Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Seoul’s Public Transit, and Driving Obsession

Here’s a fact which may surprise you – I have lived without owning a car for 4 and a ½ years, and I have been totally fine! As readers of this blog will know, I come from the USA, land of cars. In addition to the suburban house with the white picket fence and the 2.1 kids, the automobile is a central part of the American dream. I eagerly awaited the freedom gained from receiving my first driver’s license when I turned 16 and felt pride in being able to drive my neighbor to high school during my senior year. In my 20s when I received a promotion at work I celebrated … by treating myself to a new car. Unless you are in New York, living without a car in the USA feels somewhere between traumatic and impossible, so when I sold my wheels to CarMax to move abroad in 2012 I was entering a great unknown.

Regular Seoul traffic
Flash forward to 2017 and I haven’t really missed a beat. I settled in the center of Seoul, near the Itaewon district, and for my first job next to Gangnam Station I was able to commute by public bus. As a few of my colleagues lived in my neighborhood, I frequently would commute by taxi with them. Taxi prices in Seoul are very reasonable by developed-world standards – the cost for 4 passengers to my workplace almost equaling the bus charge – and there is rarely a shortage of unoccupied cars patrolling my area. Since transitioning to a job in the suburb of Suwon in 2014, I have been able to board a Samsung-operated shuttle bus to work with a stop 8 minutes from my apartment.

Seoul has a superb, thorough public transit system that can take you almost anywhere in the metropolitan area. The subway is the 4th busiest in the world (behind Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai) and with so many lines that the numbers 1-9 are not enough to denote them. Announcements and signs are in 4 languages (Korean, English, Chinese, Japanese) so you should never get lost. With the Subway Korea app you can easily plot your journey and the trains are extremely punctual. You can easily buy transit cards at local convenience stores, or the charge will auto-deduct from any Korean credit card (or your smartphone if you’re a savvy techie!). Transferring between lines or to the bus system is free – it’s very functional and rational!

Big roads in Seoul, filled with cars and buses
The bus system is intimidating for a tourist but well worth learning if you’re a resident, and it’s a great incentive to learn some Korean. The buses are far more Koreanized but the major lines do make stop announcements in English. Pretty much wherever the subway does not go, a bus will – and there are many lines even in the suburbs. Figuring out the right bus to take can be tricky, though Google Maps is slowly getting better (still quite limited functionality compared with USA). With some Korean language ninja skills, though, you can plot your journey with ease using Naver Map – it not only tells you all the possible bus lines to take but also gives precise walking directions… even telling you which exits to use at the subway stations. With the KakaoBus app, you can track when your bus will arrive and see route maps for every bus line. All the information you need is in your hand!

Riding taxis requires actually interacting with a non-English-speaking human (Shock! Horror!), but with a little planning you can manage. It’s important to either have the address you are visiting written in Korean, which the driver will punch into his GPS system, or to be able to say the name of a nearby landmark in Korean. Again the fares are inexpensive by global standards and all drivers are REQUIRED to accept credit cards. And no tipping! Such a lovely system! The cars are almost all modern Hyundais with air conditioning, functioning windows, seat belts, few nasty smells ^_^ There is an app for that too, KakaoTaxi, which you can use to call a taxi, though it’s in Korean (English guide here). Generally it’s faster to stick out your hand and hail down a passing cab than it is to use the app. Uber has tried unsuccessfully to break into Seoul and its coverage is very limited.

Some fancy cars sneak in among the Hyundais and Kias
Finally, getting out of Seoul for the weekend is pretty easy too. Inter-city buses travel from Seoul to every other city in Korea. Booking tickets in advance requires even more advanced Korean language ninja skills than plotting a journey in Naver Map, but there are enough buses that most times you can just head to the bus station and hitch a bus departing to your destination in the next 20-30 minutes. Or you can stick to the KTX express train, which is the best way to get to Busan and has an okay English-language reservation website.

In spite of the ease of getting around Seoul and beyond with someone else driving, there are a ton of cars in this city. Traffic here is AWFUL, awful, as bad as anything I have seen in the US – including Washington DC. The major roads in Seoul are well-maintained and insanely wide for such a crowded city, and the proverb “if you build it, they will come” definitely applies here. Almost every apartment complex has an underground parking space built for each tenant, and every shopping area is packed with parking as well. If you’ve been out drinking soju, no worries! There are drivers for hire (대리운전) all over who will escort your vehicle home for an affordable rate. Just last weekend, I had a couple coworkers to my house for dinner who drove into Seoul from one of the commuter suburbs and needed to navigate the 20km (12 miles) return journey after a few glasses of whiskey. The hired driver arrived just a minute or two after being summoned and only charged 25,000 KRW ($22) for the journey.

End of the workday at Samsung, full of the executives' black cars and private chaffeurs
Where you can’t find garage parking you can probably find valet parking for your vehicle. Hence, big roads + lots of parking = tons of cars. Despite all the alternative public transit options, I guess the appeal of driving oneself around in an automobile is too great, even far from America. Unlike the US you don’t see pickup trucks here and few SUVs – the roads are filled with a monochromatic blend of black, grey, and white 4-seater sedans, dominated by Hyundai’s and Kia’s.

Though I haven’t owned a car while living here I haven’t missed driving too much. If I had small children at home I would certainly buy a car, and it would be nice to drive to one of the better grocery stores rather than settling for the mediocre stores in my neighborhood. Also it would be nice to occasionally drive out into the countryside for the weekend to escape the city, though then I would be dealing with the awful traffic. Not to mention… driving standards here are good by developing country standards but quite bad by American/European standards. The drivers are aggressive, they brake and accelerate suddenly, and they don’t like to let you into their lanes. Seoul is certainly better than Busan, where I routinely saw drivers run red lights, but I am surprised there are not more accidents here.

In short, I haven’t seen a need to invest in the Korean obsession of owning a car and sitting in endless traffic. I have never driven here, not even rented a car (in Jeju this would have been nice), but haven’t felt hampered, and the cost savings from not owning a car have been immense. I have only driven cars during business trips and the occasional home leave to USA, and it will feel a little strange when I someday return to the USA and restart my daily commute by getting behind the wheel.

Friday, February 10, 2017

My Crazy Little Neighborhood Gym

Life changes at a rapid pace in South Korea, but one constant during my time here has been my crazy little Crossfit gym in my Hannam-dong neighborhood. I’ve never been a “gym person” and stayed fit back in the US by playing soccer or running. When I moved to Korea I thought I would continue both, but the Samsung Global Strategy Group soccer club met irregularly (and not at all once winter set in), and my running ambitions ended very quickly after my first jog along the Han River. There is a bicycle trail along the Han River about 1km from my apartment which isn’t pretty but is a decently safe place to run in a heavily urbanized city. I strapped on my running shoes after coming home from work one evening and headed to the trail. The trail was quiet but the air was polluted that night — a sadly common problem in Seoul — and I didn’t feel well after jogging. I caught a bad cold the next day which I couldn’t shake for about 3 weeks, and I vowed not to go jogging on that trail again…

Class pyramid!
Winter of 2012-13 was rough… not only was it the coldest winter in recent Seoul memory but I also was sick for large chunks of it. My body really had difficulty adjusting to the frigid conditions, near-constant fine dust in the air and a different diet. I wasn’t exercising and by springtime I had acquired a small gut and gained a few kilos. I did a body fat analysis at a pop-up medical station next to a trade show I was visiting for work in Daegu … my body fat was 22% and upon seeing the results the Korean nurse told me I was “obese”. In case I didn’t understand, she drew a stick figure of a man with a fat belly!! Though from a Westerner’s perspective Koreans have absurd body standards, this was a wakeup call that something wasn’t right with my health.

That workout left me sweaty
On the train ride back from Daegu to Seoul my work colleague said he could bring me to his gym that evening … Crossfit Sentinel One. We lived in the same neighborhood so the gym was a convenient 6-minute walk away from my house. I’m so glad I joined him! I entered a modestly size room in a building basement, with a lot of barbells and weights but little else in the way of equipment. No mirrors on the wall. A group of about 12 had assembled for a “boot camp” style cardio workout class. My heart was pumping, sweat dripping down my face. Panting and sore, I knew I had found a place I needed to bring into my life. And, big bonus points, the instructor spoke perfect English! I signed up immediately. Two months later, I had lost my Korea flab and all my sicknesses from the winter had cleared out. I felt great!

Posing again
I did the “boot camp” workouts for a year, group exercises with mostly body-weight movements for strength or some light kettlebells/dumbbells/medicine balls. The exercise was great but I was starting to get bored with it, and most of my friends from the boot camp class had “upgraded” to Crossfit, which also took place in that gym. The Crossfitters seemed crazy and cultish to me, throwing heavy weights around at lightning speeds, extreme diets, lots of moans of pain. But I needed to spice things up so I took an “on ramp” class to learn the principles of heavy weightlifting and then I was in. I was totally scared – doing highly technical movements with high loads seemed like the perfect recipe for a major injury.

Another group shot
Around this time I also traded my short commute to Gangnam Station for lengthy shuttle bus rides to and from Samsung Suwon Digital City every day … more than doubling my commute time. My evening return time home became highly unpredictable, and throwing in the awful Seoul metro area traffic meant evening workouts were not really doable anymore. Hence I did something even more crazy — I switched to 6am workouts! I am not a morning person and 6am was far from my ideal workout time, especially for lifting heavy things. But the 6am coach was amazing, an expat New Zealander with the nickname “Badger”. The coach had a degree in exercise science and knew everything about how to diagnose when someone’s mechanics were off on an Olympic weightlifting movement. I felt so much safer knowing that Badger was going to stop me before I threw out my back or ripped up my shoulder muscles or tore a knee ligament. When you don’t know your limits, exercise like Crossfit can be dangerous, and I grew much more comfortable with the movements under Badger’s tutelage.

My all-time favorite coach, Badger, on his last day teaching at "the box"
It has been 3 years of Crossfit for me now and a lot of people have come and gone from the Sentinel One gym, instructors and members alike. Badger moved to another gym and the instruction now has mostly flipped from English to Korean. My work schedule is under control now and I have returned to evening workouts. I try to visit 3-4 times per week when I am not traveling for work, and my health is great. I hardly get sick now and my body fat is down to 12%. Plus I frequently realize little accomplishments — one day I bench-pressed more than my body weight; this week I did 12 strict pull-ups for the first time. I’m still a low-intermediate in Crossfit terms but I have only had one major injury in 3 years — scraping my shin on a box jump — and my wife loves how I look! Working out in groups with an instructor telling you what to do is a great motivator for not being lazy in the gym. I never plan to become an elite athlete or participate in the Crossfit Games or anything crazy like that, but I do enjoy having a convenient fitness community just walking distance from where I live.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Christmas in Korea

Yesterday morning as I read the George Michael obituaries I reflected on the irony of the iconic singer of “Last Christmas” dying on Christmas Day.
The song is instantly recognizable even by my Vietnamese wife and has played on a loop outside many of the Christmas-themed clothing boutiques and coffee shops in Gangnam Seoul over the past few weeks. Turned out that this year is the first Christmas for me in Korea after traveling home to the US for the last 4 years. As I reflect like many people are on the year 2016 that was, I realize that I was afflicted by writers’ block for most of the year. I only blogged 3 times and I have, for the most part, run out of topics to write about. Christmas in Korea is actually new and fresh for me.

However, I probably could not have picked a worse year to write about Christmas here as for the first time in 5 years Christmas Day fell on a weekend. This meant that Christmas Day, along with New Year’s Day, was not a government holiday in Korea as Korea does not give the holiday for workers when it falls on a weekend … argh! So my usual December pilgrimage home would have cost 2 extra annual leave days this year, which was part of my motivation to stay put … I also saw my family this summer for my wedding so I didn’t feel obligated to make the long trip to see them again :)

Hence my primary observation about Christmas in Korea is how ordinary it felt – we worked on Friday, had a 2-day weekend for Christmas Eve and Christmas, and then back to the office again on Monday. Because Christmas is not a family holiday in Korea, unlike the US, people don’t travel or take time off to see family… this is done on Lunar New Year anyway. Most businesses were still open and even the construction workers at the site across from my apartment in Seoul were busy at work on Sunday morning! The Catholic church in my neighborhood had a lot of traffic but not substantially more than your typical Sunday… Christians in Korea (about 30% of population) seem pretty devout year-round.

Seoul Christmas-themed public bus!
The commercial drive around Christmas is more muted here too. Sure, a large number of stores and shopping malls took the opportunity to decorate their fronts in red and green, but only for 2-3 weeks before the holiday. The Hannam-dong Community Center near my apartment decorated itself for the first time in 2016, but I saw its employees erecting a tree and hanging decorations on the Sunday before Christmas… why put in the effort to only hang the decorations for 1 week? Seoul has no Christmas tree lighting ceremony and there is no Christmas market here. There are no crazy shopping days (thankfully) like “Black Friday” or “Cyber Monday”, and not much gift-giving in the office. My director last year, a regular church-goer, did give me some nice dress socks but other than that I haven’t seen gifts exchanged at work. My wife commented that she saw more Christmas decorations in Ho Chi Minh City than in Seoul.
Yes ... I DID play Santa Claus!!

There were some Christmas surprises though. One of the public buses which passed my neighborhood was elaborately decorated in a Christmas theme – it was lit up and festive! Also, my family will be shocked to learn that I was asked to play Santa Claus at a friend’s Christmas party this year! My key qualities were that none of the kids at the party would know me, so they “believe” maybe that Santa is real, and my native command of English… I suppose “global” Santa must be an English speaker, haha! I definitely lacked the girth for the role but I did practice a hearty “HO HO HO” at home and studied up in advance on the names of Santa’s reindeer, just in case I was quizzed! As Santa, I gave gifts from the parents and read messages to the children telling them to be good next year and study hard. A couple children cried on Santa’s lap and one child couldn’t stop staring at me, but otherwise my Santa Claus was a success! Even some of the parents did not recognize me :)

Falling just one month before Lunar New Year, Christmas can never be a major holiday in Korea but I was expecting a little more… a day off from work would have been nice! If you’re not Christian or just tired of the overblown madness which Christmas has become in many Western countries then Korea would be a decent place to be in late December. You can’t quite escape George Michael belting out “oooohhhh ohhhhhhhhhhh!” but you will enjoy the relative normality and quiet of the holiday season here.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Taking the TOPIK

If you're a diligent student of the Korean language, as I once was, there is a test for you to brag to all of your friends how badass your ability is to spin 한국어: the Test Of Proficiency In Korean, more commonly known as the TOPIK. Similar to the TOEFL, it serves the useful function of certifying how skilled you are at listening and reading (and, later, speaking and writing) the Korean language. Or, if you're a little cynical... TOPIK at least assesses how skilled you are at taking a multiple choice test conducted entirely in Korean.

"Why wait more than 4 years to do this?" you might ask. Well, since my wife moved to Korea I have considered changing my visa status from E-7, which is something like a "special talent" visa but is tied entirely to my employment status at Samsung. By switching to an F-2 Long Term Residency visa I would be granted a 3-year stay in South Korea and could stay even if I decided to leave Samsung, More importantly, my wife would then also be eligible for the F-2 and would be able to work without needing an employer to sponsor her for a work visa, as her F-3 "companion" visa status does not permit employment.

The F-2 visa is a points-based system and people from my background get a lot of the necessary points based on a graduate degree, a high salary, and being in my 30s ... yes, there is age discrimination. To get over the points threshold I saw that I could qualify for F-2 just by passing the "basic" TOPIK I exam. I wouldn't need to be anywhere close to fluency ... which I'm not.

In my prime time of studying Korean, the first 18 months I lived here, my teachers were consistently urging me to take TOPIK but I never saw a need – after all my job didn't require Korean and I also didn't see myself working for any other company in South Korea besides Samsung. I figured the Korean obsession with tests was a factor, and also my teachers wanted some validation that I was actually learning.

Well, I completely ignored my teachers suggestions to take TOPIK. After leaving Samsung Global Strategy Group in  April 2014, where I had 4 hours of free Korean classes per week in the office, my Korean communicating skills have regressed considerably. Shockingly, given the number of foreigners recruited to work in Samsung Electronics, the company does not offer free Korean classes to employees – or at least the Mobile division does not (as officially told to me by HR). I'm given a decent budget for Korean instruction but I quickly discovered I didn't have the energy or motivation to dedicate my limited time outside of work to studying a fiendish language spoken nowhere in the world except the two Koreas (and overseas Samsung subsidiaries). Most of the non-Koreans I worked with share my viewpoint and weren't studying Korean outside of work either. I hired a private tutor to visit Suwon Digital City twice per week, but I found I wasn't getting any better and my seemingly ample study budget was quickly exhausted. I don't really understand how Samsung HR thinks we can function in a Korean-language working environment without giving us a convenient way to learn the language, basically telling us "sink or swim... not our problem".

I decided to sign up in August for the October test. For a test with an objective of spreading the motivation to learn Korean around the world, I was expecting a cleaner English website experience. But even signing up for the basic test required navigating forms and a payment system written entirely in 한국어... ugh! It was basically a Korean proficiency test just to register for the TOPIK exam. But given the awful user experience on most Korean websites I should have expected nothing less.
(I will given Korean Air and Woori Bank credit for pretty functional sites, but the rest of the website coders in this country need a retraining.)

Anyway, enough for my little rant – I was taking TOPIK. The test was in October. So I had two months to prepare. I went to the local bookstore and found a section on Korean language study with some TOPIK study guides. Surprisingly, most of the TOPIK study guides for sale, even for the "basic" TOPIK I were written entirely in Korean. I mean... come on study guide writers... I understand if this is the "advanced" TOPIK II test that I should be able to comprehend a Korean training guide, but for a test on "basic" Korean one shouldn't need to read complex grammar explanations written in a language he can't yet understand!

Thankfully I found the only two books in the store which actually had decent English-language explanations – one on TOPIK grammar and one with sample TOPIK questions and answers. I had my self-study books and a handy Android flashcard app that I could use to study words during my long commute time. I even had a little budget saved up from not studying Korean in 1 year to rehire the private tutor to drill me on TOPIK questions. I was taking practice tests on weekends and drifting right around a passing score for the exam.

Finally Sunday, October 16 came and I headed to Dongguk University for the 1 hour 40 minute exam, armed with the necessary identification as instructed by the all-Korean text message I received the week of the test. My test-taking place was a dim, windowless classroom. The fellow "basic" test-takers comprised a diverse array of nationalities, ages, and social classes, though I read that the "advanced" TOPIK consists mostly of young Chinese and Japanese students gunning for jobs in Korean companies. We were told that doors closed at 8:30am for a 9:00 exam – strange because we spent most of the downtime just sitting around.

Our mobile phones were taken away and I remembered that I hadn't taken a paper exam in the smartphone era – times have changed. We were given our answer sheets and even TOPIK-branded black felt-tip pens which we were told in Korean (I think) were the only approved marking instruments for the test. Other rules were explained in Korean and I dumbly stared at the proctor while pretending to understand. Finally the booklets were handed out and we started – 40 minutes for listening and 60 minutes for reading.

Lime my practice tests the beginning questions in both the listening and reading portions were remarkably easy, but after blitzing through those came the passages which separated the novices from the intermediates. I struggled mightily with some questions and patted myself on the back for at least thinking I understood others. Time management was a challenge on the reading section but I managed to get answers for every question – no penalty for guessing incorrectly. I definitely would have scored better in my Korean studying heyday. My ID was checked no less than 3 times, which was a tad distracting.

I still haven't received my TOPIK results as it takes 6 weeks to process all those paper Scantron answer sheets, just like the old SAT – but I'm cautiously optimistic that I passed. Having a goal to pass the test was a good motivator to cram on vocabulary and grammar, and I think I could see why my teachers from 3 years ago were pushing me to take the test.

Anyway, I doubt I'll dabble in this exam again but I think it was time and energy well-spent... well, I hope so!

<Postscript>
I received the result and passed the TOPIK I with the 2nd level! I blew away my practice test scores, so I'm glad I took those to motivate me to study harder. I now have a certificate that proves I can read and listen to Korean at the proficiency of a 1st grader!


Sunday, August 21, 2016

Married!

After 4 years as a single man living abroad, I finally married a really great young lady. There's a catch though... she is not Korean, nor did we meet in Korea, though we did meet through a common connection in Korea (more to come on that later). Time for my business school colleagues to settle their side bets on whether or not I would get married here!

With bridesmaids and groomsmen at our wedding in Vietnam

When I left the US in 2012 I told my friends that I expected personal considerations, not the work, would dictate the amount of time I stayed in Korea. Turns out this was prescient. Maybe I anticipated I would meet a Korean woman but that's just not how things worked!

I met Xuanhoa (pronounced "soon hwa") on my first trip to Vietnam in January 2014 when I was visiting a Samsung Vietnam manager who I had met on a Buddhist temple stay at Hwaeomsa in spring 2013. On my first day in Ho Chi Minh City my acquaintance and I met for lunch — I was also staying at her house at the time — and because my acquaintance was busy with work that afternoon she had one of her staff members show me around a few places in the city. That staff member, who introduced herself as "Meg", and I hit it off and later in my trip we shared a couple dates together. We said goodbye at the airport in Ho Chi Minh City and I returned to my life in Korea.

Four months later in May 2014 Xuanhoa made her first trip to South Korea. I showed her around Seoul and we visited Jeju Island together. After Xuanhoa returned to Vietnam we agreed to begin our "relationship" and the rest is history. After two grueling years of long-distance courtship — including 14 more trips for me to Vietnam, 3 more trips for her to Korea, 2 trips for us to the USA, and meet-ups in Cambodia, Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, Philippines — we finally were married last month in a beautiful ceremony at a Buddhist pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City. I was elated to have all of my immediate family there and many of my friends from my Korean adventure were there as well. We were also elated to be done with wedding planning since this had been a yearlong project since I proposed in December.

One of our first dates in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

But the best part for us, of course, has been finally living together in the same place. Xuanhoa moved into my apartment in late July and she's a registered "alien" living in Korea now. No more Skype phone calls on shaky internet connections! No more "when will I see you again" and no more sad red-eye flights back to Korea after leaving Xuanhoa in Vietnam yet again. Except ... for this weekend ... Xuanhoa returned to Vietnam for a few days to tidy up some affairs at home and I am able to reflect on how my life has changed with her here.

For one thing, I am a very spoiled husband. Xuanhoa is a delightful cook, she enjoys whipping together breakfast and dinner for me every day. Also she is super excited to have a proper oven for the first time in her life and I am giddily asked almost every day to try some new baked good that she concocted. The Samsung cafeteria misses me now!  (you can eat 3 meals a day there)  Xuanhoa loves making things organized and my house has never been tidier. As Xuanhoa is a housewife for now (hopefully temporary), I am always greeted with a big smile when I come home from a long day at work.

One of many trips to visit Xuanhoa in Ho Chi Minh City, with her family for Tet Holiday

Also, watching Xuanhoa go through the difficulty of moving to Korea as a foreigner makes me reflect on my own first weeks in Seoul 4 years ago. At first Xuanhoa was fascinated by new Korean foods. She developed a kimbap obsession until one day her stomach turned and she realized that kimchi was upsetting her stomach. Xuanhoa had several confusing, mysterious foreigner experiences at the immigration office and at a health clinic which didn't speak any English for a tuberculosis check (even though it was a test center "designated" for foreigners). Xuanhoa has learned the subway system (relatively easy) and how to take a bus (not easy for a first-timer), and got lost while trying to find me in Gangnam one evening. Without a motorbike Xuanhoa is walking much more frequently now and her legs have been getting tired. Xuanhoa is always asking me where to find this thing or that and sometimes I frustrated how even after 4 years in Korea I don't have many of the answers for her, language barriers between me and Korean still being what they are. At least Xuanhoa is not stuck in a temporary extended-stay hotel by herself, as I was, and fortunately I live close to several foreign food markets where we can eventually find most, but not all, of the special ingredients that she is looking for in her special recipes.

Xuanhoa will start studying Korean soon so she can at least master the basics to survive here (as I have), and I am trying to help her build a social network here. These growing pains aren't easy to overcome, but it's very good to have each other every day.

Xuanhoa's first Korea trip post-wedding, to sizzling hot Busan

And last weekend I was able to show Xuanhoa a new place in Korea — Busan! It was a 3-day holiday weekend and Busan was super crowded ... and sizzling HOT. Xuanhoa didn't want to do too much sightseeing in the heat but she really enjoyed the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple along the coastline and the Nurimaru APEC house near Haeundae Beach. Xuanhoa is eager to visit the DMZ and the mountains in Gangwon province this fall.

As for me, I am delighted that serendipity has brought a wonderful lady into my life and that I can share myself with her. I will never quite have my freedom again like before, but I will happily trade that for avoiding lonely nights at home when there is no food in the fridge and I don't know what I will eat for dinner ... sort of like this evening! Honey, come back soon!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Lasik in Korea

I still remember when I was first diagnosed with nearsightedness. I was 8 years old. My parents were asking me to look them in the eyes, and they saw that my left eye was drifting away to the side – a lazy eye. I went to see the eye doctor and was put into my first pair of glasses, these big ugly nerdy red ones. I looked at my transformed face in the mirror and I cried. The vision in my right eye was perfect... why did I need these ugly things? My father took me outside, handed me a baseball glove and started hitting balls in the air for me to catch. All of a sudden I was catching every one... I finally had proper depth perception.

My final bicycle ride in Seoul with glasses

Flash forward 25 years and my dependence on vision aids had grown considerably. A couple years after starting glasses I learned how to use contact lenses, then my right eye's vision started to decay while the left continued its downward slide. By university time my vision had stabilized at bad in my right eye and worse in my left. But when my contact lenses cooperated, which was most days, everything was crystal clear.

My mother was pushing me to consider Lasik by the mid 2000s but I was not ready. You can always find someone's Lasik horror story on the Internet and I wasn't comfortable with the small chance of considerable downside given what I thought to be limited upside – I already had good vision with contact lenses. Besides, I didn't know anyone who (openly) had tried Lasik.

In Korea my mind shifted and I slowly became open to the idea. For one thing, Lasik seems to be much more commonly done in Korea compared with the US... it seems to fit in well with Korea’s plastic surgery culture. If you can fix your eyes, why not go to the clinic and do it? (after all, you probably already fixed your double-eyelid, and maybe extended your nose, and sharpened your jaw, and...) There are many clinics in Gangnam and the price is quite a bit cheaper than the US... about $1,000-1,500 for both eyes.

Several of the foreigners I knew who worked in Samsung had tried various clinics and all had a positive experience. Armed with some user testimonials from real people that I actually knew, I contacted one of the clinics to set up my initial examination...arranged by KakaoTalk, of course!

Korean celebrities went here ... so it must be safe!
I needed to ditch my contact lenses for a couple weeks before the exam and caught my work colleagues by surprise. "Why are you in new glasses?" they would ask, and then I discovered that many of the Korean colleagues on my floor had also tried Lasik and were happy. I had coffee with my tax accountant to discuss a financial issue... she recommended Lasik. A Korean friend told me she and her siblings had all done Lasik and that she could refer me to her doctor. Everyone was satisfied... 100% of my sample size (maybe 20 people) all recommended Lasik in Korea. Certainly it was not enough for scientific certainty but it was enough people to give me comfort. Some people had less than perfect outcomes, but nothing debilitating, and all said they would do Lasik again.

I chose the B&VIIT Eye Center next to Gangnam Station for my examination. The facility is very clean and modern and the nurse assigned to me spoke pretty good English. I went through a long battery of tests for over an hour, was told that my eyes tested well for Lasik (particularly the corneal thickness), then I saw the doctor who would be performing my procedure and he confirmed the results. I felt good... I set a date 2 weeks later for the surgery and I helped arrange a plane ticket for my girlfriend to visit from Vietnam to aid me with the postoperative recovery.

Then the anxiety started...

I started reading more about Lasik on the Internet. The more you read about Lasik, the more scary outcomes you find...pretty much guaranteed. One thing I observed is that it's extremely difficult to get objective information about Lasik from unbiased sources. Compared with before, I was less concerned about the low probability of blindness or something serious and far more concerned about the moderate probability of persistent side effects after surgery such as dry eyes or halos at night. Some people on the Internet complained that they could no longer drive at night after Lasik... after reading those testimonials I really thought I might be taking a terrible risk! I worried that the luxurious-looking clinic from my checkup was a facade and that the actual operating area was dirty. I worried that maybe my doctor was covering up some terrible outcomes in his record and that maybe he was poorly qualified to treat me. All sorts of paranoia cropped up in my mind.

I contacted many of my reference cases repeatedly and peppered them with questions about their outcomes, but they suggested I didn't need to worry based on their results. I flooded my doctor with questions via KakaoTalk. It was hard to reconcile my 100% happy sample size with what I was reading. After all, Lasik is surgery on the only eyes that you will ever know... you need to get comfortable with the fact that the procedure will cut your eyes open!

Finally my logical side overcame my anxious emotions and I agreed to do the surgery. On a Friday morning, I took off work and went with my girlfriend to the clinic at Gangnam Station. When my name was called I waved her goodbye... and hoped I would see her when I came out! "Are you nervous?", asked the nurse? Yes!

The goofy looking goggles that I wore to prevent myself from rubbing my eyes

My eyes were sedated with some numbing drops, then the doctor examined my eyes one final time. Everything normal, it seemed. I was then escorted to another room, sat in a chair and was asked to close my eyes for a few minutes. It was the operating room, and another patient was sitting under the laser. I was really nervous and was trying to breathe deeply. I could hear the laser and the doctor and nurses at work. I tried not to open my eyes. Once the other patient left I was instructed to take her place lying on the operating table. Super nervous now.

First the doctor used a plastic device to hold my eye open, then I was pointed to a black space to stare at as the device which cuts the flap with a laser was lowered. There is suction and you cannot see anything. When the suction device comes off and the flap of your cornea is removed, your vision goes from blurry to super blurry, but you are grateful that you can see again! Finally comes the laser that reshapes the eye. The doctor asked me to stare at a fuzzy green light and I put all my focus into not looking away. There was no pain. No turning back now. The doctor returns the flap over the eye and I was then helped to a recovery room with comfy chairs to lay down. There were definitely some blurry parts of my vision, but other parts looked pretty good. Maybe the surgery had worked.

After about 20 minutes of rest, where I did everything to just sit still, I then was given an appointment to return the following day and escorted out to where my girlfriend was waiting. I could see her!

We left the facility and went outside to catch a taxi. Everything seemed super bright and I could barely open my eyes. My girlfriend didn't know the way home but I was able to open my eyes enough to direct the taxi. The anaesthesia was wearing off and my eyes were starting to hurt. Don't rub your eyes! In my apartment, my girlfriend helped me lay my mattress on the floor in the darkest part, and I laid down on my back wearing plastic goggles to help prevent me from touching my fragile eyes. My girlfriend thought I looked like an owl.

One of my final days at Samsung Digital City with glasses
My eyes had become rivers gushing with tears. I could barely open my eyes without the tears rushing out. I laid down for the whole afternoon. By evening the discomfort had subsided and I could eat dinner with my girlfriend... with sunglasses on I looked like a movie star in my own house!

More or less I could see 20-20, but with frequent dry eyes my vision was inconsistent. When my eyes were drier my vision was more blurred. I could tell the clarity was there but my eyesight didn't quite feel like it belonged to me yet.

Now I am on the long road to Lasik recovery. There are so many drops to administer and you can't help but think about your eyes constantly. In the mornings my eyes have been very dry and sometimes I go through a whole day without being able to see great. Other days I wonder when I should take out the contact lenses which are not in my eyes! The night halos are still there a bit but they are quite a bit better at 3 weeks after Lasik than before.

One late evening I was talking on Skype with my girlfriend and I felt very tired. Without thinking, something entered my left eye and I rubbed it. "Don't do that!", my girlfriend scolded. I felt bad that I forgot one of the cardinal rules of post-Lasik recovery. Then the next morning my left eye was considerably more blurred than my right eye. "Have I rubbed away the 20-20 vision in my left eye?" I feared. My vision in my left eye has mostly recovered but it is still a little blurry compared to my right eye.

Yesterday I returned to the B&VIIT clinic for my 1-month post-Lasik checkup. The clinic was very busy...it is like a factory with the number of patients it processes in a day, but a luxurious one at that. I had a couple tests and did the test to read the letters with both eyes. My right eye could easily handle the 20-20 line! My left eye struggled more... the letters were a bit blurry but I had enough vision to guess correctly at the letters on the 20-20 line. As my vision in my left eye was -6 diopter before Lasik (right eye was -3.5), I should expect a longer recovery time with my left eye compared to my right. No doctor can guarantee you 20-20 vision with Lasik and the further you start from clear vision the less likely you are to have a 20-20 outcome. An important part of being a Lasik patient is having the right expectations... your vision may not end up perfect, you may have months of dry eyes and you may want to become a shareholder in Allergan Corp. with the number of artificial tears that you will be putting in your eyes. I am 1 month out – my vision is pretty good and continues to improve. Though still recovering I am tentatively happy. Lasik recovery requires a lot of patience and you need to trust the process. My eyes do seem to be healing.

Bottom line: if you are a foreigner considering doing Lasik in Korea, I think your chance of a successful outcome is as high here as anywhere. The doctors have a ton of experience, the facilities are good and you should be able to find a clinic that speaks enough English to communicate with you. If you are not comfortable taking any risk then Lasik is not for you, regardless of whether you try it in Korea or your home country.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Going on a Korean Business Trip

Samsung Germany
Working as a foreigner in the HQ of Samsung, a company with a major global presence, I travel a lot for work to overseas countries. The year 2015 has had a different feel for me … for the first time since I moved to Korea in 2012 I have been working in a Korean-dominated team. My Korean colleagues speak English but certainly my boss is far more comfortable in Korean. Emails and documents in Korean constantly pass through my inbox, and unfortunately my Korean proficiency has not improved this year. Samsung Mobile does not offer Korean classes for foreigners, I was shocked to learn…

With a Korean team comes Korean business trips, which are considerably different than the business trips I am used to. I went on 5 business trips this year to many corners of the world: Western Europe (twice), USA, Brazil, and India. My trips ranged from 6 days to 3.5 weeks and were focused on improving the management of Samsung Mobile’s B2B channel partner network.

One time my director did get to go
shopping on a Sunday
The first thing I noticed is that there is a ton of pre-trip reporting…first to your VP, then to other VP’s who might be effected by your travel, and maybe even the head of the department if he is interested. Because my department has a mixture of Korean and non-Korean executives, the reporting was done in both Korean and English, which slowed us down a bit. Many Samsung trips are hurriedly put together at the last minute, and sometimes you are scrambling to get meetings to fill the calendar which you are required to present for approval to travel. The pre-trip time can be quite hectic.

I learned in the pre-trip planning process that the South Korean passport is quite possibly the best to have in the world. I don’t know what the exact criteria are for those passport freedom rankings you see from time-to-time, but in terms of countries you would actually consider visiting the South Korean passport offers all the freedom you would need. Chile is the only other passport that has visa-free access to all G8 countries. Also, I fly to Vietnam frequently now on personal trips and I am jealous when I need to shell out $60 for a single-entry visa in my American passport while the Koreans all get off the plane and just walk to the immigration counter. The effect of this policy is that Koreans can depart for last-minute business trips on a whim. For instance in August, when my director unexpectedly and suddenly announced that we were heading to Brazil for 3 weeks, I needed to raise my hand and say “Just a moment. Americans need a visa.” My Egyptian colleague also needed one, which was not surprising since he needs a visa to visit just about anywhere in the world. (the upside of this is that it does force my director to do a little trip planning in advance!)

Once you have finally secured all of the executive approvals that you need, you pack your luggage and you’re off to modern Incheon Airport on a plane to somewhere far away (I have never traveled on business to anywhere within 6 hours of Seoul). You go through whatever pre-flight rituals you have and brace yourself for a long trip in economy class — Samsung doesn’t fly its manager-level employees in business class unless they happen to be lucky enough to visit Brazil…over 24 hours from Korea! Fortunately we often fly Korean Air or Asiana, which are nicer to fly than Western airlines. When you land, hotels are also ordinary in developed countries, but you to get to stay in nice 5-star properties in emerging markets. You strictly cling onto every receipt you can and pray that your Korean Samsung credit card works the whole time … otherwise you’re in for a long fight when you return with the robots that sit in Accounting.

Samsung India - Delhi branch
When you land it’s often straight from the plane to the hotel to the Samsung subsidiary office, where the hard work begins. Korean business trips mean long hours and a lot of Korean food. I feel like I am on a world tour of Korean food this year … I have eaten it on 4 continents. I could understand if we shared a couple Korean meals a week with each other, but Samsung Koreans eat Korean food in over 50% of non-breakfast meals abroad (and over 90% in India). Samsung cafeterias worldwide serve both Korean food and local food, and my Korean teammates ate Korean food most days for lunch. When you descend upon a Samsung subsidiary there are the many introductions which must be made promptly to all the Korean expat executives in the subsidiary, and then these expat executives all will treat you to dinner at various times, the majority of the meals being Korean food, often with a lot of soju drinking. I’m not impressed with the way Korean expats have adapted to local tastes.

Being forced into eating Korean food can be frustrating, especially as I had several dinners where I was the only non-Korean and the whole conversation went into a language which I can only partly comprehend. In many meals I simply sat at my plate and quietly ate my food — when the host of the meal wanted to speak with me he would switch to English. I was sad that we passed over churrascarias in Brazil and all forms of Indian food in India — my teammates did not eat Indian food once!

With many team dinners and late nights in the office and some Saturday work, there is very little time to oneself for sightseeing. As the executives in Samsung Korea say, “You’re not there for shopping.” There is an intense focus on daily reporting, showing every day that you are getting work done to justify the expense of you being away from HQ. There is a lot of stress generated from “showing off the performance” to the Korean subsidiary head, and you often get pulled away from work at a moment’s notice for dinners with Korean expats.

I enjoyed working with friendly counterparts in Samsung Brazil

That said, despite the perils of Korean business travel it is good to get out of HQ from time-to-time to “see the real world” — it sometimes feels in Suwon that we are sitting on an island trying to understand what is happening day-to-day in the rest of the world. As Korean culture is quite distinct from the cultures of the markets which generate most sales for IT companies (USA, China, Western Europe, Brazil, India), a company like Samsung faces greater challenges in developing products suited to local tastes than competitor companies based in those countries. At HQ we can benchmark best practices of other IT companies and develop what seems like a sensible channel program from our ivory tower, but the real learning comes from being on the ground in subsidiaries around the world and trying to implement our programs — you quickly see what won’t work when you face reality. I have been fortunate this year to experience a sample of local business cultures worldwide and see the challenges of integrating these cultures with Samsung Korean business culture. I would just appreciate if my teammates could diversify their palates a little … and maybe leave Saturdays for sightseeing :)