A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan
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 fiancée to her first posting in Seoul, South Korea, Frank traded the newsroom for a corporate suite, becoming director of global communications at Hyundai Motor. In a land whose population is 97 percent Korean, he was the only American in a company headquarters of several thousand employees.
When Frank came to South Korea at 46, he knew he was facing his midlife crisis. What he didn't know was that South Korea and Hyundai were, too.
All three were trying desperately to figure out their second act -- their very survival depended on it. Could they do it?
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Praise for "SEOUL MAN:"
"Ahrens's great strength is that he is sensitive to the people around him."
-- The Washington Post
"An entertaining read."
-- The Financial Times
"An important book."
-- The Washington Times
"Like Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad."
-- Shelf Awareness
Chapter 1: Almost, Not Quite
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 on a wall projected animations of saucer-eyed children and song lyrics in English and Korean. My wife must 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 as some Korean pop tune played. When they weren’t shouting or singing, they were downing shots of whatever it was the older Korean ladies kept bringing in little green bottles. Drank, that is, whatever wasn’t spilled on the floor or on each other.
And here I was: sopping wet, laughing, singing incoherently and hugging people I’d met only five days earlier. Welcome to Korea.
Rebekah and I met my Hyundai global PR team at a Korean barbecue restaurant, where the meat is brought to the table raw and cooked over a tub of hot coals or a grill in the middle of the table. Every square inch of the table is covered with small bowls of side dishes: greens and noodles and pickled things and tubers and pickled tubers and the ever-present kimchi. But no barbecue sauce.
“Korean barbecue” was the first example of a phenomenon our State Department sponsors told us about the day we arrived in Seoul: “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. Barbecue with no barbecue sauce. 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. Dark tint on every car’s windows. Business attire worn in the office with bedroom slippers and shower sandals. Green flashing lights on ambulances. Blue foam rectangles on car doors to protect them in the country’s tight parking spaces. No individual dishes at meals; instead, everyone helps themselves from communal plates.
Another State Department friend summed it up this way: “If you live in a foreign country and you have to take a rickshaw to work every day, you’re, like, ‘Okay, this is my life. I take a rickshaw to work.’ And you ratchet down your expectations accordingly. But here in Korea, everything looks like it should meet your expectations and when it doesn’t; it’s all the more frustrating.” The frustration goes both ways. For Koreans, all these things are normal, and my colleagues quickly grew tired of hearing me discover and comment on these mundane (to them) realizations.
I had expected South Korea to be more sterile. I’d had this feeling that South Korea existed thirty or so years in the future, where things are cleaner and more orderly, the way Japan used to seem. With its booming growth, strong democracy, ultrafast Internet, supersmart students, and all the sleek, 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, but it also turned out to be 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 on my feet moments after I’d stepped into the ring.
It’s a lot to process, so you have to start somewhere. If you’re going to talk about the way South Korea hits you, you must begin with kimchi. It insists.
You catch your first whiff before you’re outside Incheon International Airport, almost immediately after you deplane. To a Korean, kimchi smells like home. It’s the rocket fuel of their great leap forward, 150 years of industrialization pressure-packed into fifty years. To a foreigner, kimchi is at first only a smelly food, a pungent combination of fermented vegetables—cabbage, radishes, or cucumbers—and spices, chief of which is garlic. Traditionally made, it steeps in a jar buried in the ground for months, where its awesome olfactory power builds. Unleashed on every Korean meal, including breakfast, its stings the nostrils of the uninitiated, causing recoil. It comes in many types and doesn’t smell like just one thing. Some kimchi smells like cabbage, if the power of that cabbage were intensified a hundredfold. Some kimchi smells like vinegar and chilies. Some kimchi has almost no smell. Some kimchi smells like feet. Kimchi exhaust—twenty people who just ate kimchi for lunch packed into an elevator, exhaling—has a metallic smell, a top note of iron filings that hits like an anvil and can induce a wooziness over the span of just a few floors. Today’s Koreans have separate kimchi refrigerators in their homes to isolate the aroma. Sure, it’s cliché to talk about the smell of kimchi, but to not do so would be to fail at describing an integral part of nearly every Korean’s daily life and an essential staple of their cultural identity. Kimchi is to Koreans what hamburgers are to Americans, only more so. Americans (most, anyway) don’t eat hamburgers with every meal. Kimchi is a reliable place locator. If someone blindfolds you and flies you to a mystery location and you get off the plane and smell a hamburger, you could be almost anyplace in the world. You get off the plane and smell kimchi, there’s really good chance you’ve landed in Korea. If there were a global prize for bona fide national dish and staple of cultural identity, kimchi would win it. Its smell is terrifically, aggressively, proudly Korean and probably the first bridge that foreigners must at least attempt to cross if they want to know something about this place.