My weird co-teacher, Jay, invited me to what he described as a “technology conference” in Seoul. Having zero idea what that actually meant and it only being my first week in Korea, I acquiesced.
Jay picked me up at 7am sharp. There was an old woman riding shotgun. He would not introduce us, insisting she didn’t like foreigners, which was fine by me. She didn’t exactly strike me as a barrel full of monkeys herself.
The soundtrack of our trek was peppered with lurid descriptions of sexy twenty-somethings disrobing each other with their teeth in a club. I doubt the old woman understood the lyrics, but she seemed to enjoy the beats.
The conference center was huge. A weird, beige device on a pedestal was being ogled by people in suits. I was woefully under-dressed. Before I got a chance to see the doohickey, we were escorted into a mammoth auditorium complete with jumbotrons and pyrotechnics. It must have seated thousands. It all felt vaguely cultish. Throw on a couple cloaks and mutter some Gregorian chants and you wouldn’t be surprised to glance to your left and spy a virgin girl being sacrificed to an ocelot-faced god with plesiosaur flippers on a throne made of spinal columns.
Jay tried to explain to me what was going on. Apparently we were about to hear from some American spokespeople. They would announce their future plans, present current financial holdings, award top sellers, and initiate new members. Jay told me that if I joined “his company” and worked for him I could make a profit if I hired sellers beneath me.
“So it’s a pyramid scheme,” I said flatly.
“What?” Jay was visibly disturbed. “No, no, no. See, we all work together to make a profit. You broaden your sales network so you move higher up and make more money.”
“That’s what a pyramid scheme is, Jay.”
“But isn’t that a negative term?” I realized I was meant to be his “in” into the American market and Jay was distraught at the prospect of losing me.
“Look, Jay, I’m not a salesman and it’s my first week at a new job in a new country.”
Jay went on about making money for a secure future and took me down to the front where I shook hands with a man who claimed to have been an ambassador to Israel before he started selling salesmen. “Right, pal,” I think I said, perhaps too audibly. All of the American speakers were like caricatures of sleazy businessmen from bad 80s movies. Yet the throng of eager followers filling the hall was completely taken in. The old lady from the car? She ate it all up. Miss Personality herself. I tried to imagine her sour puss calling her grandkids trying to peddle whatever techo-hokum this snake oil factory was barfing up.
“You know, Donald Trump used to own part of this company,” Jay said, still trying to entice me.
“I don’t really like Donald Trump.” I said.
“But…he’s rich. And he has a TV show. He is very famous. I don’t understand you, Jonny.” He called me Jonny. Jay hung his head, the dollar bill signs in his eyes fading, trying to decide if he was more confused or frustrated. He determined it was the latter.
The conference went on for—I kid you not—over eight hours. After around the third sales award was bestowed to a dumpy middle-aged woman brought out on a palanquin covered in balloons paraded through a gauntlet of indoor fireworks, I left the hall and wandered the facility by myself. Jay was defeated. I found the pedestal that had been admired earlier. All this brouhaha over what looked like the world’s clunkiest answering machine.
“It’s a video caller,” a smartly dressed woman said.
“This is what they’re talking about in there?”
“Yes,” she smiled. “If you have this device you can see your friends when they call you.”
“So it’s like skype?” Or kakao or facetime or any other of the hundreds of video chat apps already in use.
She began fidgeting. “In the future everyone will have one. This screen let’s you see your friends or family.”
The screen looked like a pixelated 1990 computer monitor compressed to about 3-inches. I eyed the hefty pricetag attached to the antiquated gimmick box.
“You do know this is 2012, right?”
Originally published for 10 Magazine August 2015 issue.