Pride in Samsung

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.

Smile Day

Smile Day

Today is Smile Day, which is what Samsung likes to call payday, when once a month they encourage us to leave early, though I usually leave around the same time I always do. The weather here has warmed enough that a post-work wander is pleasant, and this evening the concentration of yellow dust in the air fell to manageable levels, so I stopped off for some Indian food (cooked by Koreans).

Life is good these days. There are buds on the trees, work is interesting but relaxed for the moment, and I have a few interesting events coming up.

TOPIK

On Sunday I took the TOPIK I exam, a test of Korean proficiency that will help me get points toward a residency visa, which is the first step toward permanent residency and also means freedom to change jobs or not work for a while, though I plan to do neither of those things in the near future.

I was recovering from a cold, but the test was pretty simple — I was taking TOPIK I — and I’m confident that I got the 140 out of 200 points necessary to get Grade 2 and a corresponding 12 poins toward a visa. The hardest part of the test was probably just registering for it. To take it, they gave us special TOPIK pens that have one end for writing and a blunter end for filling in test sheet bubbles.

Life among the (three) stars

Things are quiet at work these days, outside of a couple of last-minute apps, as we approach the big product announcement. Right now, our team is testing the new devices, looking for English that isn’t quite up to snuff. It’s kind of fun, and also a reminder of why our work actually matters. When we get it right, we make powerful technology — apps, tools, functions — available and usable for millions of people.

Next week our team is taking the afternoon off to see a touring exhibition of Egyptian art from the Brooklyn Museum. Then I’ll be spending the first week of April at Samsung sleepaway camp: a weeklong training for foreign employees that my colleagues tell me involves a great deal of cheerleading for Samsung (whose name, I have learned, literally means “three stars”), and also an opportunity to learn about the company history, feel more a part of it, and meet people from divisions I know nothing about, like shipbuilding and construction and chemical engineering.

At the end of April, I’ll be headed to Sri Lanka a week off during Korea’s string of holidays — May Day, Buddha’s Birthday, and Children’s Day fall out on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday this year. The national election, on May 9, will also be a holiday, and hopefully a moment of celebration for those who hope for a more progressive Korea. At the end of the month is the Seoul Jazz Festival, with a bunch of amazing jazz and non-jazz artists: Jamiraquoi, Tower of Power, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Zion T, 10 CM, Epik High, Cecile McClorin Salvant, Diane Reeves. And May 20 will be the opening of Seoullo 7017, a park on a converted elevated highway that’s designed by the same landscape architects who did New York’s High Line.

Into the groove

I’m enjoying my life here. Getting into a bit of a groove with it. I went to a Purim party in Itaewon where I met someone who was (probably) CIA. I’ve found passable tacos and kebab sandwiches and New York pizza in my neighborhood and even been to the Shake Shack nearby. I’m doing a little home sprucing and redecorating (Coupang is a dangerous addiction), and maybe this weekend I’ll get down to the Yangje Flower Market and buy a mandarin tree for the balcony.

Spring (and a lot of yellow dust from China) is in the air!

 

Relief in Seoul

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.

The Moon over Korea

The Moon over Korea

On a cold winter night in Seoul, my Korean scientist friend pointed to the full moon. “They say the moon over Korea is bigger than the moon over the US,” she said. “What do you think?”

“I’m pretty sure it’s the same moon on either side of the planet,” I said. “Our people have been there, and there’s only one.”

A while later, she brought it up again. “You know that on the Korean moon, there’s a rabbit making tteok [rice cake].”

“Yes,” I said, “I know that story.”

“So what do you have on the moon in America?”

“We see a face.”

“Aha!” she said. “So it’s not the same moon.”

Cows, chickens, and hay

Some time before, this same Korean scientist had drawn a picture for me on a Post-It note — a cow, a chicken, and some hay — and asked me to group two of the objects.

I could see what was being asked: Westerners like myself would be expected to put the cow and the chicken together, using categorical logic, while Asians would group the cow and the hay, giving primacy to the functional relationship. (A contrarian American friend put together the chicken and the hay: “I just think chickens would enjoy playing with hay.”)

Checking to see if there was any research behind this sketch test, I discovered The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…And Why, by Richard E. Nisbett. Nisbett starts with truisms about East and West: the East is Confucian, focused on interrelationships, and sees the world as fluid and complex; the West is Greek, focused on individual objects and abstract principles, and sees the world as governed by discernible laws. What sets his work apart is that he then tests these ideas with cognitive psychological research, discovering actual, measurable differences in the ways that East Asians and Westerners — mostly North Americans — see and understand the world.

Motivationally speaking

Recently, my team at Samsung electronics moved to a new department. In our first meeting with our new manager, he pronounced himself “worried” about the quality of our work and what would be needed to improve it. And that was about it. Meeting adjourned.

From a Western perspective, the meeting was frankly bizarre. It was helpful, then, to have read Nisbett’s account of a study of motivational effects that was conducted in the United States and Japan. Subjects were given a task to complete, then given feedback: positive, negative, or none for the control group. The study measured performance and persistence on a follow-up task. Among the Americans, those who received positive feedback were most successful on the second task, sticking with it the longest; negative feedback was demotivating. But for the Japanese, the effect was the opposite: positive feedback was a license to slack off, while negative feedback was an opportunity to prove oneself.

You can see this divergence in popular dramas, East and West. Americans love the narrative of a loser who becomes a champion when a great coach teaches him to believe in himself. You can see versions of it in Rocky, The Karate Kid, Stand and Deliver, The Empire Strikes Back, Kung Fu Panda. Korean dramas often start with a humiliation by the big boss, in which the main character is belittled and dismissed. The humiliation serves as the motivating engine for the protagonist’s drive to succeed in the end. (And sometimes to marry the big boss; a Korean Karate Kid would’ve had a lot less Mr. Miyagi and a brewing romance between Daniel and Johnny.)

Restoring truth, restoring harmony

That’s not to say that you can just dismiss negative feedback from your Asian boss. Sometimes you really are being told that you’ve done badly, and you need to take it that way. But even then, there can be a different understanding of what it means to give and receive negative feedback.

In the West, when your boss yells at you — or, more likely, has a civil talk with you about your performance — there’s a kind of back and forth. At least formally, there’s usually an opportunity for you to speak up for yourself, to defend your performance or to talk about what might be causing you to fall short. Social realities notwithstanding, there’s a kind of shared understanding that what you and your boss are after is truth and justice: honest information about what’s wrong so that it can be made right. The discussion has the atmosphere of a trial: there could be an acquittal, or possibly a punishment. If there’s no action taken, the implication is that the trial’s not over. That’s what makes these conversations so uncomfortable.

A couple of months ago, our team had a meeting like that. Our manager asked us how things were going, told us we were making too many mistakes, exhorted us to try harder, and then added that we would no longer have QA oversight to help prevent the mistakes we were making too many of. To me, this was profoundly disheartening, and for a while afterward I felt sick with worry. I had trouble sleeping. Were we on probation? What consequences might be looming?

Around that time, I was lucky to have as a house guest a Swiss friend who had lived for some years in Korea, pursuing a master’s degree in traditional music performance and embedding herself in the very traditional world of Korean shamanism. She told me about a time when she’d received a dressing down from the head of her academic department. “You just sit there and listen and don’t say anything,” he’d instructed her, which she pointed out was actually helpful: she was being taught the Korean way of handling negative feedback.

A couple of weeks later, she ran into his assistant, who asked how she was doing, and she told the assistant that she was upset and shaken, worried that the department head was still angry at her. “Oh, no!” the assistant said. “He already talked to you about that. It’s finished.”

From an Asian perspective, what needs restoring is not truth and justice, but social harmony. When something has gone wrong, the senior person needs to reassert authority, and the junior person needs to reestablish humility. As the junior, your job is to sit quietly, listen to whatever’s said, and promise to do better. (“네, 알겠습니다. 앞으로 열심히 할게요. Yes, I understand. I will do better in the future.”) Together, you restore balance and harmony.

That’s why, from the Asian perspective, it made sense to take away our QA oversight. As a Westerner, I wanted the ongoing measurement. Good or bad, it would help us to restore truth and justice. That’s because I was locating the problem in our performance. But our managers were locating the problem in the disruption of harmony between management and workers. The situation could be smoothed over by taking away the disruptive measurement. If the mistakes we were making had been causing serious problems, this might not have worked, but the reality is that, like a lot of things we get invested in at work, these mistakes didn’t matter all that much. A Westerner would want some ideological justification for downgrading their significance, but for Asians the social value of the downgrade was more than enough.

Meeting in the middle

The need for harmony is also helpful in understanding how Samsung tends to respond to customer complaints.

In any big company, you’re going to get customer feedback, and some of that feedback will be produced by idiots. At Google, we would assess incoming customer issues, and at times we would determine that a given customer complaint was simply wrong. No action was needed on our part.

That’s not how it works at Samsung. The first instinct isn’t to assess the complaint on the merits. That’s Western thinking: abstract the issue from the one raising it, look for fundamental principles, make a logical judgment. Instead, the first instinct at Samsung is to find a middle ground. Can we bend to the customer a bit? There’s much less sense of a broader right and wrong. Instead, the goal is to see things both ways and move closer together: harmony.

I find that this approach is also important in working with others internally. In a Western company, a kind of debate-style approach was a reasonable way to discuss choices about design or language: we could ask dialectical questions and try to come to a better understanding of what was needed. At Samsung, I’ve discovered that my counterparts aren’t very good at that kind of discussion. There’s a lot more deferring to authority — we want to do it this way because the VP likes it — and a much greater discomfort with pointed questions or outright contradiction.

The art is to discover a middle ground that my Western mind can accept. And having attempted it for a little while, I’m much more aware of my Western tendency to jump to categorical right and wrong before it’s warranted. We Westerners tend to stake out positions and defend them, and it’s hard for us to show up the next day and admit that we can see, with a little distance, how our initial judgments were perhaps too rigid. We insist on reasons for backing down, and they have to be case-specific reasons, not social-field reasons like deference to authority or keeping the peace. It’s the American version of saving face, but I’m not sure it has much relevance in Asia.

Rabbits in motion

These different ways of seeing things — Western, categorical, abstracted; Asian, situational, interrelated — explain why Koreans have a different moon. The Western moon has a face that’s just a face and nothing else. The Korean moon is more complex: there’s a rabbit in motion, though we never see the motion; that’s something you have to infer. The rabbit is making tteok, an act of transformation — rice into rice cake — that mirrors the moon’s ceaseless cycling. It’s also a social act: rice is communally planted and harvested, and the making of tteok is a community affair. To see a rabbit making tteok is to see a web of connections, interactions and transformations. The moon is never just the moon. Everything exists in relation to everything else.

For an American, much of the fascination of living in Korea is learning to see these threads of interconnection. To get there, we have to judge less, let go of our craving for absolutes, and be willing to hover in a kind of no man’s land of uncertainty that feels very unnatural. But if you’re willing to endure the dark for a little while, you may find the Korean moon surprisingly illuminating.