Category Archives: Working in South Korea

Stories and rants about working in South Korea as a biological South Korean yet psychologically not-so-South Korean.

Something is wrong in Korean organizations

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Bee awhile. Sorry for not being around. But then, I usually write something when I am unhappy with something and I have no outlet for venting. So me being away was a good thing. Now that I am writing this, you bet there is something bad.

I’ve been pretty happy with my job as a legal editor at a patent firm. Unlike most Korean workplaces, they don’t pick on me for petty things, and as long as you don’t screw up, you are left alone. It’s not a lot of payment, but it pays bills and I have very little overtime works. Then this happened: out of blue, my boss called me for a one-on-one meeting and as you can guess, I almost shit myself, thinking “OMFG did I screw something up?”

It turns out, according to my boss, there has been some complaints about my editing. Ok, acceptable. It’s something that frequently happens when you work.

Me: Oh, ok. Um…could you be more specific? Like is it more of general emails or legal/formal documents?
Boss: Uh, bit of everthing.

That doesn’t help.

Me: Ok…do you suggest anything I can do differently to amend this situation?

She was so ambiguous so I don’t know. I don’t even know why she brought this up if she doesn’t really have any suggestion. So, like a good Korean employee, I simply said “ok, um, I’ll give some thoughts on what I can do differently,” when in fact I was thinking “how the hell I can change the situation if you don’t tell me what you want?” It was sort of hinted that some people are unhappy how they have to re-review my edit, but IMO that’s ridiculous – if you had a third person review your document, of course you have to review it as well.

Then a week later, another senior manager called me up for a meeting. She started to ask about my usual workloads, out of blue. I just answered the best I can. Basically, the company got a load of works and they wanted me to manage the client communciations on the top of doing my usual review work. NO. NO NO NO NO. I’ve been there before, and I know a plenty of nightmare stories. In the end, you have to do what your boss/employer tells you to do. It’s never a winning game for you because of an imbalance of firepowers. Your work increases, but your compensation is little to none. Of course you start to make more mistakes here and there because you just don’t have enough mental space to give sufficient care to differnet balls you are juggling (and some of the balls are alien to you). Then your employer/boss starts complaining about your mistakes, and simply makes you an incapable employee – you get all the faults, and the employer/boss saves his face. How convenient. I wish I can do that to.

Since this is Korea, I mildly protested. To this senior manager, I just said “uh…let me think about it,” but we both knew it means nothing. Then to my boss, I said:

– If it’s me completely changing my duty from one thing to another thing, that’s acceptable.
– If it’s me helping a part of others’ task from time to time (which I have been doing gladly), that’s acceptable.
– But if I am to do my current work at full force and also do another work at full force, it will not go well. I can’t give you my best result and others will be negatively affected. Then usually, the person burdened with two tasks will have more work but underappreciated. I’ve been there (and many others did, too) and I don’t want to go through it again.

My boss’s answer? Well, you know, “oh I understand…but this is a learning opportunity…” NO I DON’T WANT A “LEARNING OPPORTUNITY.” If you really want someone to learn something, you need to cut out some time and space for the training, and pay for the person’s training.

In the end, I had to do the new task, while still doing my review work at 100%. *smh* Making things worse, I had to start the new task right before the Chuseok (lunar thanksgiving). Before and after holiday is the busiest time for all offices. The new task itself wasn’t a difficult job per se, but it had an awful lot of things that I have to keep tracking. Try working with several new tasks you are unfamiliar with, while you are swamped with your original duty and your computer keeps having errors. My soul was slipping away.

At the end of the day, that senior manager called me for a meeting. She said she doesn’t think I am suitable for the new task and she can tell based on her years of experience. Usually, I would say this is bs because it has been only two days and I wasn’t in a situation where I can focus on a new task. I would have tried to prove that they are wrong. But in times like this, that words were Angels singing from the heaven. Consequently, she said she will just assign a part of her job from time to time…which is what I initially suggested and they did not listen for f**ks sake.

In addition, I ended up knowing some backstories and gossips that I really didn’t want/have to do since the senior manager is a judgmental person who talks too much without thinking (I’ll probably write a separate post about it). So I sort of figured out what the work complaint I mentioned earlier was about. It seems like that a certain person high in the command (maybe more than one?) complained about my work, comparing me to someone who was working here years ago, doing something similar with my job. That someone had 10+ years of experience in this field, so he knew how the document should be written and what should be aimed without any explanation.

If I may say in a figurative way: the job posting says, “Wanted: guitarist with some experience.” So I applied and was employed. Then, someone complains, saying “she doesn’t play that well, not as well as Eric Clapton.” Well, then you probably should have figured out what you want and announce it. Or, train your guitarist.

But none of them will happen in a Korean company.

Instead, I was required to play piano as well: “oh hey, I know you are a guitarist, but now we want you to play piano as well. Oh? You’ve never played piano before? Oh well (shrug).”

This is not my first time working in a Korean company. If someone asks, I would say these are the prevalent problems in Korean companies: lack of organization, strict hierarchy, unreasonable expectation, “I don’t know what I want, so you figure out and I’ll blame everything on you.”

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Aside

The following post was uploaded in anonymous forum on Korean website about working abroad.  Translated by myself.  It’s okay to take this article to somewhere else, but please cite.  Basically, this post sums up my feelings on working in Korea, and this is what I’ve been through, until I decided I can’t do this.

Original post from http://www.gohackers.com/bbs/zboard.php?id=j_work_life&no=370&page=1&sp1&sn1&divpage=1&sp=off&sn=off&ss=on&sc=on&sf=off&sa=off

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I know everyone has different priority on getting a job in Korea or America.  This is just a subjective opinion based on my personal experience.

I had an interview with Sam**ng Electronics, a company often called as the best in South Korea.  I didn’t apply there directly.  A recruiting agency contacted me whether I’m interested, so I went for it.

My sentiment before the interview:

You know, working in Korea isn’t bad at all.  I’m not the only one here.  I know a lot of people who couldn’t get a job, but got a place in Sam**ng.  People go to Sam**ng Electronics a lot.  It’s a big, well-respected multinational firm now.  Payment isn’t bad.  And think about all that racism, glass celing, visa/green card shit and high tax. Korea is a good option.  I’ve been doing job research on Korean companies anyway.  The economy nowadays in America is terrible.  It’s not like past.  Life is tough.

My sentiment after the interview:

WTF.  What’s up with this suffocating air?!?!  ME NO LIKE THIS Even if Sam**ng offers me a job, I don’t want to go there.  I’m going to do everything I can to get a job in America.  If America scores -10 in this recession, South Korea scores -20.  Jesus.

Some highlights of the interview:

First, I hated how the interviewers kept using broken English in really unnecessary moments.  It annoyed me so much.  If you want to use English, then just speak in English from the beginning, for god’s sake.

Interviewer 1: nae gah CONCERN de nun gun…(=What I’m concerned about is…)

He repeated this phrase for more than 4-5 times.  Exactly same phrase, over and over.  So annoying.

Interviewer 2: CONSENSUS ruel ga jyo ya haji anketsoyo? (= don’t we need to have a consensus?)

This is something you can express in Korean, just fine.  Why do you have to use some dead English vocab and overuse it?  Does that make them look smart? Or, do they have so much sense of inferiority so they have to camouflage it in this way?

Now comes the best part.

Interviewer 1: You haven’t written any research papers yet?

Thing is, I sent several beforehand at their request.

Me: Oh, I sent it and it should be there…

And, in the paper, you write the author’s name.  Below the name goes address.  For example:

John Smith — my professor
123 ABC avenue
San Martino, CA (I don’t live in San Martino. Just for the sake of example)

 Interviewer 1: I see the paper written with San Martino, but not with your professor.
I: (at loss of words.  But I did my best to answer politely) Um, it’s written on the paper.
Interviewer 2: Yeah, John Smith, written above there.

Interviewer 1 doesn’t even know which is first name and which is last name.  Then he started all this bullshit excuse.

Sam**ng is so-called the best company in South Korea.  And this guy is in charge of international recruiting.  I don’t understand.  Shouldn’t he know which is name and which is address, at least?

And they have no concept of job description.  I asked over and over, before and during and after the interview, about the opening’s field and work.  Their answer? “we don’t have such a thing.”  WTF?! Then how an earth can you evaluate people and what’s the point of interview?

Seriously, Sam**ng – is this all you got?  I am beyond disappointed.  For a starter, do something with people in charge of international recruiting.  All American companies I interviewed with asked my availability first, and then we worked together to get the best time. Sam**ng just notified me the interview time, without asking me.  Just one email with dates.  It was impossible schedule for me, so I asked whether it’s possible to move the interview to some other dates.  They simply answered “no.”

Their basic mindset is this: shut up, just be thankful that you are given a chance to have an interview with usOf course you have to adjust your schedule for us.  Isn’t that obvious?

Everyone knows how Sam**ng thinks its employees as parts of machine.  My experience confirms it.  No wonder why all those employees quit within 1-2 years.

[Translation] After an Interview with Korean Company

Never a Typical Case

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Getting so many rejection letters, I think it’s time to rant sort out my thoughts once again.  The tough thing about being a TCK is that you are never a “typical case” in almost anything.

Google up about going to American law school.  There are myriad of articles about how law schools are scamming people, how it’s waste of money, and how it’s worthless.  True.  A lot of American law school graduates are suffering from unemployment, whether they went to Harvard or some unknown, out-of-ranking school (yes, the ranking itself isn’t very trustworthy, I know).

But does that apply to me?  Am I an applicable case to this?  Not really, because I am not an American citizen, though I have American educational background.  If I were an American citizen with family and settled life in the US, I would not have considered going to law school as a good option at this point.  I would rather get a whatever job that comes first.  But I’m not an American.  But I can’t cope with Korean business culture.  I’m in-betweener.

From experience, I know the so-called “common case” never applies to me.  At the end of my college senior year, I had a job interview.  An alum – international like myself – was working there.  I did well in the interview.  I had a plenty of skills matching to their job description.  So, according to the textbook, I should have gotten a job.  That did not happen.  The key was, I am not a citizen.  I graduated from an American college with great reputation.  So even if I did not get that job, I should have received several interview offers.  That did not happen either, because of my vague status.  In States, I was still the “international” whom they had to sponsor visa, or unable to apply at all.

How about in Korea?  Koreans tend to think that if the school’s name is not familiar, it’s not a great school.  In addition, the American schools are valued a bit differently from US; a school that is not very highly regarded in the States sometimes transforms itself a very good Ivy-League-ish school, just because they have a lot of Korean alums or people are familiar with the name.  In Korea, many people haven’t even heard about my school’s name.

The different job interview styles were pretty traumatic for me.  In college, I was trained in American job interview – where you are there to chat, and all is fine as long as you don’t make them think you are a psycho.  But I had to face Korean style job interviews, where everything is very formal, interviewers are able to compare candidates in real time, and most cases where candidates are expected to get the “correct answer” to the questions.  I attended whole lot of interview prep sessions, but certainly I was not prepared to be surprised by the different styles of interview.  I didn’t even know there are different ways.  So no wonder why I ended up shocking Japanese job opening promoter by asking “so, is your job interview more of western or Asian way?”

I know job market in America is horrible now.  I totally agree when someone says “don’t bet too much on getting a job in America as a Korean international after law school,” because I was in a similar situation.  But again, my aim is slightly different.  Many law school students/candidates aim to find a job within America first, and they are citizens.  I’m not a citizen.  Getting a job in America isn’t my priority.  Actually I will be much happier if I get placed into somewhere else.  Many Korean international law students aim to come back to Korea and work.  That’s not high on my list either.  And I just can’t seem to find a solid resource on case like myself.

I have received multiple rejection letters from schools I wanted to go.  It’s irritating.  But, like I mentioned before, being atypical case, maybe not getting into a school that is considered highly in US is better for me.  Maybe I will end up going some school that is not considered very highly in US, but highly in Korea.

What’s most irritating is that there seem to be no resource for me, and I just have to keep on sailing, without knowing what’s ahead – tropical island or shortcut to hell.

Maybe I Should’ve Gotten an English Name.

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Unlike most Korean-American or Korean students in English-speaking country, I don’t have English name – like Sarah Lee, Jay Kim, and so on.  Sure, there was a time when I wanted one, because it looked fancy.  But then, for some reason, all the names I wanted to take were already taken by someone around me.  My name isn’t too hard to pronounce compared to many other Korean names, though I have to admit it’s always my name when DMV or local city hall admins screw up.  It worked fine in Japan, too (which I have to thank my grandfather, who named me).

Ironically, ever since I came back to South Korea, I start to think maybe I should’ve gotten an English name.  It seems like no matter how I “hint” or directly say to people that I grew up in the United States, not in California, New York or New Jersey where there are loads of Korean population, people don’t understand my upbringing, or why I behave in such a way.

I’ve ranted on my blog many times.  I don’t deny that I am Korean.  All I’ve been saying is that I grew up away from Korea, so please don’t frown upon me if I make a mistake.  It’s just that I don’t know and not used to, like blue-eyed foreigners they love.  But, for them, I HAVE to be 100% Korean.  After all, I look like Korean, with small eyes and dark hair, have Korean name, do not have foreign citizenship, have Korean parents, and – lo and behold – she speaks damn fine Korean, knowing the pop culture references and slangs!  Of course she HAS to be 100% Korean, just like us!

So while other foreigners are excused from dreadful, soju-bomb exploding 3-hours-long hweshik (roughly translated as “social drinking,” which is the most important ritual in Korean business culture – google it and you’ll get some idea), I have to go because I am “Korean.”

When other foreigners say they don’t want to join the forced drinking because of their personal preference/health/religion, they are fine.  When I say I can’t join the forced shot drinking because my body doesn’t process alcohol well and often causes 2-weeks-long rash all over my body, they think I’m either exaggerating or lying to get out, or being really rude.

When other foreigners say “I think this can be a problem,” they listen.  Or at least they pretend to listen.  When I say “I think this can be a problem,” all of sudden I’m a brat.

Here’s something I go through on a daily basis.  Few days ago, I was at my friend’s party.  There were some Korean guys on my table.  Naturally, we introduced each other and started talking (in Korean).

Guy 1: So where are you from?  Are you Korean American?
Me: I’m Korean but I grew up in States.
Guy2: Okay, so when did you go to the States?
Me: 13.
Guy1: Oh wow. But you speak really good Korean?
Me: Haha…well my parents are Korean?  And I came and go all the time?

Then another guy made some kind of joke with Korean pop reference.  Of course I understood so I laughed.  Then the guy looked pretty surprised.

Guy1: Oh so you know XXX? (The reference)
Me: well, yeah.
Guys: Oh then you are like full Korean!  Okay, we’re not worried then.

I don’t even try anymore.  It’s quiet common to see major newspaper articles here saying “this foreign person eats Kimchi well!!  He/She can take hot peppers too and soju!  With Korean spouse!  He/She is pure Korean!”

I wish the world is that simple.

Back to the name business,  sometimes I think if I had an English name, maybe it could have been worked as a convenient shield for me.  Upon me saying “hello, my name is Grace Lee” or something of that, then locals here would feel me more “foreign” and grant me more space and time.  Or, maybe it would’ve been better if I spoke far worse Korean than now.  Then I don’t even have to try.

If only people can understand how it’s okay for someone to be less than 100% Korean – or be a bit different from the rest.

Snippet of Borderline Case

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As I walked back from the public library to the bus station, the gigantic franchise bakeries on the main street were throwing opening special events.  One was Paris Baguette and another one was Tour les Jours.  In front of Paris Baguette, a bras band made of three or four white men was constantly playing tunes, wearing uniforms as if they are one of the Paris Baguette crew or bakers.  Of course they are not.

In front of Tour les Jours, they, too, had a random white guys in front of the newly opened store.  Also in Tour les Jours uniforms.  But I doubt they are actual staffs. Either way, the stores hired some random white boys for a one-time event boys.  Like how old Harrods department store used to have exotic animals to attract more customers.

I couldnt’ help thinking how they are like caricatures of foreigners in South Korea: good ornaments, looks like they belong ,but not so in reality.  But who cares, they are 외국인 (foreigners).

Then what about me?  I look like belong but not so in reality.  I might be a good ornament, but less so because my passport, looks, blood and names are not foreign enough.  I can’t really tell which is worse or better.

“Sorry, You are Disqualified Because You are Not Foreigner”

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So while I am struggling with the endless battle with LSAT, my friend called me about a possible part-time position.  I was not too keen on it, but hey, at least someone thought of me and that is a terribly nice gesture.  And earning a few more wons won’t hurt me, right?

Friend: Well, they are looking for a native speaker, or “foreigner” for the position.
Ceberus: What?  For the English-Korean translation part-time position?
Friend: Yeah.
Ceberus: That. is. insane.
Friend: I know! I told them they won’t be able to find a “foreigner” with a good-enough control on English and Korean.  But as I heard about the position, I thought of you.  You grew up in the States, speak good English and Korean, right?
Ceberus: Yeah I guess so.  So should I write to this person in English of in Korean?
Friend: Er…both?  ‘Cause that shows you are good at both languages?
Ceberus: Er…I’ll just write in English, since you said they want a “foreigner.”  You know it always helps to be foreigner in Korea, as much as you can.
Friend: AH, TRUE.

There goes my resume.  Which clearly shows my extensive experience on dealing with foreigners, foreign documents.  And I have seperate block for my freelance translation/interpretation.

Oh, and my friend did not have a clear idea about job description (after all, the job wasn’t for her company – it was for her client company), so I also asked them to give me a job description.

The job description never came, nor the reply.  Naturally, I thought the position is bygone.  Well, as I munch down my lunch today, my cell rang. It was the company.

Company: Thanks for the resume.  But we are looking for the foreigner, I mean, native speaker for the position.  I think there was some kind of misunderstanding.  And you are Korean, so unfortunately, we believe you are not the best match for our position. 

And then “we hope to see you again if there is another opportunity” blah blah shit.   Yeah thanks whatever.   Oh and I never thought being a “foreigner” matters that much in terms of job performance.  I didn’t even bother to argue, since my friend already said that they are looking for a “foreigner,” and I am very well aware of Korean (Asian in general) companies’ fantasy on having a foreigner in their office.  Oftentimes, it’s usually a white person from North America.  Never mind that there might be some other Korean who speaks better English AND Korean than that person – it looks cool, who cares?  But if they are really looking for a “foreigner” who can actually translate Korean – English, I say their chance is really, really slim.

It reminds me of how I wanted to join FBI, CIA or MI-5 back in the old days.  The things looked good, because many of these organizations are always short in people speaking good East Asian language.  I happen to speak 2 East Asian languages quite fluently, and my educational background is a good match.  However I had to give it up quickly.  All of them were only accepting US citizens and UK citizens.  No surprise, they are still short in people who can do that.

It’s not my first time, nor this is something that happens only in Korea.  Maybe there was a miscommunication.  Nevertheless I hate this bullshit.

The Coffee/Cafe Craze in Seoul

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For some reason, the coffee/cafe craze in Seoul city doesn’t stop.  And I don’t like it.  You might say, “well, what’s the problem? Of course it’s good to have a good cafes! That’s what cities are!”  Yeah, sure, if those cafes are all very unique, quiet, and serves good tea and snacks.  But no – it’s all Starbucks, Coffee Beans & Tea Leaf, and domestic brands who tries too hard to imitate the first two (and often their drinks taste like shi*).

One of the things I hate the most about Seoul city is lack of quiet, cozy cafe where I can enjoy decent tea (and snacks) and read for hours.  It is near-impossible to find a quiet cafe in Seoul.  Pretty much every single cafes are in the main streets of some populated, touristy area, with multiple stories and hundreds of seats.  Of course it is exploding with people.  And, I don’t know why, but so many Koreans always come and go as a group.  Sure, sure – one of the cafe’s function is to enjoy your time with good people.  But, again, I don’t know why, but Koreans tend to speak loud. Really loud.  Even when you don’t have to.  So imagine trying to read your favorite novel, surrounded by 10+ groups, all speaking really, really loud at the same time.  Oh, and the ceilings of these cafes are so damn high, the sound reverberates.

Secondly, despite the number of cafes in Seoul, they are all same. ALL. SAME.  It’s like Wallmarts – after all, it’s either Starbucks, Coffee Bean, Cafe Bene, or Tom&Toms.  That takes away one of the joys of cafe visiting.  You already know what it’s going to like, and you know what the menu will be like.  Why bother?  You just end up doing same things, or just stuck in your room, watching the same old TV show.

Lastly…almost all of them seriously lacks tea menu.  I’m a tea person and this greatly saddens me.  It’s upsetting when you ordered a cup of black tea, paid 5,000KRW and the tea bag says Lipton.

The thing I really loved about Tokyo was its richness of cafe culture.  They have Starbucks, but it’s certainly less crazed than Seoul.  Tokyo is full of million cafes run by different individuals.  They are all different in looks and menus.  And yes, they also serve a lot of teas.  No one bothers you whether you come alone or no.  There are people who come in as a group, but they don’t scream like Koreans (they do so in bar or pubs, though).  So for me, pretty much every weekend was great.  I would grab a map and my favorite book, eye-shop for a cafe, take a seat, and enjoy great food and lovely tea, along with book.  No one bothered me and all was very calm.  After 4-5 hours, I would come back to home, very content.  Tokyo has its share of hustle-bustle cafes, but at the same time, there is almost equal portion of no hustle-bustle cafes.

So far, I found only one or two cafes that satisfies my standard of cafe.  I was at one of those cafes today, doing my stuff.  A group of girls came along, probably working on a fashion industry, about to have a brainstorm or something.  One looked very absent-minded.  They opened the labtop and logged on to (what is supposedly) their company website.  Like many South Korean websites, you know, one of those things filled with Flashes and big beat music.  They just left it on.  So that big music started to echo in the whole place, mixed with John Mayer songs.  I ahemed a bit.  They did not notice.  I was annoyed (I caught cold. Again).  Finally, I had to say, “look, would you please turn that music down?” The girl was so surprised, hastily said “oh, sorry, sorry.”

Isn’t it a common sense to either silence your sounding device or use your own audio set in the public place?  Like, she should have known it as soon as she take out her computer, instead of putting it on until I say it.

Few days ago, I watched a documentary on Seoul’s cafe craziness.  Surprisingly, many Koreans associate Starbucks and other big-name coffee store brands as better and tastier and more sophisticated.  Starbucks? Sophisticated? I don’t know. But I wouldn’t make fun of it, since my image and experience of Starbucks and that of many other Koreans are different.  I suspect it also has to do a lot of Koreans’ consciousness of the look of others – but hey, if you think the coffee taste like shit, you can say it.  Don’t pretend just because you are worried about what others might think of you.  They aren’t paying for your coffee.

Most of all, if you want to look sophisticated, you’d better start with the sophisticated behavior – because, failing to behave in what is supposed to be sophisticated place will actually make you look worse.  Sadly, I haven’t seen many Koreans doing so.