I can’t fight every time. And it’s not like I can easily change the fundamental problem that’s rotting from the root. I was on the phone with my friend and told her how frustrated I was about my workplace. My mental health, my ethics, my project, my team, the people all were at insecurity because of the rotting work culture. She asked, “is there anything you can do to stop that?” I said, “I can’t do anything anymore and I don’t know if I want, either. I’m worn out.” That was a few weeks before I left.
I struggled against social validation that sabotaged the quality of work. I have a great respect for the value of my work that brings changes to rural population and I am well aware of the risks the change can bring with it. I researched fearfully in order to do my job properly. Yet what I got as a return was an advice that I needed to learn how to fit in. Not knowing how to conform to “reality” apparently translates to not meeting the requirements of behaving like an adult. To be fair, fitting in and earning social validation isn’t easy either, but not as much as fighting against those who conformed to the “reality” and made everything so damn hard. I was the specimen of the cultural substandard. Only if I knew the cultures had strict standards.
It wasn’t easy to leave and give up on my on-going project knowing they would change it to make it simpler and above all, cheaper. They said, “no one can handle this but you. So we’ll see how it goes when you left.” But they also said, “since the project seems simple enough, we don’t need a regular staff anymore.” So they hired an intern, to replace my position, who carries no competent skill to understand the work, let alone to understand the English project proposal. She seemed nice, they said.
I had my fight enough, I thought. I persuaded my superior with logic when he insisted on working without knowing anything but his own experience. I volunteered to translate newspapers every week so that he could at least get the fraction of any related information. I asked my colleague who invited me to his home to invite him as well so that he can get to know people he works with as he always misunderstood their language. I confronted him when he was violently yelling at our driver WHILE he was driving. Eventually, I reported him for abusing employees. His contract was terminated. Still, no one cared enough even after the incident. They were just thinking about how to minimise conflicts of opinions between us even though the case wasn’t about the difference of opinions. And those who made decisions looked happy with it. I was the black sheep who couldn’t just fit in and accept the reality. They tell me my standards are way too high but it’s just a way of saying that how I want things that cannot be achieved, implying I’m the one who failed or yet to realise how adult society works. I desperately wanted to get out of there because I knew for sure there are not so crazy places where I can belong and happily work. Every workplace works the same, they said.
What I heard there so often was “that’s how it works in Korean companies. Don’t waste your energy and try to change that,” or paraphrased in many other ways. Everyone knows. Everyone knows the system is faulty. But the majority copes or is able to cope with the injustice by conforming to the “reality.” The “reality” is the working culture of Korea and the cultural standard is crystal clear. Some with good intentions would lecture on how to be submissive in order to succeed in the social life, no matter how unfair it looks. I’m not saying this spitefully. Here we all get prepared for this. I can often hear “if you act like this, you won’t survive in the social circle” when someone young fails to properly attend to older ones. Surviving in the social circle here doesn’t mean making good friends. It implies doing what you don’t want for the community you belong to with a smiley emoji on your face. You don’t want to stay at work until 10 pm for no reason, you don’t want to stay late while drinking with your boss, but you still do it. The standard is the validation and the promotion that lead to social status.
I sometimes feel I silently submerge even though no one’s actually pushing me down. My naive expectation that the outcomes of my work would eventually prove how resourceful I am was as fictitious as the story of 50 shades of Grey. Is my story more fictitious than validation seeker’s reality? I don’t know anymore. If the majority thinks that’s the standard, does it make it standard and I’m just a rebel who rebels?
Photograph: 郑 无忌