I FOUND out a few weeks back that there was soon to be a company retreat. Attendance would be mandatory. No matter. I wanted to go anyway. I was curious about what to expect - especially as the email announcing the trip was in Korean, only partially translated by a Korean-speaking Brit in the office.
I'd heard of these things before - camping in woods and songs around the fire, all the while being reminded of how indispensable you are to the company. Touching. We don't really go in for such sentimental guff in Ireland. To me, it has always seemed a very American, and strange, concept. I've never felt like I needed to be loved by any employer. So long as I'm paid and have some sense of self-worth, I can handle being a cog in a machine. At least that metallic, grinding sound rings true.
But in Korea, a business can sometimes be seen as a sort of a family. A sort of family which you are obliged to drink with and spend far too much of your time. So last Friday, the whole office, me included, filled two buses and headed down the country. I wasn't really sure what to expect. I'd have been happy with a free meal. And a night's sleep in a bed. What bliss that would be.
We arrived in the evening. For the first time in three months I could smell the countryside. It smelt like pig shit. Ah, back to nature at last. After a canteen dinner, we had speeches from the CEO and managing editor – in Korean. I did my best to look engaged. It wasn’t easy.
But the language barrier had obviously been factored into the next bit of the evening, where the English-speaking staff members – all five of us – were sent off by themselves to discuss ways to improve the company. The list we came up was long.
Our education for the evening was done. The fun could begin. Everyone filtered into a large hall with a stage and tables assigned by newsroom desk – culture, national, business and new media. There were beers on every table. And a bottle of Scotch. Nice.
An MC entertained the crowd – in Korean. But I knew when to laugh at least. Laughter sounds the same in any language. Throughout the night he doled out prizes like he was Santa Clause. And not just any old tat: smartphones, pane tickets and more. I wondered how much this was costing the company. Perhaps not too much. After all, for a smartphone they could bloody well have my soul.
Then an (apparently) up and coming Korean hip hop/R ‘n’ B boy group hit the stage. “One Way” was emblazoned on their baseball shirts and caps. Now, I dislike hip hop more than almost anything in this world. Its rampant egotism and vapid ravings about sex make me die inside a little every time I hear it.
But these guys were good. They could sing and were on the decidedly cuter, less I’ve-spent-10-in-a-state-penitentiary end of the scale. Somewhat untypically for the genre, the audience was neither informed of the number of women the group had slept with nor the number of rivals killed. A soft boiled egg would have been as hard.
Then it was our turn. A talent show for the employees. Plenty of people in the office could hold a tune, I found out. One guy I’d never seen in my life at the office played the sax. I stumbled through the Backstreet Boys with a guitar.
At the end everyone was compelled to form a circle and hold hands. Yes, really. Hold hands. Then, one by one, each person had to go around the circle shaking hands and doling out hugs. It was a beautiful moment. Or something.
After that, the drink flowed, and flowed, and ran dry. I got to bed at 4am. We had to be up at 8am for another meeting and kickball. But it proved to be more then a fair trade. The next morning I won two plane tickets to Jeju Island, Korea’s premier honeymoon destination. Not too shabby. Two tickets, though.
The question was: who would I bring?