Archive for July, 2010

First Year, Second Year

by on Saturday, July 24th, 2010

For pictures of the location, see my post entitled “A Walk through a Chinese Port Town,” (August 19, 2009).
English teacher and student in the classroom

The all-important ID card
The all-important ID card
ID with photo in subtropical heat

ID with photo in subtropical heat

In September of 1984, I arrived at Xiamen University in Fujian Province, China. As happy as I was to be in this beautiful and fascinating place—and I was happy—the trouble started immediately.

I’d been teaching since my first gig as a graduate student 1966. I thought I knew students, and I wasn’t above playing it for laughs. So why did I see all these expressionless faces? I thought the kids must have been so abused by the system that they couldn’t react normally. After about two weeks they started to thaw out, and I realized having to deal with a foreigner had scared the shit out of them. After all, this was only a year after the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign, when any foreign contact meant big trouble. I had also insisted on speaking in class, which was not the Chinese way of teaching English conversation.

Someone must have talked to my students, because suddenly they opened up and started talking. They became a joy to teach—we did a lot of small-group discussions, some skits they wrote themselves and acted out, anything to communicate verbally. One of the first questions I got from the freshmen, who were all very young and looked younger, was, “What does the United States hate about China?”

Out of the mouths of babes, I thought to myself. “Well,” I said, “People like President Reagan are afraid of socialism.”

They looked very surprised for a minute, and then they laughed. This was not an embarrassed giggle. This was genuine amusement.

“That’s why they are afraid of the Soviet Union and China. When I said I was going to come here, some people said, ‘You mean Red China?’”

Recognizing this as paranoia from the other side, they laughed uproariously. After that, my biggest problem was to get students to shut up when other students are talking. They seemed to be used to listening only to authority figures, not each other.

Another problem was textbooks. The older ones were full of political slogans like “Long live Chairman Mao” and extraordinary inaccurate information, such as hints about pronouncing the tones in German, which the author had assumed was a tonal language like Chinese. Cultural information was also problematic. In response to “thank you,” students were taught not to say “you’re welcome,”  but “never mind” or “it doesn’t matter,” translations of mei guanxi or bu keqi.

The new official strategy was fill English language textbooks with reading selections on modern technology, which was as familiar to my students as the dark side of the moon. The freshmen had a pirated book—a fairly good one—written for students learning English in the States, where they would be picking up cultural information just from living in the country. For example, one lesson was about sending medical information from remote areas to hospital computers via the touch telephone. My students might have used a telephone a few times, but it would have been an operator-assisted call on a dial phone. They didn’t understand, and it didn’t help for me to describe the touch tone by drawing a picture on the board and bleating out BEEP BEEP BEEP in different pitches. Except for the computer science students, they thought computers were like typewriters with television sets attached. Some of the others still longed for access to typewriters. The students didn’t understand this or any of the other readings, and the Chinese teachers of English didn’t either. How were they going to know what was meant by “the next best thing to being there” or “reach out and touch someone”?  Where could they have looked it up?

There was also a communication problem with the professors in charge, who told me, with regard to the chapters in the two first-year reading texts, “The proportion is one to four.”

“One of what to four of what?” It made no sense at all if you looked at the books.

 “The proportion is one to four.”

“But I don’t understand…”

“The proportion is one to four.” 

One of them explained at length what he did in his own class. He read the little reading selection aloud and asked the six students whose pronunciation was the worst—one at a time—to stand up and read it aloud. That would explain the blank-terrified expressions on the kids’ faces, I thought. Then the class did the exercises, which simply required them to supply missing words from the reading. Every class period, the students wrote out these oral exercises. If their handwriting wasn’t good enough, they had to do them over. When the professor finished explaining, clearly expecting me to go and do likewise, I couldn’t help myself. I said recent research showed reading aloud was of questionable value in learning a foreign language, particularly texts meant to be read silently. So much for making a good impression on my new boss.

The usual Chinese way was to read the text to the students or play a recording, do every exercise, explain every third word and make the students recite from memory or read aloud. Pronunciation was one word at a time with no regard to the intonation of the sentence or the word group. It sounded a bit like machine-gun fire. The students read along or fell asleep. Anywhere you went on campus, you saw students walking along blubbering over some English text they were learning by heart. Sometimes you’d hear, “This is the way Chinese students learn. You need Chinese methods to teach Chinese students.” These methods preserved the status quo—no one asked questions—and supposedly prevented the students from seeing that the teachers couldn’t speak the language they were supposedly teaching.

At least I had a text for my freshman classes. Since I’d been told I’d be teaching forth-year writing, I’d brought over a box of different writing books from the Linguistics Department at the University of Pittsburgh. When I arrived, the writing classes had been given to someone else. I had no materials for nine hours a week of junior and graduate classes, so I had to scramble. When I finally met other expats in my building one said, “We didn’t want to disturb your typing. I said to Elizabeth, ‘Have you seen the new shuan jia [Foreign Expert]? What’s she doing? What’s all that typing?'”

So, what to type from? I blew up when the librarian wouldn’t let me into the closed stacks of the library. How can you tell from looking at fifty titles, all more or less synonymous with “Basic English,” which one or two might do for this or that? That was when I discovered that if you bang on your fist on the counter and yell your head off, you get access. Not long after, I saw that in China banging the table was common behavior among expats, although perhaps less effective than the Confucian method of “going through the back door,” or getting someone to arrange things for you. I was also frustrated at being barred from the part of the bookstore with the pirated foreign books. When the Foreign Affairs Office took the foreigners on campus to another town, I was delighted to pick up a few pirated books. Back at the bus, one of the officials asked about my purchase.

Stupidly, I let him see. “This is a book that’s well known in the States.”

“Hmm. And you got it across the road there?”

When I showed the books to another foreigner, she said, “Don’t show them to the Chinese.”

“I’m afraid it’s too late.” 

“Well, you aren’t used to China yet. One of those people is a bigwig in the Communist Party. He’ll call the bookstore, and if we come back later to buy books, the clerks won’t let us.”  At the first opportunity, she ran into the shop, but they didn’t have anything she wanted.

Back in Xiamen, I sent a couple of friendly Chinese teachers to the “no foreigners” room with instructions to write down titles. I didn’t want them to get into trouble by buying the books for me. Then I announced to my official minder, “I’d like to donate some books to the department library.”

“Oh, you are very generous.”

“Please buy these for me.” I gave her a list and the money for the books. “Now, I’d like to use them first.”

“Oh, yes, of course.”

There might have been a photocopy machine on the campus, but if so I’m certain few people were allowed to use it. A year later, I heard about the one photocopy machine at the Xinhua News Agency school, which was behind a locked door and guarded by a military man with a rifle and bayonet. The work unit didn’t have the proper foreign paper for the machine. If it was used with thin Chinese paper, it broke down. They weren’t taking any chances.

Anyway, I folded a mimeograph stencil so it would fit into the carriage of the manual Olympia portable my father had given me as a high school graduation present, which was perfect for China, and I typed. I had to use a lot of correction fluid, and I had to type with the ribbon on so the keys wouldn’t tear the stencil to bits. The result was ugly, but as a practical Westerner I assumed only the finished product mattered. I’d take my typed stencils into the English office and get interrogated about what students the materials were for and what other classes the students were taking. I didn’t know students were billed for all the handouts and the secretary was just trying to find out whether I was teaching Foreign Language students or College English students. Nobody explained that the two departments shared the same office. No one wrote my schedule down so a secretary could look it up. I was afraid that if I gave the wrong answer they wouldn’t fill out the forms for me and I’d have to go to another office and go through the same thing. I felt frustrated that I was having so many communication problems and that everyone seemed to find my frustration amusing.

After the questions were out of the way, the interrogators—everyone in the office—would comment about how awful my stencils looked. When I tried to explain, no one would listen. The same scene was repeated ten times. The fact that I counted shows how thin-skinned I’d grown   about criticism, even though there was nothing personal in it. Anything different from the norm, clothing in the inappropriate colors or a shirt tail too long or too short, for example, drew minute and persistent criticism. That’s how China kept people in line. After I got through that phase of culture shock, I could ignore it.

Eventually I started going to a department typist’s home with long selections for her to type from books, while I typed the stuff I wrote myself and the shorter things I stole from books or newspapers. The typist filled out the forms for the printing factory because I still couldn’t write Chinese. I took the stencils and the forms to the printing factory and picked up the mimeographed copies a few days later—often piled up in my luggage cart, which my next door neighbor maintained should be the logo for the Foreign Expert, airport luggage wheels with a cardboard box full of papers.

Foreign Experts and Teachers, Chinese administrators (my boss, Prof. Wu Yidi, and me on the right)

In later years I came to distrust the Asian habit of making arbitrary decisions which affected people as a category, rather than as individuals. But what happened next was perfect for me. A couple of months after my arrival, it was announced from on high that all department heads above a certain age would be replaced by younger faculty. I was so far outside the information loop that, when a very pleasant, nice-looking, rather Westernized man came ambling over in my direction, I didn’t realize he was the new head of College English. He asked me whether I intended to stay on for another year. I said, “They haven’t asked me yet. — Oh, I see, you’re asking me.” He came to a class, beamed at what he saw and pumped my hand up and down vigorously. That was the beginning of one of the best working relationships I’ve ever had. We’ve remained friends, and I’ve been back to visit twice.

Fishing net near the Xiamen harbor

Fishing net near the Xiamen harbor

I now felt better about going my own way, writing materials the students could understand and providing cultural information they would need in order to communicate with non-Chinese speakers of English. So, for example, technology on the level of the butter churn the students knew very well, particularly from their experience in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. So I gave them social history from the American frontier, complete with drawings of buildings, furniture and farm implements. They got lessons in what to say and what not to say. This was the start of my set of thirty-one dialogues illustrating Western social mores. The dialogues dealt with subjects the students were curious about, like dating, which at the time was frowned on for undergraduates. Each lesson included class activities, composition topics, and reading assignments. The thing mushroomed into a full-year course which I spent my second year developing and showing Chinese teachers how to use. It was run off and distributed as a book to the department faculty and people in other schools at the university.

Chemistry was the largest and best known department at Xiamen University. Now, suppose a graduate student, faculty member or administrator were chosen to act as a Chinese guide for some bigwig visiting chemist from America or Europe. That guide could very well show up unexpectedly before eight in the morning, knock continuously on the door until it was opened—maybe for fifteen minutes straight—barge in without being invited, look all around, ask a lot of personal questions indicating a good knowledge of the chemist’s personal life, pick his or her nose, make suggestions sounding like orders—“You’d better do this, you’d better do that”—and, once outside, spit loudly on the road. Then the person might push too hard for help getting into the chemist’s department overseas. Individually, at least, none of these indelicacies seemed to violate Chinese codes of behavior, or if they did they were frequent violations. This was still in the post-Cultural Revolution days when having nice manners meant being considered bourgeois, which of course was a no-no.

I felt this hypothetical foreign chemist, this visitor for three weeks, might conceivably be more interested in chemistry than in Chinese behavior—particularly before eight in the morning—and could well overlook the nice and friendly and polite gestures that student was also making. Many Chinese were obviously anxious around foreigners. They knew our expectations were very different, but they don’t know the specifics. I analyzed my frustrations, figuring that when I answered the door I was irritated because the Chinese knock longer than we do and continuously. Explaining my responses to my students gave me an outlet for emotions which otherwise might have remained trapped inside. This was the start of something I continued in Korea as I developed an advanced, two-volume cross-cultural language textbook from the interviews which are featured on this website. At Dongguk University I taught from it for ten years.

The culture gap was enormous. Chinese teachers of North American literature have asked me questions like, “Are there elephants in America?” And I thought, Wouldn’t your reading of nature poetry be different if you imagined a landscape with elephants in it? Would Walt Whitman evoke the same image from the top of an elephant?

 One of my graduate students, a Ph.D. candidate in ancient Chinese history, told me on an individual oral exam that Columbus arrived in the western hemisphere “in 1852—no, 1850—nineteenth century.”


 “Oh, that’s right. Ming Dynasty.”

It was just the two of us, and I couldn’t help myself. I said, “Who do you think China signed the Unequal Treaties with? Plains Indians? They would have given China a much better deal.” 

On the other hand, some letters I received from the United States showed the writers didn’t know there was a difference between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China.

College majors were assigned according to test scores. The top students did science. Somewhat farther down, they got English—in 1984, after Russian was phased out—and farther still were other languages. After all, this was both Asia and a totalitarian state, neither of which put much truck in individual differences. At the end of my first year, I found out what happened to students after graduation. For assignments, the important score was the general mark. The exact percentages varied from department to department, but it might have been determined by something like this: 30% morality (being a good socialist), 45% academic scores, 15% athletics, 5% hygiene (not spitting on the dormitory floor), 5% anything else (favoritism). A male student might have been right when he told his teacher he didn’t need to study, he needed to do sports. The party secretary of his department, the Big Potato with the power, might not know enough of the academic area to know whether a student was good at it or not, but being good at running might give the student enough of a halo for a good general mark, which was the important one.

The department party secretary was the one who wrote in the personal dossiers which followed teachers and students for the rest of their lives. Many nominal department heads toed the line for the party secretaries, although there were also people like my boss in College English who were so well-liked and well-respected that they did control their departments. Our party secretary was also a good, well-educated man. The only exception to the party secretary’s control was the department’s Foreign Expert, because we were under the control of the Expert’s Bureau in Beijing.   

At the end of the year, a malicious party secretary could set about breaking up student relationships. I knew a top student in another department whose high score allowed her some choice. She thought about asking to be sent to Beijing because her finance’s mother lived in Beijing and she was hoping he’d be sent there as well. The party secretary sent him to a remote area out west. There was no particular reason for it. He was just flexing his muscles. (In a police state, if you might not have the money to show off, but you might have the power.) That meant the couple had no hope of marrying for many years, perhaps no possibility of ever living in the same place. This young woman girl struggled with the question of whether she should give up on her boyfriend and ask to go to Guangzhou, where her family lived. The difficulty was that there is no room for error. You couldn’t change your mind and move. In college you made a decision—or had one made for you—and you were stuck with it.

Since College English was a service department, I assumed my students’ job placements would be connected with their majors. Later I discovered that Foreign Languages majors might be sent off to a diesel factory, an automobile factory, a computer center, a bank or a news agency. One of the foreigners complained, “I could have been teaching them science or mechanics in the target language, but the department insisted on literature, literature, literature. Now I know where they’re going, so I insisted to the party secretary that one of my students be allowed to write his final translation paper on economics, which interests him, and not on literature.” Of course, outside China this is a problem as well. Are the students learning Shakespeare et al. because of their interests or job prospects, or is the students’ presence in the classroom merely providing employment for the university’s literature faculty?

It would have been a mistake to deny myself a second year. Essentially, the first year simply prepared me for the second. I found living and working in Asia not at all like doing the same in Europe, where I was often able to forget about cultural and linguistic differences. It might not have taken me long to love the people and hate the system. But it took a long time to find out how to do things, and somewhat longer for my colleagues to discover they could trust my judgment.

My second year I saw more change happening. Many of the younger teachers spoke English quite well. Some of them sat in on classes and put a lot of thought into possible improvements. I got together with people who were interested in updating and improving their teaching methods. With the start of my second year, my relationship grew to the point where I felt more appreciated than I had in the States. (This was before I arrived in Korea, where I developed a similar bond with my colleagues.) People came to see me, I was invited to their houses for dinner, and they put on a big spread. We talked and shared ideas and had a good exchange. Even the higher administration was looking forward. The second spring we had our first conference on Teaching English as a Foreign Language. It was not spectacular as conferences go, but it was a beginning.

Lady Luck Helps Make Changes, Part 2

by on Sunday, July 11th, 2010

In 1994 I interviewed my friend Klaus about his experience as a German executive connected with a Korean company.

Frankly, I don’t know how everything worked out so well. I’m just grateful that it did. But I can tell you how I proceeded. I was very lucky, but I also had a sense of direction. Right from the from the beginning I realized that before I did anything I would have to spend some time checking out the workplace and the people working for me and with me. So I walked around the factory and the office asking questions and observing and giving people an opportunity to talk to me. I knew something was wrong with the product lines, but I didn’t know what it was. I listened as people told me their stories.

About fifty people mentioned one particular problem, namely that we were manufacturing the wrong products for this market. The decision to make these products had been made in Germany. Of course, if you produce something for a foreign market, you have to produce what that market tells you to and not what is decided in your home office.

The next thing I did was watch people’s behavior. I had heard that, in the typical Korean way, people would treat me like a king and they would deal with their own subordinates in a completely different manner. It was not the kind of management style I was used to in Europe. I knew from my reading that this was going to happen, but it was much more extreme than I had expected. So I knew that I had to behave like a patriarch. People would follow me, but I couldn’t expect to have any colleagues in management. Even the senior director would never express his doubts or objections or even discuss a decision with me. I missed the discussion we had in Europe. There was no one with whom I could share my indecision or go over policies or work out subtleties. I said things, and these were handed down like orders. This is not Western management style. But management principles have to be determined by the country and the people rather than by the business. Two quite different companies can be run the same way in Korea, but in Pakistan or Germany a company would have to be run much differently.

I knew that people would never tell me what they thought if I sat in my glass cage. So I went to them, which at first shocked them. A few pointed out that it was not the Korean way for the president of the company to come to the desks of his subordinates. But I said, “Well, I’m not Korean, and we are a German company, so I want to do it my way.”

Then they had to tell me the truth because I sat at their desks and asked them to show me the papers where what they were telling me was recorded. If someone had just given me some bullshit I would have said, “Please show me your accounts.” This was completely new to people, and at first they were very shy, very confused and very afraid. But then they realized I was not doing this to nail them down, but just to find out how the company operated and what needed to be changed.

At first the listening and observing process was difficult for me. I tend naturally to think that I am right, and I want to just go ahead with whatever I decide. But in this case I really didn’t know, so I had to listen. I discovered that just listening and observing others can be very beautiful. I started really enjoying just sitting there with an employee, knowing that I am the boss and can do anything I want, but just listening to his opinion, without telling him my opinion first. And I think I developed some patience, which I believe is an Asian virtue.

I also had to learn how the Koreans think, which is different from Western people because they have different values and different priorities. For instance, my own number-one priority is my wife and five children. But for a Korean man, his job is his number-one priority. His job defines his status in society and influences the respect he receives from his family and his relatives. When people address each other, they use a title like bujang [manager] or sajang [president of a company]. In Germany we did that in the nineteenth century, but nowadays we would smile at this. Nobody would say, “Please call me Manager.” Everybody would laugh. Here when we have the annual salary increases, people have come to me individually and said they would understand if the company had to be a tight with raises, but could they please have a higher title. You put the title on your name card, and the title determines how people treat you. So if a man’s title is on the low side, it’s quite serious. If a man has reached the age of thirty-five without becoming a bujang, it’s like a woman reaching thirty without getting married. It’s a disaster.

Anyway, during the first six months I made changes in the organization. When I put some people in other places, I said, “Please do this. If you want to be a part of this company, do this job whether you like it or not. After a while I may give you a better job, but do this well first.” Some people were not honest with me and tried to side-step me or wouldn’t give me the proper information, and I told them they weren’t suitable for the company. I knew that making people resign was very un-Korean, but the company was losing a lot of money, and I had been given just one year to either clean up the company or close it. If you have only one year, you don’t have a chance to be nice to people. I had to save the jobs of the good people if I could. This makes sense in Europe or America, but it’s very difficult in Asia. It was a painful process, but it worked immediately. The cost came down and the production went up.

Of course, we had other problems to deal with as well, like government restrictions of various kinds. Companies in Korea have to operate under a lot of restrictions, but there are many ways to side-step them. Because the law is often vague, the restrictions can bounce like a rubber ball. They can go here or there or somewhere else. If you react like a Westerner and complain to the Ministry of Industry or the Ministry of Finance that something is not fair or not in accordance with international trade agreements, you will be told that the restriction is not at all as you interpreted it, but something else altogether.

So we always did things the Korean way. In Korea the strongest connection you have is to a classmate of the same school or university. So we sent someone to speak to the person in authority who was a classmate of his. Of course there was always a little money under the table too. They would discuss the matter, and our man would be told how the restriction should be interpreted in this particular case. And we would try to follow the suggestion that was proposed, which was never completely according to the law or completely against it, but something in the gray zone. This always worked. We imported everything we wanted to import.

If I had just gone the official way, we would have failed. A foreigner can never solve these problems by himself. It’s impossible. Even if Korea opens up more and more, the bureaucrats will remain strong, and they will find a way to block whatever they want to. You can’t just charge in like a German bull and complain and write letters. The problems will never be solved, and you will lose a lot of money.

So I changed the organization, the product lines, the service and marketing policies—virtually everything. I could do this as president of a company that was 100% foreign-owned. When I first arrived in Korea we were a joint venture, with 40% belonging to the Korean partner and 60% to the German parent company. It was clear at the beginning that this arrangement would not work. We were thinking in terms of long-term investment strategies, and the Korean partner was thinking about making quick money. So I made it clear to him that he would lose money for many, many years, and I offered him a good price for his shares. After he pulled out, I had a free hand to do all the restructuring which was key to the turn-around.    

You often hear of disagreements between foreign and Korean partners. I think when it comes to a legal dispute, the foreign partner has lost from the beginning. The Koreans have connections everywhere, including in the courts. There was one case in particular which I studied in some detail. It was very clear that the German partner was right. It was a matter of not being paid for some supplies. But the Korean partner had the means to see to it that the case was delayed and delayed and delayed. The foreign partner lost a lot of money in the process and finally just wanted to get out. Also, anyone bringing suit here will never do any additional business in Korea. He’ll be blacklisted.

The government allowed us to continue here under foreign ownership because we are a high-technology company. The government doesn’t want to lose any more high-tech investment to other countries. This is a big problem already. However, being a foreign-owned company is a mixed blessing here. Koreans have their han [resentments, pride,  inferiority complex, melancholy], which in this context means “Korea first.” People feel that if a foreign company is making money somewhere, a Korean company is losing. That doesn’t make any sense, but it’s what people think. They assume that foreign companies, because we work more efficiently and usually have better products than the local industry, make a hell of a lot of money. If you don’t declare it on your tax forms, it means you are hiding something. So foreign companies are the preferred targets for tax investigation, tax charges and extra charges. They want to get money out of us. We did very well in the investigations which were directed at us because we have many good local contacts. But I know many foreign companies which have been nearly destroyed by these investigations. There were horrendous claims made against them. And that’s one of the reasons why foreign manufacturers don’t want to come to Korea anymore.

Foreign companies generally are more profitable than local companies because they have better products. You know, without our being here, the quality level of lamps and other lighting products would be extremely poor. But because were had far better quality, we forced the local industry to improve the quality of its products or die. If the local companies hadn’t improved because of competition with us, in ten years they would be gone anyway. So we help the consumers, we help the nation, and we help the other companies in the end too.

I am one of those businessmen who believes that Korea has already missed the train to strategic foreign investment. The opportunity won’t come again because it has gone to other countries—to China or Indonesia. The conditions are not favorable here, and there’s too much red tape. In addition to the unfair treatment I’ve already mentioned, there is the problem of disinvestment. If you want to withdraw your money because you were unsuccessful, you can’t take out the amount you invested in land and property. It’s taxed away. If we were to sell our land and our factory and take the money out of the country, we would have to pay a 60% tax on it. This is outrageous. There is also the low productivity in Korea and the high labor costs, which are still rising and which make Korea uncompetitive as compared to other countries. And then the infrastructure is not good, like the traffic, which means you lose a lot of time and money. Of course, many other Asian cities also have traffic problems, but all of these disadvantages add up.

I have friends and acquaintances who say they have had all kinds of difficulties here that they have never had in any other country. I myself have found Koreans very diligent, very cooperative, very helpful—once you find the right approach. We achieved very good results, and I did it with the Korean employees. We went from a poor company to a very successful company, and after the momentum got going I didn’t have to do very much. It got better and better. I was surprised, but I knew we were on the right path.

I also like Korea. Aside from the pollution and the traffic, I find life here very pleasant. There are many churches I can go to and many wonderful places of natural beauty. There are good places to live. Of course, these are expensive, but usually for a foreign businessman the company pays. In China, people often are forced to live in hotels. My family is happy here. There are good schools—German schools and American schools—and entertainment for the children. It all fits together to make a good place to live.

Looking back over my four years in Korea, I would advise any foreign businessman coming here to free his mind of anxiety and worry. The market is growing. It’s full of activity. There is a lot of opportunity, unlike the saturated European market. Things happen very fast here. Every day I have to change my work schedule because something comes up. For some people, this would be painful. But for a creative person, it can be very exciting. I think people are thankful because we bring them better products which they can’t make themselves. By bringing in this technology, you do the country a favor, and this gives you a good feeling. What you are doing makes sense. You can be proud of it.

Lady Luck Helps Make Changes, Part 1

by on Sunday, July 4th, 2010

I interviewed my friend Scott in 1994 about his experience as an American executive connected with a Korean company, where he immediately ran into some major cultural differences between Western and Korean society. In 1997 when the Korean won fell flat on its face, I wished the interview had also included his skepticism of the economy. Some of this interview appears at the end of the post on the Korean women’s movement.  (For related content, see the post entitled “An Irishman’s Culture Shock,” January 24, 2010)

Scott’s story

My company in the States sold several licenses—one package—to a Korean company which was supposed to be established over a period of five years. Its primary business would be to offer management and technological services. I was sent over in response to the Korean company’s request for help because my company wanted to see some royalties from the licenses they had sold.

American companies typically start small and grow as the revenue grows. But in Korea, from what I’ve seen, a company is set up as if it were already a multi-million-dollar business. In the two years before I arrived, this one had purchased a small office building in a prime area of Seoul, probably worth fifteen million dollars, and had hired thirty-five employees. The company hierarchy was built from the top down, based on where somebody had gone to school and how old he was, not his business experience and how successful it was. They bought a fleet of vehicles. In this “planning phase,” the people on the lower levels who did the actual work wrote plan after plan, memorized technical manuals and translated things. There was no pressure to make sales, to implement any business, to meet with anybody out in the marketplace. Basically, they weren’t really working, and they had become used to not having to work. They sat around reading newspapers. However, they spent an enormous amount of time in the office, maybe a seventy hours a week on the average, sometimes a lot more.

So I was sent over in January, 1993. I had read everything I could find on Korea—at least twenty books—and maybe twenty more on Asia, as well as information sent me by the American Chamber of Commerce in Seoul and the U.S. State Department. So I thought I knew a lot about Korea when I got here. But one of the things I’ve learned since then is that you can’t really learn about a country or a culture or an economy just by reading. You can’t understand the idiosyncrasies and the relationships in broad terms.

When I arrived I was ready to roll up my sleeves and dive into the problems and make quick changes. However, I promised myself that I would devote two full months of analysis in order to understand the problems and then prepare a plan to turn things around within six months. I had been very successful in the United States as a result of doing things that way. At my first meeting with the employees, I told them about our new goals—all tangible goals. It really scared people.

 My plan included motivating employees through recognition and bonuses, which tend to set people apart from the rest. I wanted to move the good people along, get some of the poor performers in line and cause some of the really poor performers to leave. I completely forgot about the intangible things that are important in Asia. For example, inhwa, or group harmony, which is really hard to describe in Western terms, means having everybody moving in a direction without losing anybody or making anybody feel unimportant, unsuccessful, or apart from the group.  Trying to implement something like the changes I wanted in one fell swoop is a disaster waiting to happen.

Later I came up with a plan to recognize the Employee of the Month, which included a fairly substantial bonus and recognition from the American and Korean company executives. Everyone kept kind of quiet about it, and I thought, “Wow, this just might work.” As the little ceremony approached, the recipient of this award found out he was going to get it, and so did everyone else.

Then the day before it was supposed to happen somebody came to me and said, “You can’t do this.”


“Well, you just can’t. This is Korea. You’ve got to recognize everybody. And you’ve got to give everybody a bonus.”

I said, “That defeats the purpose of what I want to do. And I don’t think everybody has worked as hard as this person or has been as responsible. He sets an example that we all need to follow.”

He left.

 Then somebody from senior management came in and said, “You can’t do this in Korea.”

I think they waited until the day before because they didn’t want to cause me any discomfort. Rather than bring up a problem or even talk about it, Koreans would much rather avoid it, forget it or put it off.

At the beginning I was very frustrated and I wondered how people could be so stupid they couldn’t understand these concepts. Of course, I know now that it had nothing to do with stupidity. In this culture for thousands of years only a few people were singled out. Everyone else abided by decisions made for them, and that included the colors of clothing people wore, the kinds of food they grew, where the roads and the houses went, where a certain class of people lived and who they married. It’s not “natural” for them to make critical decisions under pressure or be creative, because tradition punished that kind of behavior and punished it severely. Also, people have had some success with everyone following along after one person in an almost military type of corporate structure.

The other thing that I had to learn was the importance of age. A young man cannot go to his boss and say, “We’re making a mistake.” It’s career suicide. Let’s say that a company has decided to develop a new automobile, and a good analyst finds out that the market research was flawed because they’ve miscalculated the barriers to the market. He knows the investment will be a fiasco big enough to take the whole corporation down, but he would never go upstairs and say he found a mistake. It’s almost unheard of. There are very clearly defined power levels of social status and corporate status, and people don’t cross those barriers. It’s very, very strict.

Right after I arrived, I had to insist that much of the planning done in the past was completely unusable. I read five or six planning reports completed for the same piece of business. They provided details on everything—marketing, engineering, keeping track of things—but the demographic information was inaccurate. All five reports had different figures for how many facilities there were or how many facilities of a certain size there were. It was unbelievable. Instead of checking government statistics, the person would make a phone call to a friend from school who worked for a company that sold medical equipment.

“How many are there in Seoul?”

“Oh, about two hundred.”

Or, worse yet, the writer of the report would make something up. Instead of climbing over the wall he had run into, he’d try to find a way around it. This is accepted in Korea, but I would not accept it.

Anyway, here I am in my late twenties and looking ten years younger, trying to implement radical changes in an organization. It reached a point where a fair-sized group in the office decided to make sure I wasn’t successful. I think the idea was to make things so difficult that I would leave Korea. They would sit in meetings and nod yes to what I said and then not do it. There were always hundreds of excuses: they didn’t have the right software, they couldn’t translate something, they needed more data. I’d come up with an answer, and the excuse would change. They knew I was dependent on them. They controlled my apartment, my utilities, and my car. For almost everything I needed a translator.  At one point my car was suddenly missing and nobody knew where it was. The same day my home phone was shut off.

 The whole thing finally came to a head one evening when I took the group out to dinner. They got very, very drunk, and the ringleader of the troublemakers threw a beer bottle that broke on the wall above my head. In doing that he crossed the line and lost face. Even though I wasn’t the most senior person in age, I had a very senior title. The lines get blurry with foreigners, but not that blurry. A number of people came to me individually after that and apologized and made it clear that they did not condone his behavior and would no longer be a part of undermining what I was trying to do. Then within about a week and a half, five people quit, including the ringleader. I replaced them with people I hired, all of whom spoke English and had some Western education, and I started to form my own team.

I was lucky. I’ve heard of a number of cases where foreigners have just lost and not even known what happened. One week they’re here, and the next week they’re gone. I was able to start over with a new team. This time, instead of trying to do everything in three or four big steps, I set things up so for every big step I took four little steps first. For instance, rather than give special recognition to an individual, we recognized a small team. First we set up the teams with the best people together, then the next-best people, then the poorest people. There was resistance to that, but the recognition and the performance bonus was implemented, and after some time people said to themselves, “Hey, I can make a little more money if I come to work and do my job instead of reading the paper.”

One of the reasons why productivity is so low is that people put in such long hours. It’s expected. If a Korean salaryman comes home at seven, his wife might wonder if he’s having a problem at work. Putting in long hours shows how diligent he is. If I give somebody an assignment at eight-thirty in the morning, I might say, “I need to have this information in this form, and I need to have it tomorrow morning because I’m meeting somebody.” Almost always that person will gather a little information during the day but not start to put the report together until eight or nine at night. Then he’ll work until midnight or one o’clock. The next morning I’ll have my report, but everybody in the office will know that he had to work late—when he could have had it done by noon if he’d really worked on it instead of sitting around, reading the newspaper and shuffling papers around.

People think that the more hours you put in, the better an employee you are. We’ve got mediocre employees who spend a lot of time in the office, and they’re treated very well. We have people who do whatever is asked of them—getting somebody’s laundry, taking their shoes to be shined, running to the bank for them—but not bringing in anything for the company or justifying their employment. Of course if you have to work on Saturdays, you have to run errands on your work time.

Some of the guys are young and went to graduate school in the States. They know what life is like in other places. They love spending time with their families. But most of the older ones, the last thing they want is to go home. I mean, what would they tell their wives? And the whole “house” is the size of an American living room. It’s all in one room or two very small rooms. The kids sleep there, the wife cooks there, and the neighbor ladies visit and make kimchi there, the kids’ friends come over and play there. It’s a very small, densely-populated, loud, crazy place. It’s much more comfortable for a man to spend twelve or fourteen hours at work and then four or five hours drinking with his colleagues, which is considered part of his job. Then he goes home half in the bag and doesn’t really care who’s sleeping on top of him or who’s running around with the television turned up loud.

So we had a kind of clash between the new generation and the old generation. And the older people will always win. So I didn’t reward people by giving them Saturdays off. Eventually what’s going to happen, probably this year, is that they’ll compromise and come up with a plan. For instance, “We think we would have had a twenty percent compensation increase this year, but we’ll take a fifteen percent increase and every other Saturday off. We’ll save the company money.” Maybe they would have only gotten twelve percent, anyway.

In my office, people arrive around eight o’clock in the morning after traveling between an hour and two hours to get to work. The very senior people leave maybe by six or six-fifteen, most of the upper and middle-level people leave around seven or seven-thirty and then go to some night spot to socialize, then have a long commute home. I can honestly say that a group of about ten average people working sixty or seventy hours a week only accomplishes a third—maybe half—of  what ten average employees in America do in forty hours a week.

The low productivity is built into the system. For instance, in Korea they have computerized, but they continue to keep the old written logs. Of those ten people, a certain number are assigned very specific duties, although this is all non-union. Maybe all one guy does is work with outside suppliers—that’s it. Another person works for him. When he’s been there a certain amount of time, he has to be promoted, and two more people have to be put under him because of his status.

The fact that you can’t recognize individual performance means somebody who’s working extra-extra hard is kept out of the mainstream and looked down on. God forbid that someone chooses not to drink. We have a guy in the office who’s just fantastic. Give him any project, it’ll be

done quickly and professionally. His work is usually excellent. However, he doesn’t drink with the crowd. He stays to himself and doesn’t get involved in office politics. So he’s become a social outcast who will not be promoted—unless big changes are made before he reaches a certain age. He’ll probably leave the company.

In the West, we like to keep account of what we’re spending on a daily or weekly or monthly basis, and financial decisions are based on these accounts—whether to spend more money on one thing and cut back on another. Regardless of what it is, there’s some data behind the decision. In our company and in a lot of other companies in Korea, decisions are made by someone who has a big title and a big office but very little responsibility and doesn’t want to know what’s going on in the day-to-day operations. He has been hired on the basis of where he went to school and who he knows. This is called “the corner office syndrome.” It exists in Japan too.  

On the basis of a whim, this person may just send down the order not to buy paper this month. So you run out of copy paper, and you’re forced to go through the files and pull out something that doesn’t look too important, make copies on the back, and refile it. Later, when find something in a file, you don’t know if you’re looking at the front side or the back side of something. The reports get all mixed up. I thought that was just our office, but I’ve found that it’s many, many offices and almost everywhere. In the States I’ve watched people who lived through the Great Depression make decisions based on fear of not having any money, and I think older people here also make decisions which reflect the hardships they have been through. But after causing all this confusion the same person will decide that someone high in the hierarchy needs a new Hyundai Grandeur just because he’s reached a certain age. It’s just amazing.

Getting back to my own story, I learned that I had to be very careful about choosing someone to give an assignment to. It can’t always be the best person for the job. For instance, on one occasion, rather than give a project to a department head, who then would probably have just passed it on to somebody in his department and not had anything to further to do with it, I skipped a level. I went to one of the people who worked for him because it required a very detailed explanation I thought would be better done directly. We’d had a number of meetings about this, and everybody knew about it, so I didn’t think it would be a problem. It ruffled some feathers. The person I went to was very uncomfortable because he thought his boss was going to see him as undercutting his position or causing him to lose face.

I should add that things can also be said for Korean practices. The seniority system eliminates some of the dog-eat-dog atmosphere we have to deal with in the States, where people step all over each other to get ahead without any regard for the other person. But Koreans don’t adhere to the rules as strictly as the Japanese. They’re more aggressive and do sometimes step over each other. They’re tough. I think Koreans will adapt to the new domestic economy and the new world economy better than the Japanese. They’re survivors. They’ve survived great hardships by being able to adapt to the situation. The beliefs and cultural rules are important, but people step over the lines when it benefits them.

One of the other things that I’ve learned is that the Korean economy is growing rapidly right now, and growth solves a lot of problems. So there is time to compromise, to do things in a somewhat traditional way and implement change in small steps. If you get some consensus first, the changes will go much better.

People here recognize successful changes and will usually go forward with them. They want more. Just look at the way they educate themselves and the number of hours they’re willing to work and what they’re willing to sacrifice. Look at what people do for the common good.

The new generation, the more I talk to them, the more I realize they’re torn. The kids don’t want to trade the problems that confront them here for the problems of the West. They don’t want to give up a relatively low crime rate and a safe society in order to improve their standard of living. They are also much more aware of the effects of past economic development on the environment. and they’re upset about it. They are less and less able to swallow some of the old Confucian ideas about love, marriage, relationships, the status of women and the strict relationships between old and young. They are much more creative, much more willing to speak out for change and much more idealistic.


After reading this post, Scott added, “Looking back, the experience I had in Korea provided a great learning platform for my future assignments in China and later in India.  I would say that today I know that learning how to ‘understand’ things is more important than learning how to ‘do’
things when dealing with different cultures.”