So long, Seoul

My life as an expat in Seoul ends…for now.

Seoul Sunset

After 18 months, my life as an expat has come to an end. In January, I’ll be returning to the U.S. as CEO of The Barbarian Group.

Some final observations on life in Korea:

Everyone has a mobile; everyone is on KakaoTalk.

Kakao_friends

KakaoTalk is a way of life, just for communicating with friends, colleagues, clients, and beyond. The app auto-adds users based on numbers in your phone, so I ended up with friends ranging from the CEO to the lady who reads my gas meter.

Korea is rewriting history, literally.

Koreans are proud of the rapid ascent of their economy, especially after the 1998 IMF crisis. The phrase “never been done before” is one that’s often used to describe the country’s recent history, the only nation that has gone from IMF loan recipient to donor. However, these days history is being revised as history textbooks are being rewritten under government supervision. Everything moves quickly and changes often here, not just pop culture and fashion trends.

You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.

A lot of English words have made their way into the Korean language, mostly because there aren’t words to describe unfamiliar objects or concepts. A few in particular that took some getting used to include “service” (in a restaurant, getting something for free; not being waited on), “digital” (something new; not necessarily tech-based), and “beyond” (more; not an evolution from, but more akin to incremental progress).

Korea Immigration

So long, coffee shops on every corner. So long, paying on your way out at restaurants. So long, ubiquitous high-speed internet. So long, televised EPL and MLB games featuring Korean-born players. So long, yellow dust. So long, Für Elise alerts. So long, heated toilet seats. So long, Seoul.

(For earlier posts in this series, read the Minority Report.)

A Year in Seoul

Namsan

Today marks one year of living in Seoul. To update some thoughts from my first month here:

A lot more Instagram, a lot less Twitter.  Snackability applies to posting and to reading.

It’s been interesting to see censorship in the media and how freedom of the press is limited in South Korea. For example, when the government refused to release the names of hospitals involved in the MERS epidemic, rumors filled KakaoTalk and message boards. Eventually, citizens created their own “MERS map” mashup to spread information that institutions wouldn’t. Native advertising / sponsored content is typically not called out either.

It’s still tough to get used to the price of coffee.
Coffee

Traffic is awful. One of the reasons traffic is so bad in the city is that double parking happens everywhere. The police never seem to ticket violators (perhaps it’s not actually illegal). Taxis are the worst offenders. They wait anywhere for a fare; a popular spot is in the middle of crosswalks.

Taxi in the crosswalk

The internet is fast and carriers here are working on 5G wireless. Korea Telecom has already taken a step in this direction; Samsung Galaxy S6 users on their network already have access to LTE+ speeds.

LTE speed in Korea

The South Korean government finally announced the phase out of ActiveX by 2017. But with the cost involved, I won’t be surprised if it takes longer for legacy websites to update to a more modern infrastructure. Maybe some owners will realize that there’s a competitive advantage to interoperability and allowing users of many different platforms to actually buy the stuff that’s for sale.

Some of the unexpected things that I’ve encountered:

Heated things. In the winter, heated floors. Heated toilet seats. Warm tap water served in restaurants.

Für Elise. This song is often used as an alert sound. When someone needs help with a subway gate. When an electric cart is driving through the airport. When you need help getting out of a parking garage.

Where are you from? This can be a tricky question to answer. This TED talk from Pico Iyer starts to explain why.

Over the past year, when seeing people I’ve known from the past, the question I’m most surprised to hear is “how does it feel to be back?” As in “how does it feel to return to Korea, country of your birth?” Others, upon meeting me for the first time, comment “your English is really good!” As the world seems to be getting more open-minded every day, it’s interesting to see how deeply held and unassuming most stereotypes reside within most people.

After a month in Seoul

Sunset over Itaewon

It’s been a month since I left Austin and started as chief digital officer at Cheil Worldwide. I’ve been almost entirely focused on work and in many ways, “the work is the work.” Strategy formulation, change management, and matrix operations are fairly straightforward. Of course not everything is the same and after a business trip to New York last week, here are some differences that surface in my mind, in no particular order.

Social media is a lot less active when most of your connections are time shifted 13 to 16 hours from regular business hours. More signal, but lower volume.

I’ve been consuming most of my English-language news from BBC and CNN. Lately most of the coverage has focused on Gaza and Ukraine. Korea’s English-language media outlets focus very little on these topics and instead discuss regional politics, e.g. relations with China and Japan, celebrity dating gossip, and continuing Sewol ferry issues.

There are many, many coffee shops in Seoul. Some of them have outlets in the US, mainly California. One popular chain is called Paris Baguette; recently, it opened a store in Paris.

Seoul has a lot of traffic. You can expect to spend a lot of time sharing the road with many other Hyundais and Kias.

Korea is one of the most wired nations in the world. Broadband internet penetration is almost 100% and high-speed wireless is almost everywhere. Subways tend to be quiet with every other person watching TV on a Samsung mobile phone. Step into an elevator and most of the younger people will be KakaoTalk-ing. A mobile phone number is the key to making many services work.

However, when it comes to tech infrastructure, especially e-government, Korea is stuck in the days of internet past. As described in this blog post which Jeremiah Owyang pointed out to me, Microsoft Windows, ActiveX, and Internet Explorer are still the only way to get many sites to work. Even running a virtual machine on Mac won’t work in many cases. Maybe Seoul could follow in New York City’s footsteps and hire a chief digital officer, or learn from Code for America and start up a Code for Korea.

There’s a lot of baseball on TV in the evenings, showing Korean professional league games. During the day, there are LA Dodgers and Texas Rangers games. If the Red Sox picked up Ryu or Choo, it would save me the cost of a MLB.TV subscription.

It seems increasingly strange when I read articles in the marketing and advertising trade press mentioning “global” topics. Usually, these articles are mostly about a US topic, with mention of a foreign country. It’s one thing to be a business tourist — it’s quite another to do business globally.

The cost of living here for an expat is steep and surprisingly higher than New York and San Francisco, but more affordable than Beijing and Shanghai. Times have changed quickly.

I wonder what will seem different after I’ve been here for a quarter…

Following footsteps, in reverse

Decades ago, my parents left Korea and immigrated to the United States. Half a century later, I find myself doing the opposite.

Seoul from Namsan

Decades ago, my parents left Korea and immigrated to the United States. They were 30 years old, had no family in the US, and left almost everything behind in the country where they had grown up.

I have always respected the courage they had and wondered if I could hypothetically do the same. When I turned 30, I was working at PUMA in charge of global marketing operations as well as digital marketing, living in a Boston suburb with a top-rated school system, and making a decent salary (but shoveling a LOT of snow). I was settled and to follow in my parents’ footsteps seemed infeasible and inadvisable for the path that I appeared to be on.

But now, a half-century later, I have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of my parents. It just happens to be walking back the way they came, as I’m moving to Seoul.