Korea: revisited

When leaving Korea last year in October, I didn’t expect to come back anytime soon. In fact, during the year I’ve spent there, I realized I’m so incompatible with Korean work culture that I thought I would never go work there again. Somehow it turned out I was the only semi-available person in our team at a certain time, so I was sent for a business trip to help with some urgent tasks as a web developer (Me? Developer? No joke…).

Before I joined my previous Korean team, I’d worked with them for several years, visited them a couple of times and thought I knew them really well. This time I was sent to a whole new team in a whole new department, where I knew literally no one. Still, something in their way of communication must have resembled some of the most difficult experiences I had in the past, because I ended up mentally broken to pieces, still trying to get my work environment set up at 10.30pm, second day from arrival. I figured this must be my body telling me to slow down as I was pretty exhausted and jet-lagged at that time, so I decided to make proper sleep my priority, even at the cost of arriving at work right after lunch. And then, magic happened.

First, I got a message from my Korean boss I shouldn’t stay so late in the office and wait for him to finish his work. Up to that point he didn’t really speak with me and I’d had some terrible experience with a project leader who only communicated with me through a colleague, so it was a huge relief that he wasn’t this kind of guy. By the way, the whole idea that I could have been staying in the office at 10pm without having anything to do only because my boss is still there sounds pretty insane, but that’s the way many Korean folks still roll it these days.

Another surprise came when I met a friend who went to Korea as my replacement. He’s on the same team and position as I was before, but he’s working on more things than I did at that time, and surely on much more technical ones. When I was in Korea there wasn’t usually a lot of work for me to do, so I was mostly getting mad on how Korean work culture promotes being busy over being effective, and reading about UX as an antidote. Now that I spoke to Darek, I realized that maybe I didn’t have that much to do simply because the folks would rather do all on their own than delegate some stuff to me. At least they didn’t have to explain how different things work and listen to my complaints about how frustrating and ineffective they are. Yes, I must admit I did that way too many times, even though I knew there was nothing they could help about this.

Things didn’t turn out much better organized in my new team to be honest, but knowing I’m only there for 3 weeks made it way easier to handle. I simply observed the corporate politics from a safe position of a foreign outsider and no longer attempted to change anything. When asked to do something, I did without asking how or why (my colleagues wouldn’t probably know anyway), when not asked to do anything, I would just let them know I’m available and focus on my own stuff. When faced with something absurd, I was happy to think I’d no longer deal with that in another few days. It must have worked quite well cause in the end I heard I helped them a lot and that I have really good coding skills (Who? Me? Are you kidding?). This was a perfect strategy for a short term business trip, but I’d doubt it would helped me if I tried the same approach for the whole year. I simply had too much free time to think about the better ways to spend all this time.

Still, despite all the friction I must have generated through this whole year, I still had a really awesome welcome on my return. Wherever I went around the company campus I heard someone calling “Mariaaa! So good to see you!”. Even the folks who only knew me because we used to work on the same floor, now asked me if I returned for good, what I am doing here and why I moved to another team. I had a couple of dinner parties with my ex-teammates, that involved the amazing norebang – Korean style karaoke and deep conversations about life. Some of the guys even took me for a weekend trip to chill out on the beautiful island of Nami. Perhaps I wasn’t the best person to work with, but now that we no longer work together, we can be friends and communicate better than ever.

I’m happy I had this chance to come back to Korea, chill out about the way that they work, spend some awesome time with my friends and remind myself about all the best parts of my time there. I’m sure I will never be thriving in Korean corporate environment, but I really don’t have to. There are so many better reasons to visit this country some day again.

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