About the book
Recounting his three years in Korea, the highest-ranking non-Korean executive at Hyundai sheds light on a business culture very few Western journalists ever experience, in this revealing, moving, and hilarious memoir.
When Frank Ahrens, a middle-aged bachelor and eighteen-year veteran at the Washington Post, fell in love with a diplomat, his life changed dramatically. Following his new bride to her first appointment in Seoul, South Korea, Frank traded the newsroom for a corporate suite, becoming director of global communications at Hyundai Motors. In a land whose population is 97 percent Korean, he was one of fewer than ten non-Koreans at a company headquarters of thousands of employees.
For the next three years, Frank traveled to auto shows and press conferences around the world, pitching Hyundai to former colleagues while trying to navigate cultural differences at home and at work. While his appreciation for absurdity enabled him to laugh his way through many awkward encounters, his job began to take a toll on his marriage and family. Eventually he became a vice president—the highest-ranking non-Korean at Hundai HQ.
Filled with unique insights and told in his engaging, humorous voice, Seoul Man sheds light on a culture few Westerners know, and is a delightfully funny and heartwarming adventure for anyone who has ever felt like a fish out of water—all of us.
Quotes from the book
Noonchi translates to “eye measure,” but a better definition is “reading the air.” The closest translation to English is reading body language. But noonchi is more subtle and complex than that. If you tell your supervisor you want to take one of your allotted days off and he says yes, you’d better use your noonchi to interpret his face, his tone of voice, his current job status, his ambitions, his estimate of the abilities and mind-set of your fellow team members, your work and social rank relative to him, his work and social rank relative to his boss, the circumstances of his personal life, and on and on in order to determine if he really means no. Smart corporate climbers must have finely tuned noonchi.
A climate of enormous opportunity
This was a climate of enormous opportunity for industrious young men like Chung Ju-yung, who started an auto repair shop in Seoul in 1940, under Japanese colonial occupation. The story goes that Chung would con the Japanese occupiers by telling them they needed new parts for their cars. He’d then take off the old, fully functioning parts, shine them up, put them back on, and charge the Japanese for new parts. Chung took his earnings from the repair shop and, after liberation from the Japanese, set up the Hyundai Group in 1946, which started life as a construction company, winning government contracts to rebuild Korea in the wake of the war.
Han and jeong
One writer called it “collective melancholy.” That helps get at the concept, because it introduces the concept of bondedness. Han is felt individually but it is experienced collectively. It’s a feeling that we’re all in this together, we’ve all been wronged, and we all wait for justice. It’s simplistic to strictly call it pessimism, because Korea’s entire stunning modern growth story is built on implied optimism, even if the results were achieved with head-down, sometimes joyless doggedness. Indeed, plenty of people who’ve studied the Korean success story attribute much of it to han. After surviving hundreds of invasions over history, beating Toyota and Apple at their own games is, to use the Korean expression, “like eating rice cakes while lying down.”
Strategy for lunch
I once asked a colleague why Hyundai didn’t stagger lunch hour to ease the crush: for example, odd-numbered floors could eat from 11:30 to 12:30, even-numbered floors from noon to 1:00. He believed the idea that lunch is at noon is so ingrained in the Korean business brain there was no changing it. To paraphrase Peter Drucker, culture eats strategy for lunch.
In ads for the service, Korean Air wrote: “Fly to Nairobi with Korean Air and enjoy the grand Africa savanna, the safari tour, and the indigenous people full of primitive energy.” Turned into a subject of Twitter mockery, Korean Air quickly apologized. Some good-natured Kenyans took it in stride, one Tweeting, “Thinking of lion hunting today and maybe some elephant baiting to deal with my #PrimitiveEnergy.”
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- Cover: hard
- Size: 145х200 мм
- Number of pages: 405
- Paper type: offset
- ISBN: 978-617-577-120-4
- UPC 94.519/ББК 63.3(6Кор)