Frank Ahrens’ Seoul Man is the story of an American newspaperman’s three year stint in public relations at Hyundai Motor corporation in Seoul, South Korea. It’s also a story about change: a forty-something bachelor’s plunge into married life, when his bride suddenly falls from the sky. She “fell out of the sky”, Ahrens writes, “but missed my lap.” The changes continue, as Ahrens transitions from his job at the newspaper to a new post halfway around the world. From the start, Ahrens finds himself out of his element in Korea, pressured by his corporate buddies into participating in their ritual drinking and karaoke, or noraebang, culture. Ahrens remains an “America bomb” (the nickname given to him by his wife) for much of the book, stepping on toes at the office while gradually learning some of the differences between American and Korean cultures. Most nights he retreats to his bubble on a U.S. military base in Yongsan.
The real meat of the story comes from his time at Hyundai. Even for those uninterested in car trends like myself, Ahrens paints a compelling picture of Hyundai’s rise from the ashes of the Korean War to become a “modern premium” car brand. He provides insights into the company’s strategy, as well as insights into his personal fears and insecurities as he watches the strategy unfold. A sizeable chunk of the book is dedicated to general Korean history, but I found myself glossing over those parts to get back to the Hyundai story and the story of Ahrens’ personal relationships. By the end, his wife becomes the one consistent thread, and the Korean characters are ultimately secondary. Ahrens includes an interesting profile of the vice president and heir to the Hyundai empire, but otherwise few Korean characters in the book stick out. Perhaps this is no fault of Ahrens’, because—and he makes this point in the book—sticking out in Korea is taboo. I imagine it’s also difficult to develop deep relationships in three years while speaking through an interpreter much of the time. I wonder how the book might have been different had he lived with Koreans during his time at the company. Although Seoul Man‘s tension wanes in places and its tone ventures at times into preachy and sentimental territory, overall it’s a good read. Worth checking out.