Living in Wonju South Korea, These Many Long Years

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

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Letter from a Reader: Stress at Work!

A few days ago I received the following email from a reader:

Hey, I've been reading your blog for a while and it's very enjoyable and I have just a simple question.  How the hell do you work with Koreans?  I work as an engineer in Korea (not a teacher or in the military!  the few elite 1% folks here).  I've been at my job almost 2 years and when someone gives me a job with a deadline I get it done quickly, but most of the time they give me a job and never talk to me again.  I submit reports to them I email, I talk to them, but then they never talk to me.  How have you dealt with this?  I'm sure it's come up a lot working at a Korean company.  I can't tell how much Korean you need for your job and I sure can't tell how much I need.  They keep telling me that's what is slowing me down, but there's a Japanese guy in my group who's been studying Korean for about 18 months and he can't speak worth a damn, but he's been promoted and people work with him.  I try hard to get along with people here, but they don't care and my boss is too busy to give me work (I think he needs to figure out how to manage his work).  I'm just looking for some helpful tips on how not to go insane, so any advice is welcome.  Thanks.  


Hello R, thanks for your email.  Sorry I didn't respond sooner.  I like receiving email, so please feel free to send one along and I will respond as soon as I can.  The email is in profile.

I'm not sure how I can answer your question, as it kind of sounds like you just need to vent a bit.  I get that.  Any job needs some time and place to vent, but this can be a challenge when you're a waeg working in a company with not a lot of people to commiserate with.  This can be even more difficult if you don't have an extensive social circle outside of work, a common issue faced by many a waeg on this here fine peninsula.

How do I deal with stress from work?  Let me add the caveat that I'm only speaking from my own experience, and I'm not sure what things are like where you're at.  I may sound like I'm stating the obvious, or being critical, or worse being condescending, but this is not my intent.  These are just observations that have helped me get through the day to day.

First, liquor helps, as does posting on my stoopid blog.  Hobbies, friends, and family basically, to not be so flip.  Mostly, I learned long ago to just try and let most everything slide off my back, since carrying it around all the time doesn't help a damn.  Mind, I do have spectacular meltdowns from time to time, and have to sometimes do massive damage control after.   But then, I am somewhat of an idiot who will sometimes say the wrong thing at the wrong time even though it is the right thing to say, if that makes any sense.

As for working with Koreans, it really depends on the group and the atmosphere.  Your Japanese coworker has the right idea, and in his case it makes a powerful statement that he is at least putting on the show of trying to learn and assimilate, considering the history between the two countries.  That pushes the national pride button and his demonstration of respect is a potent one.

Like any company, success depends greatly on the health of your relationships.  In the Korean context, this means trying to understand something about the history, culture, and language.  Most Koreans are kind of cool in that as long as your show a 'sincere' interest, and spend time getting to know something about the country, observe proper social etiquette like bowing and holding a bottle with two hands when pouring for a senior, and at least learning a few basic sentences in Korean, they'll be more warm and welcoming to you.  Most.

That said, often times a work environment can be completely FUBAR, especially if they don't know what to do with you or your appointment met with initial resistance.  In that case, all you can do is try to develop the relationships further and keep doing the best work you can.  This can be cause for serious headache and frustration, in which case you can suck it up, do nothing or as little as possible as far as work is concerned, or look for a new job before they send you packing.  But if that kind of situation is ongoing, you can be sure your days are numbered.  If you don't have two years in, and you haven't cultivated good relationships, this can be a problem, since at year two they decide whether to give you a more permanent position or not, according to labor law.

In my case, I've spent years reading about history, where the best apples and rice in Korea come from, observing the basic gestures and behaviors that are expected in a given situation.  My spoken Korean is functional, reading and writing a bit better, which helps as a lot of work that comes my way is in Korean.  It does take more time to read and figure out, especially the more technical stuff, but luckily I have several people I can go to to help me sort out what needs to be done when the language is particularly difficult.

The most important thing is to not show any negative emotion or criticism whatsoever in your daily interactions.  The quickest way to earn the enmity of many Koreans is to express dissatisfaction, especially with regards social etiquette, some cultural behaviors or artifacts, or even work process, especially if you do so not in Korean.  Koreans bitch about this kind of thing all the time, but hearing it from a waeg, especially from someone who doesn't even try to speak the language will turn even the most vocal critic on you.

Figuring out how your coworkers and supervisors perceive you as the waeg, and making sure you act accordingly in each relationship is key.

Smiling a lot, acting like a deer caught in the headlights, staying on top of your game, and talking about neutral topics like hobbies or where you went on the weekend (such as a famous tourist destination and how freakin' awesome it was) are the best things I've learned to do when dealing with those who see you as alien.  I only express criticism for ideas or plans, or suggest alternatives, in meetings, and only when I've sussed that the higher ups are really looking for input.  Intuition is a big factor in all this, and that comes with years of working in country; this way you know when a decision has pretty much been made already or there really is a need for input.  But then, I spend several hours a week in meetings, and have had much opportunity to sort this out.

Pretty much, it's about what it takes to survive in any work environment, but eating the kimchi and using chopsticks well tossed into this particular mix.  Throwing in a little 'I-went-to-see-national-treasure-23496-this-weekend-and-was-blinded-by-its-sheer-awesomeness' will work wonders.  The smarter ones will realize you're playing the game and will bring you in, but that will only get you so far if you piss in too many people's bean sprout soup by complaining about stoopid simple shit.

Try to not have too many meltdowns.  I'm sure this will eventually be my undoing, since despite my best advice here, I still occasionally forget it and act like a complete retard.  But everyone has their bad days, so long as they aren't always bad.

Hope this helps.  Buy me a beer next time I'm in the big smoke if so, and we can talk more.



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