How to do Interview in South Korea – 2


Friday was my second job interview session.  For some reason the specialist guy was nicer than before, and one of the participant was just a living laughter buster (=continuously laughs out loud when she is nervous or frustrated) so I was able to enjoy it a bit more than last time.

If you are familiar with American style hiring process, you are rarely required to write a personal statement (unless you are applying for school).  There are companies asking for it, but majority of companies do not need this.  Instead you need to turn in your cover letter.  Sometimes you are asked to send your writing sample, or answer some more question in written format, no more than 2-3 questions.  Obviously, in South Korea, it’s completely different.  Depends on the place, you are required to make a hand-written copy of resume.  Sometimes the employer asks you to do so on the day of interview, at their office.  Why? So your employer can see how well do you handwrite.  It’s good that you have a nice handwriting, but does it really matter for fulfilling your duties as executive secretary?  Okay, if you have completely illegible handwriting, that might be a problem because your boss won’t be able to comprehend your memo.  However, if someone who is keen on time and great at organizing loses out just because she has a messy handwriting, that’s not only wrong but also unfair, in my opinion.  And if the handwriting is that much of a problem, she can be trained later on.

Almost all of Korean companies ask the candidate to write a paragraph or two on your job application.  Usually the categories are: self-introduction, challenges in your life (and how you dealt with it), your experience, your passion, and where you would be at after 10 years.  Now, you might start wonder…”but isn’t that supposed to be interview questions?”  Yes, I do think so, too.  And they do ask it in interview.  Now, if you are going to ask same questions twice, and if you know the answers will be pretty much reiterating the written answers, what’s the point? While I was thinking this and secretly sighing, the specialist guy added: “make sure you have a headline for each questions, before you write out your answers.”  Um…okay, why?  “Many interviewers don’t read your writings.  So, by placing headlines before your answers, you are informing them about what to ask.”

Okay, so all that writings of your blood and sweat are to be read only by HR staffs, but not by the interviewers.  You have to be so nice to tell them what to ask about you.   I understand that many of interviewers are not HR staffs but someone who will work closely with the candidate.  I also understand that majority of Korean companies don’t let you keep a good track of 9-to-6 but squeeze the life out of their employees, therefore many of them would not have time to take a good look at resume and personal statements.   If the company is to ask someone to be an interviewer, shouldn’t it allow the interviewer to have at least one good look of the application?

As we move along the road, one of the mock interview question was this: “how much can you drink?”

Yes, yes, you western readers of my blog, this is a totally nonsense interview question.  But to your surprise, it is quiet common for Korean employers to ask this to candidates.  A lot of “real deal” is based on after-work drinking, and participating the collective drinking session is deemed as a team spirit.  Many businessmen – especially salesperson who need to get the quota before due date, no matter what – ruin their health because of this drinking.  South Koreans finally started to take this as a quiet serious problem, but like anywhere of the world, change is always slow.  After all, this society doesn’t have much outlet for stress release for men, other than gamble, visiting shamans/evangelist pastor, drinking, and/or drinking at escort club, buying woman.

Back to my mock interview session.  I did not know what to answer.  I am allergic to strong alcoholic drinks, like straight vodka shot.  Unless it is diluted with juice or non-alcoholic beverage (like Screwdriver), and/or consumed slowly, disgusting red rash will cover my entire body with extreme itchiness, and for the next 3 months at most I will be forced to eat like a rabbit – no, not even a vegan.  I don’t say about my allergy a lot in States, because you are free to drink at your pace.  In Korea, the very common form of drink is Soju, which has like 20-45% alcohol, and people drink it as a straight shot, on and on.  You could probably tell that this isn’t my cup of drink, literally.  Well then, should I say “Barely, because of my allergy?”  I don’t know, because so many Koreans either laughed about my allergy, if not accusing me for making some silly excuse and bailing out from the great team-spirit session.  Thus I decided to ask the specialist guy – what would be the best answer for my situation?  Yes, some people laughed but now I’m used to it.

Then the specialist said: “Well, you can just say, ‘I don’t really enjoy the drink itself, but I do enjoy the social part of drinking.  And I light up the occasion.’  What they really want to know is how social you are.”

Connecting alcohol consumption with social – how very Korean is that.  Yet to be honest, I am not a fan of hoeshik, or company dinner (this is not your usual company dinner; I failed to find a good explanation, and this is the best I got).  And, it is possible to be a social person without massive shot drinking.  So I got even more confused.  I said, “but then I’m not telling the truth.”  The the specialist said, “who cares?  You can change your answers after you get the position.”  My jaw dropped and there was nothing more to say from me.

I did not have that uncomfortable feeling like last time.  Rather it made me think a bit about how everything I experienced and know about Korean society connect – and also shed some light on why I felt so uncomfortable when having an interview with Korean employer.  In States, the question means itself.  No tricks there.  The candidate can sugarcoat their answers, or just don’t bring up something that is disadvantageous to him/herself.  But the candidate is expected to be honest.  And as long as you can wrap some disadvantages and negatives as positivity, there shouldn’t be major problem.  If something of your answer turned out to be a lie, then that puts you into some serious trouble, possibly eliminating your future job options.

In South Korea, usually the question does not mean what is asked.  Like the Korean language and the Korean way of communication, it often has another question, just like the other side of moon.  I guess in western sense it can be called as ‘cheaing’ or ‘insincere.’  But in return, the candidates are allowed to lie to some degree.  As long as you can get the position, and as long as you are not lying about confirmable facts (schools, address, etc), who cares! Sometimes the ability to improvise a lie is complimented (to some degree I see the point here).  Maybe I am making too much of big deal out of a small thing, but it made me recall the majority of Korean students’ behavior back in my high school, and recent scandals on SAT exam in here.  Back in my high school, Korean boys were notorious for sneaking out and sharing past exams without permission (it was forbidden by school regulation, unless the teacher handed it out voluntarily with permission), and sharing the answers of assignment.  Their attitude was, “who cares as long as I get a nice big A?”   I still remember how they asked me to show my assignment to them on daily basis.  It’s no secret among American college admissions that Koreans’ TOEFL score is not very trustworthy: despite their near-perfect score, they can’t even write a decent paper, let alone talk with their professor.

Very recently, a big scandal on SAT exams shook the ETS and South Korea upside down.  So many SAT instructors here smuggled out the SAT questions, which is not allowed to be taken out from the testing site, and students bought it for the exam.  What a shame.

Sure, everyone wants to excel the exam and take the easy way.  But there are things called “fairness,” “integrity,” and “rules.”  It’s there to be kept by everyone.  In States, adhering to those values and respecting  the rules are valued and counted, even if your skills suck ass.  But in here, rules are generally seen as obstacle that can be beaten by tricks.  While integrity and fairness is respected in South Korea, it is respected to a lesser degree: you will find more people who disregard these values, saying “those who stick to honesty and fairness are idiots, kind of.”   Seriously, if Koreans can have a common respect of law and rules, I bet this country would be about twice better and foreigner-friendly then now.

I know this is all process of learning, and I try my best to think every step in positive way.  I know it will help me in the future.  I know, through this, I will be one of the very few people who can explain Korean culture well in English.  I know that being TCK is a kind of mission, which can improve the human races’ understanding to each other, and I also know I’m not the only one who is going through this.  But to be very honest, I am often tempted to give it all up, throw a middle finger to everything, and run away to a random grad school.   My headhunter said it is really nice that I speak fluent Korean and English.  I agree.  However also because of that, people just push it right on my face.


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