The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
by Jang Ryujin December 09, 2021
We left the cafe. It was well into spring and approaching summer. The mornings and evenings had been chilly up until yesterday, but now I felt sunlight warming the nape of my neck and my back becoming damp with sweat. Office workers with employee ID badges around their necks milled about with light trench coats draped over an arm, a cup of takeout coffee in hand. This was the only time of day they could get any kind of exercise and soak in the sun. A group of workers from the web portal company where Kevin used to work passed by us. Personally, I was only working here because the agency I used to be at went belly up and this was the only place that made me an offer, but I wondered why the oh-so very clever Kevin had joined this company. He couldn’t have been tempted by the pay; our CEO had a habit of saying he’d “start paying us a decent salary once we started running ads.” Apparently, the ace up the CEO’s sleeve had been to tell Kevin that he would have the opportunity to do “all the kinds” of dev work he wanted to do. It was strange enough that the CEO thought something like that would convince Kevin, and stranger still that it actually did. Though I wasn’t sure if Kevin was, in fact, getting to do “all the kinds” of work he wanted to do. It looked like he was just fixing bugs all day.
TurtleEgg said she had an offsite today and needed to get to her car that was parked in the lot near Pangyo Station. We went up a pedestrian overpass to get to the other side of the street but once we got to the top of the stairs, we noticed something strange. The overpass didn’t connect to the opposite side of the street, it connected to the same side of the street we were already on. An overpass was supposed to go across a road but this one ran parallel to it.
“Weird,” said TurtleEgg. “How is this an overpass?”
“Not sure. Maybe they read the blueprint wrong.”
“Maybe it was built so people could stand in the shade under it to avoid the sun or rain.”
“Or so office workers could get some exercise since they’re at their desks all day.”
“It could just be an art sculpture. Every single building has to have one by law, so there are tons of them that have no soul.”
“What should we do now?”
“Go back down, I guess.” Then she added, “The view’s pretty nice from up here.”
TurtleEgg went up to the railing near the center of the overpass, leaned both arms against it, and propped up her chin. I stood next to her and looked at the view before me. There was a dense stretch of buildings with exteriors that glittered like mirrors—buildings that looked overly futuristic, as though they had taken the name “Techno Valley” a little too literally. When I first came here, I had thought that this place looked like some cold galactic city I had seen in a sci-fi movie. Turns out even in Techno Valley, rivers melted once winter passed, spring arrived, cherry blossoms bloomed beautifully, and summer, too, would come in time.
TurtleEgg pointed to something. “Whoa, the NC building looks so cool.”
That was where the biggest gaming company in Pangyo, NC Soft, was headquartered. The immensity of that building reflected the size of the company.
“I’m pretty sure I’ve paid for a windowpane or two on that building,” I said.
“So you play Lineage?”
“Back in the day.”
“There are a lot of startups around here, aren’t there?”
“Oh yeah. There are five or six in my building alone.”
“I read somewhere that only three percent of all startups succeed in the end. You think Udon Market will make it?”
I looked back at the NC Soft headquarters. There was a hole right in the middle of the giant building in the shape of a stretched-out “仃.” Through it, I could see the blazing afternoon sky—a square piece of sky that anyone walking around with an employee ID badge around their neck and a coffee in their hand might look up at once or twice. Every time I saw that perfectly square, enframed piece of sky, I imagined something flying through it. A dragon, a flock of birds, a hot-air balloon, a helicopter.
“Who knows. The CEO and the board probably think about it constantly. How to raise money, how to earn money, how to be part of that three percent that makes it to the end . . . They probably worry about stuff like that all day long. Personally, I stop thinking about the company once I’m off the clock.”
“Me too. As soon as I leave the office, I pull the plug on all thoughts about work. I only think beautiful thoughts and look at beautiful sights. For example, turtles, or turtle photos, or turtle videos.”
When I turned to look at TurtleEgg, she had already pulled out her smartphone and was scrolling through her photos. She showed me a close-up of a turtle’s head in profile. There were vivid orange markings under its eyes.
“Cute, huh? This is my pet turtle. His name’s Lambo.” Then she added, “Lambo as in Lamborghini.”
I nodded to show that I understood and she held out her phone to show me another turtle photo that didn’t look much different from the one earlier.
“And this is my second turtle, Masé.”
“ . . . as in Maserati?”
“Ooh, you got it.”
Excited, she picked out yet another photo of a turtle (that again looked pretty much like the other two turtles) and showed it to me.
“This one’s the youngest.”
“Let me guess, Ferra? As in Ferrari?”
“How clever of you, darling!”
I pulled out my wallet and asked TurtleEgg, “So, the item you listed on Udon Market . . . could I possibly buy another one?”
I had, in fact, cried at the office, although I had not admitted that to TurtleEgg. I was once so bothered by the sound of Kevin sighing behind me that I cried, just a little, as I kicked the bathroom door with force. In that moment, tears gushed out for a split second, that was it, but still you couldn’t say that I had not cried.
I bought the small LEGO set that had been in the trunk of TurtleEgg’s car. It was part of the same Star Wars series that Kevin had on his desk. I had known Kevin liked LEGOs since even before he started at the company. Since the CEO knew him personally, it was all but decided that Kevin would get the job, but because it would not do to skip the interview process entirely, we arranged one as a formality. That was when I found out. After asking Kevin three or four questions about software development, the CEO posed one final question.
“We’re a small company, as you know, so it’s not enough to be a good developer, you also have to be a good culture fit. We’re less than ten people so if things go south with someone, you won’t be able to avoid them. You’ll have to face them every day. So, it’s important to have social skills. Do you think you’ll be able to gel with the rest of the team?”
That was when Kevin offered, as evidence of his sociability, his experience being secretary of the KAIST LEGO club for three years. I was seated by the CEO’s side and feeling invisible, but at Kevin’s words, I stifled a burst of laughter. KAIST, LEGO, secretary. Not a single one of those sounded sociable by any measure. I’d be even more skeptical if he’d said he had been the president, not the secretary. People said introverted developers look at their own shoes when they speak while extroverted developers look at the shoes of the person they’re speaking to. In a world like that, who knew what it meant to be part of a LEGO club? Maybe you were considered a crazy party animal or something.
At 1:10 p.m., I went up to the roof of the office building. Kevin had a cigarette at that time every single day. I had no idea how the man could be so mechanical, so robotic, that even his smoke breaks were like clockwork. Just as I predicted, I ran into Kevin after he had finished up his cigarette and was on his way back to the office. Kevin started when he saw me, but when he saw the LEGO Star Wars Darth Vader Transformation kit in my hands, he trembled in shock.
I held out the LEGO box and said, “Happy early birthday.”
He looked like he was debating whether he should take it, but his hand was already reaching toward the box, like a robot that had developed an error in its algorithm.
“Please tell me you don’t already have this one?”
“No, I don’t. I was planning to get it . . .,” Kevin answered without meeting my eyes. With the box in both hands and pressed against his stomach, he traced a finger across its edge. I walked slowly toward the edge of the rooftop where Kevin had smoked his cigarette. Then I stepped up on top of a brick in the flower bed and took in the view before me. The building with the rectangle shape in it was visible from here too. I could recognize the weird overpass that TurtleEgg and I had been on.
Turning around, I said to Kevin, “How about you try distancing yourself a little from your code?”
Kevin stared wordlessly up at me.
“You aren’t the code you write. I hope you know that.” Then I added, “A bug is just a bug. It’s not going to eat you up.”
Kevin had his gaze trained on my sneakers. I jumped down from the flower bed and pulled out a capsule coffee machine box from the shopping bag I’d left on the ground.
“I’m putting this in the break room. The two of us should get coffee sometime. I’ll ask Daeshik to get the capsules.”
At that moment, Kevin and I received a notification on our smartphones at almost the exact same time. Each of us pulled our phones out of our pockets and looked. We smiled, the exact same expression on both our faces.
I was alone in the office when the CEO, who I thought had left for the day, suddenly came out and started talking to me. He wanted to know why I hadn’t left yet even though it was a Friday. I lied and said I still had some work to finish up. Looking impressed, the CEO said, “As soon as we start running ads, I’ll make some money and then hire you another project manager.”
“Maybe we can hire an iOS developer first. I’m dying here.”
“Why? Is Kevin still butting heads with Anna these days?”
“You could say that.”
“Goddammit, I need to stop giving in to him. It’s getting us nowhere.”
All of a sudden, the CEO kicked Kevin’s chair hard. The swivel chair careened toward the entrance of the office. The CEO could have never done that in front of Kevin. If Kevin ever said he was quitting, the CEO was the type to get on his knees and beg him to stay.
“It’s probably really tough on him since he’s working on something that’s hard enough for two people to take on all by himself. Even if he is a genius. It’s not like he’s Steve Jobs or something.”
“Fine. Once we start running ads, I’ll for sure hire another iOS developer and someone to work under you.”
I gathered up the four or five paper cups on the desk neatly in a stack and threw them in the trash.
“David, let’s stop drinking instant coffee now and do capsule coffee instead. I’ll bring the machine.”
“Hm . . . Is that expensive?”
“Obviously it’s more expensive than instant coffee. But won’t it just be that much more efficient? Like even for cars, there’s a difference when you fill up with regular gasoline versus premium.”
The CEO didn’t answer right away. He crossed his arms over his chest and hesitated for a moment before saying, “Let me look into it. I’ll think on it as positively as I can.” And then he added, “You know how much I care about what you think, Anna, don’t you?”
The truth is, I wasn’t staying behind to work late. Ticket reservations for Liubov Smirnova’s recital opened at 9 p.m. but I guessed that by the time I arrived home, it would be just slightly past 9 p.m. So I figured I would kill time at work and then, after successfully making my reservation, leave for home stress-free.
I pulled up the server time for the reservation site and, while waiting until 21:00:00, I connected to “Silent Cho Seong-jin,” a photos-only public chat room about pianist Cho Seong-jin. As soon as I logged in, someone uploaded a photo of Cho Seong-jin with the words “Please send HD Carnegie Hall photo” written on it. I opened the “Chopin” folder on my MacBook. Thousands of jpg, gif, and avi files of Cho Seong-jin unfurled one after the other across my monitor. I double-clicked on one of them. It was a gif of Cho Seong-jin playing piano, his mouth pursed like a duck, his bangs undulating. There was no sound, but I knew he was performing Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” He was flawlessly handsome. How could someone be that graceful?
This time, I opened the folder with the Carnegie Hall photos. I chose a few that were of good quality and uploaded them to the chat room. Not long after, another photo arrived: Cho Seong-jin’s profile photo which showed him with his chin propped up against his hand on a grand piano. On the margin scrawled in crooked handwriting were the words, “Thank you so much. I wish you very little work and lots of money.”
There was one more thing I had to do before 9 p.m. Cho Seong-jin’s Hong Kong recital, which I had reserved tickets for months ago, was coming up next month. With a public holiday, the weekend, and one precious day of PTO, I planned to take four days and three nights off to explore Hong Kong and attend the concert. I logged into an airline ticket reservation site and paid for a round trip to Hong Kong. It was a bit expensive, I thought, but that was fine. Today was payday, after all.
Translated by Archana Madhavan
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AUTHORS Jang Ryujin 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. She published The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work and Other Stories in 2019.