Working People in Korean Literature: The Ethics of Chivalry and the Passion of Gamblers

  • onJune 23, 2019
  • Vol.44 Summer 2019
  • byKang Ji-Hee

Illustrations Copyright ⓒ Stephan Schmitz

Ethical Consciousness after the Sewol Ferry Tragedy: How Work Protects Us

It is rather significant that Chung Serang’s novel School Nurse Ahn Eun-young and Kim Keum Hee’s short story “Jo Jung-gyun’s World” were both published in the autumn of 2014. The workplace ethics prevalent in these two quite different works do not seem unrelated to the Sewol ferry tragedy of April 16, 2014. A tragedy that will go down in history as the most shocking disaster of the 2010s in South Korea, the sinking of the Sewol ferry completely transformed the daily lives of the Korean people and left in its wake a feeling of guilt over the failure to save the lives of the high school students. The works by Chung and Kim demonstrate the kind of work ethic that resulted from uncertainty about the future along with a sense of responsibility for the younger generations. School Nurse Ahn Eun-young, which has found its way back into the spotlight recently with the announcement of its production as a Netflix Original series, is a lively fantasy with a woman hero. The protagonist Ahn Eun-young isn’t your run-of-the-mill school nurse but actually an exorcist who carries a toy knife and a BB gun in her purse and fights evil spirits that ordinary people can’t see. Against the backdrop of a mysterious school, Ahn solves cases involving supernatural and enigmatic beings with the help of a classical Chinese teacher, Hong In-pyo. From the story of a duckling that suddenly appears at the school pond to a transfer student who has been reincarnating and hunting Om for thousands of years, the episodes presented in this novel aren’t very serious or dense, but they do reveal traces of sensitive social issues.

The most delightful aspect of School Nurse Ahn Eun-young, however, is that all the episodes in the novel focus on protecting teenagers’ uneventful, normal daily lives without anyone getting hurt in any apocalyptic disaster. The novel breaks away from the disaster fiction genre that has been dominant in Korean literature since the mid-2000s. Instead of heading toward the grave ruins of complete destruction, School Nurse Ahn Eun-young presents kind people ultimately overcoming terrible disasters and defeating bad people. It finds the power to overcome all difficulties through faith in future generations and the everyday kindness of ordinary people. When she has to decide when to battle a dragon, Eun-young chooses daytime without a second thought, saying that the sunlight and children are on her side. And her statement contains complete confidence in the students’ innocent desire for a just future. At the crucial moment in which Eun-young fights with the dragon, In-pyo gives his energy to Eun-young in a scene that overlaps with the small kindnesses he has shown to others in his daily life. It is significant that the bright energy that ultimately overcomes the dragon comes from the innocent optimism of teenagers and everyday confidence in a colleague. School Nurse Ahn Eun-young begins from a supernatural ability to see and communicate with spirits, but at the heart of this novel is a sense of vocation in which good, ordinary people do their best to do right in their respective positions. This sense of calling is what protects teenagers from harm and ultimately allows them to save the world.

Kim Keum Hee’s “Jo Jung-gyun’s World” is the narrator’s observational diary of a colleague named Jo Jung-gyun, who seems to stick out like a protruding nail. At the workplace, where people have to blend in and maneuver around others to survive, Jung-gyun insists on abiding by his own rules and reason and his constant expressions of refusal, from which we can see the shadow of Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener cast over him.

At the heart of this short story is an anecdote about how Jung-gyun received his unique name, which means “an equal crowd.” In the 1980s, when political demonstrations were held more frequently than school classes, he refused to write his name on a history exam (for which students were guaranteed a passing grade as long as they came to sit for the test) and instead composed a poem titled “Bygone World.” But Jung-gyun explains that even though he wrote the poem, anyone can attach their name to it and recite it in the streets or plazas, and therefore it is not his poem. He relinquishes his place as an author and instead chooses to be present in all the moments when the poem is recited. This gives birth to “Jo Jung-gyun’s world,” a place for an equal crowd where “people are one and all at the same time.” This is a world where people blend into the whole and are forever remembered rather than existing as individuals who insist on their individualities. And it is significant that Jung-gyun is protective of and close to a woman colleague, Haeran, the youngest employee at the publisher who is on probation and can be fired at any time. When Jung-gyun’s work ethic of not tolerating injustice or wiles meets the poem “Bygone World,” in which everyone is on equal footing without alienating anyone, his hardheadedness raises the younger generation, which is forced to find work in a series of temporary jobs, to the level of absolutely irreplaceable beings.

Therefore it would make sense to call both School Nurse Ahn Eun-young and “Jo Jung-gyun’s World” works that realize the “ethics of chivalry.” Rather than struggling to protect themselves and survive in a competitive society, the main characters of these two works fight for young people who haven’t yet carved out their places in society. The work ethics of Ahn Eun-young, who has a gift for seeing invisible beings, and Jo Jung-gyun, who transforms his poem into everyone’s poem, seem to lay small stepping stones of hope in this: that what protects South Korea’s faltering society since the Sewol ferry tragedy may be the mundane, everyday labor of people.

The Course of Passion in the Bitcoin Era: How to Protect Ourselves from Work

Fredric Jameson’s statement that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism accurately reflects the sense of fatigue that people feel today. When do you focus on your work and feel like you’re making a difference? When do you feel weary about your work and drift into disarray? Under the financialized capitalism of Neoliberalism, it is becoming increasingly rare to find a link between a sense of reward and efficient results that are proportionate to an individual’s passion. In this society, we cannot help but be entrepreneurial doers who suffer under the pressure of creative development and systematic management of human capital for our uncertain survival and, at the same time, gamblers who constantly keep track of the ups and downs in the real estate or stock markets, secretly dreaming of hitting the jackpot someday. Kim Sehee’s “Unremarkable Days” and Jang Ryujin’s “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” resemble each other in that they both paint a picture of youth who have recently entered the labor market, addressing their pains and the despair of being unable to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

The protagonist of Kim Sehee’s “Unremarkable Days” is a young woman who gets her first job at an advertising agency. She creates a fake blog under the guise of a fictitious woman whose username is “Lady Chatterley” and buries herself in running a successful viral marketing campaign. In this process, she finds pleasure from learning that she is considered a talented employee, unlike her cohort, and is happy about her own practical disposition over her artistic desires. Later, however, she finds out that many people have been fatally injured from a humidifier disinfectant produced by a conglomerate and are fighting a losing legal battle against the company. Furthermore, the problematic humidifier disinfectant includes “Feather-Fine,” which she marketed on her fake blog through fake reviews. This short story demonstrates how the diligence and passion of this twenty-something protagonist in her very first job comes to serve an evil cause at the systemic level, regardless of her personal intentions. This humidifier disinfectant incident leaves her tormented with a deep sense of guilt.

But who is responsible for all this? When small companies, along with her own, go bankrupt because they can’t adjust to the improvements in search algorithms of big companies, the protagonist isn’t even given a farewell party. The short story maintains a balance by showing how an individual’s passion to find her usefulness in this social structure can be hopelessly and brutally destroyed, while at the same time acknowledging that this situation cannot be resolved by mere self-reflection. Is it possible to stop working if my work is toxic to others? What an impossible ideal it is to always identify and account for all of the potential negative outcomes before acting. Kim is a writer who is currently most skilled in painting a picture of the difficulties an individual must bear when the gap between work and ethics is the widest.

Young people’s passion for work is stranded in the system in Jang Ryujin’s “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.” In the story, Anna, who works at a small startup, manages user access for a used goods app developed by her company and meets a user with the ID “TurtleEgg.” Listening to her story, she learns that TurtleEgg worked for a company’s production planning team and barely succeeded in organizing a Korean tour of Liubov Smirnova, which had been specifically ordered by her CEO. But she failed to read the CEO’s intention to announce the tour on Instagram himself and instead posted the announcement on the company website. As punishment, TurtleEgg was forced to accept her wages in the form of reward points for a whole year. This short story arouses empathy by painting a detailed picture of the humiliation most company workers feel as subordinates and also takes a satirical approach by comparing it to a ridiculous pedestrian overpass that lies parallel to a road in the city of Pangyo.

The power of this story lies in capturing the reality of how most people’s office lives are spent in putting up with meaningless irrationalities. And the charm of this piece is not in taking a back seat and lamenting yet again about the notoriously miserable work conditions of company employees, but rather, in seeing people look for ways to survive and release stress. The characters in this story are not sacrificial lambs consumed by work but lighthearted people who stop thinking about work the moment they leave the office and begin to focus on their hobbies to pursue work-life balance. That is why the last scene of the short story, where the protagonist, who has to work on a Friday evening, purchases tickets to her favorite musical artist’s concerts and for flights for a trip abroad, is bittersweet. The ideals of modernity provided stable compensation for continuous labor in the past but such ideals have since collapsed. In today’s financialized Neoliberalism, the despair of labor leads people to become gamblers who find meaning in fleeting entertainment and meaningless coincidences. This hints at the onset of an era where it is problematic to focus solely on work. Jang Ryujin perfectly captures the sentiments of today’s youth, who believe that their lives are over if they cannot protect their private lives and if their lives become defined by the pleasures and sorrows of work.

The “passion of gamblers” is prevalent in Kim Sehee’s “Unremarkable Days” and Jang Ryujin’s “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.” The characters in these works are well aware of both the terrible conditions of capitalism and their powerlessness over those conditions. As a result, they are in a state of reflexive impotence—they can do nothing other than pursue their own pleasures. They seem pragmatic, as they focus on whatever is in front of them, but they also demonstrate subtle vitality that surpasses an ethical point. Can their passion introduce Kairos, or opportune moments, and revolution in Chronos, or sequential time, which is ruled by repetitive labor? Capturing the workplace with a focus on agony and vitality, these works are reviving new political imaginations within an environment of financial capitalism where revolution seems improbable.

by Kang Ji-Hee