Fly me to the moon… One Day
Fly me to the moon
His attention was solely focused on the static noise of the turntable. Frank Sinatra crooning his sweet melody was a mere backdrop. He lied calmly still in the dark, on the edge of his bed, with his eyes closed, just focusing. At 2AM the familiar sounds of sirens and someone drunk cursing in Korean on the busy streets outside of his humble abode (a shared two bedroom apartment in Koreatown) drowned out with each sharp prick of the needle softly scratching the old record. The chaos that is not home finally came to a silent stop. This moment was the only provider of solace. Now, it was just himself, alone, with nothing else that aided his attention. Just him, Sinatra, and Silence.
Fly me to the moon let me play among the stars
Sitting outside in the patio of a Korean owned coffee shop, Daniel Chang is constantly looking at his watch. I ask him if he has somewhere to be and was short in time. He shakes his head. “No, It’s such a habit. I’m so paranoid of time. I’m sorry. Don’t think it’s because you’re boring me.” We laugh as he puts his two cellphones, a Samsung Note 5 for work and an iPhone 6 for personal, faced down on the table. The Samsung screen lights up and he picks it up for quick second and puts it back down. “Sorry.” He says, as he fiddles with his watch.
Daniel Chang is a 24-year-old Korean American guy living a very non-American, non-24 year old life. He doesn’t have time to watch Kobe Bryant’s legendary last game. Mind you It wasn’t just a goodbye to a retiring MVP, it was a tipping of the hat to a cultural icon that glimmered the Purple and Gold in the City of Angels. His best friends are only more than arms length away. The casual heys and how you doin’s translate to just a far echo of notification pings. Instead of catching a late night movie with a girlfriend, that he recently broke up with, or maybe even having dinner with his family, whom he hasn’t seen in weeks, he’s in the office waiting for a conference call coming from Seoul, Korea.
Daniel doesn’t have a normal 9-to-5 job. Yes, it starts at 9 but it never ends. It’s 7:oo PM on a Monday night and instead of clocking out and heading to happy hour for a bottle of Heineken, his favorite beer, Daniel is frantically getting ready, preparing his brief he needs to give once the Skype call connects. As the evening sky cooled down in Los Angeles, a bright early morning started in Seoul and so the real work started now..
Daniel works for PKI Industries, a small trading company that deals with automotive parts to major auto industries in Korea, Japan, and China. Their main headquarters are located in Seoul, but the office Daniel works at is their Los Angeles branch in the U.S. Their geography might be located in the heart of Americana, their values reflect heavily rooted traditions of workplace customs in Korea. They value camaraderie over personal space, expect overtime work without proper compensation, and program you to always say yes for an answer.
The company has the typical hierarchy of bosses. Daniel answers to not only to Chajang-nim, his direct supervisor in the mainland office, but to Bujang-nim, the managing director in Korea, to Gwajang-nim, the head director in Korea, and finally to Sajang-nim, the top boss, the CEO of PKI, in Korea. Daniel keeps two phones on him always. One personal iPhone 6 Plus for his non-existent social life and one Samsung Note 5 for his hyperactive work calls. He is on a on-call basis with the bosses that requires hims to pick up anytime they feel like calling. Time differences aren’t bothered in the needs of the company. “If it’s 4PM and you’re taking a shit you pick up. If it’s 4AM and you’re in deep slumber you pick up. If you don’t you pick up, you get your ass kicked from across the continent.”
2016 marks his second year with PKI and he has picked up all the social cues to survive: chain smoking, heavy drinking, and shit taking — from all his bosses that is. “I never smoked in my life. I did boxing in high school. I didn’t smoke or drink. Now I smoke almost a pack a day.” Daniel says as he lights up his fresh stick of Malboro Lights. “I remember the first day telling my boss that I didn’t smoke and he laughed, lit up a cigarette, gave it to me and said ‘Don’t shit me.’ Picked up the habit ever since.”
PKI sends Daniel on a business trip to Korea whenever they need him. He’s notified last minute most of the time. “The first time, I thought I’d be over there for only a week, so I only packed a week’s worth of clothes in my carrier. I ended up being there for six months.” He laughed as he shook his head. Now Daniel knows better to be over prepared than under. He packs a month’s worth even if his trip is estimated to be only for three days.
At the beginning of his career there were many culture shocks Daniel was exposed to. He was surprised on how much group time was asked for outside of work. “Koreans love camaraderie.” He says. His office team meets at 6 AM, every Friday, to play tennis. Afterwards, they all go to the sauna. A sauna is a basically a bathhouse and spa hybrid that’s frequented in the Korean community. “It was so weird seeing naked old dudes at first but now it’s more like ‘I don’t give a fuck’ and I go straight to the saltwater hot tub and relax.”
Most Saturday nights, after another long work day, they would head to Koreatown eat and drink together. These gatherings were supposed to build more jung, an emotion to describe a strong affection that is predominant foundation in building personal relationships in Korean culture. He saw his work family more than his real family. On Sundays, the only day he gets to himself, he goes to church, run errands, and do laundry. “I talk to my Chajang-nim more than I do with my dad. I should call my parents more.” Daniel laughs.
However, the real shock hit him while he was in Korea. There was a dark side to the beautiful, k-pop glittered, fast evolving world of Korea. Korea is known for their nightlife but it’s not just about bars and clubs. There is a not too surprising life of escorts called, do-oomis, who work in “room salons,” catering to men who pay them for company while they blow money on high shelf alcohol. Some just pour shots for men, some just sing the karaoke machine that is placed in every rooms, and some provide a little more for more, if the men are willing to spend that is. These girls are considered inferior and usually talked down upon. “‘Shut up and just pour my drink darling.’ That’s how men normally talk to these girls. It’s really sad.”
Korean businesses, who are operated by mostly men in their forties and fifties, happily or unhappily married with kids, come to these establishments to relieve their day to day stress from work. Corporates find providing these services to their business clients as a matter of respect. Jub-dae, which translates “to service”, is an official term to describe this. It isn’t something most Koreans are proud of as these things are shushed, projected on the ‘down low,’ but was no doubt real and happening. It’s even openly projected in Korean TV dramas.
“It was so shocking. These were married guys committing adultery. I was this good kid, who grew up in a Christian family. Seeing all that? It was on another level.” Daniel felt guilty. Though he wasn’t the one in charge of providing these illicit services, he was participating in it for the company. “I still have that guilt. Feeling like an enabler, you know? I’m pouring drinks, laughing, smoking acting like I’m having a great time too. In my mind I’m just going ‘What the hell am I doing here.’”
Born in 1991, in the rural country-side of Kyunggido Ichun, Daniel Soomin Chang was just as erratic. He was born in Korea but raised in an army base in Guantanamo Bay until he was three. His dad was serving the army and so his family was stationed there. “I was this dark little kid playing soccer with the Cuban boys. I blended right in.” Daniel recalls.
They moved to Los Angeles next where he lived for the next two years. When he turned six, he had to say goodbye to his family. His parents determined he was to live in Korea with his maternal grandmother back in Kyunggido. “I think they thought it was more stable for me to be in Korea.” Daniel says. “But I know it was because it was hard for them to take care of two kids at that time. My brother was younger so they needed to take care of the baby, you know?” Daniel took out another cigarette.
Daniel became assimilated in Korea, making friends and starting to really plant roots. That didn’t last long as his parents called him back to America. They got news from his grandmother that he was skipping school and wasn’t behaving. His parents who were worried decided it was time for him to come back and live with them again. “This back and forth moving and saying goodbye. It was so hard.” Daniel says as he lights his cigarette. “I was 13 when I came to the U.S. again barely knowing English. I had to learn all over again. New languages. New friends. All over again.” Daniel lets out a sigh with a billow of smoke.
“I love my work family. Even through all the shit I go through.” Daniel says. “They’re not these bad people yelling at you all the time. I’m actually pretty close to them.” Daniel picked up his phone to show me pictures of Gwajang-nim’s kids. “Aren’t they so cute? One time we were driving on the highway and the boy had to pee. I had to hold the bottle for him. He literally peed in my hand!” He continued to swipe his screens to show me more smiling faces of the toddlers. “All my bosses take care of me whenever I go to Korea,” His expenses are paid by the company, of course. “but Gwajang-nim goes the extra mile, constantly asking for my well being since day one. I appreciate that, you know?”
This job isn’t his endgame though. Daniel wants to save up the money he makes from PKI to ultimately do what passions for. He wants to go to Pharmacy school. He wants to buy a house for his family live in together. He wants to meet a girl that he doesn’t have to say goodbye to. “I have this mindset that anybody I get close to leaves. It’s hard for me to really attach to anyone. I hope I meet the girl that changes my mind.”
I ask him one last question. “Do you really think you will be able to leave PKI?” Daniel pondered for a good minute. He replied, “Who knows? I’ll stay if they pay me over six figures.” He laughed and took out another cigarette.
FLY ME TO THE MOON…ONE DAY
The second Daniel’s mind drifted elsewhere, million thoughts ran through his head. Did he send the invoice over? He could hear his supervisor cursing at him. “You little fuck! You know how much that can cost us?” Was Bujang-nim, the marketing director in Korea, going to call him anytime soon? If Chang didn’t pick as soon as he was calling, mind you the time difference didn’t exist in the needs of the company, he was going to get in mad trouble. “Are you avoiding my calls you prick?!” Had anybody else fucked up that required him to fix? “Do I look like I give a flying fuck who messed up? You should’ve fixed it.”
As if 15-hours weren’t enough to deal with all the shit, work carried on even when he was lying in the comfort of his own bed. Daniel would then toss and turn over in his blank white sheets as he shook off those thoughts. He tried to concentrate on the lulling pattern of the static and the crooning. And there it was again, his silence.
Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars.