The experiences of an American couple in South Korea underscore how little the West really knows about the country.
A business journalist by profession who spent 18 years at the Washington Post, Ahrens landed a gig at the largest car company in Korea after he married a diplomat. Upon arrival, he had two main realizations: that he was rare in his new environment (the country is 97 percent Korean) and that he held “many of the classic white American stereotypes about Asians: hardworking, good students, quiet, and reserved.” During his time as a Hyundai executive from 2010 to 2013, the author learned to admire the depth of the Korean people in many unique ways, delineated with humor and warmth in this book. Originally from Charleston, West Virginia, conservative and Christian by temperament, Ahrens married Rebekah, who received her first assignment overseas in 2009. With his early mechanical training, Ahrens was a natural at marketing Hyundai, especially in meeting with foreign journalists and in directing efforts at good English writing and editing. Initially, however, his American style was considered brash and even rude—e.g., asking colleagues to call him Frank (he thought it would be easier for them) when the workplace protocol called for a decisive hierarchical structure between the low- and higher-ranking officers, expressed in honorific addresses according to traditions in Confucianism. Moreover, the competitiveness among co-workers spilled over in official Saturday morning hiking sessions, which Ahrens despised, and intensive nighttime drinking bouts, all having the effect of creating an atmosphere of camaraderie without any one member standing out. Eventually, the author had to hone his skills at noonchi, “reading the air,” a kind of subtle, complex sense of what was going on. Running alongside Ahrens’s own personal “midlife crisis” were Hyundai’s great efforts to elevate the middling brand into the luxury market, alongside German and Japanese cars.
Amid the author’s personal journey reside priceless cultural and professional insights.