The story of how I got rich begins in 2014 with an eighth grader named Shi-woo. He was the dumbest person I’d ever met. English? Shit, kid couldn’t speak Korean. He didn’t really have eyes, just a sign on his face that read no one’s home. A wiry little shrimp of a kid on the high-speed KTX train to nowhere. I caught him smoking in the bathroom one afternoon and made him flush the cigs. He started sobbing, and I had the profound realization that, whoa, perhaps smoking was all he had. We’ve seen this movie before, he was that stock character, the kid who no one believed in.
Everyone needs a project, and Shi-woo became mine. We met every day at 5 a.m. on the soccer field and ran through language drills with flash cards. Every time he got a word wrong, he owed me ten pushups and a fast lap. There was shouting, crying, “Eye of the Tiger” (obviously) blaring from a boom box. There was a quiet, sunlit moment when I gave the kid a headband and a solemn nod of approval. It was a reverse Miyagi situation: an older American putting a young Asian through his paces. But Lord, that Shi-woo kid trained like Rocky. You gotta want it, and boy did he ever.
A few weeks later, at the end of Shi-Woo’s training montage, he was bilingual. Andnot only was he more jacked than Rocky (he had to walk sideways through doors) but he spoke English better than Rocky, too, which isn’t actually that hard when you think about it. He went on more dates in one month than I will in my entire lifespan. The kid even wrangled an early acceptance to Harvard. Everyone slow-clapped as he boarded the train for the airport.Yes, we’ve seen this movie before, it’s the heartwarming saga you’ll find on the Hallmark Channel.
With Shi-woo gone, I thought it was all over. But no sir, he was just the opening act, the first movie in the franchise.One night a middle-aged Korean couple knocked on my apartment door. They’d heard I was a man who knew how to get things done, particularly in the realm of unmotivated Korean middle-schoolers. I didn’t dispute that.
So, this couple’s seventh grade son? “Computer games!” the father cried. “All day, he play. All day, he play. No study! Never study!”
Ah, the games. They’re a way of life here, man. Korea doesn’t really have a drug problem, but because everyone needs a vice, computer games have stepped in as the nation’s addiction of choice. Korea is now dealing with a generation of lost boys, keen on pixels, meh on life purpose. Big on PC Bangs (internet cafes), not quite as big on traditional bangs. It’s the source of much parental handwringing here, because how will the son be able to provide for the parents during the frail yearsif the only skills he has involve herding Gremlins in League of Legends? (Disclosure: I’ve never played League of Legends.)
“Can you help?” the mother asked.
I nodded and cracked my knuckles. I told them I needed keys to their apartment, a list of subjects their child was falling behind in, and all parental rights signed over to me for a two-week period, during which they would be allowed no contact with their son.
“If we were going to do this,” I said. “We have to do it right.”
That night, Reverse Myagi Enterprises, LLC (RME) was born.
I recruited some other teachers and we got busy, picking up some ski masks and renting a blacked-out minivan. What happened on our first raid became our blueprint, our standard operating procedure:
-Use keys provided by parents to enter the premises.
-Kick open door to student’s bedroom (you got to kick it), flip on lights, commence screaming.
-Rip student’s computer power cords out of the wall.
-Smash monitor screen, throw computer and screen out window.
-Put a hood over student’s head and carry him to minivan.
When we pull off their hoods, the addicts find themselves at a campsite near (where else?) the DMZ. Welcome to Reverse Miyagi’s base of operations. Welcome to the absence of a wi-fi connection, aka Hell.
The first thing the addicts see is their smartphone being tossed onto a grill, doused with lighter fluid and ignited as we tell them they will never see their family again. The second thing they see is the barbed-wire perimeter, and us Miyagis standing in a circle around them, clad in bank-robber black.
The first phase of the program: break the mind. That was easy, in this place of barbed wire and strange abductors, so close to North Korea that you can smell the hopelessness drifting over on the morning wind. Next phase: break the body. We worked them hard, 0400-2400, through a program jam-packed full of custom Miyagi favorites, such as:
-Pick all the bark off a tree, affix blindfold, then glue every piece of bark back onto the trunk in its original spot. Oh, you missed a piece? Do it again, In-Seong.
-Go wild boar hunting armed with nothing but your wits and a dull metal chopstick. Oh, you didn’t kill a boar today? Then you don’t eat today. (Disclosure: I’m not entirely sure if South Korea has wild boars.)
-Hold eight ounces of water in mouth, run a sub-six minute mile. Oh, did you swallow a drop on the way to the finish? You have to run again.
-Roll down a mountainside in a barrel, exit barrel at the bottom and walk one hundred yards in a straight line. Oh, you couldn’t do it? Then have to push your fattest friend back up the mountain in the barrel.
Oh, you don’t want to do any of these things? Then study. Welcome to the final phase: Rebuild. You study, young nerds. Hey, you’re already halfway there because you’re a gamer nerd, you just need to become a different kind of nerd. The academic kind, who wears sweaters over dress shirts. Knowledge is power, and girls like men with both. Ears perk up as this maxim is uttered. Expect frequent quizzes to check your progress, kids. Oh, you got a question wrong? Back to the bark tree, Ye-jun, back to the bark tree.
The students were enduring severe dopamine withdrawals andhad the shakes something fierce their first day off of computer games. Day 2, we saw signs of improvement. They could make eye contact and memorize vocab words again; the mental fluff was clearing. Day 5, they were listing the elements on the Periodic Table so quickly I’m not even sure if Kendrick Lamar could have done it any faster. The digital death grip was broken.
On Day 14? Surprise, it’s graduation day. Here’s your headband, Ji-hoon; you can go home now. Your parents gave us a wimp made of Play-Dough and we sent them back a man, chiseled out of granite. Your parents sent us quiet creatures of little consequence, only amused by blinking lights and computerized trolls, and we sent them back Socratic wonders, Thinkers of the highest order.
And boy, did these jacked geniuses ever crush it when they got home. Reverse Miyagi grads and sent former bullies to the hospital by the busload. Reverse Miyagi grads went to university in America at age 14. Reverse Miyagi grads got in more trouble with the fairer sex than post-Titanic Leonardo. Reverse Miyagi parents blubbered through tears of gratitude as they handed us fat envelopes of won. They hit up their friends and gushed about us on Kakao Talk, and the legend of Reverse Miyagi spread faster than herpes at Burning Man. That last sentence gets funnier the more you think about it.
Us Miyagis took on clients from Incheon all the way to Busan, even wrangled up a few from Jeju-do. Occasionally, we’d work a discount group rate with some parents and stage an evening raid on a PC Bang and abduct 15-20 students at once. Small mountains of dandruff fell onto conference room tables in offices of America’s Ivy Leagues as admissions officers scratched their heads, trying to come up with an explanation for the explosive spike in quality Korean applicants.
Now, I don’t mean to make it seem like everything was all peaches and sunshine. The dark forces of trouble were massing just over the horizon. As test scores nationwide were skyrocketing, the once-sterling share prices of Korean gaming companies were now flaccid and sagging. Being that gaming is a $9 billion-a-year industry here, some antsy CEOs got nervous and summoned silver-tongued “fixers,” you know, the guys with slicked hair and pocket squares, into Seoul boardrooms to talk options. All of said options were on the table, and of course the option they settled on was “Hitmen. Lots of hitmen.”
Now, a lesser person would be worried about such a thing, but that’s because a lesser person doesn’t have bodyguards like mine. Oh man, my guys are next-level. Miyagi grads all, they’d fight, bleed, pillage, and die for me. Hitmen come after me on the daily, as I zipline down to my limo from my Gangnam penthouse (I’m rich now, remember) and are swiftly neutralized by my team. They wear headbands, and all they carry are chopsticks. That’s all they need, because when they see a hitman, what they really see is a wild boar.
Hey, why not go global? Reader, is your kid too good at Call of Duty, yet he doesn’t know when the War of 1812 started? Send him over here to Reverse Miyagi, LLC. Give us your hunched, your asthmatic, your slothful. Tell him Korea’s a cool place for gaming. We’ll meet him at the airport and take it from there.