Sunday, May 2, 2010

Seoul - Not Business As Usual

I've been meaning to go to Korea for a while now. It's just a two hour flight from Tokyo and tickets can sometimes be found for just a few hundred dollars, so it's doable even as just a long weekend. I'd been talking about going since late last summer but, for one reason or another, it just never seemed to happen.

Then, a couple weeks ago, the team at my company's Seoul office got asked to show some Japanese ideas to the biggest electronics company in Korea, so they asked my team in Tokyo to help. We had some great materials ready that would be perfect for them, but they were in Japanese, so I spent about a week and a half studying up on the subjects and translating them into English. It was ridiculously in depth stuff, covering technologies that are quite new and full of technical and scientific terms that even most of the Japanese guys didn't understand. There really was no way to translate it without honestly understanding the technology, so I spent hours and hours reading up on it. It got to the point where the only sources I had to check for proper wording often patents and research papers. During that time, the earliest I went home was 11pm, with several nights going until almost 2am. I missed a lot of meals. My eyes were shot from staring at the computer screen so long. But in the end, I got my reward.

The Seoul guys said they didn't know enough about the topic to give the presentation themselves, so they asked for the Tokyo team to handle it. We have a guy who has been an analyst for the electronics sector for over 20 years, many of them spent working in Western banks. He had prepared the bulk of the original Japanese-language presentations and understood the subject better than anybody. Moreover, he was confident in his English abilities and volunteered to do the presentation. Since, on top of being able to speak English, I'd spent so much time with the materials, it was decided that the two of us would go to Seoul together, with him doing the presentation and me providing support as needed. Unfortunately, things didn't go well at all in the end, which was a pretty disappointing result considering the amount of time and effort I'd put into it. Some of the ideas will still work well for other companies too so it isn't a total loss and we'll know what needs to be changed for next time.

The silver lining is that we lucked out like crazy on the timing, with the clients wanting us to come this past Friday. For a business trip to Seoul, you can usually make it a day trip. However, this time the appointment time was early enough that we'd be cutting it too close to fly in on the morning flight, so we got to fly in the day before. Thursday was a holiday in Japan, which meant I was able to take the morning flight and spend the afternoon exploring by myself. Normally, we would have caught the evening flight back to Tokyo but, being a Friday night, it was booked full, so we got to stay on until Saturday. Since it was the weekend anyways, I got to take the evening flight, giving me another half day of exploring. Actually, I'd pushed for more time there, but the company was stupid about it. See, this coming week is Golden Week in Japan, which means Monday-Wednesday are holidays. Logically, since the company was buying me a ticket back anyways, if I picked up my own expenses outside of the time needed for the business trip, there was no reason why I shouldn't be able to stay on longer. But, being a stupidly inflexible Japanese company, rules are rules and I had to come back once the work was done. They would not budge on this. Ridiculous.

That being said, I did get some free time in Seoul, so I won't complain too much. The trip was good and I got to check out a little bit of the city, though there is still much left to see some other time.

My first though upon arriving was "shit, I can't read a freakin thing here...". My second thought was "shit, I can't understand a damn thing these people are saying". Though the Koreans seem to generally have far better English skills than the Japanese, it was still a struggle to communicate. Next time I will try to find someone to show me around...

I don't have many pictures of the food I ate, as I was taken out by colleagues for most of my meals, but I got to eat some great Korean food. The first night, there was Korean barbecue with the top quality and super expensive black pork from Jeju Island. Apparently a few years ago there was a big crackdown on supposed black pork and genetics tests were actually used to confirm which restaurants were offering the genuine product and the restaurant we ate at was one of the few that were actually proven to have the good stuff. The second day, I had bulgogi for lunch at one of the most famous places in Seoul. I also ate other Korean staples like kimchi jjigae and sundubu jjigae, bright spicy Korean stews, as well as odds and ends at various street stalls.

I made a point of avoiding landmarks and tourist spots, focusing instead on a couple of the more lively markets and shopping districts. Both nights were spent with people from work and involved drinking countless bottles of soju. I saw several different night scenes, including ending the second night in what I can easily say is by far the shadiest place I have ever been in my life. All in all, I think I got to experience a pretty good variety of aspects of the city and will definitely back to see more.

As I said, I only got to see a small part of the city, so I'm in no position to pass judgment on it. But I will say this: they make some big promises. Whether they can keep them may be a different story...


  1. Nice post! Glad to see you got to go somewhere you were interested in on business. We should make it a Michigan trip - we could easily do it on a free weekend!

    So I met your parents today... your mom recognized me, and we were able to talk for a bit. Huge coincidence, and I'm glad I was finally able to meet your parents. Weird to think about, but I suppose that we only started to get really close after we both lived in Japan together.

    Hope you're doing well, buddy. Get some rest - you deserve it.

  2. Yeah, that's nice you got to check out Seoul on a business trip. I agree it's pretty silly they wouldn't let you stay longer. Bureaucracy in Japan can be suffocating.

    Anyway, I like you photos of the markets. You really get a feel for the place.

    I've also been meaning to check out Seoul for a while. I'm thinking a long weekend sometime early this fall. :)