The corporate ladder or the pub?My mother calls me quite often. “Have you been eating well?” “Please tell me you’re not drinking too much.” “Why do you have to live so far away?” “When am I going to have a daughter-in-law?” “I’m never going to be a grandmother, am I?” As with mothers and sons the world over, we have fallen into a pattern: she asks a question, I give a vague or unsatisfactory answer, and she hopes for the “correct” answer next time.
Sometimes, Korean friends are surprised to hear about her well-intended jansori (nagging). There tends to be an assumption that Western families are too liberal, almost to the point that people don’t care about each other. My mother sounds like a Korean mother, I am told. To which I simply reply, “She’s like every mother.” From my own experience, I would say that the only difference between a Korean mother and an English one is the extent to which her adult children listen to her. Frankly, I’m not so good at hyodo (filial duty).
Recently, I joined some friends in opening a bar. Like a good Korean mother, my mother wondered what on earth I thought I was doing. Her comments were echoed by quite a few people around me in Seoul: Why is an “educated” (their word, not mine) person selling booze?
My mother has since forgiven me. She came to visit, and saw that the place was full. And now, we have two bars, and plans for two more. Our little hobby has gained her respect - at a certain point it ceased to be a grog shop, and became a business. But I still get asked by people in Seoul why I would give up on wanting a “proper” career.
A mobile Internet entrepreneur friend has a similar tale to tell.
“I hand my business card to people, and they look at it and say, ‘What’s this?’ The implication is that I couldn’t get a job with Samsung or Hyundai,” he laments.
This is unfortunate - not just for my friend, but also for Korea. This country is changing. The old model of getting a job with a respectable company, buying an apartment and living happily ever after under an umbrella of career stability and rising property values is completely broken. Many of the smartest young people are competing for a mere illusion of security. And at the same time, the type of person that society now needs most of all is the independent entrepreneur.
And believe it or not, a whole host of new opportunities are coming - for those willing to sacrifice “respectability.” It looks obvious (from this outsider’s perspective) that Korean consumer tastes are broadening very quickly. This will benefit newcomers who have specialist knowledge and genuine enthusiasm at the expense of established giants. For decades, the same companies have been selling you the same old products, often at unreasonable prices. Alternatives tended to be scandalously overpriced “luxury” imports that are utterly mid-market in their country of origin.
Around the site of our first bar (Kyungridan), something amazing is happening. People are opening little Thai kitchens, craft shops, cigar bars and all manner of funky places that simply couldn’t have existed three years ago. They all have quite a “DIY” feel, having been started by poor but passionate enthusiasts who come from a surprising variety of backgrounds. And they’re all doing well. Similar things are starting to happen in places like Hyojadong and Seochon, too. There will probably come a time when such neighborhoods are full of chain coffee shops, but by then, we’ll have found new areas to move into.
Of course, any of us could fail at any time. Being involved in a small business requires a certain amount of paranoia. But if I pursued respectability, I would also need to hold my breath hoping that downsizing and outsourcing - not to mention the general malaise of both industries I have worked in - would leave me unharmed. I would rather fail through my own fault than through that which I have no control over.
Most of my university friends became bankers or corporate people. One, though, decided to go to Italy, where he worked as a waiter, sommelier and then chef. He eventually came back with a very good understanding of how to run a top Italian restaurant. Even though Italian cuisine is popular everywhere, real quality is quite hard to find (both in England and Korea). Now he has his own place, which I hear does great business.
If a young Korean friend were to ask my opinion, I would suggest he or she consider ditching standard notions of respectability in favor of developing a genuine niche skill - and then pursue it on his or her own.
*The author, former Seoul correspondent for The Economist, is the author of “Korea: The Impossible Country.”
by Daniel Tudor