25 May 2008

Advantages of Being Foreign & Female

Korean kids enjoying life on the weekend, before they enter the working worldUntil recently, it was hard for me to imagine working longer hours and having less personal time than when I worked for a Chinese company in China. After spending two weeks working for a South Korean company in Seoul, I now realize China was just a warm-up...

Chinese people are subject to constant, intense pressure to put work ahead of family, and to sacrifice their personal interests and pleasures to satisfy demanding bosses. The minimum 10-hour workday is generally expected to extend into the evening and weekends, leaving little time for other pursuits.

Rare Koreans who actually have time for a hobbyNow, if you were to increase the probability of getting an assignment late on Friday that is due on Sunday, reduce the average night's sleep down to 3-5 hours, and assume nearly everyone is starting each day with a massive hangover, that would bring you closer to understanding what it's like to work in South Korea.

Fortunately, I have three advantages here, which will ensure my survival in the coming weeks. The first advantage is being a foreigner. People do not hold me to the same standards as they would a fellow South Korean. I suppose I could consider it discriminatory for them to assume I cannot work as long or hard as one of their own. I prefer to accept it as a gift.

People on my team who don't mind getting weekends offThe second advantage is my position. I outrank nearly everyone on the team and can pretty much call the shots. If I say the people who work for me need to go home at 9pm or take the weekend off, some people may think I'm crazy, but they are unlikely to take any steps to stop the madness as long as we're getting the work done.

Finally, I benefit from a double-standard that applies to women in South Korea. Whereas men are expected to work long hours and then go out and drink heavily with their colleagues and clients until the early morning, women actually get to choose whether to go drinking or go home. And when they do go out with the boys, they get to decide how much to drink.

Since there are several high-ranking women on this consulting project, there will be less mandatory drinking than might otherwise be expected, so I can count on my team to be less hung-over and more productive during office hours.

Kids playing in the fountain in front of city hall, just across from my hotelWhen people ask me whether South Korea is easier than China, it's a tough question to answer. I'm in a better frame of mind to accept the hardships of working in Asia after having been conditioned in China, and Seoul is a much more modern city than Shenzhen which makes it easier to get my basic needs met.

Regardless of which country ends up being marginally easier, both are much more difficult than they should be. Each time I work in Asia, I gain a deeper appreciation for the unique cultures, delicious food, and amazing people who live and work here. However, I also become more determined not to come back.


12 May 2008

Next Stop: Land of the Morning Calm

It's 1:00am in St. Louis and I've just finished packing. Since I have to catch an international flight at 6am this morning, I decided to stay up all night and get a jump start on adjusting to the new time zone...

After nearly five months in the US, I'm headed back to Asia to spend five weeks working in Seoul, South Korea. I've never been to South Korea, and two weeks ago I knew almost nothing about it. Since then, I've managed to read a couple of books on Korean culture and business etiquette, and I spent a few hours yesterday learning to read Korean script. It was surprisingly logical, much easier to learn than Japanese or Chinese writing systems which require excruciating amounts of rote memorization.

I've loaded my ipod with lessons from the Teach Yourself Korean series, so let's see how much I can absorb on the plane ride to Seoul. I get the feeling that, once I get there, the work will be too demanding to leave any room for language studies.

Reading about South Korean culture and history has been fascinating. They apparently endured hundreds of years of the most extreme form of Confucianism in Asia, which enforced a strict code of ethics and behavior to ensure group harmony at all costs. That's when it got the nickname "Land of the Morning Calm"-- at a time when people weren't allowed to express emotions in public without serious penalties.

In a single generation, South Korea has transformed into a major global economic power and one of the wealthiest countries in Asia, with some of the highest levels of civil and political rights in the world.

Of course, I've also been learning what I can about Korean food, and I'm looking forward to tasting at least a dozen different varieties of Kimchi in the next few weeks.

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