The buzzer startles Hae Jin for the twentieth time this morning. She leaps up to go see what the company president wants this time.
“I think our website should have a page in English,” announces the president abruptly. See what you can do. Find an English language website developer, but it must be a Korean website developer.”
“We will need a translator, in that case. Is there a budget for translation?”
“Yes, yes! Whatever. Just get to it, will you?”
Hae Jin leaves the president’s office with a frown on her face. She can envision some problems with realizing this proposition, the latest whim of her headstrong and impatient boss.
She retreats to her desk to resume the task at hand, which is the payroll. She has just started doing the biweekly payroll accounting. It is tedious and draining because accuracy is imperative to prevent mistakes and complaints from staff. She has had no training for this kind of work and she does not like it. The boss had dumped the responsibility on her at the 18th month mark of her history in the administration of this machine parts factory.
When the president had hired her to be an administrative assistant in the factory office where he worked, she had been happy and her family pleased in the beginning. It had been an honour. What was more, the factory was expanding at that time, a sure sign of success.
Her competency in English had been a major factor. It had given her an edge as a job candidate. Now, however, the employer was taking advantage of her.
Back then, she had not expected to be doing all the things that she has to do nowadays. Now she was acting as the president’s assistant and payroll officer and sales clerk and liaison and hostess to foreign clients. It was all too much and quite stressful.
She has trouble sleeping. She works long hours and sometimes works on Saturdays. There is a long commute to this isolated location on the fringes of the city. She feels exhausted most of the time. She has little time for socializing.
It is not longer a joy using English on the job. For one thing, there is a lot of technical jargon that even her foreign English speaking friends do not know. For another, she does not usually get to talk with native English speakers on the job. Rather, the clients tend to be Japanese or European. Therefore, they make mistakes constantly in speaking English and it is hard to communicate with them, especially over the telephone.
The worst thing about the job, however, is the boss’ terrible habit of beckoning her on impulse by use of the buzzer throughout the day. Some matters are not urgent and could be read as emailed notes in due course. Else, he could just phone her and speak with her, but he likes to have her rise and go to see him in person. It is a company president’s pleasure and female assistants are often treated as servants.
Hae Jin looks at the employee profiles and then at the payroll figures that are displayed on the monitor. She squints then reaches for her reading glasses.
It is the last Friday of the month and she will have to stay in the office until the payroll is finished, which will probably be around 9:00 p.m. as per usual. There is no time during the regular daytime business hours to do it all for there are too many other tasks to perform meantime, not to mention and innumerable interruptions.
Hae Jin breathes a heavy sigh.
It is almost lunchtime. The company cafeteria food is passable though tedious. Today, she has a lunch bag with some kimbap and noodles. She often just remains at her desk to eat during the 30-minute break, although the phones and her boss sometimes interrupt her.
There is therefore not much opportunity for rest. There are no officially scheduled morning or afternoon breaks. Getting up and down to fetch tea or sit munching on snacks would be seen as a sign of laziness and therefore should be avoided.
At least her office co-workers are nice. Once in awhile, they go out together. The company paid for weekend retreat at a spa this year, their third year of employment, as part of the company’s celebration of the factory’s third anniversary. The third anniversary had also prompted a decent salary increase so that they are paid properly at long last.
The salary system is another way employers take advantage of employees, however. Not a wage system, employers push the limits of the job perimeters, often causing overwork.
Also, employees lack precisely written job descriptions. In service industries and occupations, workers are assigned to departments they can end up struggling to perform multiple roles without specific training and knowledge. That way, they are forced to learn by error on the job, which causes blame and fear together, which increases stress levels. Such is the situation that Hae Jin and her office co-workers face. They try to cope by solidifying and functioning as a group.
Hae Jin turns away from the computer’s screen to eat her noodles. Her reflection in a desktop mirror catches her eye. Noting her pale complexion, it strikes her that she is turning into limp doughy pasta herself.
A friend once challenged her about her acceptance of this job. “You are an English speaking university graduate working in the head office assisting the president. You have power. Use it. You can make suggestions to your boss. You can stop his using the buzzer constantly. Just change the service, disable the technology and tell him it works better for you if he phones and emails you, or makes a daily meeting. Come on. Don’t let him drive you down!”
The friend had been right but the challenge had upset Hae Jin. She knows that she goes along with what others press her to do too much. However, she feels that it goes against her character to do otherwise. She does not like friction. She just wants to do the job. Her only defense has been hiding. She usually retreats from people when she has the opportunity. Yet, she knows this is unhealthy behavior. She does not like what this job is turning her into: some kind of lump of pasta, or a shadow.
The next day is Saturday. She goes to work on Saturday so that someone is there to answer the phone. The president does not like to use voicemail. He thinks it is best for a live person to answer and speak to callers. Therefore, he has the office staff takes turns manning the phones on Saturdays.
She leaves the office after the designated quitting time, 1:00 p.m., and takes the 45-minute bus ride back to her apartment in the impoverished tenements where she lives among foreign factory workers in crowded units. This is what she can afford, at rate of 300,000 won a month rental fee on top of the payments she must make on the bank loan that she got so as to pay the 30,000,000 won housing deposit.
Once in the door, she collapses on the bed for awhile before sitting in a sudsy bath. Then she puts on jeans to go out and find something convenient to eat. She picks up some fruit and crackers, after taking some soup and rice at a tiny local restaurant.
Back at home, she munches on some slices of pear in front of the TV. Her younger brother eventually enters the apartment after a day at his part-time job in a shopping mall. He is a full-time student and he shares the apartment with her at her mother’s request. He does not say much, except that he asks to watch a different show. She goes to her bedroom to look at a magazine. By 8:00 p.m., she dozes off.
Sunday is not much different. She has breakfast with her brother and they talk before he goes out to study at the campus library.
This Sunday, a chum calls her. She asks to meet Hae Jin at a coffee shop that afternoon. After a little prodding, Hae Jin agrees to the meeting. The two friends drink lattes and discuss jobs, friends, families and movies for a couple of hours. Then they go to shopping in cosmetic stores.
The next morning, Hae Jin is back at her office desk by 8:30 a.m. By 9:00, the boss is there and starts buzzing her. Today, he wants her to edit a parts catalogue and send it to a translator by the end of the week.
Hae Jin sighs a heavy sigh and returns resignedly to her desk. Soon, he buzzes her again. Sometimes she does not know how she makes it through each week of this stress and bother.
“How is the English webpage coming along?”
“I did the payroll on Friday and so I’ll deal with it today. Is that okay?”
“All right then. Get to it.”
Hae Jin contacts the website developer that the company has been using and they tell her not to worry, that they know a good translator. They discuss the pages and sections that are to be translated into English. Hae Jin then looks for an opportunity to report back to her boss. The boss gives approval
Three weeks later, after a series of visits by Norwegian, German and American clients about a set of new parts, and an executive meeting about the prospects for building a branch factory somewhere else, which had all required extra work, the beta format of the English webpages and the first two sections of the catalogue are ready for approval.
Glancing at them, Hae Jin can see right away that the translations are inadequate. Not wishing the president to feel the humiliation of becoming aware of an error in judgment or suffering a complaint by a client, she buckles down to make corrections. She takes the work home at night and on the following weekend. She consults reference books and native English speakers. Paragraph by paragraph, page by page, she struggles to figure it out and correct all the errors with proper English herself.
She cannot do it all herself and imposes on foreign friends more and more for accurate corrections. However, the foreigners are teachers, most of whom have arts degrees. They are not familiar with the technical language of this specialized field of factory machinery. A couple of them get annoyed and refuse to do any more translating after working on a few pages, for they do not care about the company. They think the favour is too big. At first they wanted to do favours for Hae Jin since she is a friend who occasionally helps them with surviving in a foreign country, but the technical catalogue translation is too much.
For three more weeks, Hae Jin struggles with the arduous task. The boss periodically asks her how the translations are coming and whether the deadlines will be met and she answers positively without explaining the problem she has encountered. She even shows him completed sections. He does not know any English but she must prevent a client from complaining nevertheless. She just hopes that the kinds of clients are also stymied by complex texts in English or ignorant of proper spelling and grammar.
Some weeks later the webpage and catalogue are made public. Hae Jin anxiously awaits the response, figuring that a complaint could come at any moment. No complaint comes, however. She has pulled it off.
There is no reward for having carried out the extra work, for nobody knows about it. Her colleagues know there was some work in reviewing the translations but they estimated it was just a bit of adjusting here and there for more favourable phrasing.
Hae Jin ploughs her way through the end of winter and into the spring time. It is a marvelous warm and sunny spring full of promise. Hae Jin thinks that her dedication and loyalty will pay off. It is prestigious and honourable to have a high ranking role in a successful firm, a firm that works hard for the national and regional economies. The effort with steady commitment should bring the rewards of regular pay increases, greater personal savings and more company benefits. Her status would thereby improve and she would be able to impress eligible men better.
By the summertime, Hae Jin buys a car and moves. She is paid back the housing deposit, which pays for the car and pads her savings. Her aunt having informed her that the tenant had vacated the family’s downtown apartment, she and her brother ask to be lodged there. The aunt and her parents agree and the siblings move into the spacious modern apartment in July. There is not rent or deposit to pay. Outside it is heavy with a sweltering temperature, but the apartment is cool and properly equipped. The location is more amenable to socializing because restaurants and bars are just outside the door.
Not only does the change in dwellings offer relief to Hae Jin’s oppressive life, so does the new car. Without the necessity of enduring the long bus rides to and from work, the workday is shortened and less tedious, even though the fight through the hectic traffic sometimes causes aggravation.
The company fares well even through the economic slumps because it maintains a steady clientele and produces indispensable factory equipment. Hae Jin has chosen the employer well in this regard.
There will be another scheduled raise in pay in the new year. In the meantime, the company has increased the bonuses for performance, holidays and birthdays.
As the fall approaches, so does Hae Jin’s next birthday, which causes her to reflect. She wonders if she will feel like nothing but a worn out dish rag within a few years.
She wonders whether the men may regard her as a disgusting pumpkin of a spinster and scoff at her. “What will happen to me?” she asks herself.
Her mother leaves this question for herself to answer. As far as she is concerned, her eldest child has done well and is fulfilling responsibilities to both her parents and her younger brother. The schooling and other support that the family has bestowed upon Hae Jin have been paying off. The family has no complaints, except that they urge her to find a man now.
They think that her prospects are good. Hae Jin is tall and thin. She is healthy, they assume. She likes to wear very feminine clothing in pastel colours. She is not an aggressive and demanding modern woman; rather, she is kind and cooperative as well as clever and well educated.
By late October, a cool wind begins to blow. Then it changes direction. Hae Jin is caught in the autumnal crosswind and an idea seizes her brain.
One Monday morning, she is dutifully carrying out her assigned tasks when the dreaded buzzer starts buzzing.
The buzz awakens something deep inside her soul. Suddenly, the idea wants release. Suddenly, she is gripped with the realization that she cannot endure. She cannot exist in this stifling climate. Whatever the risk, something must be done. Things must change, she tells herself.
When she reaches the doorway of the president’s office, she braces her shoulders and sits up smartly in the visitor’s chair facing her boss. Her boss issues some orders and she makes note of them.
When he has finished speaking, she remains. He looks up inquiringly. “Anything else?” he asks.
“I’ve made some new plans. I will go back to teaching English or something. I will leave this job in two weeks.”
The man is quite surprised. He asks what the problem is.
“It’s personal,” she assures him. “I need a change. I’m not sure that business administration is what I want to do.”
“Heh. You should make up your mind soon. You’re not getting any younger.”
“Exactly,” she replied confidently. “I think I will go back to school and get some focus.”
“Do what you like. You had better place an employment ad. You’ll have to train someone, you know.”
“What about one of the girls here? They know what to do and how to do it.”
“Hmph. We’ll see.”
Hae Jin turns to exit the room. However, the boss calls her back. “Hae Jin.”
“If things don’t work out for you, come and see me. You have been a very helpful employee.” He allows himself a slight smile then closes his expression to resume his work.
Hae Jin knows she has been fortunate. Some bosses would resent an employee who quit.
Hae Jin sits at the table in the Italian style restaurant. She gazes at the food before her then tries a small bite of it. This pasta is sweet and full of texture. The sauce is rich and creamy. The cabonara ham is tasty and the onion and olives embellishes the flavor with light side effects. The oiled salad sitting beside the plate of linguini is elegant and attractive with its lively colours and fresh appearance. She reaches for the carafe and pours her friend and then herself some red wine into the tall goblets.
“So you’re teaching English again? I thought you were through with that. Have you made a U-turn and reversed direction?” asks the young delicate looking fresh face framed by auburn tinted curls that poises across from Hae Jin.
“No, this is just a stop-gap. I’m just a temporary replacement. I’ve enrolled in a law program.”
“You want to study again. Yuck. …So, you want to be a lawyer? That’s difficult work.”
“No, just some sort of paralegal position. Like, maybe I’ll specialize in some legal aspect of business or government work. Community or charitable service may be an option.”
“It’s a man’s world, legal stuff.”
“Lots of women are getting training in law these days. Anyway, the point is, it’ll be useful knowledge. I want to keep learning and doing interesting things.”
“Ha! Maybe you’ll meet a lawyer! Now I get it! Good for you!”
“Well, maybe.” The two women laugh.