I know, I know. I promised many and varied humorous tales from my many and varied roles around the globe, and I just keep coming back to Korea. I can’t help it. It was quite simply the most wonderfully bizarre, confusing, frustrating but ultimately rewarding two year period of my entire career. Not from a work perspective – although this did have its high points – but no, the reward was just to be living there, witnessing these wonders unfold around me on a daily basis, and debatably keeping my head. Sadly, while many others around me did lose theirs.
Indeed, a Seoul posting was not exactly viewed in the company as a golden ticket. The reputation of the place and of the business was tough. Tough to adjust. Tough to know what’s really going on. And tough to live in. And that’s taking no notice of the nuclear nutter living just up the road. Or his nutter son. The record of expat success there was patchy at best. Sadly there were as many cases of Executives losing the plot and leaving broken, and even sadly succumbing to a drink fuelled early death, as there were success stories. Whilst my legacy in Korea made no such bold indents, good or bad, my experience there does lead me to believe that the current bonhomie between North and South, brokered by The GOO (Great Orange One), will not achieve its happy ending without some huge twists and turns along the way, and probably won’t reach it at all. (Note to self – should have finished this blog when I started it as events have already proved this).
Korea was and still is full of fascinating situations and even more fascinating people. Though it’s fair to say that as an outsider you never really knew what was going on. The English language press was certainly not the way to find out the stuff you needed to know. Despite subscribing to the daily Herald newspaper, it was only via the good old BBC that we found out a serial rapist was operating in our wealthy suburb and targeting western women. From no news to sketchy headlines – another day there was a one line report flagging that there was “a wolf loose in Seoul”, yet with no further details. The next day there was no follow up. News was a loose term. However I still savour some of the newspaper snippets I kept from the period. Under the headline – Crimes by Foreigners in Korea rise sharply – the following was the summary from the police office spokesman. “Since its very likely that local people are in greater danger from these crimes, plans to prevent them must be made immediately. Also, the government must think of plans to help foreigners adjust to Korean society before they become desperate or angry enough to kill and steal”. My desperation and anger levels luckily bubbled just below this stark official threshold. Mostly.
From the written press to the reality of everyday living. You needed to keep your wits about you at all times. From taxis mounting pavements to avoid traffic, to checking above you just in case workmen are about to kick the windows out of the high rise building next door, through to treating all pedestrian crossings as optional from the drivers perspective – the only place in the world my long held theory of “if he can see me crossing and he’s in a car then he WILL stop” was proved wrong. All these happened to me and I have the scars to prove it. In my final week in Korea even the sanctuary of the public bus proved insufficient, as it hurtled into the side of a BMW which I had spent at least 15 seconds looking directly at pre impact. The bus driver must have had his mind on other things. To be fair it was a place where it was easy to get confused.
The place went particularly crazy at election time. The election I witnessed saw tales of the “youth” party demanding that old people should individually decide not to exercise their right to vote as their time was past. The more traditional party officials retorted by various intriguing means. Some donned roller skates to prove their zest and wellbeing, some took to picking up litter from the streets to prove their usefulness, and, my personal favourite, one party official randomly took to mooing for no clear reason. The sad post script to the election is that when I now research what happened to the winner, I find that soon after being deposed at the next election, he jumped from a tall building to his death. It was a serious place with serious consequences that simply displayed itself in ways that seemed strange.
Despite the highs and lows it’s still the people that hold the fondest memories for me – although at the time I was sometimes less sure. I have previously regaled some of the tales regarding my direct Korean boss, whom we call Sally. One of Sally’s many skills was the ability to recite each directors priority level and birth date. Strangely there was a strong correlation between the two, although the birth date of the fabled CEO was never mentioned. My theory on this was that it was because he was born some time in the mid nineteenth century and had been mummified and subsequently automated. Despite recognising that this would be yet another Korean “Worlds first”, this theory didn’t go down well with my Korean colleagues, amongst whom there was a great deal of shaking of heads and teeth sucking.
I will leave my reminisces of the Korean people with a proper heart wrenching tale. Palsoon was one of my favourite people there. She was the long suffering assistant of Sally and as such put up with more than her fair share of grief. But always with a smile and a positive demeanour. She was the type of person that gave you hope for the place. And everyone loved her for it. One day I commented to her that her name was unusual, unique almost, which in the conforming Korean culture was unique in itself. With a sigh she explained to me the story behind it. Desperate for a son, her parents had begat six daughters before Palsoons arrival. You would hope that for the sake of the new family addition her parents would outwardly put their disappointment behind them. But no, they named her Palsoon – direct translation, seventh daughter. And so consigned her to her place. As times change around the world I truly hope she’s risen above her place now. Maybe she’ll be brokering the peace talks…