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Company rafting trip

On Friday I and most of the people I work with left work at about midday to set off on a rafting trip. As well as most of the people who work at the Gangnam office/bookshop/hagwon, there were people from the warehouse/financial and logistics office outside Seoul. The location for the away day was near Cheorwon, an area of Gangwon-do close to the border with North Korea – an area I’ve now visited three times (it’s where I met Habiba). Our accommodation was a one of a set of pensions near some rice fields and next to the Hantan river – the venue for the rafting.

The first part of the trip there was OK. I went with my friend Ji-hyeon and our boss Min-seon in the latter’s car to the Ilpye-dong offices. We had to wait a while for some orders to be despatched and it was moderately interesting to see the how the other half lives. There are two warehouses containing the bulk of our products, which are sold to schools and hagwons. The premises there are old and crappy – the Seoul site is far, far nicer.

After that everyone piled on a bus. We had been divided into four teams, black, white, red and blue, and had to wear appropriately coloured clothing. In the bus, we had to sit in our teams. We were given some gimbap and drinks. Then it was noraebang time. The men, evidently already giddy on their free can of beer, got very excited about the singing, yelling along with the singer and chanting people’s names, encouraging them to get up and sing. I heard my name a few times, but I was already feigning sleep and regretting coming.

Once at the pension, we had a few spare minutes before the games began. The games weren’t optional. The four teams competed to collect little green rubber apples, which were awarded for winning games, lining up speedily and so on. At first, the competition wasn’t too bad. There were games like Korean-style keepie uppie (with a little puck-like object with short, tinselly streamers attached), tug-o’-war and a race carrying a balloon wedged between two people’s backs.

Then, after dinner, it became seriously annoying, and not a little sinister. The noraebang was also a competition, not of talent, but of enthusiasm. Teams were awarded rubber apples for cheering and dancing. Earlier, after about an hour of resistance, I’d finally caved in to Min-seon’s request (ie, demand) that I perform a song for the team. As Ji-hyeon explained, it wasn’t about skill – nor evidently about personal choice – but about showing that one is a team player. I eventually sang ‘I Want to Break Free’ – badly, hating myself and everyone and everything. Somehow, I won the team ten points – a victory that felt utterly fraudulent.

Eventually, I felt able to leave the noise and activity and go to bed. The night was perhaps the worst part of the two days. There was not a time when there weren’t people up and talking – loudly – in the next room. And, of course, I had to share a room with a bunch of the other men – some of the snoring was terrible. Worst of all, a guy who was sleeping near me periodically ground his teeth. I’ve experienced this once before – at a hostel in Ottawa – and it’s far worse than the loudest snoring. Snoring is annoying, but ultimately natural and understandable, but grinding one’s teeth is just wrong. It doesn’t even sound like hard objects like teeth grinding together; it sounds like hard, wet rubber being firmly squeezed and rubbed.

Throughout the night I gave this guy – one of the salesmen – sharp nudges to jar him out of it. Later on, he even moved his futon so he was lying right next to me. He rolled on to mine a few times so I firmly pushed him back.

At around seven o’clock I went for a walk along the concrete lanes through the rice paddies. The air was thick with mist – which burnt off gradually through the morning. There were hundreds of dragonflies around, buzzing through the air singly or, occasionally, coupled with mates, or perching on plants or twigs, heads cocking. I found a little frog on a leaf; it was light green, the colour of the rice in the mist. Closer to the pensions there were grasshoppers in the grass – green ones and brown ones – and dark frogs that hopped away so quickly that I could barely make them out. As I was reading in the food tents before breakfast I saw a family of cats – three adults, two toms and a bitch with an unusual pale grey and white marbled patterning, and three or four active kittens whose coats didn’t match the adults at all.

There was a little free time after breakfast when the men who had been up all night were given some time to sleep – some of them were still talking, though. Strangely, I didn’t feel all that tired in the morning. The games started up again. This time they included dodgeball – in the rain. Clearly, the idea of taking a break and going indoors to wait for the weather to improve is beyond Koreans. Instead, everyone has to do what is expected of them. The first game of dodgeball I played with my umbrella up, standing pretty much stationary in a corner – and was completely ignored. Unfortunately, the weather did improve and I was able to put my umbrella away and take part.

Eventually, the competition came to a close. My team, the white team (I wore my white Ask Enquired top with the Union Jack and my England shirt), came second with 34 rubber apples. For this we won 170,000 Korean won. Except we didn’t – Ji-hyeon told me later we’d be bought a meal the following Monday evening. The red team – the owner’s team (not so coincidentally, I assume) – came first with 46 points and received 460,000 – or didn’t receive it.

There was a little shop on the site. I bought three two-litre bottles of water there. The first two times from a lad who spoke English well and charged me 2,000 won. The last time, as we were leaving, from a woman who charged me 1,500. I told her that a boy the previous day had charged me more.

Finally, we were able to leave to go rafting. We arrived at the rafting company’s site and got kitted out with paddles, helmets, life jackets and dayglo rubber slippers. The rafting company’s bus took us to the river. The activity is clearly a popular one – there were hundreds of people there all doing the same thing. On the little stretch of beach as we launched there were four or five other rafts, each with eight or ten (but not nine) passengers launching at the same time.

The rafting was good fun – it made the misery of the previous twenty-four hours just about worthwhile. I’d been rafting once before, also in Korea, though at a different location, with Habiba. Then, the water had been calm and low. This time, in the middle of the rainy season, the river was fuller. There were parts where the current cascaded over hidden rocks where the boat rose and fell alarmingly. The sense of danger was palpable – without a firm grip on the foot loops on the raft’s floor, people would certainly have fallen in.

The river gorge was pretty interesting. There was a water-eroded rock that, from one angle, looked very much like a huge skull with a gaping mouth. Other parts had sheer walls that showed no signs of erosion; instead they were all jagged chunks and blades of rock. These parts had bats’ nests in caves – we could just about hear the chirping of the bats, but we couldn’t see any signs of them.

Throughout the ride, whenever there was a rough bit, Ji-hyeon, who was sitting next to me, translating the guide’s words, would grab my sleeve in a way that was very pleasing to my manly ego (don’t tell Habiba). Later, she counteracted this by pushing me into the water. (In a part of the river near the end of the ride where the guide encouraged/tricked people into taking a dip.) She earlier told me that you weren’t supposed to drink the water because of all the fertilisers in the runoff from the fields that entered the river via numerous waterfalls down the walls of the gorge. I didn’t drink any, I think, but I did inhale a little.

After that, we headed back to the rafting HQ, to drop off our equipment, shower and change. Then we were finally off home. The ride back was quieter than the ride out. Also longer. At the warehouse, everyone got off the bus and into various employee’s cars. I shared the financial director’s car with Ji-hyeon and one other person.

As I said, the rafting was good enough that it made the rest of the trip worth putting up with – just about. In some ways, the idea of a company trip like this is a very good one – it lets people who don’t normally work closely get to know each other, it shows that the owner wants to promote relations with and among his staff. However, the way they implemented it, it felt like a cross between a kindergarten and a prison camp. You must play games. You must sing. You must drink. You must show what a good sport you are. Doing your own thing is not an option.

The Koreans seemed to enjoy it – at least the men. The men’s enthusiasm seemed slightly manic – drink as much as possible, shout as loudly as possible. I think the women were more ambivalent – some of the looks I saw from them were of tiredness and toleration. I don’t think I made a good impression – I probably came across like a sulky teenager – at the age of thirty-four, that’s not terribly becoming. I gather that people made allowances for my lack of enthusiasm because I don’t speak the language, because I’m a foreigner. I wonder if my lack of enthusiasm might signal the beginning of the end of my employment at EducaKorea.

I kind of hope it does. I’ve been thinking lately that I can’t continue with things the way they are. I get up between 7:30 and 8 every weekday morning and sit at a desk from 9, often doing little more than browsing the internet and feeling exhausted. One of the main reasons I came to Korea in the first place was to get away from that. I hate it. It doesn’t seem to suit my biological rhythms. I got up today at 7:45 feeling headachey and a little nauseous from dehydration. I couldn’t face going into work, especially not feeling like that, so I’ve taken a sick day. After another couple of hours sleep I feel fine.

When I broached the subject of quitting or reducing my hours to just my afternoon teaching to Ji-hyeon on Saturday night she was very concerned about my breaking my contract and being penalised. Overly concerned – especially given that Koreans generally don’t regard contracts as little more than the printed version of an verbal, mutable agreement. I find it hard to care.

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