Tales from the Vault : Seoul Survivor

There is currently an understandable global furore around the potential of a looming Armageddon, as one totally insane world leader takes on the might of Kim Jong-Un. It reminds me of the two very enjoyable but totally bizarre years I spent 100 miles down the road from the epicentre of the current crisis, in Seoul.

The Seoul posting was my very first foray into the expat executive world, and its fair to say it was a baptism of fire. Looking back on it now it was a wondrous and character building cornercopia of searing highs and soul searching lows but actually, at the time, it was just plain nuts. A few examples…

The luxury business class flight and top notch hotel followed by the showering of service and favours – being driven around in posh black sedans (Samsung made of course), house hunting among mansions that we wouldn’t of dreamed of at home, and the pleasant “emersion” days at work meeting the good and the great, did not prepare me for the reality of the first proper full working week.

First sign that this was going to be a different working experience was the lifts. All was well as the sedan purred into the executive entrance of B2 level and I entered an empty lift. Yet how quickly this changed. There seemed to be no concept of basic spatial awareness as the masses piled in on the ground floor. I later came to find out that rush hour in Seoul is basically a 10 minute spell between 8.49 and 8.59 and I had hit the middle of the peak. It was an assault of every sensibility I had, not helped by the fact that I was a good foot taller than anyone else in the lift. If nipple nuzzling was an Olympic sport I would have been on the receiving end of a gold medal. Things got even more chaotic on the 7th floor when the Korean CEO got in the lift. This veritable icon of Korean business was treated like the Demi God he was within the company and in this particular lift this took the form of frantic bowing. With no room to stand without a communal corset, bowing was a step to far. Nipple nuzzling turned to full blown head butting and virtual bodily assaults within nanoseconds. Strangely during this episode what I remember most of all was the dulcet tones of Abba playing out in the lift (thank you for the music) during the carnage and the smiling waxy face of the icon. I timed my entry to the office differently from that day onwards.

The assault on my known sensibilities continued during that first working day. Lunch hour was announced by all lights in the building being switched off, and lo and behold when I returned from my Starbucks sandwich, half of my colleagues were passed out on their desks. Asleep I assumed although it could easily have been the result of a chemical attack. When the lights flickered back into action there was a mad rush for the bathroom, which again I unwittingly followed, and was amazed to find my colleagues three deep at the wash basins, furiously jostling for position, and just as furiously brushing, flossing and generally attacking their teeth and gums. At this stage I had not been introduced to Korean cuisine and therefore did not understand why. I would learn the hard way.

That first week finished with the tricky task of interviewing and choosing my driver (I know, times were hard!). I was duly presented with two candidates – neither of whom spoke much / any English, and both seemed just as bemused to be there as I was. In the end despite the temptation to employ Mr Park for his likely ability to find and manoeuvre into the last space at the drop of a hat, I instead plumped for the general all round comedic potential of Mr Oh.

As well as these mildly startling changes to my traditional concept of a “normal” work environment, the work itself also had its challenges. Part of my role was to “up skill” my nominal Korean boss – whom we shall call Sally – in the ways of the global side of the company and the ways of the function that he was heading, yet was entirely new to. Now Sally was not a man who took to being up-skilled well. He was ex Korean army, and strong rumour had it that among his previous roles he had led, and ruthlessly led, the Korean presidents personal guard. Understandably this was not a role for the faint hearted and he had a no nonsense style that frankly scared the living shit out of pretty much anyone he came into contact with. Our weekly up skilling sessions came to a grinding halt after approximately twelve minutes of session one, and quickly morphed into a rather more informal chat where he would bounce some of his ideas for a fun and smooth running department off me, for my builds, which he did not want. Some of my favourite results…

Sally and I agreed that whilst the department needed more discipline (more his idea than mine), it also needed to be a fun place to work. Our “joint” solution to this was a “humour rota”. Every day, at 9am (a time when most of the Korean workforce had just got to their desks, bleary eyed and hung over from their excesses of pleasing their boss by attending their late night drinking sessions), one team member was “encouraged” to produce and circulate the days “humour bulletin” for the general mirth of the department. Sadly, being unable to read Korean, I was unable to vouch for hilarity resulting from this, but aside to say, I did not witness much side splitting or guffawing in the minutes that followed the daily circulation.

Another crowd pleasing Sally invention was the 14.45 exercise drill in the office. Not a new concept I know, and with well proven health and well being benefits for the whole team. Except under Sally’s regime it was led by a man in uniform, with both his own peaked hat and a very shrill and regular whistle. My abiding memory is of my own translator and protégée, who had a rather more western world slant on life having been educated in the US, who turned to me one day mid bout, and whimsically declared “it’s getting more like North Korea every day”. Which brings us full circle back to the current crisis. My summary of my time in Korea is that it was fantastic, but boy did it test and stretch every mental and physical sinew. I truly hope the place and the people stay in one piece. Or should that be two pieces?

More from Korea – assuming its still there – next time I delve into The Vault, as God knows, there were enough stories and incidents there to fill a volume or three.

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