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FICTION

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

  • onJune 25, 2019
  • Vol.44 Summer 2019
  • byJang Ryujin
The Quarterly Changbi Vol. 181
Tr. Anton Hur
2018
519pp.

 

TurtleEgg was originally part of the performances-planning team at UB Card. She said they had been responsible for everything about their concerts, from selecting and inviting major artists every quarter and negotiating with them to come and perform in Seoul.

“You probably know this already but there’ve been rumors of a Liuba Asian tour since two years ago. They always turned out to be false. But once news got out that she was performing in Tokyo at the end of last year, users flooded our CEO’s comment section begging him to bring Liuba to Korea.”

The CEO had responded to their ardor by ordering TurtleEgg to see to it immediately.

“He told me to make sure Liubov Smirnova gave a performance in Korea before the year was out. He told me that money was no object.”

TurtleEgg visited Russia three times over that winter, trying to make it happen. She slipped into a reverie for a moment after mentioning it had been the busiest period in all her fifteen years at the company. TurtleEgg managed to secure Liubov’s first Korean concert. The CEO was overjoyed and promised her a promotion the next quarter.

“We were deep into the paperwork for it when one of our interns said, ‘Customer services is getting so many calls asking about the Liubov Smirnova concert! Should we post the announcement on the website now?’ We normally post the announcements six months in advance anyway, so I told her to go ahead. There were more Liubov fans in Korea than I thought. As soon as it went out, our CEO’s Instagram account was flooded with comments thanking him for making it happen.”

The CEO had urgently called TurtleEgg to his office just when she was dictating a press release to the publicity department. Not even an hour had passed since the announcement had gone up. Suspecting nothing of what was to come, she arrived at the CEO’s office to find him livid.

“He was red up to his ears! He screamed at me saying, ‘How dare you post the announcement without telling me!

“Why was he angry?”

“He must’ve wanted to announce it on his Instagram first.”

TurtleEgg and I laughed so hard that our shoulders shook and our heads bowed below table-level.

“Hilarious, right? It was hilarious, only why was this suddenly such a huge headache? If the protocol had been to get the CEO to sign off on it, of course, I would’ve confirmed it with him first. But usually the team just handled everything on its own once the artist was confirmed. I had no idea he would make an issue of it! I mean, I guess I should’ve thought about it more carefully. I was in such a rush. If only I had shown more consideration for our CEO’s Insta-ego.”

Her promotion was canceled, and she was even transferred to a different department.

“Well, I suppose it’s not a demotion. There’s a lot of work in this department, and the work we do is basically the point of any credit card company. I decided to think it was a good opportunity to learn something new.”

Her new team was in charge of planning the card’s benefits and forging partnerships with companies that provided those benefits. TurtleEgg had done the presentation on the benefits of a new card a month ago, and to her surprise, the CEO had sat in unannounced. He had watched the presentation with his arms crossed and an unpleasant expression on his face, and was the first to ask a question at the end.

“He said, ‘What is the biggest reason people should pick this card? If you had to pick one, what is it?’ I confidently replied, ‘Oh yes, this card doubles your accumulated points.’ Then the CEO said—”

“What did he say?”

“He said, ‘Really? That’s the big draw here? Do people love points that much?’”

“But they do!” I said.

“Right?!” TurtleEgg said. “So I replied, again with confidence, ‘Yes, they love points!’ Do you know what he said then?”

“I haven’t the foggiest.”

“‘If points are so great, why don’t we pay you in points for a year?’”

The CEO ordered her boss and the accountants to do so and left the room.

Now this was no laughing matter. “That’s terrible! Can he do that?”

TurtleEgg smiled. She said the incident had only been enough of a scandal to talk about for about six months. That there were worse incidents talked about for a year, for five years, for a decade. That the people in such positions had completely different thought processes from ordinary office workers like us, and it was better to not question their logic or behavior. “You can’t start thinking that they’re strange. Because once you do, it’s your own mind that’ll go strange.”

That month on the 25th, her salary was not transferred to her bank account. TurtleEgg logged on to the UB Card website where she could see how many points she owned. Just as the CEO had blithely ordered, the equivalent of her salary had been paid to her in points. The moment TurtleEgg saw that ridiculously gigantic number in her points tally, she was struck with a humiliation so deep that she felt as if she were diving off a cliff head first.

She asked, “Have you ever cried at the office?”

I thought about it for a moment and shook my head.

“I had never cried at the office during my fifteen years at the company. Not when my promotion was canceled over the Liubov thing, not when I was transferred, not when I was packing up my Gangnam cubicle to move to the Pangyo office. But the sight of those points made me want to cry for the first time. Just the despair of it.”

The humiliation kept her up that night, making her wonder if she as a person had been effectively erased from the world. But the sun inevitably rose again the next morning and she had to face up to the fact that she was still, indeed, a part of this world, that she had to get up and go to work that day. She forced herself to show up, but she realized by that evening that nothing had really changed about her. She had bought herself her morning coffee using her points, had lunch at a restaurant that accepted her points, went grocery shopping with her points, and bought her parents birthday presents with her points. After another week of this, she found her life more or less as acceptable as before.

“I should’ve been paid in cash, not points . . . But what is cash? It’s basically a point system that we use in the larger world. Which made the next step easier.”

“What was the next step?”

“Turning the points into cash.”

TurtleEgg looked for the most efficient way to turn the points into real money. She ordered the most resalable items she could find with her points, took photos of them, and posted them on a bartering app—Udon Market, the very app I worked on. She would meet the buyer in person or have the points shopping mall send it directly to them.

I cautiously said, “But you still have to sell them a little below retail price. You also have to order the items yourself. And meeting your buyers like what you’re doing right now can take up a lot of time and effort . . . Aren’t you losing money this way, Ms. TurtleEgg?”

“Oh, I get a discount at the points shopping mall if I use my company ID. I order the items during office hours. And I meet the buyers during lunch break, like this, or when I work outside the office. I don’t really use my personal time. I’m trying to minimize my losses and keep a good work-life balance, in my own way.”

I don’t know why, but I chose that moment to say, “I’m actually working at Udon Market.”

TurtleEgg’s eyes widened and she clapped her hands once, hard. Her hands, as if gathered in prayer, stood between the two of us in that moment.

“Really? My savior, in the flesh!”

TurtleEgg enthused about how easy it was to use Udon Market, what attention to detail had gone into the app, and what made it stand out among the other bartering apps—a marketing focus group of one, basically. She said she especially liked the “pullup posting” function.

“It’s so annoying when you post something in a bartering bulletin and you have to pull up your posting to the front. Copying it and pasting it and attaching the photo to it again, if you have as many postings as I do, that’s a lot of work! But Udon Market makes it easy, all you need is a click of a button.”

The pullup posting function had been my idea. We allowed it to be used only once every three days to prevent abuse.

“The chatting function is great, and I use the function that evaluates buyers all the time. But sometimes it’s hard to change the main thumbnail on the posting. It’s switched in the actual posting but not on the board.”

This was a known issue. Kevin was hard at work fixing it.

“We’re working on that bug. It’ll probably be fixed by the next update.”

TurtleEgg looked thrilled, saying she would definitely leave a five-star review in the app store.

 

We left the café. It was late spring, approaching summer. Only yesterday the mornings and evenings had been chilly, but now I felt the warm sunlight on the back of my neck and a slight sheen of sweat down my back. Office workers with lanyards around their necks carried their trench coats draped over one arm, holding a cup of takeout coffee in the other. This was the only time of day when office workers could really move their bodies and take in some sunlight. A herd of workers at the internet portal site Kevin used to work for passed us by. I ended up at Udon Market because the agency I worked for had gone bust and this was the only place that had given me an offer, but I wondered why the notoriously clever Kevin had ended up in Udon Market. Especially when our CEO made it a habit to say that he’d start paying us a living wage once we started advertising, so it couldn’t have been the money. Apparently, the only incentive the CEO had given Kevin was that he would get to do “any and every kind of software development that he desired.” It was weird that the CEO would try that on anyone and weirder that it would actually work. I wondered if Kevin was doing “any and every kind” of thing he had wanted to do. It looked more like he was busy just catching bugs.

TurtleEgg said she was working outside the office today and needed to get to her car in the parking lot by Pangyo Station. We went up a pedestrian overpass to get to the other side of the road. But there was something odd about this overpass. It simply took us to the same side of the street. Overpasses normally crossed the street, but this one ran in parallel.

“Weird,” said TurtleEgg. “What kind of an overpass is this?”

“I have no idea. Maybe an architect’s mistake?”

“Maybe they wanted people to stand underneath it when it’s rainy or too sunny?”

“They could’ve made it for office workers to exercise, since they’re sitting indoors all day.”

“Or it’s an art sculpture. Like all the horrible ones the big buildings have to install on their premises by law.”

“Shall we go down?”

“I guess we should.” She looked around. “Hey, the view’s not bad up here.”

TurtleEgg walked up to the railing and propped up her chin with her elbows. I stood next to her and looked out at the view. There was a wall of buildings, their surfaces sparkling like glass. Self-consciously futuristic buildings that had taken the neighborhood’s name—“Techno Valley”—too seriously. I thought the place looked like the setting of a science-fiction movie when I first came here. But even in Techno Valley, the streams unfroze when the winter passed, spring descended, the cherry blossoms bloomed, and no doubt summer would also have its turn.

TurtleEgg pointed at something in the distance. “Wow, look at that one.”

The offices of NC Soft, the biggest gaming company in Pangyo. The size of its company headquarters was commensurate with its market share. “I think I’ve paid for a windowpane or two of that building,” I said.

“You must play a lot of Lineage.”

“I used to.”

“There are a lot of startups here, right?”

“A lot. Five or six in our building alone.”

“I read somewhere that only 3 percent of startups end up surviving to the end. Do you think Udon Market will make it?”

I looked at the NC Soft building again. There was a big hole in the middle of the building, a long rectangle lying on its side. I could see a piece of the pristine midday sky through it. A piece of sky that anyone in these parts walking around with a lanyard around their neck had looked up at once or twice. I imagined something flying through it whenever I did. A dragon, a flock of birds, hot-air balloons, helicopters.

“I don’t know. That’s up to the CEO or the board, right? They probably worry themselves to sleep every night. How to get the money, how to earn the money, how to be that 3 percent that survives to the end. I don’t even think about the company after I leave the office.”

“Me too. The moment I step out, I pull the plug on any thoughts about work and think only beautiful thoughts and look only at beautiful sights. Like turtles, or turtle photos, or turtle videos.”

(Excerpt from pp. 232–240.)

Translated by Anton Hur

 

Author's Profile

Jang Ryujin studied sociology at Yonsei University and Korean literature at Dongguk University. She debuted in 2018 with the story “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work,” which won the Changbi Prize for New Figures in Literature. Based on her experience of working in the IT sector, the story was widely read and shared on social media by office workers.