Sure of Two Things
It’s 3:30am and I’m up for the day. Forty-eight hours back in Dallas, my body is still living on Shanghai time. “Just stay up,” is what everybody keeps telling is the home remedy for how to fix jet lag. These people don’t know how jet lag works. Trying to blog my experiences from the SMU Cox Global Leadership Program is tough as I think that all my efforts to stay “in the moment” during my travels is clouding my recollections. But this I know for sure, 1) with that many Cox MBAs running around, Korea hadn’t seen that many “y’alls” since the armistice signing. And 2) the time I spent in Seoul and Shanghai with my fellow classmates was a special, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I will never forget.
Now that it’s is over, reflection seems appropriate considering that this trip has been the electron energy moving most of the 2015 Cox MBAs to the end of this first year of grad school. Even during orientation week, after all the initial pleasantries, the conversations quickly moved to “Where do you want to go for GLP?” The idea of a paid-for class trip abroad, visiting top international companies and experiencing foreign cultures was a quite a selling point for us all. Soon into the first semester, “Where do you want to go?” turned into, “Where are you going?” as us students were placed in one of four global locations. As a matter of fact, get any more than three Cox MBAs in the same room for any longer than an hour twenty and GLP would inevitably come up. And as the first year of my MBA marched along, bogged down with classwork, extra-curriculars, company info sessions, internship hunting (and not getting), study groups, and, ahem, the wife and kids back home, the idea of a 10-day vacation with my fellow classmates, broken up by a few company visits, of course, seemed like exactly what I needed. Even more, I was especially excited to see Korea and Shanghai as an option on the ballot this year. Seoul was my going to my number one choice. Having taken a few semesters of Korean lessons and having been to the bottom of a few bottles of soju in my time, I was ready to finally experience the real deal.
Korea responds to ferry tragedy in a uniquely Korean way
As far as the Korean people themselves went, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Hanging over our trip was Korea’s national tragedy. Two weeks before we departed for Seoul, the Sewol ferry, carrying 476 people, most of whom were students, capsized off the southern coast of Korea. Nearly 300 people drowned. When we landed at Incheon airport, diving crews were still pulling bodies up from the sunken ship on the other side of the country. I was uncertain about how such an event would affect our visit. It felt inappropriate to be there at that moment in time, with all the excesses our group was certain to indulge in. Some cultures are intrigued by Americans, other cultures flat out do not like us. I’ve experienced both in my time, but I was not at all prepared for the reaction I received in Seoul. Indifference. In regards to the tragedy itself, I saw that Koreans were a very insulated people, and this insulation was, I believe, the reason I didn’t see any of the effects that the national tragedy was having. It wasn’t because Koreans weren’t hurting, but more likely because the Sewol was distinctly a Korean tragedy and they aren’t interested in sharing these types of emotions with visitors. Separately, in regards foreigners, ourselves included, sometimes it was as if we didn’t exist. In five days in Seoul, I rarely would make eye contact with a Korean, and very few seemed to even notice we were there. It wasn’t because they didn’t like us, I don’t think, I just think that Koreans really like Koreans and the prospect of meeting foreigners doesn’t do anything for them. For example, lost one evening, trying to find a particular bar, I went into various stores asking employees for help without receiving very much. They either didn’t speak English or abruptly told me they didn’t know. In contrast, my last time in England, the shopkeepers were more likely to close their store altogether and walk me to my destination before letting me leave with uncertainty. The Koreans I came across were never rude, nor were they particularly nice. I just felt that during my time in Seoul, to any local I talked to, that I was just another notification on their cell phone that needed to be attended to before they could go back to whatever it was they were doing.
When describing to people what Seoul is like, I immediately tell of the food alleys. The city can be defined by them, and I think that would be sufficient. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, intricate networks of alleyways tucked between and around the buildings that line most streets. Each alley is lined with restaurants, bars, clubs, barbecues, chicken shacks, coffee shops, convenience stores, and any other joint specializing in consumables – and these alleyways went on for blocks. Often you can see the opening to these alleys from the street, but, if you can’t, take even the slightest detour and you’re likely to find yourself immersed in one of these mini hubs of commerce, being tempted by whatever’s cooking. My first night in Seoul, we were in Jonggak district in search of the annual Seoul Lantern Festival when we got hungry. We walked towards what looked like a single restaurant, only to walk into our first food alley. Wow! How lucky we were to have stumbled into what could only be a very unique and very cool area of town – restaurants, shops and bars everywhere – all filled with locals! Starving, we went into pretty much the first place we came across, a barbecue, and ordered meat, beer and soju – aka the “number one” of Korean fare. Afterwards, we walked the alley, took copious pictures and scouted out other places for our surely subsequent visits. By day two, however, after seeing a little more of the city, I found out that not only was our little Jonggak alleyway not unique at all, but it wasn’t even that impressive in comparison to the hundreds of other food alleys across Seoul. The food alley across the street from our hotel was bigger and better than this one! The rest of my personal time in Seoul, was me walking, or cabbing, or subway-ing to different food alleys across the city. As a matter of fact, I was probably never more than fifty paces away from a barbecue joint, forty from a chicken shack, and if we’re counting street food tents, never more than a kegs-throw away from something consumable. This was nice, of course, because if I got too drunk and passed out, I’d probably pass out right through the front door of a chicken shack where I’d be able to order a basket and the next round of Cass.
Koreans Get in Line
Dostoyevsky said the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons. I say it can be judged by how its people queue themselves. Seoul is as modern a city as you will find. It’s clean, safe and easy to navigate, technology is everywhere, and, my favorite, Seoul is fully wired for wifi. But what I really took notice to is how such a mass of people can so effectively queue themselves while waiting for buses and taxis and clubs and, well, anything that needed a line. I’ve been a part of some real cattle calls across this world, Dallas notwithstanding, but, even in Gagnam, the busiest of busy areas, it was orderly and cordial, and that’s with 99.9% of the queued people staring at their phones. If they’ve done anything right since 1953, queuing has to be at the top of the list.
My trip to Seoul would have been better had I discovered Hongdae on my first night instead of my third. That would have been two more days I could have been a part of the best scene in the city. Hongdae district is the area of town associated with Hongik University and, in turn, the “college” scene of Seoul. The whole area wasn’t so much a food alley, as much as a food freeway. It was massive, with block and blocks of young and well-dressed Koreans (and quite a few foreigners, for that matter) out for the night. Once we all got there, most of our group splintered off into a karaoke bar, but I went lone wolf and sought out a specific club I’d had on my radar for months. Club FF is an indie club somewhere in Hongdae and specializes in live music and open bar (after 11pm) and I was determined to find it. Now, I’ve always been good with directions, acutely aware of my surroundings, but I just flat got lost in Hongdae’s cram-packed maze of alleys and people. I walked and walked, but no Club FF. I got on Wifi and googled away, and nothing came up. I walked in to various shops and asked various Korean dudes if they’d heard of it. Nothing. Two hours later, I gave up and headed back to the karaoke parlor to find the group. Needless to say, I had missed out on all the fun. For a moment even, as I observed our room full of Cox MBAs belting out a classic Britney song, I really saw how we were gelling as a group. Individuals and groups unlikely to spend much of their free time together during the school year were cheering, taking pictures, laughing and singing with each other. It was clear this trip was really bringing us closer together as a class.
Getting Down to Business
Despite all fun and games our group was having, there were no greater takeaways from Seoul than our company visits. Linda Kao and the GLP office hit Korea out of the park with the companies we visited and the people we had access to. First up, on our second full day in Seoul, we traveled to Hyundai Motor Company’s Asian manufacturing plant. I never foresaw the level of manufacturing automation that was on display at Hyundai. Perhaps this is an American preconceived notion, but I expected an automobile plant being long lines of mustachioed union workers drilling while a shower of sparks bounced off their helmets. At Hyundai, I saw that this wasn’t even close to what modern car companies are doing today. The robots created and deployed by Hyundai were amazing. A building the size of ten football fields was manned by a mere 40 workers, all of whom were only watching the massive machines in case something happened. When we first walked in, we were shown large rolls of steel, and as we walked through the plant on our guided tour, we were able to see each stop that the raw material steel went through as it was pressed, twisted, welded and pieced together into the final body of the cars. The next building toured was where the bodies became completed cars. This building had quite a bit more workers, but the assembly line was still at such a level of automation, that the workers seemed casual in their efforts of piecing the cars together. As we exited the plant, newly completed cars were driving out alongside us, both of us passing under a sign tracking the plant’s efficiency – a new car completed every 54 seconds. The same day we went to GM Korea for a direct comparison of competing car brands. Although GM Korea was not at Hyundai’s level of automation, they were still very advanced. The emphasis at GM, however, wasn’t on the sophisticated machines and processes, as was Hyundai, but on the trench warfare they’re in with Hyundai/Kia as a foreign competitor to chaebol-dominated car market. GM has been leveraging their “Find New Roads” campaign in Korea and is branding themselves as a young and fresh alternative for Korean car buyers. Both trips together made me overhaul me vision of how modern car manufacturing works.
Day 2 – Company Visits
The next day of company visits brought us to the Korean law firm Kim and Chang. Admittedly not particularly looking forward to touring a law firm, Kim and Chang surprised us all and became one of our top experiences on GLP as a whole. At Kim and Chang, we were all filed into a conference room, which happened to overlook the Blue House, and greeted by one Dr. Jang Nam Oh. Dr. Oh, as we came to know him, before taking his senior advisory role at Kim and Chang, was the Korean Executive Director of the International Monetary Fund, the Economic Secretary for two Korean presidential administrations, Korea’s Commissioner of Statistics, author of many books, board member of Samsung Securities, UNICEF Korea, GM Korea, Scranton Women’s Leadership Center, and, oh yeah, he’s a Cox MBA alum. Dr. Oh started by discussing the economic divide between the North and the South. He noted the optimism that the South still has towards the north in regards to unification. By that point during the trip, it was clear that the South just isn’t that concerned that much with the North – they’re too busy producing and growing and competing on the global stage. But it was refreshing to hear that the South still longs for unification, but that it requires equal proven commitment from the North. Dr. Oh moved to Korea’s history of economic development: what worked, what didn’t, current successes and challenges, and what the future holds for them – especially as it relates to demographics and politics. Additionally, his insight on innovation in Korea was of interest. He suggested that Korea’s attitude towards failure needs to change before real entrepreneurial spirit can grow. Embracing failure as a positive (because of its valuable learning experience) is something that must be fostered. A culture of entrepreneurship doesn’t happens overnight. Dr. Oh was a wealth of knowledge, articulate, kind, warm and funny. It was, most likely to a tee, what Dean Niemi envisioned Cox students being able to experience from the GLP program.
Next up was Shanghai, and it was a beast. Right away I felt like I was in America, New York maybe, like an urban jungle, tattooed with skyscrapers, where only the strong could survive. I loved it. The streets were bustling with commerce, foreign brands as numerous as Chinese brands, and the people were aggressive, each knowing what they wanted and exactly how to get it. Our hotel was right on the famous Nanjing Road, so we were right in the middle of all the action, the busiest and most robust area of the city. We’ve all heard that the pollution is bad in China, Shanghai specifically, and it was. Stepping off the shuttle in front of our hotel, I was hit by a waft of something that burnt straight down to my lungs. I’m the allergenic type as is, so, throughout the trip, the city smog had me coughing, gagging, and my eyes watering terribly – and I used to live in L.A.! But all the smog aside, Shanghai is a massive and impressive city with an exquisite mix of the historic and modern world.
Getting around in Shanghai was a little bit more difficult than it was in Seoul. The subway was fine and easy to use, but, while walking, more often than not, the street signs were only in Mandarin. And outside of our tour guide and the hotel concierge, there was almost no English to be heard in Shanghai. The one clear exception to this rule was when I went shopping at the knock-off markets. In the fake markets you’ll practically hear the Queen’s English from all the hawkers while you try and negotiate fair prices for headphones and handbags.
Shanghai vs. Seoul
The company visits we went on while in Shanghai were quite a bit different than in Seoul. In Seoul, companies focused on showcasing their products and processes and discussing the various degrees of success they’ve had in globalization. China was a different story. The premise of most of the companies we visited was the challenges of doing business in China today, and how each firm deals with the government and various regulations. At Subway China, for example, we were told that Subway intentionally tries to stay out of the top tier of profitable franchise brands as a way to stay under the government’s radar. If they were to become too successful, it might make the government more closely examine their operations – something that nobody wanted. Yum! Brands, for example, was the number one QSR brand in China and was growing at double-digit rates before a suspiciously timed national media campaign attacked their food sourcing integrity, which resulted in significantly reduced growth for the company.
While in Shanghai, two company visits stood out. The first was Bank of China. Bank of China is the third largest bank in China and we were getting a presentation from a fairly high up executive. And since the government runs Bank of China (more or less), than we were pretty much talking to a fairly high up member of the Communist party. The entire presentation was in Mandarin and was translated to English for us by a translator who was also an employee of the bank. When it came time for questions, it was never quite clear if the speaker was answering the questions we asked due to the back and forth with the translator. Additionally, our more pointed questions, particularly as they related to government regulations, were not answered at all. The speaker would, I assume, generalize some sort of answer and, out of nowhere, the translator’s English would suddenly become a bit more broken. It was a very interesting experience all around. The second company visit that stood out was our visit to AmCham, or, the American Chamber of Commerce in China. Bob Theleen heads it and is an expat that’s been living in China for nearly 35 years. He arrived shortly after Mao’s death, so he’s seen the full transformation of China’s economy over the decades since opening up. An important moment came for us up front when Mr. Theleen described to us, quite candidly, that China is not a communist state at all, but an authoritarian dictatorship that has adopted a market economy. It made sense. I had fully expected to see pictures of Mao hung from buildings while in China, but I only saw his image twice – twice! – the entire trip. One was a decades old statute on the Bund, and the other was at the airport gift shop. I was beginning to put it together that America’s fear of a communist takeover has been greatly exaggerated. Mr. Theleen also discussed the sheer power of the Chinese consumer today and how the staggering purchasing power among China’s growing middle class is something that foreign companies are aiming for. However, the real news to me, was that no less than 27 U.S. State governments and even more city governments have set up offices in Shanghai as a way to promote Chinese investment in their states or districts back in the States. So, despite what we hear in the news about Huawei and spying and whatnot, governments across the U.S. are actively recruiting Chinese companies to bring business, infrastructure, and jobs back home.
Now that back home (and not sleeping), it’s a pleasure to scroll through all the pictures I took while I write this piece. I kept all my notes from the company visits and they are worth rereading. Indeed, at times it felt like the trip was too long, but mostly it felt like it was just the start of something great, both from a career-broadening perspective and personally among us friends.