Unleashing Korean Productivity

Once again, Bloomberg has rated Korea as an innovation hub. And once again, Korea’s weakest statistic is productivity per worker, though a jump from 32nd place to 21st is impressive.

So what gives? After more than a year at Samsung, I see two main causes of Korea’s low worker productivity. The first, most obvious cause is long hours. Many Koreans (though, thankfully, not those in my division) feel like they have to get to work before their bosses and leave after, regardless of whether they have anything important to do. They put on a show of being at work for very long hours, but exhausted workers don’t actually produce very much. They’d be more effective if they just went home and slept.

This culture, thankfully, is changing. The president is pushing policies to limit excessively long hours, and companies like Samsung are making changes. In my division at Samsung, it’s now against the rules to work more than 52 hours in a week — still a lot of hours, but it means you can’t put in 12-hour days and then come in on the weekend without a notice getting sent to HR and the CEO. There are twice-a-month events called Smile Day, when you’re encouraged to go home early, and Wednesdays are Family Day, so people are also pushed out the door a little bit. And vacation days are mandatory: if you don’t take them by the end of the year, you’re actually not allowed to come in to work until they’re all gone. None of these reforms is a magic fix, but they’re helping to push the culture away from overwork and toward more efficient time management.

The second cause of low productivity is perhaps harder to pinpoint, and harder to reform, but I think it has much to do with the top-down, authoritarian culture that still rules many companies. Workers put in a lot of effort do get something done, only to be told to do it all again differently. I’ve worked on projects that carried on for months in a state of constant crisis, everything needing to be done immediately even though the release date was still far in the future. Instead of “measure twice, cut once,” it was more like “chop everything to pieces and glue it all back together,” and we did it over and over again. The final result was the sloppy hodge-podge you would expect.

This too is changing, though maybe not as visibly or as quickly. The leader of that project was edged out, and there’s a notable lack of panicked frenzy these days in my division. When workers are given the time and space to think and to do things right, they produce greater value. Just think what we could do if we added that latent worker productivity to the many factors already standing in Korea’s favor!

The New Year of No Particular Ambition

Last year, after a tedious New Year’s Eve party, I nearly ended up in a fistfight over a taxi.

The year before that, I stood on a cold, rainy beach in Da Nang, enduring hours of Vietpop for what turned out to be one small firework. The highlight of the evening was hearing my Vietnamese girlfriend declare that “Vietnam has the most beautiful bitches in the world,” by which she meant beaches.

In past years, I’ve been to countless forgettable parties, paid too much for mediocre dinners, wasted a grim evening at Menahata Bulgarian Bar that was not at all like the video for Start Wearing Purple. I welcomed the millennium at my cousin’s house in Washington, DC, where she had forgotten to throw the party she’d invited me to because she’d just had a baby. About the only really fun thing I can ever remember doing for New Year’s Eve is going to concerts for bands I would’ve loved seeing any night of the year. Mostly Primus. Although it was after one of those concerts that my car caught on fire.


Because New Year’s Eve is so artificial and forced, it’s pretty much the opposite of spontaneous or interesting fun. It’s fitting that the most famous New Year’s Eve celebration involves plastic celebrities in a fake place full of revelers who endure hours of frozen huddling without access to toilets. It’s like a North Korean performance of fun. If the Times Square revelers were refugees, Amnesty would complain about the conditions. And then Jenny McCarthy would try to stop Doctors Without Borders from vaccinating the children.

Because New Year’s Eve is so overhyped, everyone tries way too hard. Because so many people are trying so hard, there are too many events and parties, and the energy gets diffused. You end up at a bar or a party where the hosts are freaking out all night that not enough people have shown up, and everyone attending is worried that something way better is happening somewhere else without them, and the people working hate that they’re working on New Year’s Eve. If you’re with a date, there’s way too much pressure, and the people without dates are all setting the bar way too high. Then it’s midnight and nobody knows what to do, and then the party is over.


No uniformed personnel

My family has had some terrible luck with New Year’s Eve. My grandfather had more than one New Year’s Eve heart attack that landed him in the emergency room. Once my mom got a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop, and the paramedic apologetically asked her if she’d been putting anything interesting up there (she hadn’t).

One year my brother got his car stuck in the mud. A cop saw the car and called my parents. When my parents asked if anyone was in the car, the cop said he didn’t know because he didn’t want to get his boots muddy checking the car. Turns out my brother was fine and had just decided to sleep there until morning, but since then my parents have considered it a good New Year’s Eve if they’ve avoided speaking with any uniformed personnel.

A quiet new year

This year — during my year of no particular ambition — I spent New Year’s Eve at home, by myself. I ordered in. I binge-watched Parks & Rec. I took a nap, and later I took another nap. I had a bath, listened to some jazz, and then I watched the ringing of the Bosingak bell on Korean TV. For a while at midnight I could see some fireworks in the distance from my balcony. My New Year’s Eve was quiet and relaxing, cost very little, and exceeded my expectations.

This morning I woke up, made myself a cup of coffee, and watched the first sunrise of 2018.

Happy new year.


Beautiful Bombs

Go see 아륾다운밤 (Beautiful Bombs).

Go see this fun, gloriously dopey little indie band while they’re still fun and indie. Go see them while they’re still playing in no-cover Hongdae basements and about half the crowd is their moms and the other bands on the bill and their songs are still about being rock stars and how nice their grandmothers are (really).

I went to see Beautiful Bombs for the second time last night, where they were the opening act at their own single release party, inside a club smaller than the old Berkeley Square, for those who remember such things. Korea has what must be the politest punk scene in the world, so there was none of the skeeviness that hung around the old clubs I used to go to in my Bay Area youth — the Stone, the Omni — and of course clubs these days are smoke-free and have good  digital sound systems and I’m not stoned, so everything’s a lot less blurry than it was back then. But Beautiful Bombs brings some of that energy. They’ve got the tight bounce of a band that really, really likes playing together, and their lead guitarist is pretty amazing. He reminds me of Slash, which is an idiotic thing to say, but I’m saying it because I’m totally fanboy crushing over an indie club band. If I were 17 and in high school, I would put a Beautiful Bombs logo sticker on my binder, and if you mentioned it because you knew who they were, we would be friends.

There were other bands too. 아디오스오디오 (Adios Audio) is a guitar-keys-drums trio whose lead singer has a Busan twang, and they play what she called “emo-core,” which is less bad than it sounds. She has a clear, powerful voice and writes lovely melodies, and you can hear the Jaurim influence, which isn’t a bad thing. 레드닷 (Reddotts) was the rare Korean band that brought a little bit of rock-and-roll menace to the proceedings. They’ve got a dirty groove and a tiny little tatted-up bass player who’s only about as tall as her instrument, and they’re also pretty worth seeing. And ABTB, the most professional of the bunch, reminded me a lot of those late-nineties bands I never got into, like Filter and Tool and whatnot, and they were very loud, and we left after their first or second song.

But I’m all about Beautiful Bombs. Go see them while they’re still fresh and happy and playing music because they love it. Go see them before the guitarist gets poached by some older, richer, boringer band that pays better, or the singer faces reality and joins his dad’s company, or some Korean record exec convinces them to make one of those terrible OST ballads with the video that starts with a bunch of text to let you know it’ll be a terrible OST ballad. Go see them while their following is still so small that they’ll recognize you if you show up a couple times.

You’ll have fun. They’ll have fun. And what else is there, really?


Korean Hit Parade

I’ve been listening my way through the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 for each year, going back to the early 1950s (when there was, blessedly, only a year-end top 30). I’m now up to 2000, and it’s been an interesting journey — something I should write about sometime.

Well, today I discovered that Korean streaming music service Melon has something similar: charts of top Korean hits by year going back all the way to 1964. (Before that, Koreans just listened to the sound of their own poverty, I guess.)

Should be an interesting musical journey to see how Korean popular music changed over the years.

Giving thanks

I’m grateful on this Thanksgiving Day (in the US) for so many things.

  • I can’t believe how much more adjusted I am to my new life in Seoul, and I’m tremendously grateful to all the wonderful people, expats and locals alike, who have helped me settle here.
  • I’m grateful for the opportunities that came my way, including the chance to visit a dear friend in Sri Lanka (and stop by for dinner with another friend in Kuala Lumpur) and to go visit some orangutans in Borneo.
  • I’m thankful that my family is well, and that the two newest members have grown adorably in the past year.
  • I’m glad I have a Thanksgiving party to go to this weekend, and a rock concert to go to tonight, and a friend from Seoul Pride to meet up with on Sunday. There’s a lot that’s good in my life here.
  • I’m thankful for my job. It’s a good one, and I don’t take that for granted.

I could go on and on — really, I’m thankful for a tremendous number of things and grateful to a tremendous number of people — but I won’t, so you can be thankful I didn’t.

Also, I know this has been a really tough year for a lot of people, including people close to me. The California fires hit close to home (literally). Other political events are weighing on people I care about, and on me. All that’s real and serious and important, and so is gratitude for what’s good. When we acknowledge the good, we remind ourselves that goodness is possible. We lay the foundation of hope on which to build the changes we need.

Giving Back to Southeast Asia

I was very fortunate to be able to take time off and travel for 202 days in Southeast Asia in 2015-2016 — mostly in countries where the dollar stretches pretty far because of the disparity in wealth between the country where I happened to be born and the places I was visiting. I decided to give back, in a small way, by pledging a certain amount of money to charity for each day I spent in each country.

Thailand: 72 days

Because I spent the most days in Thailand, I split my donation between two charities.

My closest Thai friend was, like many Thais, reverent toward the royal family. I have my own outsider opinions about all that, but I respect my friend and her values for her own country. The Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women, under royal patronage, provides emergency shelter, health services, vocational training, and many other services to women in Thailand.

 The SET Foundation gives scholarships to those in need, with the unique principle of supporting students for a full twelve years, from elementary through collegiate studies, rather than just for a semester or two.

Malaysia: 11 days

As you travel Malaysia, it’s hard not to notice the oil palms: acres and acres of them, a giant monoculture dominating the landscape. I didn’t visit Malaysian Borneo on my trip, but I went there recently, and I discovered the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, which helps orangutans who’ve lost their mothers to recover and prepare for reintegration into the wild. Malaysia’s unique wildlife is precious and under threat — the oil palm plantations are pressing in, and the lumber industry wants what trees are left — but places like the Sepilok Centre have the potential to drive up the economic value of conservation and diversify the local economy by bringing tourism. And in the meantime, the preservation and restoration work they do is saving unique animals in a unique environment.

Vietnam: 44 days

I met my friend Christina Bui in Myanmar through a chain of travel connections, and ran into her again in Saigon and Hanoi. She works at Pacific Links Foundation, which helps to protect people in Vietnam from human trafficking — being forced into factory work, domestic work, and the like — and empowers women and communities in Vietnam. Slavery is bad and Christina is good, so this was a pretty easy choice.

Myanmar: 23 days

Yangon is a time capsule. Decades of misrule have had the perverse effect of preserving the older part of the city much as it was under British colonial rule. Yangon Heritage Trust is working to preserve and restore the city’s remarkable architecture before it all gets torn down and turned into KFCs, and I hope they succeed in making Yangon the gem of a city that it deserves to be, like today’s Hoi An or Penang but on a much larger scale. (Nothing specific against KFC, by the way. I threw up in the bathroom of the Yangon KFC and they were very polite about it.)

Cambodia: 8 days

Cambodia is rife with terrible NGOs and scammy voluntourism projects, so I wanted to find an organization with a good rating on Charity Navigator, and Cambodia Children’s Fund has that. They take “a holistic, family-based approach” to childhood education, which is sorely needed in this poor and damaged country. They recognize that there are root problems like hunger and violence that can undermine education, so they try to deal with all of these issues as they help young people get the schooling they need and deserve.

Laos: 23 days

Perhaps the most dangerous thing I did in Southeast Asia was go for a walk in Laos.

Laos has more unexploded ordnance (UXO) per capita than anywhere else on earth, a sorry result of a decade of American bombing during the Vietnam War. On a tour of the Plain of Jars, on a trail that was supposed to be cleared, my guide suddenly jumped back and pointed. “That’s a cluster bomb detonator.” He then told me how his brother died: he’d gone fishing and was cooking up his catch in a rice field when the heat triggered an old pineapple bomb that took his head off.

I split my Laos donations between two organizations that deal with the ongoing disaster my country left behind. COPE gives people their lives back by providing prosthetics and rehabilitation to UXO survivors and others with mobility-related disabilities, while the Mine Awareness Group (MAG) works to demine Laos (and other places) and educate the local people about how to avoid UXO accidents, thereby reducing COPE’s potential clientele. I saw both organizations at work in Laos, and at one point even had to stop driving while MAG blew up some UXO they’d found in a field — a field that, when cleared, could provide food and income to a Laotian family.

Indonesia: 18 days

Yayasan Usaha Mulia (YUM) – Foundation for Noble Work has been around a long time and does holistic community work focused on education and alleviating poverty. Finding a good charity in Indonesia — especially one that wasn’t religiously based — was a bit difficult, but YUM seems to have a decent track record.

Singapore: 3 days

For Singapore, I cheated. Singapore is a wealthy country, so there’s not a tremendous need to give there. Instead, I donated to Singapore-based Choson Exchange, an innovative NGO that supports North Koreans with hands-on entrepreneurship training, helping to create an ownership culture and a better standard of living for North Koreans. I’ve met the founder and some of the team, and they’re passionate but not naive about what they’re up against. I admire what they do and wish them success.

Climbing Gwanaksan

On a cool, bright autumn day, my friend and I set off for a hike up Gwanaksan. We started at the entrance to the mountain near Seoul National University (after some morning confusion in which my friend went to the subway station for Seoul National University of Education instead). The road was thick with hikers in their gear, ready to take on Seoul’s second-highest mountain.

Armed with KakaoMap, we plotted a route. Everyone seemed to be headed along the road, but that looked like the longer way to the peak. If we cut across a stream and along the top of the SNU campus, there was a more direct trail.

We followed campus streets until KakaoMap indicated that we should make an abrupt turn up a steep embankment and into the woods.

That the trail was little more than lightly ruffled underbrush should have been an indication that we weren’t on the best of all possible routes. And we had somehow neglected the very obvious geometrical reality that a more direct route up a mountain is also a steeper route.

The hike was rough at first, but not impossibly so. It was just steep and not well marked. We climbed quickly, and soon we had spectacular views of the mountains and Seoul beyond.

But then things got tricky. Time and again we came to a granite outcropping with no clear way around, and each time the GPS showed that the path was straight up. These rocky passages were scary, with scrabbles along cliff edges and places where the only way forward was to grab a tree branch or a bit of rock and pull ourselves up. We kept going in part because the thought of turning back and going back down all these rocks was scarier than pushing on.

Eventually we came to a point of no return. There was a thick knotted rope hanging down a flat granite face, and also a kind of metal stirrup hanging from a chain, meant to be used as a foothold. It was dangerous. If we lost our grip, we would be falling straight down the rock, and the momentum would probably throw us further down still, over several succeeding cliffs. My friend went first and made it up, tugging hard and ignoring the stirrup. My adrenaline surging, I followed. There was no turning back now.

The hike continued, up over still more improbable rock faces, but at last our route merged with a more popular trail, and we were again surrounded by hikers. There were more passages with ropes and cables, several of them terrifying. I was glad I had my hiking gloves.

And then at last we emerged up at the peak, craggy and beautiful and topped with an elaborate weather and transmitter station.

It felt like getting back on solid ground after being at sea. From here on out, it was all marked trails with built staircases or stairs cut into the rocks, as we made our way to the spectacular Yeonjuam shrine.

We watched a cat leap among the cliffs, then made our way up, stopping to buy popsicles before entering the shrine and watching people bow as an amplified monk chanted.

From there, it was a long walk down the mountain again, this time on a much longer and less difficult path, until at last we emerged in Gwacheon and had ourselves a well-earned dinner of galbi-tang (beef rib stew).

Today, absolutely everything hurts, especially my right ankle, which I twisted on the long walk down when I was tired, and my right wrist, which took a lot of weight on those desperate tugs over boulders. Korean mountains are not high, but they’re no joke. I’m glad I took on that particular route up Gwanaksan, and I hope I never do it again.



Last night I did a very ordinary thing. I ordered a pizza from Papa John’s.

I used the Korean app, which would’ve felt like a breakthrough a while back, but by now I’ve gotten to know the menus and options. I’ve figured out how to select what I like, how to use the discount offers, how to move quickly through the six or so steps it takes to pay for things on Korean apps.

Last night I did a very clever thing. I’m in the habit of waiting until I’m almost home to put my order in, to make sure the delivery doesn’t get there before I do. But tonight I noticed there’s an option to set the delivery time, and I decided to use it. Just set the time for an hour later — 18시 30분 — and I’m good.

Last night I did a very stupid thing. I didn’t notice the date picker. I set the order for tomorrow.


Last night I did a very brave thing. I figured out the problem when I went back to the app to see why my pizza hadn’t arrived. I was about to just call it a loss and order something for tonight. But then I noticed a phone number.

I hesitated.

And then I called.

These kinds of calls take courage. I live in fear of these moments when things go slightly wrong and I have to resolve them by speaking and then listening. Phone trees terrorize me. Doing this all in the Korean language is stressful. 

But tonight I got someone on the phone and explained my mistake. She asked when I wanted the pizza delivered, and I said now would be good. And she said OK. She understood me, and I understood her.

And then they delivered my pizza. And I ate it.

(Not all of it. That would be gross.)


The Year of No Particular Ambition

Today is my 43rd birthday. It’s also a year since I arrived in Korea to start a new life. And I’m declaring this my Year of No Particular Ambition.

One foot out the door

The last few years have been full of particular ambitions: getting my master’s degree in Asian studies, traveling for half a year in Southeast Asia, moving here to Korea, starting a new job at Samsung. These were big projects, and they all pointed toward the exit from my New York life.

I suppose I’d been planning my escape in one form or another pretty much the whole time, ever since I first traveled to India after college. For the first few years of my career, I kept looking for a way back to India, and then I found it in Korea, where I went to teach English and save money for more travel. When that was over, I had a plan to join the Foreign Service, though that never quite worked out. Then I started working for the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Korea to the United Nations and studying Korean, and why else do you learn Korean except to live in Korea?

So I’ve had one foot out the door for most of my life. And whenever things got tough, I could always look to the exit and remind myself that I was leaving soon anyway, even if soon turned out to be more than a dozen years later.

But then, after years of wanting it, I finally got here. There was no more Next Big Thing. This was it. And this first year has been, at times, almost unbearably stressful. In those moments, my instinct was to come up with a new Next Big Thing, a new plan of escape. Should I get my Ph.D. at Seoul National University? Move to the countryside and be an English tutor? Save up my money to retire in Thailand?

For New Yorkers of the striving classes, ambition is almost a tic. Everyone around me at Google seemed to be running marathons or going to grad school. It’s a default way of thinking for a lot of us: this big thing, and then this big thing, and then this big thing. What are you heading towards? And what are you running from?

Be Here Now

A couple of months ago, in one of those stressful moments, I suddenly remembered the cover of a book my parapsychologist grandmother had on her shelf, one of the many volumes in that book-stuffed Upper West Side apartment that I’d seen but never read: Be Here Now, by Ram Dass.  The next day I got a text from a friend back home — something about higher consciousness, and with a Ram Dass quote at the end. It had been a while since I’d heard from my grandmother — she passed away some years ago — so I figured I should pay attention.

Be Here Now was, as Ram Dass might put it, a good book to hang out with for a while. It was a reminder to slow down, to notice, to nurture the spiritual side of my being. I went to Gyeongju and talked to a monk who told me I was too much in my head and should try some prostrations to get back into my body. So I did that until my knees couldn’t take it.

And I made a decision to stop worrying so much about my Next Big Thing.

The five-year test

The absurdity of even looking for whatever is next came into focus one day as I was talking a Korean friend out of buying an officetel — a kind of efficiency apartment — so she could live in it five years from now. Had she ever known, five years in advance, where she’d be and what she’d be doing?

I looked back over my own life. Five years ago, I was starting my MA program, with no solid plans yet to leave Google or New York. Five years before that, I was still at the Korean Mission to the UN, with no concept that I’d be a Googler within a year. Go back another five years, and I was here in Korea, teaching English and thinking I’d join the Foreign Service, with no thought that it would be the Korean government that would take me on instead. And five years back again, I’d just graduated from college and didn’t know shit about shit.

No particular ambition

What does a frog do before he leaps? He pauses.

Once I stopped trying to figure out my future, the present got easier. In the last few months, I feel like there’s been a shift at work: I’m more accepted as part of the team, getting along much better with the team lead, taking on more significant projects to make structural improvements. My social life is coalescing nicely. I’ve gotten to know my own neighborhood a little better, solved a few puzzles of daily life.

That’s why I’m making a commitment this year to be here with this Big Thing. No grand new ambitions. Just this. This is enough.

That doesn’t mean I won’t do anything this year. I’ll continue to grow in my job, keep going to Korean class, keep exploring Seoul and Korea. I’ll do the paperwork to get myself a residency visa. I may try to get in better shape or lose some weight.

But this doesn’t have to be my leap year. This is my year to Be Here Now.

The Korean Situation

I’m scared. I’ll admit it.

I don’t think anything is about to happen, and I have reasons for that. South Korea is going about its business as if everything is normal, because what the hell else can we do? But it’s unnerving to have talk of fire and fury directed at the place you live. I’ve started thinking about what I’d do if I had to leave.

Setting aside the rhetoric, though, it doesn’t appear that either the United States or North Korea is preparing for an actual war. The US has sent some planes our way, but that’s about it. No carrier group, no calling up of reservists like before the Gulf War and the Iraq War, no massive movement of troops or materiel. Soldiers in Korea and Guam are still in their barracks. (For what it’s worth, moving any great number of troops into South Korea would require at least the tacit approval of the government here, which has a pretty serious stake in not getting its country destroyed.)

On the North Korean side, I haven’t seen any reports of big troop movements: no tanks massing by the DMZ, no large-scale mustering, no panic in Pyongyang.

The biggest sign to look for — and there’s no hint of it — is a move to begin evacuating American citizens. There are well over a hundred thousand of us here, including diplomats and their families, and the US is likely to want to move us out of the way before doing anything big. So for the moment, at least, nothing big seems to be planned.

But it’s the small and unplanned that scares me. A planned large-scale war is something Trump’s generals are very unlikely to encourage, but I worry that our president might order a missile strike on impulse, without waiting for our military to be ready for North Korea’s response. What that response would be, we can’t know. It could be anything from total silence to a strike at Guam to a massive bombardment of Seoul.


I don’t think any of this is likely, mind you. But it’s not pleasant to consider the odds, or to keep hoping that something serious happens somewhere else in the world to distract the president. I hope this passes soon, and we can all move on with our lives.