Finding Meaning and Renewal in Korea

말없이 살다보면 도심이 자란다.

Rest. I needed it, and I got it. But it didn’t quite come in the form that I had originally planned, and it ended up moving me in ways I did not expect.

Back in July, coming off of a massive project and some difficult events in my life, I found myself longing for white sand, crystal clear water, and no interruptions. I wanted to go on the kind of vacation where you did absolutely nothing, and I wanted to go for a long time.

Well, the usual stuff started happening, the stuff that had prevented me from taking any kind of extended vacation since founding Blue Oxen Associates. I was talking to potential clients, I had people who were depending on me, and I didn’t want to go on vacation until I had more certainty in my schedule.

Enter my Mom. We had traveled to Korea together in 2002, just before I founded Blue Oxen. It was a beautiful and important experience for me on many levels, and I had been wanting to go back ever since. About a year ago, my Mom told me she was planning a trip there, and she asked me if I wanted to join her. I said yes, but the usual caveats applied: I’d get back to her when I had more certainty around my schedule.

Mom and Jessica

Several months later, as I found myself wondering how I was ever going to take a vacation, my Mom reminded me of her offer. Without hesitation, I said, “Let’s do it.”

Putting that stake in the ground was critical. I’d probably still be postponing and making excuses otherwise. I wasn’t going to be lying on a beach sipping something fruity. However, I was going to have a special opportunity to spend quality time with my Mom and my younger sister, Jessica, who decided to join us as well.

Moreover, I was going to Korea, and that had added significance for me.

Being Korean has always been a strong part of my identity, a fact that sometimes surprises people when they hear it. I emote American. Most people recognize me immediately as such from how I carry myself, how I speak, how I am. Warren Buffett has often noted how lucky he was to have been born in a time and place where his unique skills and personality were both accepted and advantageous. I’ve always felt exactly the same way. I love this country, and I love how it’s shaped who I am.

The beautiful thing about being an American, of course, is that this country was founded on the premise of heterogeneity. It is a melting pot, a delicious soup of diverse identities. I have never had a problem reconciling my multiple facets, nor have I ever felt a need to go out of my way to express any of them. I’ve always been able to appreciate my commonalities with others while remaining conscious of and comfortable with the differences. That probably explains my eclectic social circle and my career focus.

As easy as it’s been for me to be a Korean in America (and I know that my experience is not universal), it doesn’t work nearly as well the other way around. Korea is as homogeneous as the U.S. is diverse. Koreans don’t celebrate differences; they sort them into a rigid hierarchy. Hierarchy is so engrained in the culture, it’s built into the language. When you meet Koreans, they’re more likely to ask your age than your name so they know how to talk to you.

Koreans are both individualistic and conformist. They expect you to take care of yourself, but they don’t want you to stand out too much in doing so.

Shame is a pervasive emotion. The word for Korea is 한국 (hanguk), which literally translates to “great country.” But 한 (han) has other meanings, including “collective shame.” Many things seem to trigger this shame, and the consequences are often dire. Not surprisingly, Korea has the highest suicide rate in the world.

I understand how things are, and I don’t necessarily like them, but I also see their upside. Then there are the things that I love. I love the work ethic, the pride, the passion. I love the Korean aesthetic, the love of story, of song, of intellectualism, and of beauty. I love our relationship to food, which is the very essence of life and culture.

I’m proud of my Korean roots, and I want to know more.

And so a month ago, I found myself in Korea for the fourth time, sharing the experience with my Mom and younger sister. We spent most of our time in Gyeongsangbuk-do, a province on the southeastern side of the country, an area known for its rich traditions, its farms, and for giving birth to Confucianism in Korea.

I unexpectedly found peace on the stark, lush island of Ulleungdo. It started on a cliff beside a towering mountain peak overlooking the East Sea, where I closed my eyes and felt the strong clean wind rejuvenate me. It continued as we explored the island, immersing ourselves in its beauty and culture.

From Ulleungdo, we travelled to Andong, which served as our home base in Gyeongsangbuk-do. We spent that week getting lost in the countryside, travelling along rolling fields of rice and the all important chile, visiting traditional temples, villages, and Dosan Seowon, the 16th century school founded by Korea’s most famous Confucian scholar, Yi Hwang.

We ended our trip in Seoul, where a Korean Wikipedian, Cheol Ryu, organized a meetup in my honor. I cannot describe what it meant to me to meet my peers that night, Koreans who cared about the world in the same way that I did, who are working hard to make a difference there.

It would take me a year to try to capture all of my experiences there, everything that I felt and learned. One month later, I’m still trying to collect and organize my notes from the trip.

Over the next week or so, I hope to share at least some of my experiences. For now, I hope that this brief taste (along with some pictures and videos) will do.

The Dreaded Email Backlog

Got back from my vacation to Korea yesterday afternoon. Here’s my quick summary of the trip: Aaah.

Other than some massive jetlag, I feel very refreshed. I’ve had to hit the ground running since returning because of the usual work pileup and also a business trip later this week. Although I would have loved a few days to transition back to real life, I feel great, and I’m happy to be back.

I took over 2,000 pictures and almost 40 videos, and I filled up almost 100 pages in my manly journal. I have many, many stories to share, both about my experiences in Korea as well as other stuff I had a chance to think about.

But I first want to kick things off by running some numbers on the Dreaded Email Backlog. Amazingly, it wasn’t bad at all, which raises serious questions as to why I (and others) don’t do this more often. It’s a little after 9am on Monday morning, and I’m largely caught up on my email (although the work backlog still beckons).

After two weeks of not checking my work email, I had 202 new messages in my inbox (not counting filtered messages). 14 of those messages were vacation-related bounces, 18 were automatic notifications from the Blue Oxen server (which needs a tune up), and about 40 were newsletters that should have been filtered. There were about another 25 web site notifications that should have been filtered; I just had never gotten around to setting the rules.

Cleaning these up got me down to 100 messages. I used this as an opportunity to fix my filters, and I ended up unsubscribing to 12 newsletters. A quick scan and cleanup cut my inbox in half to about 50 messages. Then I got down to work.

I used Gmail’s Priority Inbox to help. Prior to my trip, I didn’t really use this feature, but with a huge inbox, I was curious to see if it would be helpful. Not so much. I had about 60 messages automatically labeled priorities. About 30 of them were mislabeled, and 10 messages in my inbox should have been labeled, but weren’t.

Working through my inbox took me about five hours. Now that my filters have been updated, it should be much easier in the future. Plus, I realized I was subscribed to way more newsletters than I needed to be, and so taking the effort to unsubscribe will help a lot as well.

All in all, dealing with the backlog was relatively painless. Was this representative? Preparation helped a lot — I put a serious dent on my email backlog before I left. I’m also finishing up one project and starting up two new ones, so the email load isn’t as high as it would be if I were mid-project.

My experience served to reinforce several things:

  • The best way to manage information overload is to reduce the load. Do a careful audit. You’ll be surprised how much junk you’re probably receiving.
  • Filtering is your friend.
  • The world will not collapse if you are not checking email constantly.

More importantly, you will feel significantly better if you take time to get away. I’m going to be a lot more disciplined about having “off” time in my day-to-day life.

Doctors on Planes

On the plane ride home from Miami last night, the flight attendant got on the PA and asked if any of the passengers were medical professionals. Someone had fallen ill and needed help.

Two people rang their bells immediately, and they went to assist the passenger.

This is a wonderful, real-life example of leveraging the collective intelligence of the group. If you take a large, random group of people, you are likely to have an incredible diversity of skills and knowledge in that group. You don’t have to worry about seeding the group with “experts.” They’re already there; you just have to have a space and a process that allows the expertise to emerge.

I wonder how often this happens on planes? I fly 4-8 times a year, and I remember this happening only twice on previous flights, including this time. Both times, there were several doctors on board.

Creating Space and Setting Boundaries

The past year has been mentally and emotionally exhausting, both in my professional and personal life. I’m pretty self-aware, and I’m good at making adjustments on the fly, but this past year really pushed me to the edge, and the space and people around me were exacerbating the situation.

So I started making some structural changes. In February, I hired a coach, the fabulous Lisa Heft. She was a great peer sounding board, and she created a safe space for me to think through the things I needed to figure out. That process gave me a clear vision for what I needed in my life to be happy and productive, and it helped me create a staged strategy for coping with the challenges that I couldn’t immediately do away with and for pro-actively preventing those things from becoming problems again.

I’ve implemented many of those changes over the past few months, and the results have been amazing. I feel more rested and creative. I’m working less, but I’m more productive. Life has slowed down, and good things are happening.

Godzilla Impression

I also have a lot more work I still need to do on myself. By slowing down, I let new things into my life, which have caused things to pick up again. This is where it gets tricky. I’m determined not to repeat old, destructive patterns. It means I have to be disciplined about my space and mindful about my wellness.

I’m getting really excited about the things that are happening right now. Lots of changes are afoot, and I’m feeling my friend, Mr. Adrenaline, start to reassert himself. But that rush is still tempered by remnants of exhaustion. I know I’m not totally whole yet, and I’m not going to get there if I don’t continue to assert my boundaries.

My biggest need right now is rest. Real, prolonged rest. And for the first time in eight years, I’ve created that space for myself — two weeks next month in Korea, sans laptop. I’ve had to fight off the urge to cancel the trip a number of times over the past few months in order to accommodate various work engagements. As hard as that’s been, I know it’s going to pay off in spades. (I have also found my professional colleagues exceptionally supportive in this regard, in some cases, forcefully so, further proof that I work with and for people who are much smarter than me.)

I’m excited to be going back to Korea, to eat my way through the country, to explore my roots, and to be totally present while doing so. And I know I’ll be chomping at the bit when I return.

In the meantime, I’m going to continue to hold my space, do my thing, and see where my energy takes me. I feel great about where I’m headed.

My Quest to Learn Korean

설악산, November 2002. I’m admiring the grilled sardines and steamed mussels and sea snails outside of Sanmaeul Restaurant, a wonderful, family-run hole-in-the-wall. They ended up feeding us for our entire stay in 설악산. Also note my sweet, red hat.

I’m generally good at learning, but I have a few nasty Achilles’ heels. My biggest one is languages. I absolutely suck at learning languages. Or, at least, I’ve sucked at learning languages in the past.

You see, I believe that we’re all much more capable of learning than we give ourselves credit for. There are lots of different ways to learn; we just have to find the way that fits the task and our style.

I believe this, and I’ve preached this, but I’ve never rigorously acted on it. I’ve thought a lot about the things I’ve sucked at learning in the past, and how I’d do them differently now, but I’ve never really carried out those ideas. My excuse has always been that I’m too busy, and that I’d rather spend my time mastering stuff that I’m already good at than struggling over something I’m not. There’s some truth to that, but there’s a bigger truth. I’m scared. Deep down, I’m not confident that I can do it, because I haven’t done it before.

Well, I’ve decided that it’s time for me to stop hiding and start doing.

Why the sudden motivation? First, I spent most of this past year hanging out with Wikimedians. Most of the Wikimedians I know kick ass at languages. I am bitterly resentful of all of them. Yes, that includes you Delphine and SJ and Chuck. That includes all of the ridiculously multilingual Wikimedia Foundation employees — the majority of them, in fact. Every time any of them would fluidly slip into another language to converse with others, I would seethe with rage and jealousy inside. Clearly, I needed to do something about this.

Second, I’ve always felt bad about not being able to speak to my parents or extended family in their native tongue, and I’ve always thought that if I were going to focus my energies on any language, it would be Korean. A few recent events encouraged me to follow through on this. I decided to go to Korea in October — my first extended vacation since founding Blue Oxen Associates eight years ago.

Then last month, I had the pleasure of meeting Jung-Ok Lee at the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy, who asked me if I had ever thought about helping groups in Korea become more collaborative. I would love to do this, but the reality is that I don’t think I could be effective there without being fluent in Korean.

Which brings me to my third reason: Language is an essential element of my work in collaboration. I’ve always stressed the importance of Shared Language, and much of my philosophy and process revolves around this. I’ve always felt a tad hypocritical about emphasizing the importance of bridging between different languages, when I had limited experience doing this myself. I wanted to know what it felt like to speak more than one language fluently.

My Goals and Game Plan

My goals are modest. By June 2011:

  • I’d like to be able to read Korean children’s books.
  • I’d like to be reasonably competent at understanding spoken Korean.
  • I’d like to be fluent enough to survive in Korea by myself.

I had two approaches in developing my strategy. First, I thought about my previous failures in learning languages. This gave me some ideas of what not to do.

Second, I thought about my one and only success in learning a language: English. Believe it or not, this was remarkably useful.

Here’s my strategy in a nutshell:

  • Learn like a baby. Find opportunities to immerse myself — with family, with friends, at restaurants and supermarkets, and, of course, with my upcoming trip. Vocabulary is more important than grammar. Most importantly, babble like a baby. It worked for me before.
  • Learn visually. It’s easier for me to learn vocabulary when I can visualize what the words look like and what they represent when I hear them. Flash cards are a must.
  • Learn contextually. All of my friends who are language studs learn new languages by struggling through children’s books. This is significantly easier in this day and age, thanks to Google Translate.
  • Learn traditionally. At worst, taking a class forces me to practice regularly.

My First Class

I decided to enroll in an introductory class at the Intercultural Institute of California, and I just came home from my first class. I was very nervous. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a traditional classroom, and my previous experiences in language classes were never that positive.

As it turned out, I had an unexpected advantage over the other students in the class. I already know how to read and write Hangul. Hangul is easy to learn, especially if you’re good with symbols. It’s phonetic, with 14 consonants and 10 vowels — two fewer than the Latin alphabet.

Pronouncing Korean is hard, and I’m nowhere close to good at it, but I have a decent amount of experience hearing the correct pronunciations. My parents insist that I always mispronounce 사과 (apple), even though I’ve practiced it about a million times. I can’t for the life of me hear the difference between ㅈ (sort of a cross between j and ch) and ㅉ (a hard j), and I’m pretty sure my teacher (who seems very nice) stifled a laugh when I tried pronouncing them. (She definitely was laughing when I sang the alphabet, but I’m pretty sure that was because of my enthusiastic warbling. I really, really hope that was the reason.)

Knowing the basics allowed me to focus on other things. For example, I don’t always use the correct strokes when writing the alphabet, so I paid close attention to that.

I also focused on recognizing word patterns rather than sounding out characters. When I see the word, “apple,” I’m not sounding out the characters. I’m recognizing the whole word. This is not currently the case with Hangul. When I see 하나 (the number one), I’m not recognizing the word pattern. I’m sounding out each character, then understanding the word. By focusing on the word pattern, I can visualize the word when I hear it, which I think will help me learn vocabulary much more quickly.

I also know that my advantage will be very short-lived, and my weaknesses are going to surface fairly quickly. I’m going to try to mitigate that through extra preparation, although I’m bracing myself for much more laughter over the coming months.