If you haven’t noticed, this is my third book about Korea in a row. Last year, I was in Korea, so I guess, it’s sort of a reliving of my experience and sentiments left there. Seoul Man is about a white American Washington Post journalist who lands a job as Hyundai’s Director of Global Communications, a somewhat manufactured title. It sort of reminds me of how Chinese businesses will hire white actors to give their companies an international allure. But you then wonder if Hyundai is using the author as much as he is using them. After all, he’s a career journalist, and now he has a front row seat to one of Korea’s largest chaebols or basically government-colluding, family-run oligopolies as it undergoes a transformation that mirrors the nation and a middle-aged man like the author.
South Korea has achieved a lot in a very short period of time. Much of it is due to years of oppression under the Japanese which planted the seeds of insecurity and low self-esteem which drove it to become so successful so quickly. South Koreans have sacrificed tremendously for all this economic power and clout. South Korean children spend horrendous amounts of energy and time studying. Their social and recreational lives are set aside. Their father spends all his time at the office (not necessarily working but also socializing to build the team up). The mother spends her time tutoring and raising the kids. Is this any way to live your life? But then you have to ask yourself, compared to what? Had South Korea not pushed itself so aggressively, it might look more like Thailand or Vietnam. Much of its population would be living in Third World poverty and they would be working just as hard but for less money. Whether you like it or not, outside of the Western world, if you’re not working your ass off, you’re falling further and further behind, and when that happens, you become a victim of Western hegemony and resource exploitation and constructed conflicts and wars.
I honestly doubt that anyone in any leadership position will sit back and go, okay, we need to just relax and enjoy the fruits of our labors. Kids shouldn’t study so hard and young men shouldn’t spend all their time in the office. Instead, they should go home at 6 PM and enjoy the evening with their families. This is not going to happen. What the leaders are probably thinking is this. How do we innovate to compete with the West without sacrificing our incredible work ethic and conservative society? The answer is liberalization, which I must be careful to explain precisely. I’m talking about liberties not progressivism and the state becoming a social engineer and controlling social behavior and problems. The knowledge and information society arises from freedoms, freedom of expression, freedom to explore, freedom to experiment. Bay area entrepreneurs are dropping acid, floating in sensory deprivation tanks, meditating in sweat lodges, smoking Ayahuasca. They’re asking incredibly deep, fundamental, existential questions and sometimes there are some hugely profitable commercial applications. I’m not entirely sure that we’ll see Korean entrepreneurs dropping acid and gong to raves anytime soon, but what the Koreans will probably compromise with is a willingness to innovate, experiment, and embrace the more creative elements of society. Certainly, they have and will continue to import Western culture. But of course, they will want to have their cake and eat it too, embracing Western culture for profit but also keeping their conservative culture intact.
If you have ever worked in a large corporation or large government agency, you haven’t encountered hell. Korea has taken that to the nth degree as the author explains. Korean corporations are strictly hierarchical. You call everyone below you by their first name and everyone above you by their last name. While Koreans can be animated and convivial at dinner parties after work, at work, they appear to be extremely anal and narrow-focused. There is scant socializing, even in emails. Emails are official communications and it is improper to email someone below you especially on another team. In order to get information, you have to have someone of similar rank on the other team contact the person. It’s all absurd, but speaks to the Confucian as well as military and corporate mentality of Korea. There used to be a part of me that was curious what it might be like to work in Korea, but after reading this book, there is no way in hell. In fact, just visiting Korea has now made me weary of the perhaps countless cultural transgressions I’ve committed. For instance, I bow to nobody. In a very American fashion, I converse freely and informally with everyone regardless of their station, age, gender, wealth, title, or job. But of course, as a foreigner, I get away with it, but none-the-less, I can only imagine how odd I seem. Imagine if some very white dude who was raised in Korea, comes to America, and he’s extremely formal and is highly reverent to people “above” him and highly dismissive and casual toward people “below” him. You would go, what the fuck is wrong with you? At work, he would come across as totally anal and a kiss-ass. Sure you would forgive him a little for the cultural gap, but none-the-less you wouldn’t help but judge him by your own standards and values and not his. This is exactly how they must view and treat me. Whenever I stay at a luxury hotel in Korea, the staff are exceptionally polite and kind. But because I look young and also can’t speak Korean, elsewhere I often get dismissive and curt treatment. In America, you talk with servers, and a lot of this is the basis for a tip. Understandably, they don’t tip in Europe or Asia, because a lot of times, people think they are above servers, and so the server would be impolite and disrespectful to talk to you in a casual manner.
One of the things that I had guessed that this book confirmed is that Koreans don’t mingle. America is the great social experiment, and since you often live far from your family and high school friends, Americans love to engage strangers and try to develop new friendships. Americans are also like merchants. We network. This is one of the keys to America’s entrepreneurial success. We mingle at clubs like the Rotary and Kiwanis and Lions or Freemasons and from that, we learn of a someone retiring from his business and then we buy it and become rich. In Korean bars, nobody just hangs out at a bar. I made that mistake ONCE. They kept asking me if I wanted to eat, and they must have been shocked to learn that I just wanted to drink and meet strangers. The only bars where you meet strangers are called Western bars which are, naturally, filled with Westerners. But the funny thing is, even in Western bars, they are loath to mingle with strangers. Perhaps it’s just the Europeans, or perhaps they’ve just been so long in country, they just got used to strangers not mingling. The crazy thing is, I really think Millennials are adopting this mentality. I think Millennials are so used to interacting electronically that they simply lack the skills to approach people physically and engage them. Call me old-fashioned, but there is nothing more boring in the world than not being able to talk to strangers and get a fresh, new perspective on the world, or even share your perspective with them.
I always love reading books by journalist, as the author notes, their job is to take a topic they often know nothing about and explain it to you in clear, concise, layperson terms but also get straight to the core or most entertaining elements of that topic. A lot of other writers get bogged down in technical detail, in trivial unrelated digressions, in inappropriate examples or anecdotes, in distracting side thoughts, in missing the point, in downplaying the drama or humor, basically in being horrible storytellers. Journalists are often the best storytellers who don’t leave you scratching your head or feeling like you’ve gained or learned nothing. The author does an incredible job explaining Korean culture and mentality. Quite frankly, he does one of the best jobs I’ve ever experienced covering Korean culture. I read a book called The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies by Michael Breen that was remarkably insightful, but that was nearly 20 years ago, so I’ve forgotten a lot of it. The author also takes note of culture shock, and I remember reading a book called Culture Shock, but I forget if it’s the one written by H.E. Rybol. Basically what they all say is that your frustrations are your fault. You’re looking at another culture through the lens of Western, American, individualistic, or whatever culture or religion you came from. People who grew up in your culture are expected to behave or think a certain way, and when they don’t, they are being fake, antagonistic, rude, or discordant on purpose. It’s called cognitive dissonance, and it’s about at uncomfortable and stressful as modern pop music. But when you encounter someone from a different culture, you have to be flexible and forgiving. When they do something uncharacteristic of your culture, they are not trying to annoy you or stress you out. And chances are, you’re doing things that annoy or stress them out. In fact, the most annoyed or stressed out people are those who are sheltered in any culture, those who don’t travel or at least interact often with foreigners.
One of the saddest things about growing up with immigrant parents from another culture is that there is culture shock within the family. If you are a child who moves to America, your main goal is to fit in. Last thing a child wants is to stand out because they are too short, too tall, too big, too small, or too foreign or odd in any way, shape, or form. But it also meant ditching my mother’s culture and mannerisms. Me and my siblings often chastised my mother for things she did that were perfectly fine in her culture but an oddity in American culture. At the same time, she must have also been annoyed or shocked by things we did that were disapproved of in her culture, particularly America’s more liberal embrace of diversity and social mores. If you think culture shock is annoying when you travel, imagine having to deal with it every day with your very own children. What the author learns is that a lot of friction and social awkwardness could have been avoided with a little more understanding and flexibility. When I imagine going to Korea to work there is what I like to call the Star Trek syndrome. I imagine going there to teach all those conservative, backward folks about the American way of mingling with strangers, ditching the hierarchical system, and treating everyone with equal respect or at least the image of that. I think of myself as an asset, because I’ve grown up in a more technologically advanced and economically superior country with greater innovations and entrepreneurial, creative spirit. It’s like the starship Enterprise going around and teaching all the backwards, warring, bigoted, ignorant aliens about superior human culture and social manners. But does it ever occur to you that we may be the ones with the inferior, backwards culture and social manners?
While you can’t argue that America has the most technologically advanced economy with the most patents and Nobel prizes, you could also argue that this is due in large part because we attract the most intelligent minds in the world. This is an error of attribution. You look at a dominant NBA team like Golden State or Cleveland and go, wow, something about the water in the Bay Area or Cleveland that makes great basketball players. Of course, you don’t. You know that the best players go to Golden State or Cleveland, because they are already the best. Likewise, back when Europe was a greater power than America, the best minds of Asia went to Europe to learn and work and not America. Americans so often attribute their greatness to American ingenuity, hard work, a liberal society, and its diversity, but often forget that America first stole much of its land from Mexico and the Native Americans, we stole labor from Africa, and in order to finance two world wars, Europe transferred much of their wealth (which was also stolen) to America. Certainly, Americans possess ingenuity, work hard, and is more diverse than the rest of the world, but when you look at someone like Bill Gates, there are perhaps hundreds of thousands of Americans who are just as smart and hardworking, but it was mostly luck that Bill Gates found himself at the right moment, at the right time to provide an operating system to infant computer makers. Rich people and lucky people often internalize their success whereas poor and unlucky people tend to externalize their failure. It’s human nature. Therefore, America internalizes its success while Iraq may externalize their failure and blame America and Jews for everything. There are many countries with diversity that causes strife and conflict like Iraq and Yugoslavia before it broke up. There are many countries with great talent and industrious workers like India, but all the talent leaves because India still grapples with archaic, stifling economic policies. So what does make America great?
Fact is, if I went to Korea to teach those backwards newly First World folks about the American way and how that is the path to success, they would not view me as a savior or godsend but rather a condescending, arrogant, disruptive, irritating oaf. They would rather try to bend me and teach me their ways which they consider superior. They might argue, yes, America is number one, but your empire is crumbling, your people are unhappy, crime is higher, drug addiction is greater, you mistreat your minorities, you bomb foreign countries, and we have accomplished more in the last five decades than you have, so we are in ascent as you are in decline. I think this is perhaps because you are too individualistic and don’t respect those who have greater experience and authority than you. There was a time when Asians worshipped and revered anything Western. Asians not only have incredible respect for Western CEOs but they also have high respect for Western professors, artists, and musicians. However, this is not the case any longer. Asia has left its pre-teen years when it once adored its parents and is now charging ahead on its own course. It now often questions its parents or the Western ways as it learns about strife, inequality, conflict, and faults with Western culture. What the author probably did not realize is that Hyundai didn’t bring him on to learn from him the Western ways and how to improve based on what he knew. Rather, they were more interested in simply using him as a tool to interact with Western journalists, and his Western ways were more of a humorous and sometimes annoying feature rather than a symbol of Western power and greatness that should be worshipped, adored, and imitated.
Keep in mind, this may not be the case in China which is newly emerging. But in Korea, I initially thought they were inundated with American culture and saw American movies and TV shows and worshipped Americans. While some do, I was shocked that the Korean government tightly controls just how much foreign culture they get which protected their infant pop culture and allowed it to become so popular and powerful. In other words, Koreans are full of themselves. They know well that other Asian countries adore their pop stars and this is spreading to the Middle East, South America, and Africa (and even America). While you may view their ubiquitous eyelid surgery as an indication that they adore Western standards of beauty, they have also created their own, new standard of beauty that they think is superior to the West. Their pop culture industry has created an icon of beauty that is both unrealistic but also no longer Western. The iconic Korean woman is slender yet curvy, double-eyelids, big eyes, v-shaped pointy faced, and what I recently realized is that their faces are tiny. They even call it a “CD-face,” a face that can be totally covered by a CD. I call them shrunken heads, because once you notice it, then you realize just how odd it is. There is a video that Anna Kendrick made with a K-pop band. You would think Anna Kendrick is petite, but compared to the K-pop girls, her head appears disproportionately large. While Koreans may think a tall blonde may be attractive as a novelty, I think many would consider the Western standard of beauty as too big, too curvy, with hands, feet, and head that is disproportionately too large. For someone raised entirely in Western culture, I find this shocking. They say that North Koreans are now three inches shorter than their Southern counterparts, but if South Koreans keep fetishizing shrunken heads, in a few generations, not only will they be three inches taller than their Northern counterparts, their heads will be 30% smaller.
There really was a time when I considered myself average-looking in America yet great-looking in Korea, but so quickly I was schooled that by Korean standards of male beauty, I was more like Shrek. Even for men, the Korean standard of beauty is almost feminine. The man has an impossibly slender figure. I’m more muscular and stout. Their face is also tiny, about half my size. They wear mascara and have super long choppy bangs. I have no interest in spending more than 30 seconds styling my hair in the morning. Their jawline is feminine and looks like a ‘v.’ My one looks more like a square. And increasingly, they too are getting double eyelid surgery. Of course, just like Western standards of beauty, the vast majority of Koreans look nothing like that and just like America, the majority look basically like your typical Walmart crowd. Unlike the West of today (as opposed to the 50s), Korea’s standard of beauty is narrow, and they use beautiful, young people more in their ads, music, and TV shows. In the West, we have countless ugly people in ads, music, and TV shows, in fact, you can almost call it a theme which started with David Letterman using Larry ‘Bud’ Melvin as a super-foil. TV shows and ads are inundated with the Larry ‘Bud’ Melvin superhero for the ordinary, to name a few: Napoleon Dynamite, Jimmy Kimmel’s Guillermo, Michael Cera, Amy Schumer, Melissa McCarthy, Kal Penn. The effect in Korea is that there is tremendous pressure to look good. The story is not so much about how much the Koreans get plastic surgery to fit an impossible beauty standard but rather how much it costs them. Korean parents and grandparents are indoctrinated to believe that they must sacrifice everything for their children, so it is not surprising that not only would they use all their savings to pay for their children’s education and private tutoring, but they would also likely pay for their plastic surgery in order to help them succeed in getting a more desirable, richer husband (or just an ordinary wife for that matter). Many middle class parents probably live like lower class people while many working class parents live in utter poverty just for the sake of their children.
Westerners are impressed or feel sorry for how much Asians work and sacrifice (by the way, long hours at the office do not necessarily mean nonstop work, much can be spent taking breaks, napping, smoking, or goofing off in private or actually doing a lot of unproductive busywork just for the sake of looking productive). Executives may pride themselves in coming to work early, but they probably just nap in their offices. But what we forget is that most non-American cultures share more, both in their successes as well as failures and miseries. As individualistic people, we suffer alone and we triumph alone. Our podiums are made for one, and we sulk in private. In this sense, the triumphs of non-Americans is diluted by sharing it as a team, but their suffering is cushioned by sharing it as a team. As a team, however, you can accomplish more team goals. The primary misunderstanding about American greatness is that we are great because we are individualistic. This is a huge fallacy. We are individualistic, but we are great despite it. And being great is not necessarily a good thing. If today, every single Korean decided to become individualistic and pursue their own happiness instead of their country’s greatness, Korea’s economy and global footprint would decline. And fact is, most Koreans would not be happy anyway while the lucky minority would find great individual triumph and success. That is the payoff we have accepted as Americans. We all aspire to great individuals, to be rich and famous for ourselves (not for the welfare of our nation or even family), and we all aspire for greater self-awareness, self-fulfillment, self-improvement, self-actualization, self-exploration, self-aggrandizement, self-satisfaction, self-sufficiency, etc. When we achieve greatness as a group or nation, it is because we came together and worked together in our diverse yet harmonious and driven groups. My ideology of individualism is different than self-actualizing individuality. It is more an ideology of true, classical liberalism, liberty, and freedom of the individual which does not make the individual selfish but rather the opposite. My ideology is that America’s oppressive, heavy-handed authoritarian state system is what makes us individualistic and selfish. Here’s the deal. You give a rather large portion of your taxes to government, and in return, you are no longer bound by the burden of helping others in need. You are “liberated” to pursue your selfish, individualistic goals of happiness, wealth, fame, whatever. What the deal fails to realize is that most human happiness is derived not from taking but from giving and sharing. By contracting that part out to government, we are basically guaranteeing our own unhappiness and endless, pointless, Sisyphusian pursuit of self-fulfillment. Take away the bureaucratic empire at war with all our social ailments, and you get a significantly more social, sharing, and giving people.
One of the criticisms I would have of Korean culture which is unique to Korea and not other Asian cultures is the Hweshik or after-work drunken dining and partying. While it is teambuilding, it also creates hungover workers, and I’ve also experienced this firsthand, what I would call post-drinking meanness. Some people get mean when they get drunk, but others get jovial but then they get mean and anal the day after. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to work after a night out and I’m at a meeting and I’m biting my tongue, because what I really want to say to everyone is, “What the fuck are you guys talking about? Why are you guys so fucking stupid? What the hell am I doing here with such a group of fucking idiotic morons?” As much as drinking with coworkers can build teamwork, it can also destroy it when you come in the next day and chew each other out for apparently minor or petty annoyances. It becomes a death spiral. There is no reason that Koreans can’t indulge in non-toxic teambuilding exercises after work like playing sports together or any extreme activity that overwhelms your analytical mind and puts you in that un-self-conscious state where you can more easily and unconsciously bond with those around you. While getting drunk with friends certainly makes you feel closer to them, you can also get that feeling by being around them when you’re facing a common foe or really exerting yourself, and sports serves both those purposes. Think of anything that allows you to comfortably hug another human whether it’s being drunk or just overcoming a common adversary or bungie jumping or getting through a really scary situation. Traveling is also a great teambuilding exercise where you rely more on each other as you all face the common adversary of a foreign culture, land, and people. There is actually only one thing that fits all those criteria and that is combat, and hence, it’s not surprise that the strongest human bonds have been between war buddies. There are also more healthy and less toxic mind-altering substances or highs with marijuana being the most prominent and popular, but with such an unfortunately negative reputation, you have a better shot at seeing Korean workers play rugby together than sit around getting high together.
The author gets into some pretty deep territory which is great. He talks about memes and osmosis. Essentially, in Korean or non-American culture, ideas or behaviors are conveyed through copying often from top down, because people trust each other and especially authority. If your boss walks in one day with a red stripe tie, everyone switches to red ties or striped ties or both. You don’t ask why, you just do it. He must have good reason, why not? People err on the side of authority and fitting in. In American culture, we often ask why. I once dated a Polish woman whose favorite saying was, “but what for?” My ideology was, “why the fuck not?” In a conformity culture, going out on your own to do something new, innovative, or different is a high-risk maneuver. Why? What are you doing that for? Why are being so weird? In a less conforming culture like America, we often chastise people for copying and doing what everyone else is doing. “Can’t you think for yourself?” It just never occurred to me that in a conformist culture, certain things are extremely efficient, because everyone goes with the flow. In America, we would derisively call it herd or mob mentality. In conformist cultures, they look down upon going against the flow and doing your own thing as being disruptive and selfish. As far as the Information Age is concerned, there is greater emphasis on non-conformity, innovation, and new information. While we still need cooperative and social behavior, I would argue that American culture is more adapted to the Information Age whereas the Industrial Age was almost tailormade for conformist cultures, and I would argue that this is why Northeast Asia has so brilliantly and quickly industrialized and excelled in industrialization. While there are untold billions still to be made from the industrial economy, Northeast Asia will once again be left in the dust if it doesn’t try to at least bend and accept some form of non-conformist culture.
One of the greatest frustrations for me in Korea is the sense of complete and utter loneliness. Despite the fact that you are in one of the most dense and over-populated places on Earth, no stranger will speak with you. If you are a hot woman in America, you might actually love Korea where you will never be bothered by strangers outside the frequent staring caused by simply standing out from the norm. In America, in any American city, you’ll get a conversation from just about anyone, anywhere including hotel elevators. You talk to your Uber or taxi driver. You chit chat with the receptionist checking you into your hotel. You talk with the concierge, especially with bartenders. I’m always on a reconnaissance mission, digging locals for esoteric, local goldmines. In Korea, you talk with NOBODY except family or those you already know or have been formally introduced. The rule is bent and broken at bars, especially in foreign and tourist areas. Once a Korean at a bar realizes that you are a foreigner, they are much more comfortable talking to you, but if you walk around and look local, nobody but nobody will talk to you, which sometimes is a good thing since they mostly speak Korean and you wouldn’t be able to understand them anyway.
If you are planning on working in Korea, especially for a corporation or big government agency, this book is absolutely required reading and truly fun to read. However, besides the overall coverage of Korean culture, philosophy, history, and mentality, you don’t get anything else, because the author spent all his time working and not really exploring anything outside of work. He admits this. He spent his first two years at a military base because his wife worked for the State Department. I would have loved to know more about K-pop and the youth scene and person interviews and stories about individual Koreans and how they view everything, but obviously, you don’t get this, because he’s a middle-age salaryman. By the end, he gets off track with his baby story. In the beginning, you get the feel that he’s a journalist embedded in a Korean corporation, but by the end, you get the feeling that he is a straight up PR guy trying to sell Hyundai. Made me want to go out and buy a Hyundai, and by the end, I did feel that Hyundai Genesis was an upscale brand. But he does lament that after he left, Hyundai slowed down their rapid changes and growth.
He has some good insights about the corporate mentality and how this will not cut it in the Information Age and dot com startups. Basically, it’s always better to play it safe. If you stick your head out and take a big risk, if it goes bad, your career ends. However, if you have a great idea that is implemented, you don’t share in the profits, and you may get a pay raise or promotion, but that’s it. It’s much safer just to do as you’re told and get promoted the old-fashioned way, shoving your head up your boss’s ass. For some people, the secure, safe, constantly fearful and worrying life with few big risks is good enough for them. But if Korea wants to compete in the future economy, it needs big risk takers and bold and audacious thinkers like Steve Jobs and the countless Bay Area dot com entrepreneurs. What Korea needs and frankly what America also needs is controlled experiments. America has some of that in that fifty states can try something new like legalizing pot or gambling, but it has a lot further to go. Korea can create schools that reward creativity and risk taking. They can take those graduates and try them out in a controlled start up market. But right now, Korean schools still emphasize memorization and obedience.
When you study comparative cultures, you are taught never to view other cultures as inferior and your own culture as superior and to consider everything in relative terms, but I would disagree. I’m not saying American culture is superior. Actually, there are countless things that we do that are horrible like incarcerating a huge proportion of our black population and the unbelievably corrupt political system we have. If humanity and morality is the standard, then there are absolutes. Cultures that treat certain races or genders or homosexuals poorly are morally inferior and backwards. They are one step above eating their own children and killing their elderly. This is not to say that American culture is better because we have more equal views of different races, genders, and homosexuals, but our treatment of different races, genders, and homosexuals is significantly better than most other cultures. Fact is, when you have to motivate workers using fear, your culture is backwards and a step above subjugation, serfs, and slavery. Corporations are morally inferior and backwards by using fear as a prime motivating force. I have an optimistic view of humanity and believe that the Information Age will reward companies that use dreams and desires to motivate instead of fear. You may think North Korea is possessed by paranoia and fear, but fact is, the South is too. They are obsessed by the fear of losing face, of being subjugated again by a foreign power, of poverty, of irrelevance, of failure. This is why they spend so much money, time, and effort educating their children and then paying for their cosmetic surgery. Quite frankly, however, when you consider the war and conflict we spread throughout the world, America in whole is one of the least moral countries, and less moral than South Korea. An entire population that votes for (or doesn’t vote against) corrupt politicians who perpetuate war and suffering in foreign countries is not moral. We all have our demons. The lesson here is not so much, who sucks more, but rather, how does an entire culture deal with its own history, more often than not, a history of suffering, tragedy, and injustice. In America, we apathetically pursue our own individual glory, while in North Korea, the government tries to control everything while in South Korea, each individual feels enormous pressure to conform to a largely impossible standard of success and beauty.