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?

Can anyone?

To buy "SEOUL MAN" click here.


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

"Hilarious."

-- Unshelved

 
 

 

Selected Excerpts

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.

 

Above, the second-generation Hyundai Genesis, the company's first truly premium car.

 

Frank and Rebekah set up their new lives in Korea. 

 
One of my team members explaining the chain-reaction "bomb shot" during my welcome dinner. I had to use the metal chopsticks to tap the first shot of balanced soju, causing a domino effect so that each shot would fall into its glass of beer, creating the "bomb shots," which you down in one gulp. 

One of my team members explaining the chain-reaction "bomb shot" during my welcome dinner. I had to use the metal chopsticks to tap the first shot of balanced soju, causing a domino effect so that each shot would fall into its glass of beer, creating the "bomb shots," which you down in one gulp. 

Lily, our Korean Jingo dog, who had a diligence for destruction. 

Lily, our Korean Jingo dog, who had a diligence for destruction. 

Showtime! The high-tech glitz of an international auto show can be intoxicating.

Showtime! The high-tech glitz of an international auto show can be intoxicating.

A perk of the job was the global travel. This is the desert outside of Dubai. 

A perk of the job was the global travel. This is the desert outside of Dubai. 

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. 

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. 

And here's me meeting a real sheikh in Muscat. His big thing was teaching people how to smile in photographs. "Show both rows of teeth," he insisted. 

And here's me meeting a real sheikh in Muscat. His big thing was teaching people how to smile in photographs. "Show both rows of teeth," he insisted. 

But not all global travel was a perk. This is noon on a sunny day in Beijing.

But not all global travel was a perk. This is noon on a sunny day in Beijing.

Rebekah in her natural environment: as a shadowy figure in the middle of international intrigue at a global hot spot, in this case, the DMZ between North and South Korea.

Rebekah in her natural environment: as a shadowy figure in the middle of international intrigue at a global hot spot, in this case, the DMZ between North and South Korea.

The Hyundai Motor and Kia Motors HQ in Seoul, my home for three years.

The Hyundai Motor and Kia Motors HQ in Seoul, my home for three years.

Few things demonstrate the massive scale of Hyundai Motor as well as the iron ore storage domes at Hyundai Steel, seen here. The plant has several domes, each big enough to contain a Major League Baseball field. This was a showstopper on our journalists' tours. 

Few things demonstrate the massive scale of Hyundai Motor as well as the iron ore storage domes at Hyundai Steel, seen here. The plant has several domes, each big enough to contain a Major League Baseball field. This was a showstopper on our journalists' tours. 

Chairman arrives and, Korean dog that he is, feels right at home in the back of a Hyundai. Note the blue foam pads on the doors to keep them from getting dinged in the country's tight parking spaces. (And to let everyone know you got a new car. Koreans leave them on the cars for either or both reasons.)

Chairman arrives and, Korean dog that he is, feels right at home in the back of a Hyundai. Note the blue foam pads on the doors to keep them from getting dinged in the country's tight parking spaces. (And to let everyone know you got a new car. Koreans leave them on the cars for either or both reasons.)

In all but the newest Korean apartment buildings, people elevators are tiny and service elevators unheard-of. That's why you move in and out through one of your windows with the aid of this device. And, yes, when I was forced to move off the U.S. military base, my new home was in the same building as the Pakistani embassy. 

In all but the newest Korean apartment buildings, people elevators are tiny and service elevators unheard-of. That's why you move in and out through one of your windows with the aid of this device. And, yes, when I was forced to move off the U.S. military base, my new home was in the same building as the Pakistani embassy. 

You never know what you'll see on a Seoul bus. It may be Robert De Niro advertising a casino that Koreans are not allowed to attend, because their government thinks it will turn them into compulsive gamblers, or...

You never know what you'll see on a Seoul bus. It may be Robert De Niro advertising a casino that Koreans are not allowed to attend, because their government thinks it will turn them into compulsive gamblers, or...

...it may be one of the frequently graphic ads for cosmetic surgery. This one reads, roughly, "I've grabbed one real tight."

...it may be one of the frequently graphic ads for cosmetic surgery. This one reads, roughly, "I've grabbed one real tight."

This gallery (click photos to view) shows the evolution of Hyundai's signature vehicle, the Sonata, from the rock-solid-but-vanilla NF (2004-09), to the jaw-dropping YF (2009-14), to the current LF, which still sells well, but has been criticized for a loss of design magic.

But then...

After her posting in Korea concluded, Rebekah and Annabelle moved to Indonesia -- without Daddy, who stayed in Korea. For the first time, Rebekah felt like a real diplomat, and was living in a truly exotic location. But the price for this dual-career, jet-setting lifestyle was high, and something was bound to snap. 

Rebekah and NGO workers board a dugout canoe in the farthest Indonesian archipelago to plant mangroves and restore ecology. 

Rebekah and NGO workers board a dugout canoe in the farthest Indonesian archipelago to plant mangroves and restore ecology. 

How I didn't want to get used to watching Annabelle grow up.

How I didn't want to get used to watching Annabelle grow up.

Reunion! A tiny Annabelle deplanes, somewhat stunned, in the gaping Dulles Airport arrivals area after a 12-hour flight from Seoul and half of her first year apart from her Dad. She looks pretty good, considering. 

Reunion! A tiny Annabelle deplanes, somewhat stunned, in the gaping Dulles Airport arrivals area after a 12-hour flight from Seoul and half of her first year apart from her Dad. She looks pretty good, considering. 

With the help of our housekeeper, Sati, Annabelle takes a dip in the pool of a rented villa deep in the lush Indonesian rain forest. 

With the help of our housekeeper, Sati, Annabelle takes a dip in the pool of a rented villa deep in the lush Indonesian rain forest. 

Annabelle's first birthday party, staged two weeks early in Jakarta because Dad would be back in Seoul on her real birthday. Far right is Tri, Annabelle's nanny, and to her right is Sati, who took care of the house and Annabelle.  

Annabelle's first birthday party, staged two weeks early in Jakarta because Dad would be back in Seoul on her real birthday. Far right is Tri, Annabelle's nanny, and to her right is Sati, who took care of the house and Annabelle.  

The look Annabelle gave to get Daddy's attention away from the writing of this book.

The look Annabelle gave to get Daddy's attention away from the writing of this book.

Penelope joins us for the happy ending to this story, and the beginning of the next. 

Penelope joins us for the happy ending to this story, and the beginning of the next.