A Communion of Music

As a destination, Daegu doesn’t have much to recommend it. I’d come down from Seoul for one reason only: to see my friend Dong-Won Kim accompany the great pansori singer Bae Il-dong. So when we arrived at the address Dong-Won had sent us, far on the outskirts of Daegu, and found ourselves in the office of a loan shark next door to a tire shop, I was not amused.

After some frantic messaging, we got an updated address that took us deep into one of those ubiquitous beige apartment complexes, and at last we spotted Dong-Won waving his arms on the far side of a parking lot. With Korean musicians, it’s always a little yeogi-cheogi, a little here and there. But perched above a GS25 convenience store in the unlikeliest spot was this delightful little music cafe with an upright bass against the wall and a pair of master musicians getting ready to perform.

We were exactly nowhere, which is where a lot of the best things happen.


We arrived in the middle of a screening of the documentary Intangible Asset No. 82, which tells the story of an Australian jazz drummer who comes to Korea in search of an elderly percussionist he’s obsessed with. Dong-Won becomes his guide, introducing him to some of Korea’s finest musicians — including Bae Il-dong — and providing about the best possible introduction to Korean traditional music.

When the film was over, I at last got to hear Bae Il-dong in person. His voice is an extraordinary instrument, raw but supple. There’s nothing showbiz about what he does. His only real trick is absolute mastery of his art form born from total dedication. He once spent seven years singing at a waterfall to develop his voice and find his sound.

Pansori is a storytelling art form, born as a communal activity among the lower classes in Southern Korea in the 19th century, full of humor and pathos, moments of sorrow and moments of joy. Il-dong sang a famous piece in which an old, blind man is reunited with the daughter he thinks he sent to her death — a shock so profound that he recovers his sight. The performance was vivid enough that my friend could grasp the gist of it without understanding the words.

As for me, I was startled by how much I did understand. During the film and the concert — which had a lot of lecture mixed in — I became my friend’s Dong-Won, leaning in to let him know what was going on. And for the first time, I found myself following along with the words of the pansori, even laughing at a few of the jokes I caught.


After the concert, heaps of food were brought in — hearty, traditional Korean stuff — and everybody stayed on to eat and drink together. Dong-Won explained that Korean music is communal, in which the musicians don’t just transmit emotion to the audience, but share in a collective emotional experience.

After a little while, an emcee got up and began to chatter. Dong-Won explained that he was actually a fine musician and dancer who’s known for his skills as a clown and comedian, and soon it was clear what he was up to. He started pulling people up from the audience and getting them to sing: traditional songs, sometimes with Dong-Won pressed into rhythm accompaniment or with a guitarist picking out some backing chords. And these people knew their stuff. No one was at Bae Il-dong’s level, but these were people who’d spent time learning Korean traditional music and dance. Or some of them were, anyway. As the evening went on, the emcee made sure everyone got a chance to do something, whether it was singing an old pop tune or doing a little dance. I got up to dance too, showing off what I can remember of my Korean moves and then putting on the traditional grandfather mask and doing the requisite drunkard’s dance.

Eventually my friend grabbed a guitar and sang some classic rock — Oasis, Pink Floyd — while Dong-Won played the box and I had some fun thumping along on the janggu. It’s not every day you get to play with a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, so you’ve got to grab the opportunity when it comes. My friend sang, I drummed, people danced.

The road to nowhere

I said at the start that the best things often happen exactly nowhere. I’m thinking of a night in the little Burmese trekking village of Kalaw, where some guys at the back of a bar called Hi Snacks & Drinks got out acoustic guitars and sang the night away. I’m thinking of a pansori festival I saw on the banks of a river somewhere in Jeolla province when I lived here as a teacher. I’m thinking of a night spent in an obscure temple with just one other person — my Swiss shaman friend — sitting by the pagoda under the moonlight and listening to the chorus of cicadas and frogs. I’m thinking of northern Laos, where nothing happens, and of the house where I grew up in Marin County, California.

At the heart of Korean music is cyclicality: strong and soft, yang and yin, breath in and breath out, in every note and movement. Right now I’m leading just about the most yang existence imaginable, living in Gangnam and working for Samsung, but there’s an undertow of yin that’s calling to me.

“So save your money and then run away!” Dong-Won said, when we had a chance to talk about it.


“You and I have the same blood type,” he said. “Blood type W. Blood type wind.”

In the film, Dong-Won used a different metaphor from nature: you can be a lake, or you can be a river. A lake stays where it is, but a river is always carving out new paths, flowing where it’s never flowed before. Yeogi-cheogi.

He could have added that a river does this by letting go, not by force of will. I suppose that to heed the call of the yin is first of all to stop worrying about the yang. Things will go how they go. My life has taken enough surprising turns that if I go back over it in five-year increments, I realize that I never really had any idea what was coming. Why should now be any different?

Pride in Samsung

Sejong was a very great king whose benevolence and personal sacrifice for the good of the people were unparalleled. Koreans work very long hours. The famous bell in Gyeongju is the greatest bell in the world, and Koreans invented astronomy. Bowing is important. We expats are agents of change who must learn to conform and adapt. Learn the language. Go out to dinners with the team. Be nice. Be likeable. Be direct and transparent, but be careful not to say anything to anyone about anything in a meeting. Korean is a high-context language. Find allies. Samsung is the best and also hard for everyone.

Above all, be patient.

These were among the things I learned, often repeatedly, during five long and intense days of global newcomer training at Samsung’s residential facility in Yongin, just outside Seoul.

I was skeptical going in — after six months, how much of a newcomer am I really? — but having completed the course, I’m glad I went. If I had to summarize the course content, I would divide it into three main areas:

  1. Samsung is amazing!
  2. How to handle Korean culture/all the things you’re doing wrong
  3. Typical corporate training stuff

Samsung is amazing!

Every morning we watched hokey corporate-boosterish videos with iffy English about Samsung’s mighty history and many divisions. But the thing is, even if you want to be kind of cynical about it, Samsung really is amazing.

The company made some audacious bets and smart moves through the years that transformed Korea: building color TVs before there was any color broadcasting in Korea and exporting them to Panama, then pouncing on the domestic market once color was finally introduced; going into semiconductors with zero infrastructure and clawing its way to first place; deciding to swing from back-of-the-store junk TV maker to design innovator to leap into first place globally. A bunch of my classmates were from Samsung Biologics, which is doing to pharmaceutical manufacture what Samsung did to TVs and semiconductors and smart phones: taking over, basically. And did you know that Samsung built the Burj Khalifa in Dubai? Or that it’s floated the biggest ship hull in the world? I didn’t. (There were also, at times during the course, acknowledgements of failures, as well as of the ways that government and other sources provided support along the way.)

As a survivor of the dot-com boom and seven years at Google, I don’t swallow corporate narratives of glory uncritically. But Samsung, as a leader and driver of Korea, Inc., has really, genuinely done some amazing, audacious stuff.

To see some other sides of Samsung, we spent one afternoon mostly outdoors. First we went to Samsung Guide Dog School, a social responsibility program Samsung introduced into Korea when nothing like it existed. The school breeds labrador retrievers and places the puppies with volunteer families, who socialize them for a year. Then the pups come in for six to eight months of training. Seventy percent wash out and become pets, mostly with their volunteer families. Thirty percent are matched with a vision-impaired person for about ten years of work and companionship. When they retire, they go again to a volunteer family — often the same one as before — and get care for the remainder of their lives. The people who work for the program are dedicated to helping the disabled live full lives, and also to transforming Korea’s relationship with and image around dogs.

From there we headed to the lovely Ho-Am Museum and Hee Won Garden, set up in 1982 by Samsung’s chairman to house his collection of Korean art and reintroduce Korean Confucian garden landscaping to the public at time when little of Korean tradition was publicly celebrated.

How to handle Korean culture/all the things you’re doing wrong


I’ve been in professional life long enough to know my strengths and weaknesses pretty well. If colleagues in New York sometimes found me abrasive and aggressive, and if the gentle young Singaporean woman in our training has been called out for being too direct and confrontational, then I must be Bill O’Reilly to the Koreans I work with. It’s not fun to see where you’ve screwed up the social relations that are so important anywhere, but especially in Korea. I realize that I have work to do when I get back to the office on Monday.

But it was also reassuring, in a way, to hear the same experience from everyone — from others in the course, from a panel of expats who’ve re-signed at least once, from an expat success story who’s starting his own spin-off company, from a Korean-American vice president. The Samsung expat narrative is this: I came on too strong, I suffered for it, I learned to be patient and hold back and pick my battles, and I survived.

Beyond that, we had sessions on bowing and etiquette (don’t stick your spoon in your rice bowl!), videos on Korean history, a chance to try on hanbok. A lot of this, for me, was old hat, but I could see that it meant a lot to my colleagues who are new to Korean culture, and I’m sure it will be helpful to them in getting along here.

Typical corporate training stuff

On top of the Korean culture stuff and the Samsung stuff, we also had some typical corporate stuff: a creative brainstorming workshop, a session devoted to setting out our vision for the next year. I think this sort of training is especially valuable for the younger employees, but I was surprised by just how many of the experienced professionals had never done anything like it. It made me realize how lucky I was to get all the training Google gave me: courses on personal branding and managing my energy and accomplishing my dreams, four days of leadership training in the Santa Cruz Mountains where I learned what color I am (orange), workshops on unconscious bias, a regular process of setting and measuring goals.

It’s more of a challenge to get this sort of enrichment at Samsung, at least in Korea, because so much of it is done in Korean. Even if the material was, for me, a bit of a repetition, it was good to see that Samsung is at least making an attempt to bring professional development to its foreign employees.

Samsung is people

The best part of the course, by far, was the people. I met some amazing people from a bunch of parts of the company I never knew existed — Biologics, Bioepis, Fire and Marine Insurance, Global Strategy Group. I met people from India who live in my building, and people from the US, Vietnam, China, Singapore, Japan, Sweden, Colombia, Iran, Puerto Rico. We ranged from fresh out of college to senior managers with a lot more experience than me. It’s good to have made these new friends. As expats, we can help each other to adjust, stay sane, and understand what’s going on around us.

On Monday I’ll go back to my job and dive right back in, I suppose, but this time with a broader sense of where it fits into the bigger Samsung picture and of what I can do to play my part successfully.

Relief in Seoul

Today at work, I heard the sound of a hundred people all beginning to breathe again at once.

They had been, it seemed, collectively holding their breath as the acting chief justice of the South Korean Supreme Court read out the judgment removing President Park Geun-hye from office. It was a dramatic event, and I was listening to it live online, though I couldn’t understand all that much. At first, the court made clear that it was not considering Park’s response to the Sewol ferry disaster in its decision about whether to remove her from office. For a moment, it seemed as if the court might be letting her off the hook.

The exhale came when the acting chief justice declared that Park had shown contempt for the law. The unanimous verdict was clear some moments before it was officially complete. The sound I heard wasn’t jubilation, but more a quiet sense of relief. At lunch not long after, there was a bit of murmur, and more people than usual were glued to their phones.

I don’t speak Korean well enough to gauge the mood more broadly. I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary on my commute home tonight. For dinner, I decided to go get a kebab sandwich at the same neighborhood place where I ate on the night Trump was elected. Gangnam Kebab is now my go-to place for momentous political occasions. The TV news was on.

In Gwanghwamun, where the protests took place and where the presidential Blue House and the High Court are, things are apparently kind of crazy. Two pro-Park protesters died today, either from suicide or in accidents — the details remain fuzzy. There will be one last big rally tomorrow, and my friend who lives in the area has called off plans to come visit me because getting anywhere will be impossible for her.

The last poll I saw showed that 70 percent of Koreans wanted Park out, but her supporters are a passionate group. Her support is strongest among the elderly, who remember her father, dictator Park Chung-hee, as the man who built Korea. Today their protests turned briefly violent as they tried to march on the court. There were 21,000 police officers deployed to the area, and they got things under control quickly.

What’s next

There are lots of questions about what exactly happens next, but the details are getting clearer. The current acting president, the conservative minister selected by Park Geun-hye, will continue to hold power for now. An election must be held within 60 days, and the leading candidate is Moon Jae-in, from the liberal side. The conservatives haven’t got much in the way of viable candidates, and the acting president is seen as their best shot; if he runs, he has to resign his current position within 30 days.

The election, then, is likely to happen around May 9. There will be primaries before then. Much of the discussion will likely focus on policies toward North Korea, China, and the US — the liberals are likely to want to open discussions with the North while moving closer to China and further from the US — but the biggest issues facing the country right now, I think, are internal: corruption, of course, but also the need to face social issues like poverty among the elderly, family control of the big chaebol conglomerates, unemployment among the young. I’m cautiously hopeful that Korea can make progress on these issues in the coming years.

As for Park, she will almost certainly face criminal charges, and it’s hard to imagine that a Supreme Court that just declared her actions criminal will change its mind anytime soon. She has to leave the Blue House soon, and she won’t get her presidential pension. The trial against top Samsung executives is ongoing as well. That’s about their bribery of Park, plus associated embezzling and perjury. For those who protested against Park, holding these chaebol bosses accountable is nearly as important.

Happy but solemn

This is a happy moment for South Korea, and one that Koreans should be proud of. Their country has reinforced the rule of law through legal means. But it’s not an outright celebration. The joy is tempered by sadness that the situation has come to this pass at all.

One can hold Park accountable and also feel sorry for her. The daughter of a dictator who lost both her parents to assassinations, she is, in a way, yet another victim of Park Chung-hee’s regime. If she behaved terribly in office — keeping secrets, taking bribes, extorting money, blacklisting artists who disagreed with her — it’s not hard to see where she learned her leadership style. It was a mistake to elect the daughter of the dictator. It was a mistake for the daughter of the dictator to run for president.

There is much to be done in Korea, and the next months will be busy. But for now, at least, justice has prevailed.

This Is Happening

As I sit on the couch, listening to music and my dishwasher as I write, it’s hard to believe that it’s been less than two weeks since I started my new job and moved into my apartment.

The apartment

When I was still living in New York, on the ground floor of my prewar Brooklyn building where the pipes hissed and rattled like Das Boot all winter and the window air conditioners buzzed all summer, I had this fantasy of living in a sleek, elegant apartment high in the sky, looking through floor-to-ceiling windows at the lights of some hypermodern Asian city.

Well, I live there now.

My apartment is on the top floor of a 27-story building a few minutes’ walk from Gangnam Station. It’s in one of those beige Asian apartment complexes that look from the outside like a Jane Jacobs nightmare but are actually amazing places to live: clean, modern, spacious. I have three bedrooms and two bathrooms, with a jacuzzi tub in one of them. There are enclosed balconies on either side of the floor-through apartment — with, yes, floor-to-ceiling windows. I can see mostly other apartment towers, but also some mountains and a fair bit of sky, and Namsan Tower in the distance. The whole place is nearly a thousand square feet.

There’s a dishwasher, an oven, a washer-dryer, two stoves. There are four fridges: out on the balcony is the full-sized fridge and the built-in kimchi fridge, while in the kitchen is the smaller built-in fridge plus an odd horizontal fridge above the sink that’s specifically for Korean side dishes. The heating is under the hardwood floors. There’s a leather sofa and a big new TV. Samsung provided me with most of the furniture, and I supplemented it with a trip to Ikea. I’ve managed to set up internet service, and it’s as fast as you’ve heard Korean internet service is. I can stream music and sit on the balcony and sip tea and watch the sun set and the moon rise.

Getting settled in has had its challenges. I still haven’t managed to get my paintings on the walls, which are mostly concrete and will require a serious drill and someone who knows how to use it. I have accidentally set off alarms while trying to answer the doorbell and let people in downstairs, leading to intercom exchanges not unlike Han Solo declaring “Situation normal” on the Death Star, only in Korean. I had to get the maintenance guy in just to show me how to turn on the shower, and then I felt like an idiot when he showed me. Things around the apartment have an unsettling tendency to start beeping: the refrigerator when the door was left open a crack, my bedroom light switch when its built-in alarm decided it was time to go off. I can operate my Samsung Digital Bidets relatively well now, thanks to some time spent with an online dictionary. I downloaded an English version of the manual on my washer-dryer and discovered I’d been putting detergent in the wrong place.

On the other hand, I’ve managed in just two weeks to get my boxes from America, my Alien Registration Card, a bank account. I’ve gotten restaurant food and groceries and Ikea furniture delivered and arranged dry cleaning pick-up service, Internet and phone service. A coworker found me a cleaning lady. I now know how to answer the door and how to throw out my garbage — there is a key card for the compost machine, which weighs my food waste and bills me monthly — and I know that Thursday is recycling day. These small victories are satisfying, especially when they involve using my Korean language skills.

As for the neighborhood, it’s great. I’m in the heart of Gangnam (yes, yes, I am aware that there was a song), with a ton of restaurants and bars and clubs and noise just a few minutes’ walk from my door, yet my apartment is remarkably quiet and sedate. And for all of Gangnam’s craziness — imagine if Fifth Avenue in Midtown had St. Mark’s Place immediately adjacent and you’ll begin to get the idea — I have discovered little corners of the neighborhood that feel, well, neighborhoody, more like where ordinary Koreans hang out than like the blinky, flashy club life a block or two away.

But sometimes it’s nice just to stay in. We had a long weekend, and yesterday I just stayed home and watched the rain over the city and the mist on the mountains, and it was beautiful.

The job

Working at Samsung is like joining a Korean family: everything is provided for you, in exchange for which much is demanded of you, and father knows best.

After a year of doing whatever I want, and before that seven years at freewheeling Google, Samsung’s structured style was a shock. Security is tight: you have to put stickers over the cameras on your phone (until you install security software, anyway), and no USB sticks or laptops or storage devices go in or out. Bags are X-rayed when you leave. Time is tracked by when you badge in and out, and you’re required to work at least 40 hours a week and four hours on any given day, with a mandatory hour of break time for each eight hours you’re there, which means nine hours a day in practice. This is hardly an onerous schedule, but it’s the tracking of it that gave me pause.

There are other differences from Google that are more subtle. Meals are provided, and they’re good, but the whole approach is different. At Google, you go to whatever cafe you like and grab this and that from various stations, going back for more or even going to a different cafe to finish if you like. You go when you want. At Samsung, the lights start to go out in the office at 11:30, and by 11:45 you’re in the dark and it’s time to go, as a group. At the cafeteria, you pick one of the set menus, go to that station, and eat what’s there. You can go back for more or go somewhere else, but the second round isn’t free, and I’ve never seen anyone actually do that. Outside of mealtimes, there are no free snacks, not even coffee. If you want some, there’s a coffee shop downstairs and convenience stores nearby, but you have to make some effort and spend a little money.

The office space itself is pleasant but uninteresting. There are no elaborate themes or crazy rooms shaped like bee hives (I’m looking at you, Google NYC!). Conference rooms on our floor are named after colors but do not have said colors represented anywhere in the decor.

All this would seem to mean that life at Samsung is, compared to life at Google anyway, stultifying and grim. That was my gut reaction at first. But after a couple of weeks, I’m finding that the lack of constant stimulation is a huge relief. I can actually concentrate on my work, and I’m less exhausted at the end of the day than I was at Google, where I think we all suffered from decision fatigue: Should I go to the microkitchen? Do they still have beef jerky? Should I make an espresso drink or just get a coffee from the machine? What do they have in the other microkitchen?


As for the work itself, I’m the senior writer on a team that reviews and updates language for the next generation of Samsung phones: all the text on the phone, from menu names to settings descriptions to the details within native apps. It’s a lot more text than you think it is, and our goal is to make it friendlier, more intuitive, more human and humane, not so stiff and formal. It’s a formidable task.

The people I work with are so far pleasant and kind and helpful. My team leader is a Korean who spent time teaching at Pepperdine University. The other senior writer in our group is a Korean who spent a decade at Apple, and she’s a very capable writer but recognizes that she’s not a native speaker, so her focus is more on workflow management than day-to-day writing. There are two North American natives, a Canadian and an American, who have both been on the team for about a year. They’re both married, and one of them has a Korean wife and has been here for ten years and speaks Korean fluently. That’s a big help considering how much Korean is spoken in the office, in conversations and meetings and in emails. I was afraid I might end up in an English bubble at work, but that is certainly not the case so far. Along with the North Americans are two Korean-born junior writers who grew up in Australia and America respectively, and who just started at Samsung a couple of weeks before me.

I’m still learning what we do and how we do it, but already I’ve been able to contribute. I’ve updated the style guide, and the other writers are looking to me for ideas on tone and style and approach, which is nice. Samsung is the world’s leading smart phone maker and a flagship Korean company, and we have a chance to shape the voice of its most prominent products.

In a way, how a Samsung phone speaks to its English-language users is a significant piece of how Korea speaks to the world at large. Is it formal and uptight and a little stiff and awkward? Or is it clear, intuitive, inviting? I actually believe this stuff matters. Some years back, when I was working for the South Korean mission to the UN, I was helping diplomats to give voice to their country’s goals and concerns in a global forum. The way a Samsung phone explains its fingerprint scanner to its users will probably be read by far more people than any of those UN speeches, and it will shape the impression people have of Samsung, and of Korea. For some years I’ve talked about wanting somehow to use my knowledge of Korea and my communication skills to be a bridge between cultures, and now I’m doing it.



I know that there will be challenges along the way: long hours, senior vice presidents who want to use terrible language because it’s consistent with other terrible language, deadlines that mean we can’t make things as right as we would like them to be. But I’m in no hurry to get jaded. Yes, I’m going to an office job. But it’s an office job in Korea!

Living the dream

If you’ve known me a while, you’ve seen all this take shape: the creeping frustration with Google, the master’s degree in Korean studies that had no obvious purpose, the decision to move here, the winding down of my life in New York, the year off to travel.

Well, now I’m here. It can be scary to get what you want. Now I have to live it out, day by day. I still have much to learn, lots of steps left just to get things set up, and then there’s a whole life to create for myself. But it’s beginning. I’m making friends, enjoying my life at work and my days off.

I’m here.

This is happening.

Tokyo, Seoul, Bangkok, Seoul

Phoenix, Arizona, United States

Just a couple of days left in the US, and then it’s on to the next phase of my life.

So here’s what’s next for me:

If you’re paying close attention, you’ll notice that I’ll mostly be in Seoul, or possibly doing a bit of internal travel around Korea. It’s my new home, and while I won’t quite be officially moving there until September 7, it’s where I’m going to be setting up a new life for myself.

I’m excited to see my Korean friends again, and to make new friends there. I’m excited to be staying long enough in one place to build new relationships. I’m excited to have somewhere to call home — my home.

Joining Samsung in Seoul

Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia

I am thrilled to announce that I’ve accepted an offer from Samsung. Starting in September, I will be working in the Seoul office as a Senior Designer, helping to craft the user interface (UI) text for mobile devices.

Saying no to Samsung

The whole process with Samsung actually began a year ago, when they found me on LinkedIn and began recruiting me. At the time, I was still at Google, but I was nearing the end of my MA in Korean studies at Columbia and already planning a move to Seoul in the future. I went through the interview process, they made an offer. And I declined.

It wasn’t the right time. Yes, I wanted to move to Korea, but I had also been planning these six months in Southeast Asia for a long time. When I get to Korea, I want to settle there — to make it my long-term home. I didn’t want to find myself staring out the office window, wondering when I’d ever get the chance to go on this trip I’d been thinking about for so long.

I talked to my family about my decision, and my father passed on some words of wisdom from my grandfather, his father-in-law: “Money comes and goes, but you can’t make up time.” I went on the trip. I figured that if Samsung didn’t want me in a year, someone else would. I’d manage in Korea just fine.

Saying yes to Samsung

Well, a year passed, and the recruiter got back in touch. And this time, I was ready to say yes. After my longest stretch of time off since before nursery school, I’m ready to go back to work.

And I’m excited to work on mobile devices. My time here in Southeast Asia has given me a look at a part of the world where mobile is how people connect to the Internet, to each other, to the wider world. I’ve seen how important these devices are, and how important it can be to get the design right so that people can use their devices to the fullest.

My writing at Google was on specialized ads software. It reached thousands. What I do at Samsung will reach millions. Samsung sells more smartphones worldwide than anyone else. Making these phones even marginally better to use can have a vast impact.

I can’t wait.