Stories from Seoul, spring 2015

Greg Saltzman, E. Maynard Aris Professor of Economics and Management

In spring 2015, I used a sabbatical leave from Albion College and a Fulbright grant to teach at the Hanyang University School of Business in Seoul, South Korea. I taught an MBA class on negotiation and conflict resolution and an undergraduate business class on labor-management relations. Here are some observations from my time in Seoul:


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

As I walk home from Hanyang University after work, I see a sign with a swastika. This is a Buddhist swastika, not a Nazi swastika. Nazi swastikas are “right facing” (meaning that the top arm points to the viewer’s right) and are rotated 45º. This swastika is “left facing” (meaning that the top arm points to the viewer’s left).


The red symbol does not mean what you might think it means


I am no admirer of the Nazis; three of my four grandparents had siblings murdered in the Holocaust. But it intrigues me that a symbol that is deeply stigmatized in Europe and North America has a very different social significance in Asia.

I am even more intrigued by the sign when my TA, Kang Soo Yeon, tells me what the Korean text says. She says that it is a house sign for a possessed shaman, advertising the shaman’s prediction services. The Korean text literally says, “Mt. Kyeiryong Taoist fairy,” suggesting that the shaman was possessed by a spirit in Mt. Kyeiryong.

Koreans consult shamans much as some Americans would consult a person claiming to be a psychic. During Korea’s Joseon dynasty (1392-1897), shamans were ostracized as members of a social class perceived to be inferior, but they were still consulted because of their perceived spiritual power. Even today, many Koreans consult shamans for advice from the spirit world. Soo Yeon, who is a Christian, tells me that she is embarrassed by the ongoing appeal of shamans to many Koreans.


Monday, March 30

I leave my apartment building to begin my walk to work but am startled. The air stinks. Distant tall buildings, though still visible, are shrouded in a haze of smog. This must be the “yellow wind” from China, bringing industrial particulate pollution from the west.

smog_in_SeoulDistant buildings, shrouded in smog

I scurry back into my apartment building and secure one of the two respirator masks I brought from the U.S. My mask is approved as meeting National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health standards requiring removal 99.97% of non-oil-based particles, though my beard undoubtedly lowers its effectiveness. I wonder whether I should take the subway today; but I can no longer smell the stink when I wear the mask, so I decide to walk to work.

I later check the air quality index for Seoul. The level of suspended particulates smaller than 2.5 microns (small enough to penetrate deep into your lungs) is in the “unhealthy” range (151-200). At least that’s better than the “very unhealthy” range (201-300) or the “hazardous” range (301 or above). Perhaps I am spoiled living in Ann Arbor, where the level is in the “good” range (0-50). Anyway, I’m glad I wore a respirator mask on my walk to work today.


Sunday, April 12

Happy people swarm the street. Cherry blossoms gently float down from tree branches overhead. It’s the Yeongdeungpo Yeouido spring flower festival.

Over 1,400 cherry trees are in bloom near the Korean National Assembly building. The street curving around the building has been closed to cars, making it a pedestrian mall for the five days of the festival. Parents push their toddlers in strollers, young couples walk hand-in-hand, and people of all ages amble in the spring sunshine. A soccer field is covered with families sitting on blankets.

Asterix and Obelix are there, too. They are far from their home in ancient Gaul. I pose for a photo with them. They do not offer me any wild boar as a snack, which is just as well.

Greg_with_Asterix_and_Obelix_in_SeoulGreg Saltzman poses with visitors to Seoul from ancient Gaul

Percussion instruments are set up along the street. Children walking by can play them. It must be quite a thrill for them to use “real” instruments rather than toys.

little_boy_playing_drum_in_Seoul“Real” musical instruments are available at the Yeongdeungpo Yeouido spring flower festival for children to play




Tuesday, April 21

The spring blossoms in Seoul are beautiful. Here is the view from the window of my sixth-floor office at the Hanyang University School of Business:







Wednesday, April 22

I received an official Alien Registration Card about a month ago. I hoped that I could use this card to gain access to really cool stuff, like a ray gun, or a hyperdrive spaceship that can travel faster than light. But I have not yet been able to figure out where aliens get things like that.


My Alien Registration Card does bring one tangible benefit: it allows me to make an online purchase of tickets to a Korean baseball game. For some reason, the web site only permits aliens to buy baseball tickets online if they supply their Alien Registration Card number.

An American expatriate in Seoul (who manages a staff of about 2,000 Koreans who work for the international accounting firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers) suggested that I go to Jamsil Stadium to see the zealous cheering by the Korean baseball fans. Jamsil Stadium has paid cheerleaders to stir up the crowd. The American expat said that, even if I were not interested in baseball, seeing the enthusiastic fans is worth the price of admission. Seeing this will be part of my cross-cultural education.


Tonight, I go to a game between the LG Twins and the Hanwha Eagles, accompanied by a management information systems professor from Finland who is the only other foreigner on the faculty at the Hanyang University School of Business. The enthusiasm of the fans is amazing. We are sitting on the first-base side, where the LG Twins supporters sit. Their synchronized chanting is answered by a synchronized chant from the third-base side, where the Hanwha Eagles supporters are. The MIS professor from Finland has even more of a cross-cultural experience than I do, as he had never seen a baseball game before.


Tuesday, June 16

I will soon leave Korea to return to Michigan. My former student, Michael Byungnam Lee, invited me to a farewell dinner tonight at one of the nicest restaurants in Seoul.

Beginning in the late 1970’s, Michael had been a brave opponent of the military dictatorship in South Korea. He fled to the U.S. in the summer of 1980, fearing imprisonment if he stayed in Korea. He took a master’s-level labor relations class from me in the winter of 1981, when I was in my first tenure-track faculty job (in the business school at Ohio State University).

Michael returned to Korea in the 1990’s, after South Korea’s return to democracy. Eventually, he became executive vice president for human resources for the LG conglomerate, one of Korea’s leading companies. Interesting how a former dissident is now part of the establishment.


Reflecting on a Semester in Seoul

My previous Fulbright grant, in 2008, was also at an East Asian business school, at Jilin University in China. But my experience this semester at Hanyang University in Korea has been quite different. At Jilin University, Americans were quite exotic; many of my students had never talked with an American before, and most had never traveled outside of China. At Hanyang University, some of my students had lived for a year or two in the U.S.

Moreover, the “great firewall of China” had limited the exposure of my Jilin University students to ideas that China’s Communist dictatorship wanted to suppress, with the result that my Chinese students were sometimes shocked by the things I said (e.g., that tens of millions of Chinese had died of a famine in the early 1960’s that resulted from horrible policies adopted by Mao Zedong). My Korean students, in contrast, had the blessing of democracy and the free access to information that democracy provides.

China and South Korea are alike, however, in being blessed by amazing economic development. While both have made great strides, South Korea is clearly richer. The U.S. is richer still, but the economic gap will likely continue to close.

Korea’s escape from poverty is visible in the Seoul subways during rush hour, when many riders must stand. The 60-year-old Koreans are very short, probably because a calcium-deficient diet stunted their growth. The 20-year-old Koreans, in contrast, are almost as tall as Americans.

Teaching in Korea for four months has contributed to my own life-long learning. I have long tried to infuse my Albion College courses with a global perspective. What I learned in Korea provides me with new information to share here in America.

Blog of my experience as a Fulbright Scholar, Hanyang University School of Business, Seoul, South Korea, Spring 2015