Living in Wonju South Korea, These Many Long Years

Living in Wonju South Korea, These Many Long Years: Version 2.0!

Thursday, May 31, 2012


Last night driving back from Seoul I completely shat on my coworker Ryu.  He had been henpecking all night, as if I were some zoo animal that he could freely observe and comment on.  It started during the meeting, when I asked some higher up about the possibility of getting some menial work expedited.  The answer was unsurprisingly no, since you must follow the chain of command.

For those not in the know, to step above an immediate supervisor in a Korean company is a form of social suicide.  If you need something done or need to request more resources, you must follow a very specific route to get it, usually involving 6 people too many.  While the pecking order exists in most bureaucracies, there is generally far less room to maneuver in the Korean version.  I find the process slow, inefficient, and cumbersome, but have mostly gotten used to doing it that way.  Having stepped over a few supervisors in my time and dealt with the blowback, I've learnt it isn't worth trying to expedite anything, even if your request gets stuck in purgatory by simply being ignored by one in the chain.  This kind of situation can be fixed by offering to pay for a night drinking, or showing some aegyo and presenting a gift or three, so by trying to step around you are ignoring your social responsibilities.   This is a problem for me, as I'm too poor to constantly oil the machine, a situation exasperated by the fact that I don't get near the amount of gifts to 'redistribute' as the Koreans.  Last night seemed ideal to create a shortcut, as the higher up was in his cups and being very congenial, and an opening presented itself.

Ryu said: I find it interesting that waegs think they can simply change the game plan.  This is Asia man, and in Korea you do things the Korean way.  A Korean never would have tried what you just did.

I smiled and enjoyed some more chit chat.  At one point I ended up having a rather animated conversation with a hot ajumma named Lee who works in a division in Seoul.  We were having a great time when Ryu came over:

Hahaha Oh, you two crazy kids.  Must be nice to be able to be so free.  I envy you.  Koreans don't have that kind of freedom, as we must follow very strict rules of acceptable social behavior hahahaha

As I'd just been totally cock blocked, Lee excused herself and walked away.  I bit my tongue.  It was getting late, so I said to Ryu: let's go.  We need to drive back and I'd like to get at least 4 hours sleep tonight.

On the way back, I found myself stuck behind some moron driving 80 kms/h.  I hate that: I'm paying to drive on the expressway, it's my god given right to drive at least 120.  We had just entered a tunnel when I decided to pass.  Ryu said:

Wow, Koreans would never pass someone in a tunnel like that.  It's too dangerous.

I said nothing until the next tunnel, when sure enough two cars passed a slow moving transport truck.

Yes, I see.  Those two drivers must not be Korean.  I may have thought they were, but because of your tutelage on the finer points of Korean behavior, I'm now enlightened enough to know they can't possibly be Korean.  Thank you for sharing your observations Mr. Ryu.     

No need to be sarcastic Mr. Waeg.  Generally people don't pass in tunnels.  That's just not the way normal people behave.


Normal people. . . yes normal people.  You know what?  I don't know what your problem is, or what kinds of issues you've got going on in your life at the moment, but I don't appreciate being lectured like some middle school kid on social niceties and appropriate behaviors and how to follow the pecking order.  I also don't appreciate how you feel it incumbent to interrupt my conversation with Ms. Lee, insulting me by insinuating that again I lack understanding of basic social mores.  And saying that I'm not normal because I had the temerity to pass some slow moving car in a tunnel?  Lay off.  Go home and beat your wife or something.  I'm not your whipping boy.

Let's just say things were very frosty after that.  When I dropped him off, he didn't even say good night.

Perhaps I shouldn't have tried to create a few shortcuts to make my job easier, and while I did try to ignore the obvious condescension in his voice and still remain positive, he just didn't let up.  He isn't my supervisor, and while I technically hold a higher position, he does have seniority for years in so is in tighter with many.

I'm sure I haven't heard the end of this.


Roarchild said...

Shame he ended up such a dork, he was my favourite character in Street Fighter.

F5Waeg said...

Ah, street fighter. That brings me back.

Anonymous said...

Some friendly advice dude -- you're doing it wrong.

I've been working in corporate Korea for 8 years now. Not once have i bought ANYTHING for my coworkers. Not once have i spoken a word of Korean. I skip the vast majority of "mandatory" 회식's and guess what -- i keep getting raises and promotions each year. I'm tight with the president of my division and escalate issues weekly bypassing the chain of command with no repercussions.

Here's something I learned a long time ago -- give a Korean an inch and they'll take a fucking country mile. As a result I don't budge. And by-and-large my co-workers prefer it that way. They know who I am and where im coming from. Everything is on MY terms not based on some outdated, inefficient corporate social system.

One night after a dinner i reluctantly went to, a 상무 in my team asked me for a ride home since we live close to each other.

I drove a good 140km in the bus lane for most of the ride. After about 5 minutes he made a comment about how i should slow down. I immediate said "my car, my rules. you don't like it you can walk." He nervously laughed and had since never attempted to lecture me on anything.

Im tell you man...even the slightest gesture of capitulation will get you hammered into the system. Live off the damaged grid. It will make your life 1000 times better.

F5Waeg said...

anon: Thanks. I get where you're coming from, and a bit envious that you work in an environment where that approach will work. It works occasionally for me, but I have to choose my battles, as it generally is a very conservative place. Many of my coworkers and bosses also appreciate that sometimes me sticking to my guns achieves better results, but too much of that on everything and I find I'm suddenly out of the loop, unable to get the information I need, unable to get results as zero support will be forthcoming. While fighting the good fight is necessary when something really boneheaded is being pushed through, I've learned that sometimes I need to tread lightly.

Keep up the good fight!

Beaner said...


Anonymous said...

Anon, I'm betting you work in a smaller company in a role where you can't easily be replaced. And, as you said, you're "tight with the president" which goes a loooong way. Must be nice. But I don't think your advice will work for waeg. I work in a top five chaebol and stepping out of the "corporate way" will make you a loner real fast. Which, as waeg said, means no info and no support. Anon, it would be nice to know what role you play in your company.

Unknown said...

So, where was the faux pas with you talking to Ms. Lee?

F5Waeg said...

It would seem just the fact that we were having an animated and lively conversation with much laughter was enough. I assume he expected us to be more staid and reserved. And no, it wasn't like we were being overbearing or shagging on the buffet table.

Anonymous said...

I have experimented working in Korean companies (both MNC and SMEs). On all occasions I entered as a "consultant" only. Set my own rules and ballgame. HOWEVER, if one does not play the Korean office politics and conform to group norms, it would be challenging to survive very long . . .

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