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Seoul Today

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Seoul at night is as beautiful as any major metropolitan center.

Seoul Man

A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan

Frank Ahrens

Lee Jae-in was elected last week as the president of Korea. For most Americans, that is a meaningless matter. But with the Trump Administration bristling with bellicose comments vis-à-vis North Korea and an array of American missiles now being deployed in South Korea, it only makes sense to take a good look at the situation to understand what is happening. The book reviewed here examines Korean society today in a down-to-earth manner. Everyone can benefit by reading the story offered.

However, it does that from an unexpected perspective: the author is an accomplished journalist who uprooted himself in accordance with his US Foreign Service wife’s dispatch to Seoul, Korea. Now, for me that would not be a traumatic experience; far from it. I am fluent in Japanese and have a working knowledge of Korean. So I could make my way pretty well. But the husband and wife who embarked on this adventure were average, everyday working people with a Western cultural background, and no prior knowledge of the country they were moving to. Why in the world would they do this?

Here is what the author, the husband, has to say:

We had been married for only three months and were still getting to know each other and wedded life when Rebekah and I uprooted ourselves and moved to a foreign country, taking jobs in new careers. I had left a steady twenty-one-year career as a journalist―the last eighteen years at the Washington Post―to make one leap into public relations and another leap to living outside America for the first time in my life. Rebekah, the youngest child of a New Zealander Presbyterian minister emigrated to the U.S., had never spent eighteen years in any one place. A preacher’s itinerant vocation moved the family around in Rebekah’s youth and either instilled or complimented a restlessness that was already in her. Unlike most American kids, she was spoiling to see the world, and had already lived in China, Japan, Lebanon, and France before we met. For me, going to Korea was going to the moon. For her it was just the next step on an ambitious itinerary.

The author, Frank Ahrens, was lucky to get a top public relations job with Hyundai, the large automobile manufacturing company. At the same time, his wife was also fortunate to have had her first choice for an assignment, Seoul, Korea, to be awarded to her as a rookie foreign service employee. Naturally, most people would prefer to get posted to Paris or Rome, but Rebekah Ahrens was more interested in an exotic location. It also turned out that she was perfectly in place to do a great deal of good work when the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 stuck Japan. Many Americans were left stranded in Japan, cut off from family, friends and all means of support. Rebekah was dispatched from Korea to the embassy in Japan to help during this period of devastation and chaos. It was a tremendous amount of hard work, but when she had finished her efforts she was gratified by being of service.

In the meantime, Frank was learning a lot about Korea. Not only did he delve deep into the history of Hyundai (and he tells that story in full), but he traces the history of the country of Korea to figures like Admiral Yi, a superb naval strategist, and King Sejong, whose court invented hangul, the writing of the Korean language. (However, Ahrens interest in the subject is limited: he fails to examine the roots of Korean history, back to the Koryo Dynasty. I have always been fascinated by it because it exactly mirrors the way Korean is set up today: with the North forming one part and the South divided in two. However, no author can cover every aspect of a complex nation like Korea.)

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At the same time, Ahrens does describe everyday life in Korea in great detail, starting with kimchi! This is the pungent fermented cabbage dish that all Koreans eat with every meal. A Korean friend of mine with whom I traveled to San Francisco together to participate in the Western US Go Championship, lamented that he could not find kimchi to eat, and thus his strength at go was affected!

Anyway, Ahrens spend several pages describing his own encounters with kimchi. In the past, I have also been an aficionado of kimchi, going to the best Korean restaurants to buy it in huge bottles and even making myself from scratch. So I know well the attractions that kimchi has.

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Ahrens and his wife also took side trips to China and other places, even going to the DMZ to get a glimpse of North Korea. He also offers his thoughts on the Kim clan that controls the North. It makes for interesting reading.

What was most surprising to me was Ahrens’ mistakes regarding the Korean language. In his acknowledgements he thanks a Korean colleague for his help in that regard, so he obviously took pains to get it right. But still, there were foolish mistakes. Koreans, in my experience, see nothing wrong with using different combinations of letters to spell the same sounds. Sometimes in the same words! In fact, I might do it myself! For instance, when I first wrote kimchi, I spelled it kimchee before I checked to see how Ahrens renders it in the book.

Regardless of this minor quibble, there is a tremendous amount of good information about Korea in “Seoul Man.” Every American is urged to read this book so as to get a solid grounding in the nature of this interesting society.

Those who wish to comment on the opinions expressed here may send their thoughts to info@GoWizardry.com. The most interesting responses will be addressed in future postings.

Robert J. Terry

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