Excerpted from “Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan” by Frank Ahrens.
Punishingly peppy K-pop music pounded in my ears. Secondhand cigarette smoke filled my lungs; my crisp blue dress shirt was now soaked with my own sweat and splattered with beef drippings and mysterious sauces that had been served with dinner earlier in the evening. Flashing colored lights cut through the dark, windowless room I’d been packed into with a dozen yelling, clapping, laughing, hugging Koreans. A karaoke screen projected animations of saucer-eyed children and song lyrics in English and Korean.
My wife had to be somewhere in the room, but she seemed to have slipped just beyond my reach as I was jostled by the exuberant crowd that shout-sang along with the two Koreans sharing a microphone. And here I was: sopping wet, laughing, singing incoherently and hugging people I’d met only five days earlier. Welcome to Korea.
I had expected South Korea to be more sterile. I’d had this feeling that South Korea existed 30 or so years in the future, where things are cleaner and more orderly. With its booming growth, strong democracy, ultrafast Internet, supersmart students and all the impeccably groomed Koreans I saw using next-generation Samsung and LG electronics in the TV ads I watched online, South Korea turned out to be that — and something else: a gritty, bare-knuckled uppercut to the jaw. The noise, the crowds, the traffic, the powerful smells, the nonstop visual stimulation — the all-night partying, the street protests, the fistfights in parliament — all combined to stagger me.
My wife, Rebekah, and I arrived in Seoul in October 2010 after a 13-hour nonstop flight from Washington, D.C. Rebekah was about to begin a two-year posting in the U.S. Foreign Service at the American Embassy. I was to take over as director of global public relations for Hyundai Motor Co. We had both left The Washington Post.
We had been married for only three months when we uprooted ourselves, taking new jobs in new careers. I had left a 21-year career as a journalist to make one leap into public relations and another leap to living outside America for the first time.
What did we know about South Korea coming in? Little more than most Americans do: It’s the most wired nation on earth, the kids are ultra-high-achievers in academics, and they eat kimchi. Surrounded by our LG flat-screen TVs, Samsung smartphones, and Hyundai and Kia cars, most Americans know Korea for its powerhouse consumer brands — and perhaps for the murderous Kim dynasty in the North, whose periodic outbursts alternate between lethal threats and farce.
As for what the worklife was like there, I had no idea. My first taste let me know how vastly different corporate cultures can be.
At the end of my first week of work, my team at Hyundai invited me to a welcome dinner. In truth, it was my boss, Mr. Lee, who invited me and my team to dinner. I had not met or even heard of Mr. Lee until my first day.
Mr. Lee had planned a customary Korean work night out, the sort of forced socialization, I would come to realize, that was common in Asian business. Your availability to the company begins before 8 a.m. Monday and ends on Friday night pretty much when your boss decides it’s time to call it quits.
The twist was that I had brought Rebekah to dinner. This was wholly unexpected by my team, as wives do not attend work social functions. As it was explained to me, if my wife and I hosted, say, the 100-day party for our newborn — a Korean custom — the wife of my team leader might attend. But every other work-social function, she would not attend. It just wasn’t done.
Not aware of this custom, Rebekah and I met the team at a Korean barbecue restaurant, where the meat is served with greens and noodles and tubers and pickled tubers — everything but barbecue sauce.
This was the first example of a phenomenon our State Department sponsors had told us about: “Welcome to Korea, the land of Almost, Not Quite.” What they meant was that Korea, or at least Seoul, looks familiar to Westerners accustomed to large cities. But as you dive in, you find things are just a little ... off to us: Backing into parking spaces is the rule rather than the exception. No trash cans in any public space: office, sidewalk, theater, anywhere. The utter absence of voice mail. Cleaning women showing up in the men’s bathroom while it’s occupied. Business attire worn in the office with bedroom slippers. Green flashing lights on ambulances. Car navigation screens showing live TV that drivers watch while they’re driving. Communal plates at meals.
We gathered around a table in a private room. Mr. Lee sat in the middle of one long side, the seat always occupied by the highest-status person. I sat across from him.
The evening started off pleasantly enough. Then the soju came out. Soju is the national drink. Soju — like vodka in Russia — is more than just a drink. It is the means to team-building at work and relationship-bonding outside of work. I had read about the Korean drinking culture. Indeed, during my first interview with Hyundai, I was asked, “Do you drink alcohol? Your team will want to show respect to you by giving you drinks.” I told my Korean interviewer that I enjoy a good beer and glibly added that I was sure there were other ways my team could demonstrate their respect.
I was wrong.
By most reports, Koreans drink more alcohol than anyone on Earth. A lot more. According to a 2014 European survey, Koreans downed an average of 11 shots per week, more than double their closest rival, Russians, with five.
Problem No.1: I myself am not really a drinker. Neither is my wife. That is to say, we don’t get drunk, for reasons of faith and health.
Each guest at our welcome dinner table had a shot glass for soju and a larger glass — about the size of a bathroom sink glass — for beer. Both were kept full. Then emptied. Then filled, and so on. In Korea, it is polite to pour the drinks for your tablemates and considered rude if their glasses go empty. You pour either with two hands on the bottle or the right hand on the bottle and the left hand respectfully touching your right elbow. The person receiving the drink holds their glass respectfully with two hands. Then they return the pour. My new teammates would either toast “Geonbae,” which means “To your health,” or “Wehayo,” which simply means “To your ...” (fill in the blank: to your health, to your business success, whatever).
Pretty soon, everyone was shouting “One shot!” and downing the soju shots. As the dinner progressed and everyone got drunker and more red-faced, variations on the “one shot” appeared: the “love shot,” where two drinkers loop arms, their faces close together, and down the shot; the shot where you prove you’ve downed your shot by turning the glass upside down over your head; and the Korean “bomb shot,” called a boilermaker in the States, where you drop your shot of soju into your beer, down it all in one drink, and rattle the glasses to prove they’re empty while your drinking mates cheer.
The ringleader was Ben, my team leader. Ben was, like most Hyundai men his age, a Hyundai lifer and a patriot. “First job, last job,” they would all say. Once, when asked why he liked working for Hyundai, he said, “It makes me proud to help make Korea strong.” Like many Koreans in business, Ben had taken an English first name because Koreans fear their Korean names are too difficult for Westerners to pronounce.
As a team leader, it was Ben’s job to execute Hyundai executives’ orders, wherever they may come, like army sergeants carrying out an officer’s orders. But that’s the Western way of looking at it. I would come to understand that Ben thought of himself as a father or a big brother to his subordinate team members.
Ben’s attitude was just one of the many profound ways the concept of Confucianism — Korea’s de facto national religion — weaves its way into every strand of Korean life.
Ben was also emblematic of Korean working stiffs in another way: He was a gireogi appa, or “goose daddy.” In the way that male geese fly far from their nests for long periods to gather food for their families, as the folklore goes, Korean gireogi appa sacrifice time with their families to provide for them by furthering their careers with Hyundai. This means living on opposite sides of the world, sometimes for years, missing births, anniversaries and huge chunks of childhoods, save for a couple of short visits per year, to take the job Hyundai has assigned. In Ben’s case, his family had followed him to a Hyundai posting years earlier in the United States and stayed behind when he was recalled to Korea. He saw his wife and kids once, maybe twice a year.
For this evening’s activities, Ben’s job was to incite heavy drinking and high-volume merriment, and he ran quite a show. There was yelling, laughing, and cross-talking, and team members mocking each other, and “Wehayo!” shouted three times in a hearty toast, and people running around the table to pour soju for each other — and especially for my boss, Mr. Lee.
At one point I asked Rebekah, “Have you ever seen anything like this before?” The last time I had seen anyone drinking this way was during quarter-beer nights at West Virginia University in the 1980s.
In the United States, with its more relaxed offices, work culture and after-work behavior weren’t all that different. In Korea, you behave one way at work and another outside of work.
Just when I thought the commotion had reached its highest pitch, someone pushed a button on the table, summoning the waitress, and more meat was ordered. And more beer.
After two hours of saturnalia, we were shocked to discover that we had completed only Round One of the evening. Round Two is noraebang, which means “song room,” which means karaoke.
Problem No. 2: I don’t really do karaoke. And that’s an issue because karaoke is no joke in Asia. Every year, there are reports from the Philippines or Thailand or China or Japan about stabbings because someone was intolerably butchering a version of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” which is an anthem of Asian salarymen — because, I think, Asian salarymen don’t get to do anything their way.
We all piled out of the restaurant, walked to a nearby noraebang and crammed into a room with banquettes. Thick plastic-covered songbooks in English and Korean were handed around. The music started and one of my team members began singing while everyone else started clapping and singing along. Ben ordered soju and the action escalated as the strobe lights kicked in and the dancing started.
After an hour or so, sweaty and exhausted, bloated from grilled meat, heads spinning, my wife and I begged out and asked to be driven home. The team was disappointed. Apparently, there could have been a Round Three in the offing.
We piled into the back seat of the black Hyundai sedan sent for us and slumped together, holding hands. I felt like I’d been blown through a jet engine, then used to mop the floor of a frat house the morning after an epic party.
Our silent Korean driver weaved through the endless red brake lights of Seoul traffic, seemingly as heavy at 11 p.m. as it had been during the morning rush hour. Through the tinted windows of our sedan we saw sidewalks packed with well-dressed Koreans window-shopping and taking selfies. Dancing videos promoting products and Korean soap operas stretched several stories high on buildings, turning darkness into a pulsing, multicolored daylight.
Rebekah and I looked at each other with the same question on our faces. Where were we headed? Home?
Copyright © 2016 by Frank Ahrens. “Seoul Man” will be published Aug. 16 by HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Ahrens is now a public relations executive in Washington.
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