I have been going to work every day for the last two weeks in a sinking ship, a lurching, failing enterprise with a boorish, crass cheshire cat at the helm, rife with factions and lies. It was like taking a time machine and going back to Sendai International School, the bankrupt-from-the-start school where I taught from August to December of 2005 and which ended in a climactic public announcement by the school’s chairman, Mister Ikeda, that the school had no money and that nobody would be getting paid. So the last two weeks was like going to Sendai in October 2005, when everyone knew there was something wrong but nobody was prepared to fully accept what the inevitable end would be.
Here’s the background. My wife Miyoung and I were working together at the Mount Something Language Institute in Bucheon, South Korea. The owner of the school didn’t speak English, so she chose me for my Korean abilities and experience. She hired my wife as the school’s general manager because she was going to Canada to attend to her daughter, who was going to uni at the time. So my wife and I had run the school in isolation all of 2006. In December, right before Christmas, the owner’s sister, who does speak English, invited Miyoung and I out to dinner. We assumed it was to talk about renewing my contract, but instead she told us that they were selling the school.
The new owner, Ms. Kang, also didn’t speak English but neither does anyone in her family. She retained Miyoung and me because after a year of running the school with absolutely no support from the owners, the only reason our students attended was because they or their parents liked Miyoung or me, or both. Still she was concerned that we had plans to move to America in August, so in order to plan for that eventuality, she went out and signed a $10,000 contract with a new, huge chain school that had recently opened in our city. Although she didn’t consult us at the time, she eventually came to trust us a lot and told us the situation over dinner.
The new chain, “Tweepark English Village” had a lot of good word of mouth. It was a huge school, three stories, with theme classrooms and a theater to boot. Plus they had so many students, they were swamped. Although I call them a chain, they were actually the first of a planned chain. There’s only one Tweepark English Village, chain or no. It all sounded like a really good idea to tie our little school’s fortunes to this nascent juggernaut’s. Most importantly, they were going to provide our boss with two things that she desperately needed.
First, since our school had such great word of mouth in our little neighborhood, mostly due to Miyoung’s obsessive attention to the students’ needs, we managed to expand from 5 regular classes to 8. I would be unable to teach all the classes, so we would need a teacher to come every day from 2 to 5. This is a very tall order, and although Miyoung and I tried hard to find a suitable teacher we simply couldn’t. Tweepark promised to provide one of their teachers. This would be an ideal situation, because they could contract the teacher, provide housing, visa and all necessary accoutrements, and our boss would simply pay them for the service. Since we needed a teacher to come day in and day out, this relationship seemed ideal. I was very relieved because I could stop the soul-sucking process of searching racistly for a teacher, which I had come to hate with an all consuming passion. Second, since our new boss Ms. Bang had planned a complete renovation of the school, we would need some place to have class during the two weeks it would take to do so. Epark offered their school.
2. Into the fetid maw
So it was a done deal, and Ms. Bang, Miyoung and I went off to Tweepark after work one day to get a briefing on what their program was. The first reaction was disappointment. Part of it was the name. In Korea, there are several sleep-away camp-slash-theme parks that use the name “English Village”. These are massive complexes where everything is done in English, a real immersive experience that kids can have on the weekends. Here’s a picture of Gyeongju English Village:
So I was naturally disappointed to see this:
Compared to our tiny one room schoolhouse it was huge, but certainly no village. The second thing was that the introduction given to us by the prematurely crone-faced assistant director was completely focused on how to sell the school to the parents. There essentially was no education program. Naturally, I was the first to realize this, and Ms. Bang and Miyoung were still willing to accept what they were hearing as fact, but I was stunned by the lack of substance in the curriculum. The whole thing centered around the “Shitney Program”, whose name they uttered in hushed tones as if it were one of the 777 names of the prophet. The program basically went like this. Someone had bought a $5 CD of clip art, really low quality stuff, written the names of each picture and sorted them into categories, and then created a huge match game out of it. So to learn the ‘sk-‘ words you look at a bunch of junky pictures of things like ‘skein’, ‘skeleton’, ‘skate’ (the sea creature), ‘skill‘ (a man with a hammer and nails) and ‘skunk’, and then you play match game. At home, before you go to class. That’s why it’s called the Whitney Homeschool Program, they said. I pondered, but did not have the temerity or interest to ask, what kind of an English school has a name like a camp and a program with the word ‘homeschool’ in it. How could that not confuse people? “What do you do in class?” I asked. Why of course you do exercise books, essentially very cheap photocopied books with pretty color covers that put the mind-numbing computer program in book form. They showed me the “Teacher’s Guide”, which was in fact an answer book. “Why does this say teacher’s guide, this is an answer book.”
“Answer guide,” a 100% serious teacher told me.
Miyoung asked how six year-old children were supposed to use this computer program. One of the teachers, without a doubt the smarmiest young woman I’ve ever met, said “I’m actually a teacher, and so I can tell you that usually 6 year olds can use the computer better than their parents.”
“How do you install it?” Ms. Bang asked.
“You can either use the CD or download it from the internet. It takes about 2 Gigabytes of hard drive space, and the installation takes four hours. And it doesn’t work on all computers.”
We were all speechless. I hadn’t taken off my jacket and the room was hot, and all the smarmy young women in the room were making my skin crawl. I was anxious to get out of there and let my boss buy me dinner. “Yes, yes, well it looks great, we’ll integrate it with our paradigms, yadda yadda, give us a sample of everything you’ve got and lets get out of here.”
They couldn’t give us everything, just a couple of books and the CD. On the way out we met Twephen Twee, the director of the school. He flashed a toothy grin all around all the time, and spoke excellent, if highly unnatural, English. It’s the kind of English people speak when they’ve lived and studied for a long time in an English speaking country but they obviously had no English-speaking friends, very flat and clinical. Perhaps the worst sound imaginable to me is someone saying the word ‘cool’ in this kind of English. It’s always off. Twephen was watching a secretary stuff envelopes with impressively realistic fake money.
I told him how realistic it looked. He told me he had “like a millions” of the stuff and that he would give me so much if I would come to their open house on Saturday. I accepted one as a souvenir but certainly made no promises to go on Saturday. This was my first encounter with Twephen “the banality of evil’ Twee.
At dinner with Ms. Kang the main topic of discussion was the uselessness of their materials and the fact that we would just have to use their good name and their English teacher but keep using our own books.
3. The slide
The next few weeks were hell on Miyoung. She was trying to find a way to make this obviously less than ideal situation work. She was racking her brain trying to cram this Whitney Program into our time-tested formula. I lobbied for completely scrapping the Whitney Program almost from the beginning. Something smelled rotten to me; I just couldn’t take this Epark situation seriously. I just knew it was a fleeting bump in the road that would soon be forgotten. I think I’ve probably seen too many stupid deals like this one come and go in my days in teaching.
So Miyoung was swamped with organizing the busing to English Village, the three new classes we were putting together, and everything else. By the way, Miyoung works a hell of a lot harder than I do and gets paid way less. I think when she first took the job it kind of seemed like a favor to me, but over time she’s taken on such an important role at the school that the boss knows what a good deal she’s getting. Miyoung approached the boss about getting a raise. Miyoung asked for $100 a month raise, and the boss immediately said yes, which naturally caused instant buyer’s remorse. She could easily have asked for $500 more.
Worst of all, since the school was going to be out of commission, Miyoung had to give out her cell number to every student’s parents, whereas before only the most beloved or pain-in-the-ass parents had the privilege. Miyoung’s cell phone became a constantly crying baby that instead of asking for milk asked stupid questions.
Finally the day came to go to Epark and teach. Thanks to Miyoung’s heroic people-wrangling skills there were only a few people who missed the bus or forgot about it completely. There was, Koreally (a word I just coined which means “naturally, in Korea”), nobody to tell us where to go when we walked in the door, so I found an empty room and set up shop. I taught my first class without incident and then had a break. I walked into a room I though was the Teacher’s Room to use a computer. The same teacher, Sunny, who had introduced us to the useless Shitney Program software, told me that that was the “Programming Directors’ Room”, and recommended I go down to the computer room for children because it was so convenient. Fighting her helpful pushing hand on my shoulder, I went in the opposite direction and found myself in the Teachers’ Room. I knew they didn’t want me in there because I would be able to understand what they were saying and tell their teachers, but that kind of thing is kind of my specialty, so I ignored the uncomfortable silence among the Korean teachers and hopped on a computer.
This was at the height of Monnara-gate, so I was busy translating things and writing posts in Korean, so I turned to one of the Korean teachers who could actually speak English and started asking her questions. She responded by saying the same dumb things that everyone says to people who speak Korean. “Wow, you’re almost Korean”, “Do you like kimchi?” and the like. Always a drag.
4. Talking with the afflicted
I also got a chance to talk to the foreign teachers and get the real dirt on what was going on at the school. There are three Canadians and an Irishman at Tweepark. This was the first job for all the Canadians, and I’m not sure about the Irishman. Although Tweepark opened in our town in early January and they’d been in town since December, they had been with the company for many more months. The school had originally been in Ilsan, another suburb of Seoul that’s a big market for English education. They went bankrupt there, packed up everything that wasn’t bolted down, in the words of one teacher, and moved to Bundang, the newest and most upscale of the Seoul suburbs. They quickly failed there and pulled the same maneuver again, coming to Bucheon. They had been in Bucheon three months and the first and third of three stories were operational, but construction on the middle floor had still barely started. They had scheduled classes whenever customers asked for them, but they didn’t have the teachers to teach the classes. Although they clearly needed more teachers to cover the schedule that included classes from morning to night and on Saturdays too, they had not even thought about hiring new teachers and instead started giving their teachers massive amounts of poorly compensated overtime. They even asked the teachers to invest in the school, $5000 each, guaranteeing big returns. The clincher for me was when a teacher told me “They don’t even have toilet paper in the bathrooms.” This is a sure sign that something is very wrong. The Sendai International School had the same problem, as well as not having the pipes connected to city water and instead using a water tank that frequently went empty. As far as I was concerned our school’s connection with Tweepark must immediately be terminated. I went to Miyoung and told her to tell Ms. Kang the whole story and not to give them any more money. Luckily she had come to a similar but less final conclusion and decided to wait on payment until receiving some services.
I had noticed an interesting sign in the lobby on the way in that day. It was a painting of a Korean standard featureless city of apartment blocks that looked like Bucheon and all of the above-mentioned cities. Rising out of the middle was a very out of scale Statue of Liberty, appearing to be several hundred stories tall. It was an ad asking people to invest in Tweepark. It said “Study abroad in your own neighborhood!”
I immediately formed what I call the Producers Theory. In the movie, musical, and movie-musical The Producers Max Bialystok and Leo Bloom are theater producers who realize that by raising massive investment money for a play that flops in one night they could declare bankruptcy and keep almost all the money invested. It seemed obvious to me from the lack of thought put into education, the continued failure to complete construction, the very businesslike focus on getting investors, and the continued refusal to hire a desperately needed teacher that the real goal of the school was to consume investment money and then run away with it when the house of cards fell down.
5. Looking into a black hole
After having this enlightening chat I went back and taught another class. When I was leading them to the elevator the thing happened that propelled me to put this whole experience in writing. It was an act so shallow, so retarded, that it filled me with the most intense anger I have felt in a long time. As I reached the elevator and hit the down button, Twephen Twee came over, grinning his shit-eating grin and sanding the wrinkles off my brain with his nails-on-a-coffin-lid weatherman voice. He exchanged thumbs-ups with my kindergarten students and handed me a magazine. “Hey did you see this?” he said, pushing it into my hand. I looked down at this:
Then I looked up at him and saw this:
He handed me a magazine with his own face on it. It was the single most hubris-filled action I have ever been a party to. Imagine it for yourself. Looking at the face on the cover and knowing that in a half second you have to look up at the expectant face of a person so perfectly pleased with himself that he will go out of his way to show you that his face is on the cover of a magazine. The magazine article about him, which I didn’t read simply because it was so stomach-churningly bad and would have taken about 45 minutes I’d never have back, looks like this:
Now generally speaking, it is bad form to pepper your speech and writing with foreign words. It makes you look like a real asshole, basically. Miyoung and I have discussed this topic extensively, because it is very tricky since so many English words have crept into Korean it’s difficult to know which ones others know and which ones they don’t. For example, when a Korean person who lived in Korean all their life but uses lots of English loan words really obsequiously they are considered kind of a snob, whereas a Korean who spent half their life abroad and speaks English can stick English words into Korean pretty naturally. In Miyoung’s case, there are times when she can’t remember the Korean word and uses the English instead, but she always worries that people think she’s trying to show off. I say it’s all about intent, and worrying about it proves you use such words with a true heart.
But I digress. The point of showing you the above excerpt is to show you the kind of meaningless marketing-y English words that people like Twephen Twee use to make people think they know what they’re talking about. Disgusting.
I took the magazine and quickly threw it away, despite its $10 suggested retail price. I almost immediately realized my mistake and had one of my elementary school students steal one for me. Most of the pictures here are from the magazine. It was obviously produced for Twephen Twee by someone in order to make it look like he is a bigshot CEO. Have a look at the magazine's website. It is the official magazine of the Korea CEO Academy Association. Twephen Twee is on the cover of the March 2007 issue but the last updates to the website are all from June 2006.
Another step that he took to insure that he would look like a really great, with-it together kind of guy was the number of gift orchids and floral arrangements displayed in Tweepark that purport to be from the CEOs of big name companies.
This is what they call face, and Twephen Twee seems to think this will impress either prospective investors or prospective students’ parents.
6. The malingering
The next few weeks were relatively uneventful. Some small revelations confirmed my theory that the school was in very bad financial straits and that Twephen Twee cared nothing for education. He made the school’s four teachers skip their classes and leave their students with ‘teachers’ who didn’t really speak English so that they could shmooze with Twephen’s supposedly important associates at a wine and cheese party. The wine was in plastic cups, and the cheese was accompanied by fried chicken.
It was classy. I went because I was hungry. One guy, a bloated man so grizzled that it appeared someone had left him out for several days on the deck of a sailboat, said to me when he heard I spoke Korean “Hey, I’m Kim Chi Jeon, you know me? I’m famous.” I didn’t know him, but he wasn’t perturbed. “Tell your Korean wife you met me, she’ll know me.” I immediately forgot his real name. Kim chi jeon means ‘kimchi pancakes’. If he were really famous, I would know him. The girl who had helped me with a translation and asked stupid questions on the first day was there, and wearing a Snow White costume. At a wine and cheese party for adults. And a surly man in a clown costume was there too, chatting with businessmen in suits over wine.
Weathered famous man (center) regales girl in Snow White costume (second from right) and surly man in clown costume (third from right) with a story about getting free bibimbab at a restaurant in LA's Korea Town.
I went to the open house with the fake money the first time, mostly because Ms. Bang was supposed to go and Miyoung wanted to warn her some extra in person, but she didn’t show up. My students went too and exchanged some money for fake money and used it for extremely overpriced face painting and candy. The next week I got 15 Epark dollars and gave it to my 3rd grader class of three boys. Only one boy wanted to go to the open house, so he took all 15 and went with his sisters and they each bought another 5 Epark dollars. Then they realized that Epark sucked and wanted to refund their money. The surly guy dressed as a clown told them no refunds, and they spent the entire day trying to waste away the money on face painting and $1 8oz. cups of Fanta.
Some time around the second week the Korean staff at the place started to really dislike me. I think there are several factors. Having lived in Korea far too long, I have no tolerance for Korean people who ask ignorant questions and say ignorant things. One occasion in particular, a nice older lady teacher offered me a ‘ggingggang’ (pronounced like King Kong with incredibly forceful K sounds; essentially a very sour orange the size of a grape that you eat whole) and asked me if I knew what it was. “Yeah, of course I know ggingggang, it’s one of my favorite fruits. Actually I grow a ggingggang tree, but it’s still too small to give fruit, you know, so I still have to buy them in the market.” I suspect this answer was much less exciting than the usual “Wow, thanks for introducing me to this cherished part of your culture, Korean lady. I’ll never forget you. Strike that: I’ll blog about you so everyone in Manitoba will know about you!” that she was probably expecting, because the next time I saw her she was quite rude to me.
I also suspect that their attitude had to do with the fact that it was gradually becoming clear that the connection of our two schools was not going forward as planned. One of our students from last year went to the school to look around with his mother. They had wanted to continue at our school but didn’t make the waiting list in time, so they were considering going to Tweepark. After talking to on of the people at Tweepark, they met Miyoung by chance. Miyoung told them that Tweepark was garbage and they quickly left, obviously because of something Miyoung had said. This made them all hate Miyoung, so I was in good company, at least.
7. The escape
Friday was the last day that I had to teach at Tweepark English Village. One of the four teachers told me they were going on a midnight run next Wednesday. I think there is extremely small chance that anyone from that school will read this between now and Wednesday, so I think that’s OK to say. I walked into the Teacher’s Room to print something and had obviously interrupted a meeting. The lady who gave me the ggingggang snapped that I ought to use the kids’ computer room, and I told her I’d be out in a minute. Sometimes ignoring someone is the most aggressive thing you can do. I figured the best thing I could do was just teach and get out of there. By this time Tweepark minions had told Ms. Bang that they couldn’t help her find a teacher, so that was a dead letter and it meant that Miyoung and I had to get a move on to make that happen. The perfect thing happened when I was walking out on Friday with my last class of students. Twephen Twee came over and told me to give him my email address so he could send me the poor quality photos of his not even nouveau riche wine in plastic cups and cheap cheese party. The same student that had to spend $30 in Tweepark fun bucks said to him "Are you Korean people?"
He looked him in the eye, grinning, and said "I'm a cosmopolitan."
8. In summary
On the second day at Tweepark I was warning the teachers there that if they ever get paid even a day late to immediately either leave or start planning to leave. I knew from experience, I said. In fact, when I was stuck at the Sendai International School I was an optimist and refused to listen to that exact same advice on more than one occasion. Later, discussing it with Miyoung, she said not to warn them. “They know their situation. You can’t change their mind.” I realized that she was right. If one more person had given me that advice when Miyoung and I were waiting for our paychecks in Sendai, it would have just been one more voice among many. Sometimes, as in Greek tragedies, fate can not be avoided, no matter how much foreknowledge you may have. I suppose the only really happy ending is that the teacher who is on the verge of bolting is extricating themself from a bad situation, as is Ms. Bang. Now that the construction is over and we’re not dependent on Tweepark for a classroom anymore and they’ve said they can’t provide a teacher, she’s breaking the contract she made with them. I’m just glad I don’t have to spend 4 hours installing the Whitney Program software on my computer.