother has lived since 2005, and where I lived in 2009 and the first half of 2010. When I left in July 2010, I had absolutely no intention of ever returning. I got over that, obviously.

My mother and I are a bit long on property, which is pretty useful, considering that we’re also pretty long on pets. My house is an old little thing within the city limits of the Small Southern Town. My mom bought it super-cheap ages ago, in the middle of the housing boom, thinking she’d fix it up and sell it at a profit. By the time it had been somewhat fixed up, the housing market had tanked (and it was never all that great in the Small Southern Town anyway). Mom’s boyfriend (although she hates that term, saying that at her age one doesn’t have boyfriends…) offered to buy it from her to serve as a vacation house (he lives about an hour and a half drive away) – and then he had it put in both his name and my name. So woohoo! I have a house. (I used to own another house in a different part of the Small Southern Town – the very, very ghetto part. Mom sold it at a huge loss to one of the local slum-lords just days before I acquired my current house.) Charlie and Mochi live here with me. Mochi loves going out for walks, although Charlie is strictly indoors. Soon I will be moving a gargantuan pit bull into the back yard. But that’s another story.

My house, with Mochi in the front yard

My back yard

My mom’s house is located just outside the city limits. It’s a pretty standard ranch-style house, although you can’t really see much of it from the street as it’s surrounded by flowering plants. There are currently eight dogs and about 14 or so cats at her house.

Mom's house

Then there’s The Land. The Land is located about 15 minutes from our respective houses. It’s eight acres, originally of nothing but planted pines, located at the end of a dirt track that was little more than an unofficial logging road. Three of the eight acres have been put into pasture. We have a barn, two sheds, and two horses out there. We also have a 1951 Spartan Royal Mansion (a trailer similar to an Airstream) and a small A-frame building, both of which are out there for the cats. About 12 kitties live out at The Land. The Land is also the location to which we had an early 1900s bungalow moved back in August. The Land does not have running water, and while electrical lines were just run out there a few weeks ago, we don’t have anything electrical hooked up. The house has been completely re-wired, but it still needs a lot of work before anyone will be living inside and/or plugging things in. For now, water is supplied to the critters from a hand pump.

The house, built 1906, moved to The Land in August 2011

1951 Spartan Royal Mansion

My mom, pumping water

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Korean “Work Ethic”

"I saw classrooms in which a third of the students slept while the teacher continued lecturing, seemingly unfazed. Gift stores sell special pillows that slip over your forearm to make desktop napping more comfortable. This way, goes the backward logic, you can sleep in class — and stay up late studying." (From this article in TIME Magazine, September 2011.)

As someone who has spent a lot of time working in the “shadow education system” of Korea – the private, after-hours ‘cram schools’ or hagwons (학원) – I am no stranger to the notion of Korean children staying out studying until quite late. When I was in middle school, my bed time was 9:30pm. At the hagwon where I taught in both 2006-2007 and 2010-2011, my last middle school class of the day finished at 10pm. I had accustomed myself to the notion that Korean children have a vastly different childhood from mine and that of most American kids. Yet somehow I always pictured Korean mom and dad relaxing at home, having dinner, watching TV, and enjoying having some alone time while the kiddies were off at the hagwon. Granted, I grew up with a father who knocked off work at 5pm and was home by 5:15pm pretty much every day. I should have realized that the lives of Korean adults would be just as drastically different from their American counterparts as the lives of Korean children.

Take a look at the pictures below. They're of a miniature husband pillow. It has a slot in it into which one can insert one’s arm. This makes it far more comfortable to sleep on if you’re somewhere not particularly conducive to getting comfy: desk, bus, train, airplane. I personally think this is a fantastic invention. It’s the kind of pillow referred to in the TIME article that I quoted above. 



I bought this pillow when I was planning to go on an overnight bus trip. I didn’t buy it at a kids’ store, or at a shop near a school, or at one of the big Wal-Mart type shopping centers that offer everything under the sun. I bought it at an office supply store in Yeouido – one located directly across the street from my former office building. Every single one of the people in my department had a similar pillow, and made regular use of it.

Sleeping on the job? Well, yes. And no. Not exactly. Take a gander at this very informative article on the work culture in South Korea.  It’s entitled “the world’s hardest working countries” – although I’d say “longest working” instead of hardest. There’s a difference… Unfortunately, the Koreans have yet to realize this.

Our work hours at my former company in Yeouido were from 9am-6pm. We were encouraged to work overtime – although overtime work was always *unpaid.* However, if you stayed until 8pm, you’d get reimbursed ₩7000 (roughly $7) for dinner (keep in mind, this is in Yeouido, where $7 might get you a bowl of bibimbap), and if you stayed until 11pm, you’d get reimbursed for the cost of a taxi ride home. So for an extra 5 hours of work, and – depending on how long a taxi ride you’ve got – you’d probably be reimbursed $10-$15. Hardly an incentive… yet I had coworkers brag about receiving upwards of ₩2,000,000 ($1700) in reimbursements. Granted, that’s over a fairly long time, but still, that's a lot of bibimbap.

Now, I have nothing at all against working overtime when there’s work that needs to be done. You’ve got a Wednesday morning deadline for your project and it’s not finished by 6pm on Tuesday? You stay late. You’ve got an emergency situation that needs to be handled right then? You stay late. But if there are no pressing deadlines, no emergency situations, nothing that absolutely must be done right then? I say go on home…. but that is most definitely NOT the Korean way.

I never stayed past 6:15pm. This is because I never had any pressing emergencies or un-met deadlines to contend with. And because I’d been working for 8 hours straight and needed to give my brain a rest.

And that’s where we come to the big difference between me and my Korean co-workers in terms of work ethic. From 9am-6pm (except for my lunch hour), I worked. True, I may have sent several personal emails to friends over the course of the day, but I can multitask like a fiend. I would work steadily for 8 hours a day, taking only the occasional bathroom break. Meanwhile, my coworkers (including supervisors) would take lengthy smoke breaks, take 15-30 minute naps, spend time on YouTube of Naver or Facebook… and then stay at the office until 8pm or 11pm.

Now I don’t want you to think that my coworkers were lazy – they weren’t at all. In fact, they were all very hard workers.   They just dragged out everything they did, and napped, and watched sports on YouTube or whatever so that they could put in extra hours and show what good, hardworking employees they are. I was lucky – and I suspect that this has a lot to do with the fact that I’m not Korean – that I was never pressured to stay late. Meanwhile, there seemed to be a lot of pressure on my coworkers to stay late every single day, especially the younger/newer employees, who needed to “prove” to the company that they were hardworking.

Here’s an appropriate quote from the article I mentioned above:

"It’s the culture," says Lee. "We always watch what the senior boss thinks of our behavior. So it’s very difficult to finish at a fixed time." Leaving at the official time of 6 p.m. could mean not getting a promotion or raise.

This whole concept just boggles my mind. I personally would much rather work for 8 hours – and do my job well for 8 hours – and then leave and get one with my life than drag out my assignments and stretch 8 hours worth of work into 13 to prove that I’m “hardworking.” I just don’t get it. Of course, I also didn’t get my promised mid-contract raise.

The de-facto work schedule seemed to take a huge physical toll on a lot of my coworkers, who often looked like they desperately needed a good night’s sleep. And don’t even get me started on how they keep up this absurd ever-present practice no matter how sick they get. Surely well-rested, relaxed, healthy employees would be more efficient than exhausted, stressed, and often sickly ones? But it’s not the Korean way.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

My Adventures in Korean Business

If you follow this blog, you know that I’ve just returned home from a six month stint as a businesswoman in a firm in Yeouido – “the Wall Street of South Korea” – located in the heart of Seoul. Over the years (and I’m getting up there now…) I’ve worked in the government, education, and non-profit sectors, and now I can add big business to that list. This was my fifth trip to Korea, but as I had worked as a teacher for three of the four previous trips, and as a US government employee for the fourth, and as I had spent the bulk of all four trips in Daegu, working at a prestigious South Korean firm in Yeouido was a very big change.

I really wanted to love my job, or at least like it enough to stick it out for several years. The salary was fantastic, and the people were (for the most part) quite pleasant to work with. Even those who weren’t so great to work with were pretty fantastic people outside of the work environment. Unfortunately – as you can probably guess by the fact that I did not seek to extend my six month contract – I discovered that big business (in general, and this one in particular) is simply not for me.

Fortunately, this job made me realize that what I really love is teaching. Days of staring numbly at a computer screen, thinking about new and creative ways to promote products about which I really could not care less really made me miss my students. I cared about my students. Sure, there are always some bad apples – sometimes you get a whole class or two of rotten ones – but I always cared about how they learned, how they progressed.  Remember the ex-job? That was my venture into the non-profit sector. I stuck it out for eight months under the worst boss imaginable… because I cared deeply about the job we did and the cause we served. But this job? I discovered early on that I really did not care about it at all. And the fact that they paid me well did not compensate for the absolute lack of interest that my job held for me. I found myself wishing I were still in the classroom, wishing I’d taken the job I was offered in Ukraine at less than a quarter of my Yeouido salary.

I’d known for some time that I really enjoyed teaching English to speakers of other languages, but there’s only so far a person can go in that career without a Master’s degree. Graduate school is expensive, and I really did not want to find myself grossly in debt and receiving a teacher’s salary… but after a little more than a month in Yeouido, I knew that what I wanted to be doing was teaching. I decided to do what I love… and I certainly did not love promoting products of questionable value with the almighty dollar (or in this case, the won) as the bottom line. I decided to bite the bullet, and applied to five graduate programs. I was accepted into all five, and my top choice has offered me an excellent funding package. I’ll begin earning my MA in TESOL in the fall.

I blogged very little about my job while I was living and working in Seoul, as it’s never wise to blog about your job – especially if you have negative things to say. Now that my contract has finished and I am back in the US, I’ve decided to write about my time working in Yeouido. Be warned – this post is long. However: it’s not as long as it could be. There were days when I thought with great pleasure about the absolutely scathing things I could write about the place once I was gone. And I definitely *could.* I’m not going to, though, because despite the things that I disliked about my job, I liked my coworkers a lot. Even the one guy that I spent much of my time at odds with – he and I are actually friends. Out of respect for my former coworkers – and not wanting them to suffer any repercussions from my blogging – I won’t be anywhere near as detailed or as scathing as I could be. Additionally, I’ll be referring to the firm as Company X throughout my post, and I won’t be giving any specific details about the kind of products and services Company X offers. Enjoy!

The Koloss Korean Business Model at Company X

Have any of you read the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson? If you have, please excuse the following simplistic description of the Koloss. For those of you who haven’t read these books, the Koloss are humanoid monsters. They want to be human, although they lack the capacity to understand what it means to be human. They know that humans wear clothes, so they wear clothes… although they wear them in such a grossly ill-fitting and incorrect manner that they may as well be naked. They know that humans do work in exchange for money… so despite the fact that their “society” has no need of money, they will work for humans in exchange for coins, which they covet but do not use. The Koloss know that humans live in houses… so periodically they will camp inside a house or a tent, often demolishing the structure in the process, as they don’t really understand the concept. In many ways Company X is to international business what the Koloss of the Mistborn trilogy are to humans.

My first couple of weeks at Company X were stressful, but pleasant, as all of my coworkers went out of their way to help me and to be friendly. I found the work at times dull and tedious, and at other times very difficult, as it dealt with a subject I’d previously had little to no experience with. However, as I was learning how to do a new job, I expected that it would get easier with time. I actually found myself thinking of spending two or three years there at a minimum – after all, they were paying me fairly well, and it would look quite good on my resume.

When I was interviewed for the position, I was told that my job would consist mainly of editing texts written by non-native English speakers, and that occasionally I would write reports. It turned out to be the other way around: my job involved a LOT of writing, with the occasional bit of editing thrown in. Now, I enjoy writing, and wouldn’t have minded that in the least had the things I had been asked to write been sensible. Instead, many of my writing assignments seemed to come from the Koloss School of Business:

“International businesses have white papers! Anonymity, write a white paper on Product Z.”
“Sure, no problem. Please give me some facts on Product Z.”
“Here are 3 vague facts about Product Z. Please base your white paper on this.”
“Is there any more information on Product Z?”
“Even in Korean?”
“No. What’s the problem? You’re a technical writer! Write a white paper!”

I only wish I were exaggerating.

“International businesses have case studies! Anonymity, write a case study on Company B’s use of Product Z.”
“Sure, no problem. Please give me some facts on which to base the case study.”
“Here are all the facts you need: Company B has Problem Q. Product Z solves Problem Q. Company B uses Product Z and no longer has Problem Q.”
“But do you have any actual facts? Details on how Problem Q was affecting Company B? Details on *how* Product Z has been able to solve Problem Q? Details on how this has affected Company B’s performance?”
“No. We don’t have anything like that. But what’s the problem? You’re a technical writer! Write a case study!”

I only wish I were exaggerating.

I saw a lot of Company X’s Korean language “case studies.” They really did follow the above format. The notion that “FAMOUS COMPANY “C” USES OUR PRODUCT SO YOU SHOULD, TOO!” was prevalent throughout their entire domestic marketing plan. And the thing is, it’s working.

I’d like to ask those of you who are familiar with Korea to think of the major Korean companies, the famous Korean brands. Which ones just popped into your head? I’d be willing to bet that whatever company you just thought of is a customer of Company X. Their client list is really quite impressive. In addition to most of the big name businesses on the peninsula, the Korean government and many Korean universities are also their customers.

Company X – with its peer-pressure marketing techniques has managed to saturate the domestic market, and has reached the point where it must either branch out overseas or stagnate. They’ve chosen to branch out overseas, and they’re taking their peer-pressure marketing plan global. I’m not sure how this kind of marketing will fare in other parts of East Asia, but my protestations that fact-less white papers and case studies would not fly in the western world (which is, after all, why they hired me) fell completely on deaf ears.

I wrote four white papers in six months, ranging from 12-15 pages each. I wrote at least twenty “case studies.” Eventually I stopped asking for facts; I knew there were none to be had. Believe me, my bullshitting skills developed at an exponential rate.

Company X is trying to become a “global company” – they desperately want to enter the Australian and American markets. But they really seem to lack the kind of general Western business knowledge that they need to possess in order to make this happen, and they seemed quite unwilling to listen to me when I pointed out that just because this technique works in Korea does not at all mean that it will be successful world-wide. Sigh.

This cluelessness on the part of Company X regarding how to do business definitely soured my attitude towards the place. As did our products. They were okay. Some of our products were better than others. They did most of what we claimed they did… but not all. It’s hard to feel passionate when you realize that in some cases the company is exaggerating their products to the point of sorta-kinda telling a falsehood or two for marketing purposes.

The company’s products are advertised by a bunch of buzz-words: Next-Generation. Intelligent. User-Intuitive. Extensible. Scalable. The New Paradigm. As mentioned above, they tend to be rather big on adjectives, and rather small on facts. There are, however, a small handful of facts that they bandied about so much that I did not for a moment credit their veracity… until I learned that, well, they weren’t totally factual.

In the field that one of Company X’s products occupies, there are Ten Things which are very important for a product to be able to handle. Not all companies in this field have products that can handle the Ten Things. Those that do tend to make a big deal of it; it’s a good advertising tactic. Pretty much everything ever written about one of Company X’s products talks about its ability to handle the Ten Things. I assumed that it really could do this.

Then in November I learned that the product only covered nine of the Ten Things. I pointed out that to say that we covered all ten was false advertising – that it was lying – that we needed to say we covered nine of the ten, that we needed to stop saying we covered the Ten Things. The response was, “Your facts don’t need to be so specific. Besides, our competitors probably only cover nine of the ten, too.”

There is a type of compliance that’s also recognized in the field in which Company X operates. Let’s call it Y Compliance. They claim to have Y Compliance Certification. Apparently they’ve actually run into some problems from saying this; they had to issue a press-release clarifying what they meant at one point. They have a certificate from an organization NOT AFFILIATED with the Y Compliance folks, which has tested the product and proclaimed it in compliance with part of the Y Compliance requirements. And yet “Y Compliant!”  and “Y Certified!” (etc) appear on all documents pertaining to this product. Not a complete lie, but definitely misleading.

Don’t even get me started on the one “easy-to-use, user-intuitive” product that was an absolute nightmare to use.

Periodically, companies/organizations/governments that were interested in purchasing a product like one of the ones we sold, and would submit a list of requirements. In theory, we were supposed to review the list, and mark which items we could do, which we could do partially, and which we couldn’t do. Whenever these were submitted in English (from potential overseas customers), I would be asked to take care of it. I would also be told to mark ‘yes’ or ‘partially,’ but never ‘no.’

Except that often it *was* no. I remember one list of about 150 requirements, about 35 of which our product did not fulfill. I completed the form honestly, and submitted it to my supervisor. Before he submitted it to his supervisor, he’d reduced the number of nos to something like five. I questioned him about it, flat out saying, “You’re lying to them!” His response? “I’m not lying. I’m promoting our product.” He also said, “We’re in pre-sales. Our job is to be confident and never say anything negative about our products. It’s the job of the people in post-sales to say ‘I’m sorry’ a lot.”


For the sake of the employees of Company X, I would like the place to succeed in becoming a successful global company… but they still have rather a way to go before they meet this goal. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Journey Home

I am still jet-lagged, tired, and ridiculously sore from carting the critters and all my crap across a couple of continents, but I figured I should post to update those of you who aren't my facebook friends.

Two of my former co-workers, HM and JY, went with me to the airport. It makes carting all your critters and crap around much easier when you have two dudes who are more than willing to do it for you. If only they'd been around for my layover, when I had to maneuver it all through Customs and Immigration under my own steam. Ahh well. Anyhow, the check-in procedure went really smoothly. There were no problems with the reservations for the critters (despite the booking nightmare), although I was very disturbed to learn that the free checked luggage limit is now one bag instead of two. As such, I had to pay not only for Charlie and Mochi to travel ($200 each), but I had to pay $75 for my second suitcase. Oh well.

JY, holding Charlie in her bag, and me - Incheon International Airport

Mochi getting checked in.

Me and Mochi at check-in

Mochi was really, really terrified when we got to the airport - he was shaking like a leaf and looked completely miserable. Charlie, in contrast, was just pissed off. Mochi calmed down when HM bought him some beef and squid jerky, but I was really concerned about how he would react once he was loaded onto the plane. Charlie got to travel in the cabin with me, but Mochi was below with the baggage. I worried about him the entire flight. He came through unscathed though, and was totally thrilled to see me on the other side.

Charlie bit me going through security in Seoul. If you're carrying a pet in the cabin with you, you have to take it out of its travel bag, and carry it through the metal detector while its bag runs through the x-ray machine. Charlie was both pissed off and scared, and they took FOREVER to scan her bag. Finally, when they pushed it out, and it came thump-thump-thumping down the rollers, she panicked and went into full-feral-fight-and-flight mode. I held on for dear life, even when she sunk her teeth into my thumb. Then, after shoving her back into her bag, I calmly stuffed my thumb into my pocket and pretended it wasn't bleeding. Wasn't so sure they'd allow a bitey beast onto the plane. Other than that, Charlie was good. She didn't pee in her bag until just one hour out from our final destination. (I was really worried that there might be a cat-pee incident midway across the Pacific, but no.)

I totally lucked out on the airplane. Not only did I get a window seat, but the seat next to me was empty. I was able to curl up and go to sleep for a few hours, and I could stretch out when I was awake. I haven't had that much room on an international flight since 2000. It was fantastic.

We're home now, and I'm trying to kick my ass into overcoming jet-lag, although flying from Korea to the US is always rough.

Charlie and Mochi on their new bed :-)