Waiting for work

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In Korea, because firms require a way to differentiate between otherwise equallyqualified candidates, English has become very important to getting a job.

They don't look worried. But they are.

“It's hard to get a job,” my students tell me. “That's why we're taking your class.”

As in many countries, the Korean economy is in recession, which, of course, means it is especially difficult for a recent university graduate to get a job. But the problem is compounded by the current mood on the Korean peninsula; anxiety over the war-of-words between North Korea and the United States is temporarily driving investors away and choking off the flow of capital upon which the South Korean economydepends.

These economic pressures manifest themselves in occasionally unusual ways: partly because of a desire to remain competitive within the global marketplace and partly because firms require a way to differentiate between otherwise equallyqualified candidates, English has become very important to getting a job. Whether the job description includes speaking/writing English or not, in Korea it's become a near universal demand on the part of employers.

One of my students — Sang-Wook — wants to work in the computer field. His interests are technical, not linguistic. He's painfully shy. I feel sorry for him — remembering simple words and sentence structures often takes around 20 attempts. (Which is my average when the roles are reversed and Iâe(TM)m learning Korean — no, wait a minute, Sang-Wook is doing a lot better than I.)

In any case, he comes to class every day and struggles with my native tongue. He's making progress, but it's a tough slog. One day in March the entire class goes out for dinner.

“You like Korea?” he says.

“Sure.”

“Why you come here?”

“Well, Hanguk saram jo-ah-hae-oh,” I say — I like Koreans.

Sang-Wook smiles at the kind but rather overgeneralizing compliment.

“I want to go to Canada,” he says.

“Do,” I say. “It's a great place.”

My tone might not be entirely sincere — after all, the gruelling Canadian economy was one reason I came here. But since arriving in Korea it has sunk in for me that in the eyes of others, Canada, like its mythic neighbour to the south, really is a privileged place; it is a land of milk and money.

“Canada cold this time of year?” he says after a moment's thought.

“Sometimes .... Should be,” I smile brightly. “It's similar to here but a bit colder,” I say.

Sang-wook looks down at his kalbi-tang.

“You like cold?” I say.

He smiles broadly. “Shiri-hae-oh.” I hate it.

“Well, come in the summer,” I say. “If you go to Toronto, it's a beautiful time of year.”

He looks at me intensely. “I go there anytime.”

Another young woman, Eun-Kyoung, is also in university, though her attendance is sporadic. Itâe(TM)s not so much that sheâe(TM)s waiting for work as she canâe(TM)t find anything that pays well. But she needs money, so her studies suffer.

She has held down a series of low-paying jobs, first in the service industry and now, more recently, in an underwear shop. These jobs, often part-time, have an idiomatic name: arbeit. (There is a tendency to assume all foreign words that have entered the Korean language are English — but the occasional German word creeps in.) As in the West, they pay very little. Too little to truly survive on. But as in the West, they also are necessary to the smooth functioning of the economy. Stores stay open late in Korea, and someone has to be there to keep them open.

At night, I sometimes go to sin-ae, the downtown area of Jeonju. Sin-ae is a collection of shops, night clubs, departments stores and overpriced boutiques. In terms of its flashy, overlit quality, itâe(TM)s like a cross between a North American shopping district and the multi-tiered stores you often find in Asia. Everything is packed together. Young people love this area for its glitz and its energy.

Eun-Kyoungâe(TM)s store is at the periphery of sin-ae, by a major intersection. From the exterior, itâe(TM)s extremely bright — almost like a lighthouse of lingerie. And the store doesnâe(TM)t get as much pedestrian traffic passing in front of it, so she often sits alone. The shop owner insists on cleanliness, so there is the overpowering smell of chlorine bleach wafting up from the floor.

She is surprised to see me and invites me to sit on a small stool. A customer enters and I awkwardly flip through a catalogue of maternity wear.

The customer leaves. “Do you like it here?” I say.

She shakes her head. “Itâe(TM)s okay. But itâe(TM)s better than work at bar.”

She regards me for a moment. “I only have this one day.”

I donâe(TM)t understand.

“Il-yo-il”, she says — Sunday. “I just come here one day.”

“Oh. Well thatâe(TM)s not so bad then,” I say. “Still going to school?”

She nods. “But I need better English,” she adds.

Two nights later on a Tuesday I am walking along the main road. I pass Eun-Kyoungâe(TM)s shop. Itâe(TM)s brightly lit inside. I canâe(TM)t see anyone. Then I see her, Eun-Kyoung, by herself, reading a book while hunched by the cash register, and realize that every night sheâe(TM)s here, her studies probably discarded, and her world and her dreams reduced to a small cubicle of light.

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