Monday, August 1, 2005


My mom was interviewed for an article in the JoongAng Daily, one of the major Korean newspapers, called "A changed world for Korea's returnees." Of course, she didn't tell my younger brother or I about it. I had to receive an email from a friend. While the angle of the article can seem to portray my mother as a person who only went to Korea "for profit" that is far from the truth, but the quotes below are totally my mother:

One came back for a father-in-law; one came back for God. More than one came back for profit. Another calls Korea "an abnormal, sick society," and in the same breath says, "I'm more patriotic than anybody I know."

They left Korea decades ago, while the country was in the grip of dictators, in search of a better life in the United States. With most now closing in on their retirement years, they have returned to their homeland and discovered a new political, economic and social landscape. Some embrace it, some do not.

The first-generation returnees interviewed for this article are generally well-to-do, are fluent in English, possess degrees from American universities and, in most cases, have U.S. passports. Many of them are back in Korea for the same reason they left all those years ago: They're simply following the opportunities. The return doesn't mark a circular journey, but a linear one.
Though more vocal than most, Mr. Yoon is by no means alone in his criticism of his homeland. Ms. Moon, who asked to be identified only by her last name, also talks about the decay in "moral fiber" she's seen accompany Korea's accumulation of wealth.

"Most people I know here are economically very well off, but their way of thinking is still the same as 30 years ago," she says. "The first thing they ask is, ‘How many pyeong (a unit of 3.3 square meters) is your apartment?'"

Ms. Moon, like other returnees, charges Koreans with worrying too much about what other people think, and consequently caring only about appearances.

"It's hard to be a woman of a certain age who likes to dress casually," she says.
Ms. Moon is also put off by what she sees as Koreans' overblown pride. "The sentiment I hear most here is ‘Daehanminguk chaegoda' (Korea is No. 1)," she says. "But I'd rather see Koreans honest, kind, and able to understand the feelings and pain of others in the community than to see them be the best in the world at this or that."

However, Ms. Moon's and Mr. Yoon's views come from two different places. Mr. Yoon criticizes Korea out of love, like one would a wayward child.

"No matter where I am, I'm always Korean, and a patriotic Korean," he says. "I might as well be in Korea."

Ms. Moon, in contrast, returned to Korea for a business venture and doesn't plan to stay. "In my heart, whenever I land back at O'Hare [airport], I feel that I'm home. Not when I land at Incheon," she says.

Her faith is in "the American spirit of democracy," she says, adding, "I realized how great a country America is after I came back to Korea."
(full article)

It was interesting that this article was emailed to me today since I was planning on posting about a conversation I had last week with Christine and her colleague. We were discussing how Americans are considered prude in their views and behavior by much of the world. Christine's colleague, who received her MBA from INSEAD, was telling us about ethical situations they were discussing in a class in order to get business done in emerging markets. Most of the Americans were against presenting bribes or choose what they perceived as the least unethical, such as dinners and presents. While Europeans, Indians, and other student were mocking the uptight Americans for being so naive and prude.

"What's the difference," some questioned?
"Just get them a prostitute or a lump sum into their bank accounts."
"Face reality," others jeered.

In some ways, Christine's colleague accepted the view that Americans were being too uptight or should learn how to do business in developing nations. I rejected this notion since I have seen and know first-hand how a person can make an impact on a nation's business practices and cultural standards.

It was through my mother's efforts starting about eight years ago that I learned how one person can create ripples of change. My parents came out of a short retirement to go back to South Korea and start a coffee chain. My father would have preferred to golf everyday, but my mother is the type that is going to work until she goes into a grave so they set out to start this new business.

One of their initial obstacles was getting retail space in a major Korean department store. The local manager of this department was expecting some money under the table, but my parents stuck by their principles and didn't give in to "traditional" Korean business practices within this industry. Since my father's family is well connected, they could have pulled a favor with the person in charge of the whole department chain but they didn't. My parents went to a meeting and when the local manager stated that he expected some money, my mother told him that she would report him to his superiors. He was angry and upset that someone would dare to say such a thing. The meeting abruptly ended and my parents went back to their office. Later on, my mother decided to write a letter explaining the situation and addressed it to the local manager's supervisor. Her employees freaked out.

"That's not the Korean way (typical phrase in Korea that I learned to hate while I lived their for 4 years), Mrs. Moon! You just don't do that here... It won't work!"

My mother replied, "There is no 'Korean way' and only one way to do things. I will show you that you can change how things are done. Don't limit your thinking!"

So my mother met the local manager again with a stern warning and showed him the letter, but also with the promise that their business would generate the most money for him and make him look good with this decision. He backed down. Soon afterwards my parents established their store and it came to generate the most revenue for several years.

My parents employees were shocked and learned that change can come about in small ways and by holding to the principles that you decide upon. My mother did have the safety net of my father's connections and maybe this wouldn't have been possible in another situation with a more senior person or another industry, but I thought it was still a great example for me. It taught me how change is always possible even when the forces of culture and traditional seem too strong. So a note to people doing business in emerging markets, maybe sometimes you can't avoid crossing the ethical line but try sticking to your principles and see what happens. One instance of change is a powerful catalyst.

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