from the Korean Army to being published

the blog of an "ex-patriot" writer in Korea

Entry #18: Great Expectations, Great Disappointments

with 8 comments

In the early fall of 2004, I was sitting in a wooden B-hut in the middle of the Afghanistan desert for a periodic session of the institutionalized brainwashing that the officers referred to as morale education. The sun in Afghanistan was so bright and blinding that even the décor inside the “buildings” seemed bleached and frail. When I was in North Chungcheong Province for boot camp, everything was dead and dry grays and browns. Afghanistan was a dry and blinding white.

The officer in charge of troop information and education, Captain Promotable Lee, stared down at us from his makeshift pulpit, his beady eyes scanning the faces of a hundred tired conscripts crammed into a room built for fifty. The captain, typical of his status, was lazy and eccentric, with no discernable duties beyond these occasional “education” sessions. The way he carried himself, always with his hands folded behind his back and his long, lazy, self-important gait, you would assume that his duties extended far beyond the surface, but I knew the truth. He spent his days sleeping behind the curtain in his office while his assistants watched movies and pretended to work.

“If you have great expectations, you will have great disappointments.”

He looked pleased with himself as he paused for effect to let this priceless nugget of wisdom sink into our relatively smaller brains. This ad hoc brainwashing session had been called in response to the exposure of actually decent living conditions in the American airbase in Bagram. Year-round hot water, drying machines, and edible food alone would still have been paradise, but Bagram had so much more. Burger King, a post exchange the size of Wal-Mart with things other than snacks and ice cream, a full-size gym, a welfare facility that showed movies and had a DVD library, computer access, women. The Americans knew how to take care of their soldiers. Captain Lee’s message was basically this: don’t get used to it. Conscription and privation go hand in hand.

At the time, the lesson grated on my American senses. “Aim high” and “Be that all you can be” are the mottos of the American armed forces. “Don’t expect anything” seemed to be the motto of the Korean armed forces. Perhaps they took Kennedy’s line too far: Don’t even think about asking what your country can do for you. It’s all about what you can do for your country. He went on.

“If you were born in America, you wouldn’t have to be here.”

He meant to say that, as Korean males, conscripts should accept their lots in life. It was then that he met my cold and indignant gaze.

“Errumph,” he cleared his throat with a nervous cough. He knew damn well that I was an American. “Anyway…”

He went on with his speech anyway but the rest of it was indiscernible, going on to the story about the tortoise and the hare and something about highways. I didn’t think about it at the time, but there was truth hidden in all the bullshit. For some reason, I was an American serving in the Korean Army. I kept expecting that the universe would correct its mistake or that people in the Army would treat me like a human being, but that was never going to happen. In that particular setting, having no expectations meant not setting myself up for disappointment. The whole of the experience was disappointment after disappointment.

I share a version of this story in my fourth chapter, Lesson Two: Want Not, Waste Not. The truth is the same as Buddha’s truth that desire is the cause of suffering. I haven’t been working on my book this month because of the aforementioned wall, but I haven’t been posting much this month because work has been kicking my lazy ass. They call the July session an intensive session, but it’s far more intensive for the instructors than the students. Of all my classes, my debate class has been the most taxing. Thank God it’s over.

At the risk of revealing my true nerd nature, I actually like teaching debate. But teaching—maybe just the way I teach—actually isn’t about the content. It’s about time management (i.e., wasting time). Wasting time is much easier when students get along or at least talk to each other. Neither really happened in this particular class. And I got a sense that nobody really understood what the hell I was saying.

Last Friday, we were supposed to have a practice debate. On Friday, nobody showed up for class. Actually, one student out of sixteen registered for the class showed up about twenty minutes late. Naturally, I had very low expectations for our final debate coming into class yesterday. At the beginning of class, there was one student. A few more trickled in and after a half hour of preparation time, we held our final debate.

The final debate blew my mind. For four weeks, it was like a limbo contest on expectations: how low could they go? It seemed like nobody was learning anything. I mean, it’s fairly hard to learn when you don’t come to class. But for the first time, my students prepared logical arguments with valid reasoning and applicable support. They even wrote out scripts for their constructive speeches. For this class, I would’ve been happy with a sub-par performance. There’s a lot to be said for low expectations.

Unfortunately, the Army was the exception to the rule. I had no expectations. Or rather, I had expectations of hell, but it was much, much worse than I could have ever imagined. Thank God it’s over.

Burger King is the trailer in the background on the left.


8 Responses

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  1. you are kind of a nerd. teaching debate is a hassle. it just never clicks in most of their heads.

    sorry about making you stay out. at least we did it in your neighborhood. next time lets go to the place with no people.


    August 2, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    • I’ve never denied it. I feel it every time I tell my students my hobby is writing. Teaching debate’s not so bad, though. I probably spent at least a week’s worth of classes in “debate preparation,” meaning that they work in groups and I do absolutely nothing.

      You don’t have to be sorry. I already know that once you start drinking, there really is no end until I pass out.


      August 2, 2010 at 2:52 pm

  2. “The Americans knew how to take care of their soldiers.”

    Probably because they actually have Soldiers running the Army. I’ve learned very early on not to expect the ROK Army to be anything like the US Army. Before I was conscripted, I though concepts such as “teamwork,” “professionalism,” and “being a leader” were universal in all military organizations. Now I’m not even sure Koreans even know what those words mean.


    August 7, 2010 at 10:06 am

    • Haha. They do have concepts like “teamwork” and “being a leader.” They just mean something completely different, a very fucked-up interpretation of the concepts.


      August 7, 2010 at 6:00 pm

      • re: “leadership,” “teamwork,” and “professionalism”

        I’d be interested in reading your exploration of the fucked-up Korean interpretation of these concepts. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I know what the US interpretation of these concepts would be (although I can guess).

        Concerning leadership: I taught at Sookmyung Women’s University for three years; it was a great experience, but I never quite grasped what the girls were learning when they went in for their “leadership training.” Sookdae supposedly held leadership up as one of its core values, but from what little I saw, the girls seemed to be learning how to sit still and listen to lectures, not how to lead creatively and proactively.

        Regarding teamwork: I’ve heard Koreans bandy about the somewhat Konglishified term “shi-naw-ji” (synergy), but have never bothered to ask them what they thought it meant. The term isn’t used all that much in the US, except perhaps in certain artistic contexts or in esoteric business circles, but I thought it might have caught on in Korea because the concept seems inherently more Asian than Western — harmonious, interconnected action, or something like that.

        As for professionalism… I think Americans and Koreans have very different views on this subject, but both American and Korean views lie along their respective spectra, and aren’t monolithic.

        Some Koreans contractors, for example, have a work ethic that’s all about hustle with only a modicum of precision; for these people, it’s enough just to get the job done, and get it done quickly. Their workmanship is flawed and usually starts to show problems within a mere few months. I’ve seen plenty of examples of this shoddiness in Kangnam, where boutiques and restaurants appear and disappear all the time, often looking pretty run-down after only two seasons.

        Other Korean contractors, however, are not only fast but also able to produce truly high-quality, long-lasting work that still looks newly minted after a year or two of wear and tear — all without breaking the bank. They understand the need for precision and care, and are ruthless in their perfectionism. (I’m thinking specifically of the Korean contractors who renovated our house in Virginia from late 2008 to early 2009. Fantastic guys, and their work remains flawless.)

        A similar spectrum exists, I think, with American contractors, all of which makes direct comparisons between Koreans and Americans difficult.

        Anyway, I’d be curious to read your thoughts on this topic, specifically as applies to the US and ROK militaries. Leadership, teamwork, and professionalism mean… what, exactly?

        Kevin Kim

        August 10, 2010 at 2:04 pm

  3. re: “leadership,” “teamwork,” and “professionalism” in the context of the ROK and US militaries
    I can’t say much for the US Army because I only had limited exposure as an outsider to the workings of The Big Green Machine: six months in Afghanistan and several weeks during joint exercises.

    Leadership: “I lead and you follow unconditionally.” The third point of the Korean Army Service Creed is to “be absolutely obedient to the orders of superior officers.” The orders are often the least rational way to handle something, but the chain of command means that the leader never has to lead by example. They get to sit off to the side and direct from there. “You missed a spot. There and there and somewhere around there.”

    Teamwork: “I lead and you follow unconditionally.” It’s the same concept, because for any team to work in the army, there has to be a chain of command, there has to be someone taken advantage of. Teamwork means that everyone in the chain of command is doing their part. The leader is “leading,” and everyone else is being absolutely obedient.

    Professionalism: I agree that this is probably the most difficult to define. It’s definitely not about ability. I guess it’s more about how you can manipulate interpersonal relations and maintain an image of authority.

    I know it’s not a very astute analysis of these concepts, but it hurts my head to even think about it. Hope everything’s going well back in the States.


    August 12, 2010 at 2:42 pm

  4. “re: “leadership,” “teamwork,” and “professionalism”

    I’d be interested in reading your exploration of the fucked-up Korean interpretation of these concepts. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I know what the US interpretation of these concepts would be (although I can guess).”

    I guess it’s hard to have definite meanings of such terms but it’s basically like this: according to the US Army TRADOC papers I’ve read “professionalism” is things like knowing to not shit where you eat, controlling your emotions at work and being (or at least making an effort) to be educated and prepared for your occupation. You know, being a professional.

    For example, the US military takes a measures to train its troops. After basic, troops receive additional training called AIT that prepares them for their specific MOS (military occupational specialty). Training is conducted by NCOs whom their specialty is training other troops. But in the ROK Army, basic is shorter and all the training was pretty much rushed through, and conducted mostly by other conscripts who are part of the Education Battalion. I mean, we weren’t even taught how to fix a jam on our rifles! Our so-called drill instructors sometimes gave us incorrect info as well. Right after basic, conscripts are tossed into a unit and get told how to perform their job by senior conscripts. We aren’t given classes, nor are we trained by experts. We get sort of a hand-me-down instruction and we are verbally harrassed if we don’t perform to their liking. I have heard repeatedly from foreign english teachers that their companies don’t properly prepare them for the job; they just throw them in a class and expect them to teach. Same thing happens in the military.

    As for leadership(leadership, professionalism, and teamwork are all connected), people in leadership positions often blow their top, scream and cuss at the top of their lungs when things don’t go their way. Superiors pretty much use their subordinates as verbal punching bags when they want to let off steam. This is the very opposite of good leadership in the TRADOC Manual on leadership. I’m convinced Koreans are culturally conditioned to treat anyone they perceive as lower than them like shit. A proffessor from the ROK Defense College pretty much admitted this. Its the same shit in Korean schools where upperclassmen beat the crap out of younger students, and teachers(adult men) do the same to their young students.

    And teamwork? I can talk forever about “teamwork” in the ROK military but I have an example that can be directly compared to the US: group projects in schools. At my university in the States, group meetings rarely lasted more than 30 minutes. We met up, divided who does what, decided on the next meeting, and left. But during my time in Yonsei University, I have been extremely fustrated with my group sessions with Korean students more than once. For some reason they have to talk and discuss shit for hours on end. Maybe it makes them feel like they’re actually doing something. They just can’t seem to make a group decision and the obsession and the forced nature of doing things “together” ends up having the opposite effect of teamwork. It’s the same in the Army except instead of papers and presentations, we are preparing for like and death situations.


    August 28, 2010 at 5:36 pm

    • A brief summary of my interpretation of these concepts can be found above, in my response to Kevin’s comment. The most concise answer is that they don’t exist. The Army is “the impossibility of reason” and so it follows that any concept that exists in that space is indecipherable to normal, rational beings.
      All of the things you mention in your comment I understand too well; I’ve been all of those things—specialist in the U.S. Army (for a day), ROK Army conscript, foreign English teacher, office worker in a Korean company, and a student at both American and Korean universities. Korean companies and schools work on very similar philosophies as the Army. In one of my earlier posts, I wrote that if you can understand the Army, you can understand Korea. Not that the Army is the source of the evils prevalent throughout Korean society, but it certainly is where it is at its worst.


      August 30, 2010 at 5:03 pm

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