Jake in the Office

The elevator comes to a stop on the 12th floor and another prosaic day of work begins.  I barely touch elbows to desk when the woman who calls herself the ‘Coordinator’ materializes next to my desk.  From past experience, I have come to learn that anything she has to say will be almost as useless and irritating as her job title, ‘Coordinator’.

“Jake, we reviewed the monthly time stamp records for last month, and it appears that you did not scan your fingerprint at the front desk from the 20th to the 31st.  If you don’t scan your fingerprint, we cannot pay you.”  She tells me this in grammatically perfect, book-learned English.  The ‘Coordinator’ is nothing if not studious.  Her accent and intonation are what betray her method of study, but it has to be said that her English is leaps and bounds better than my Korean (will ever be).

“Well, if you can’t pay me, then I guess I can’t do my work, so it would seem we have reached a dilemma.”  I say this with a shrug of the shoulders, palms facing the ceiling.  We both know that I was in the office on the aforementioned days, and we both know that I will be paid regardless.  The ‘coordinator’ job seems to have been created specifically for Ms. Kim, who is in some distant, vague way related to our boss (Senior Kim).  She’s one of those middle aged spinsters who spent the previous 20 years telling men that they were not tall enough, not rich enough, not handsome enough or not gentlemanly enough to qualify for her hand in marriage.  As a result, she is now steadfastly single, and has been for years.  She has reached her marriageability half-life and according to female coworkers, nags anyone and everyone to set her up with a ‘decent’ man (when this info is relayed to me through the office grapevine, emphasis is placed on the word decent, as if to imply that any guy with two legs and a job will do).  According to Senior Kim, Ms. Kim (coordinator) spent nearly 14 years studying for, failing, and re-taking the civil service exam before finally giving up.  This is, in effect, her first ‘real’ job …at the age of 39.

Let’s rewind back to February for a moment. The snow is beginning to thaw and boss has learned that certain members of the staff have taken to ditching work after lunch time, and going to the golf course, room salon, or just going home to snooze.  Some of the more careless would simply go to the parking garage and sleep in their cars for a few hours, as CCTV footage would later reveal.  Our humble company initially started with an attendance policy that could be described as the ‘honor system’, whereby the management simply assumed that the staff were in the office working the assigned hours.  Of course whenever the ‘honor system’ is relied upon, we can observe in our colleagues a certain level of moral elasticity.  At first, everyone comes and goes on time.  Then it’s “Well, I left an hour early today, but I’ll put in an extra hour tomorrow.”  Which quickly becomes “Fuck it, I’m leaving at 1 to go play golf.”

The situation first became apparent to the boss when he noticed that the reserved parking spots for mid-level ajeossi staff tended to empty out after lunch time.  Without damaging anyone’s dignity (read: holding guilty parties responsible), a new ‘sign in’ policy was implemented, requiring each employee to sign in and out on  a piece of lined paper at the bottom floor security desk each morning and evening.  After it became clear that one person could sign several people in and out, the boss switched to a computer program that requires everyone to log in and out with their own unique passwords at the beginning and end of the work day, using their office PCs.  This new employee monitoring system seemed to work for a week or so, until some of the younger employees figured out that they could log in and out from their smartphones while sitting in the comfort of a nearby Starbucks.

The third and final solution is the new fingerprint scanner that has been installed at the reception desk in the front lobby.  Each employee is to place their index finger over the fingerprint scanner which then creates a log, verifying their arrival to and departure from the office.  Of course what I have not yet mentioned to my gentle reader is that after each successive upgrade, the previous employee management system was not discontinued.  To put it in simple terms, at one point in time, employees were required to sign in on paper, login via their computers, AND scan their fingerprint in a single day, all to verify that they were at work.  This illogical, convoluted waste of time and energy is the sole responsibility and brainchild of Ms. Kim, ‘coordinator’.

So here we are today, Ms. Kim standing by my desk, trying to navigate the face-losing bureaucratic clusterfuck nightmare that she has created for herself.

“Well Ms. Kim, I may not have scanned my fingerprint on the 29th, but you can clearly see that I signed in at the front desk.  And here, on the 30th, you can clearly see that I was logged into my office PC, though I forgot to scan my finger print.” And this conversation goes on and on for about 30 time-wasting minutes as Ms. Kim shuffles through various log sheets, cross referencing my attendance on each day for the month of July like this was grammar school all over again.  The conversation ends much as it began, “Okay, well, you need to scan your fingerprint, otherwise we can’t pay you.”  I nod my head and wave her away as my antiquated office PC wheezes to life.  The loading screen of pirated Windows 7 Home is strangely calming.

When my PC finally finishes booting all of the Korean bloatware, spyware and malware installed courtesy of the IT department, I surf over to the Wallstreet Journal’s Korea sub-page, only to find that it has ceased to exist.


Yes, Korea may be a ‘flyover’ country –a place people fly over on the way to Tokyo or Shanghai to do business- but one can’t help but feel disappointed that the WSJ has dropped their Korea Real Time page. This was one of the only sites I could rely on for proof-read, mostly unbiased Korea related news untainted by government propaganda (kimchi is a super food, Japan is bad, k-pop is taking over the world, Samsung is number one! etc.) The KRT site will be sorely missed and there seems to be nothing to fill the void. Several people have voiced their disappointment in the comments section. How much was it costing to keep that meager site alive? What caused it to be pulled? Was it the lack of any serious/reliable/interesting/stimulating/believable business news in Korea? Was it the absence of anyone mildly interested in scribbling a few basic articles? Was it the hundreds of rabidly racist, vitriolic, xenophobic comments posted by angry Koreans (or Koreaboo weirdos) in the comments section that eventually made it more trouble that it was worth?

Another one bites the dust. Now all one can do is cycle through local rubbish newspapers, reading government and Samsung approved articles where sources are seldom cited and one gets the nagging suspicion that statistics (if not entire news stories) are completely fabricated.  Korea’s status on the international playing field is thus that the WSJ has seen fit to lump the entire country into the “Asia” section of their website, along with Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, while at the same time maintaining the China and Japan sub-pages.


Lunch at the revolving sushi place in the basement of our office building. A guy in the printing department claims he saw Ms. Kim (coordinator) walking around the building with a thermometer and clipboard, recording the temperatures in everyone’s office. Cost-cutting appears to be one of her key responsibilities, and to that end she is brutal and efficient. An Indian guy (name escapes me) who is performing the dual responsibilities of Web Designer and IT Manager claims that he was written up because the IT room temperature was 23 degrees; one degree below the allowable 24. “But we have to keep the servers cool, otherwise everything crashes!” he exclaims. Ms. Kim has affixed a long blue string to the vent on every air conditioning unit in our 12th and 13th floor offices, so she can tell at a mere glance who is running their air-conditioner, and who is dutifully saving energy.

While Senior Kim takes a business trip to LA to meet with some publishing companies, I have the next two days off. The possibilities are endless, but all roads lead to Itaewon.

This entry was posted in Life in Korea, Please understanduh my unique culture, The Expat. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Jake in the Office

  1. Billy says:

    How to understand Korean culture at work:

    1. Write all your questions on scraps of paper and put paper in a sealed box.
    2. Get soul achingly hammered.
    3. Struggle to liberate the questions from their evil box captor. Struggle damn you! These questions could save society!
    4. Use whatever office equipment necessary to get into that box. It’s ok to fail, as long as you try. At this point, have a brew to top up. You’ll be parched.
    5. Refuse to be escorted from work. Those questions won’t be answered until you get them out of the box. Lie down on the floor and scream them out if you have too.
    6. Don’t listen to your co-workers. They’re shy and want to avoid the questions. As older brother, you owe it to them to face the truth. TRUTH!
    7. Head to Itaewon. Answers to hard questions don’t come out in soft offices.

  2. PK says:

    Maybe this explains why there are so many idle people in Korea. Bustling cafes Monday at 2pm, no parking at the department stores Tuesday at 11am, 20 somethings walking their dogs…… They do indeed “work” in an office environment, but instead choose to waste their mornings and early afternoons away socializing and living out their fantasy k-drama lives.

    How I picture a typical office day for Mr. Lee:

    7:45 AM: Wake up. Hock up yesterday’s pack of Esse lights in 3 lung delving loogies.

    8:00 AM: Breakfast of champs. Fermented bean paste soup with kimchi, rice, seaweed and anchovies. Firing up that kimchi breath on all cylinders to breathe heavily on unsuspecting co-workers.

    9:00 AM: Arrive at the office in an all black Grandeur. Windows are tinted pitch black so as to not feel any shame when performing selfish road maneuvers (illegal u-turns, no turn signals, pulling out of a side street without caution, etc.). Nobody can see his face so why not.

    9:15 AM: Cigarette break. Cup of maxim instant coffee.

    9:20 – 10:00 AM: Kakaotalk PC. Check baseball scores.

    10:00 AM: Cigarette break. Cup of maxim instant coffee.

    10:15 AM: Sunbae (older classmate) sends message. Let’s grab some coffee.

    10:30 AM: Cigarette break. Slow walk to Cafe Bene.

    11:00 – 11:50AM: Americano with sunbae. Idle chat about how he is planning on upgrading his Grandeur to a Genesis soon. Sunbae already has the Genesis. His next car will be a BMW 520d. Mr. Lee is envious. Maybe one day he will have a BMW. Sunbae wants to grab lunch.

    12:00 – 1:30 PM: Piping hot noodles are slurped at an obscenely loud and obnoxious pace. Mr. Lee barely makes it to the toilet to unload his fermented breakfast and 4 cups of coffee. Back to the table. Idle chit chat. Each have a machine vended maxim coffee. Cigarette.

    2:00 PM: Return to office. Kakaotalk PC. Check out the deals on coupang and t-mon.

    2:30 – 2:50 PM: Some semblance of actual work is done.

    3:00 – 4:10 PM: Gotta run to Lotte department store. Checking out overpriced hiking gear to wear this upcoming weekend. Mustard yellow and brown Black Yak pants purchased – 140,000 won. What a steal.

    4:30 – 6:00 PM: Some semblance of work is being done. And a smoke break.

    6:00 6:45PM: Dinner in the buildings basement cafeteria.

    6:45 – 8:00 PM: So busy today. Gotta finish up all this work. Boss has also been in and out of the office all day. Must stay until the boss leaves work.
    Boss doesn’t really have much work but wants to save face and look busy. Boss decides a little after 8PM it’s time to head home. Mr. Lee leaves soon after.


    Having spent a fair share of my brief existence on Planet Earth in Seoul, I find these musings some of the best stuff I’ve ever read. Keep it up, Jake.

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