Lately my life has been all about Korea, and this obsession has been almost entirely voluntary. A client asked me a few weeks ago to come to Dallas and conduct a series of programs on working with South Koreans. I relished the thought, because although I’m quite familiar with Korean culture I suddenly found myself wanting to dig into the country’s details – its creation myth, what spices are loved most by its people, what has gone most awry between Koreans and U.S. Americans.
As I mentioned in my previous post about batik art, culture is to me, above all, fun and fascinating. Through respect and competency in international business you receive enrichment, if you take it. My obsession with Korea spawned dreams of the country at night and a craving for kimchee. I found an amazing website hosted by the Korean Spirit and Culture Promotion Project (online at www.kscpp.net) and read an entire book of Korean folk tales in two hours. I flashed back to landing at night in Seoul on many occasions and seeing the lights on bridges and ships.
Last Monday I flew to Dallas for the trainings and that evening I went with my colleague to an Asian grocery store to buy Korean prizes for an activity I would do in class. There we explored the various packs of noodles, jellied squid, organ meats, spicy sauces, teas, Chinese clothing, plastic bowls, rice cookers, red bean candies, dried chilis and more. I purchased some roasted corn, packs of instant kimchee, and red pepper paste for my participants, wondering if they would really see these items as prizes. I would, but I was obsessed.
After shopping we ate dinner at a Korean restaurant next door and I slurped down hot stew with pork and a cornucopia of side dishes. Then I went back to the hotel to ponder how I would have a difficult conversation with my upcoming class. Although exploring different cultures is fun, it is also deeply painful at times. Most of the time pain comes from different world views colliding without warning.
In my prep work for the class I came across a case study that made even me uncomfortable. These are the best kind, so I immediately placed it in the class manual. I highly recommend this reading and discussion for anyone planning to work in Korea. You can find the case in Robert Kohls’ book Learning to Think Korean on page 84. The lessons within are many, but here’s one you might find useful: The definition of a “friend” in Korea is very different from that in the U.S. A friend in Korea is one with whom you share everything, for whom you would do any favor. To this friend you feel a deep sense of commitment and obligation, and that bond is for life. What many U.S. Americans call a friend Koreans would call an acquaintance or even a stranger. Imagine the difficulties that could arise from this difference. One other useful lesson in the case study is never to underestimate the importance of saving face in Korea. To do so is to risk irreparable damage to business relationships.
These two worlds of Korea in which I’ve been living, the fun world and the painful world, have equally enriched me. So if you have the curiosity, if you have been struck by the Korea bug, I say dive in. The kimchee awaits, as does the opportunity to strengthen business ties, boost revenue, and breathe in a culture full of soul (no pun intended).