from the Korean Army to being published

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

Entry #25: Paying the Bills

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I have a week off this week from my teaching job at the university. The 16 hour workweeks and copious amounts of vacation time are precisely the reasons why I took the job and why I don’t look for another. Sure, I could be making a lot more money working at a boutique hakwon in Apgujeong or Cheongdam catering to the snotty zombie-children of the absurdly rich, but I’m not in it for the money. Quality of living is far more important to me and so I work only to maintain my low-budget life and to fund my drinking habit.

As I’ve pushed back my goal for finishing the book until the end of the year and there are only two full months left, I planned to use this week in some hardcore revising and re-starting my search for an agent. For the majority of us aspiring, first-time writers, finding an agent is a chore.

I’ve been in this coffee shop for the past seven hours, but I’ve done absolutely no revisions. Granted, normally I’m very unproductive, spending a great majority of my coffee shop writing time checking my e-mail, reading random blogs*, playing Minesweeper or Freecell, or reading comic books. The reason for my inactivity this time, however, is none of the above. On Friday night, I received a text message from a lecturer at some university asking for my translation services.

Because it is extra work, I don’t translate as often as I used to, but translation is a low-key way for me to make some good money. I’ll be making about a grand for four days work. While I could probably make that in four days of extra teaching, translation is a lesser evil. The benefits of translation include the absence of human interaction and pandering to students, I can wake up and work on my own accord, and I can smoke and take frequent breaks (such as I am now) while working. It’s almost like I’m my own boss, except that I’m not. I have a deadline.

Some people might not understand my preference for translation over teaching. Sometimes it is hard to rationalize to myself. The hours staring at the computer screen, wondering what the hell this lady is trying to say. Korean academics are awful writers. Half of these sentences don’t have subjects, and the text is rife with misplaced and dangling modifiers and sentences that run-on into eternity, so long that even the author has forgotten what she was talking about.

During the third week of basic, we marched to the grenade training ground where, a week earlier, a trainee and an officer had been blown to small, gory chunks when the nervous trainee loosened his grip on the grenade handle. Canned tuna flung across the ground is how Squad Leader Lee described someone blown up by a grenade.

After my squad had finished its two rounds of grenade practice, the squad leaders made us sit off to the side on the frozen ground. We sat there in silent, neat, orderly rows, Indian-style, the cold earth beneath us stealing the warmth from our asses.

After a while, one of the squad leaders came over to where we were seated.

“Who here knows how to use a shovel?”

I raised my hand. I don’t know why. I just did.

I was given a shovel and told to shovel dirt off to the side so that others could carry the dirt on makeshift stretchers up the mountainside to fortify the bunkers at the top.

Sabjil, shoveling, is what Koreans call any task which is purposely inefficient. Sabjil was my life in the Army. But when I was shoveling the frozen earth on that day during basic training, I was happy. The others in my squad probably watched me from where they were sitting, wondering why I had volunteered to shovel, but I looked back at them, thinking how miserable and trapped they were.**

Maybe it was because in the harsh Korean winter, it is better to move around and break a sweat than sit unmoving on the ground. Or maybe it was because while I was working, the squad leaders left me alone. Or maybe it was because I like working with my hands. I may have been tiring myself out compared to my wise and static comrades, but it was relative freedom. I was warm, the squad leaders left me alone, and I was doing something I didn’t mind doing. Translation is the same way for me.

The biggest drawback is that I should be working on the book. I should be working on my query letters to agents. I should be meeting with my editor. But, with my luck, I guess it’s only natural that the lady would ask me for help during the one week off I set aside for something productive.

* I occasionally read the blogs of my friends and acquaintances (I’ll update my bloglist one of these days), but I mostly kill time on Failblog and Failbook. I am a fan of mindless entertainment.

** This is a very condensed, poorly and hastily-written version of a story that I share in my eleventh chapter, “Lesson Seven: Freedom is Sweet, Sweet Honey.”

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