Friday, February 20, 2009

Korean Konnection

The first time I went to South Korea was in 1981. Disputes with the north were still a fact of life and the airport was full of soldiers armed with automatic rifles. Downtown Seoul was a mix of old and new construction and, in the month of November, the air was heavy with carbon monoxide fumes. Many space heaters fueled by kerosene oil provided warmth in the concrete office buildings but you had to leave the windows open for ventilation so no one died of asphyxiation. It was an exciting place for a young man who had never been out of the country. I was sent there by the animation studio I worked for to oversee a trailer film for a feature we hoped to produce. Television work was slow, the studio wanted to keep me on staff and going to Korea for a few weeks was the cost of continued employment.

The Koreans, like most Asian countries, respect old age. Unfortunately, I was young at the time so I was not the ideal vision they had for a director when I arrived on the doorstep of the Korean studio. They put me in a room with an English-speaking Korean director and a translator, gave me a desk and coffee, then, ignored me...politely. I was given a short stack of animation work to peruse. I looked through it and gave it to the Korean director with my comments. He put it aside without looking at it...politely. I tried to be of use and was always offering my valuable suggestions but the Koreans all smiled and went about their work as if I wasn't there. After several days of this, I bought a book on Korean culture because I figured I was doing something wrong. This book was an eye-opener. It taught me how to work with Koreans who, unlike Americans, don't just naturally assume that the guy from out-of-town must be a genius. I was being judged. Politely.

I learned enough Korean to be polite. I deferred to my peers, was pleasant but not overly friendly with those under my jurisdiction and learned patience. When I finished a stack of work, I approached the director by saying, "I have finished looking through this work and have made notes about several scenes. If you find any of my comments useful I will make myself available to you in any way you wish." Then I sat down, drank my coffee and waited until needed. Eventually, the director finished his stack of work and asked if I was ready to review my notes with him. On his schedule, not mine. Once the pecking order was established and my professionalism confirmed by my work, we became fast friends. We are friends today.

The Korean language has a status component to it. You change the ending of a word when you are speaking to an equal, a superior or someone of lesser status. Of course, being American, we are taught to use the equal term for all our communications. When I departed for the U.S. after a month, I took leave of the studio I worked in. To the animation supervisor I said my good-bye using the peer ending. Nothing unusual there. The Koreans assumed I didn't know better. When I said my goodbye to the studio manager, however, I chose the terminology used when speaking to a superior. Suddenly the atmosphere in the room changed. Everyone realized that I knew what I was doing and had just paid the studio executive a huge compliment! Not only that, I had deliberately elevated the animation supervisor to my level as director. This simple compliment was reported back to my superiors in the U.S. along with a fervent request I be assigned a longer level of stay. Finally, an American that understands!

When working in a strange environment, understanding the culture, language and customs of the natives will ease the working relationship. A little research can produce great rewards. Make sure those who represent you live by that creed.