Dining with the Tyrant
Usually my Friday nights are spent at O’Malley’s, Goose Goose, Who’s Bar, or some other smoke-filled establishment that will serve me whisky until 5 AM. This past Friday, though, I found myself stepping off the beaten path for a moment, going out for a nice sober dinner with my co-workers. This was our New Year’s celebration, and Boss was taking us all out for a fine dining experience. In Korea, people often refer to each other by title instead of by name. The teachers call each other “teacher,” the principal is called “principal,” and, since I work at a private tutoring academy (or hogwon), the boss is just called “boss.” Now that I’ve brought her up, let me take a moment to share some background information.
Boss seems like a cool lady. She’s in her late forties and has two sons who live in the USA. Her husband owns the school but she runs it. Both of them have been extremely friendly. Boss doesn’t speak much English but tries hard (the husband is much better). She puts an equal amount of effort into her appearance; typically she wears nice clothes and lots of makeup. I’ve always seen Boss as a warm-hearted person. With a lot of makeup.
At dinner, Boss sat next to me. Leah was across from me. Sometimes I call Leah my boss, although that’s not accurate. She’s the head English teacher, and so what Boss says trickles down to me through her. Leah is gorgeous, and so was the restaurant we were at. I was thrilled to get a baked potato as an appetizer – it was the first baked potato I’d had in ages. Boss ordered a bottle of berry wine, and Leah explained to me the side effects:
“If a man drinks berry wine,” she said, “he will have good vitality.”
“Awesome. I was just thinking the other day that I need to improve my vitality.”
“Good. Drink berry wine. Many years ago, bathroom was not in house. It was separate.”
“We had that too – outhouse.”
“People were very lazy and would pee in a bowl. Then later they go to bathroom and dump the pee out. When a man drinks berry wine, his pee is so strong, is breaks the bowl!”
“I’ll be careful then. I don’t want to damage any Tupperware.”
It’s been five months now, and I’m still trying to figure out if Leah understands my sarcasm or if she thinks I’m serious all the time. Perhaps I should try not to be so sarcastic, especially since Leah has always been honest and open with me. I remember clearly what she told me in my first week:
“You should say ‘no’ to Boss. She will ask you to do more work, and if you say ‘yes,’ she will give you more. Previous native teacher wanted to sue Boss. She will want you to work more hours and she will not pay you.”
While she advised me to say ‘no,’ she seemed incapable of doing so herself. Poor Leah. She is always at the academy, slaving away. Recently, Boss cut her vacation days to 4 a year. Leah was upset but carried on like always. To make matters worse, Boss fired the other English teacher, Grace, for reasons that are unclear to me. I also have been subject to Boss’ demands. My class number has been upped from 28 to 35. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I have to go in an hour early to teach a new class. I was told I had to go into work this Saturday, but luckily Boss changed her mind and let me off the hook.
“We are all very upset,” Leah told me, referring to herself and the other Koreans that work at the school. “It is so much work and no pay. We are so tired.”
Jang (or whatever her name is), Mrs. Saw, and the two other Korean teachers at the dinner were getting drunk on berry wine. We had a course of prawns, then a salad, and then seasoned bulgogi for our entrée. It was undeniably delicious. The teachers were all laughing and in good spirits. Boss kept piling meat onto my plate.
“She wants you to eat,” Leah said. “She is like your mother.”
Boss started talking, and everybody shut up to listen. It was in Korean, so I didn’t understand what she was saying. The table was silent and at the end everyone burst into laughter.
“What did she say?” I asked Leah.
“Boss told story,” she said, translating. “She knows a married couple. The man had his mother come over to house for weekend. One day the couple went out and mother was alone in the house. She looked through the wife’s things and found a note. The note said, ‘The bitch is coming this weekend.’ The mother took it. She was very angry and showed her son.”
The other teachers were talking happily and drinking as Leah told me the story. They were in such good spirits.
“The next year, it was the birthday of the wife’s mother. The son gave her a card, and in it, it said, ‘Happy Birthday, from the Son of a Bitch.’”
In a way, it was an apropos story for Boss to tell. At the end of dinner, Boss paid and all of the teachers thanked her and bowed. When Boss separated from us (she drove and we all took the bus), everyone waved goodbye as if their best friend was going away for the summer. Like the mother in the story, Boss may be a bitch, but she’s our bitch. She may be a tyrant, but she’s our tyrant.
I hadn’t had much berry wine myself. I went home and, without worry, peed in a bowl.