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Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan

3.55  ·  Rating details ·  336 ratings  ·  63 reviews
Recounting his three years in Korea, the highest-ranking non-Korean executive at Hyundai sheds light on a business culture very few Western journalists ever experience in this revealing, moving, and hilarious memoir.

When Frank Ahrens, a middle-aged bachelor and eighteen-year veteran at the Washington Post, fell in love with a diplomat, his life changed dramatically. Follow
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published August 16th 2016 by Harper Business
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Average rating 3.55  · 
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Christa Van
Nov 05, 2016 rated it it was ok
Frank Ahrens was a happy journalist bachelor when love struck. In the span of a few months, he got married, changed jobs and moved across the world to Seoul, Korea. That is a LOT of change. This memoir talks a lot about his new job in the P.R. department of Hyundai motors and the differences in culture between Korea and the United States. Frank had always been a journalist so P.R., the auto industry and corporate life were new to him as was Korea. Some of the insights into the Korean rise to a f ...more
Josh C.
Aug 19, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2-from-library
First and foremost, this is a pop-business book, and as such it's quite good. I learned plenty about the automotive industry, its PR environment, and Korean corporate culture, as well as the adjustment a journalist had to make moving into PR, but it's all lightweight stuff as the genre demands.

The rest is where it fell down for me. There could have been more incisive general Korean cultural observations -- I'd be shocked if Ahrens doesn't have them -- but neither the business book framing nor Ah
anna b
Jun 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018
Very readable expat view of life in South Korea and in the corporate world of Hyundai. Learned a little about history, N/S Korea relations, politics, culture and quirks.
Nov 04, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: korea
The first 200+ pages of “Seoul Man” by Frank Ahrens are very informative. They provide wealth of information about the business culture in Korea (especially at Hyundai’s headquarter, where Frank worked for three years). The last 100 or so pages are about fatherhood and the author’s family affairs, which I thought were irrelevant. Overall, a big chunk of this book is about the impact of living overseas on ones marriage and family life. Some, like me, will find this distracting, while other, espec ...more
Feb 23, 2019 rated it liked it
Highly readable account of an American journalist who followed his wife to a government posting in Seoul South Korea while working for Hyundai's PR department. As he and his wife were living in the American military compound his immersion in Korean culture was limited to his work life. I was fascinated by the inside look at the auto industry and the history of the company. However, I was constantly frustrated with the author's cultural naivete and his lack of cultural orientation. Most of the in ...more
Sep 17, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I was drawn to this book because our younger daughter is currently in her sixth year of teaching English in Korea. It was so interesting the hear, from another ex-pat's perspective, many of the same parts of the Korean culture that our daughter has told us about. As she is dating a "salayrman", it was also very informative to hear about the Korean business culture. As a person who enjoys cars, I found the aspect of learning about Hyundai fascinating. I liked how the author interwove what it's li ...more
Oct 08, 2017 rated it it was ok
I enjoyed the story about Korean culture and Hyundai, and that's what I thought the book was about, but then he started talking too much about himself and his family, which was not what I expected to read. I also dislike that he talked about Asian politics in an overly simplistic manner and how he was going to lift Indonesians out of poverty by giving them a job. The author means well, but he should have avoided discussing sensitive and irrelevant matters if they are not the book's focus.
Aug 29, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: finished
Belonging to the same group of limited group of foreigners still working at the same firm as Frank, I must say that there are both positives as well as stark negatives of this book.
First of all, it's a personal memoir and not a crash course on either Korean culture or the working culture of the firm he worked at. With highly limited involvement in the day to day workings of the company, which is not clearly expressed in the book, his experiences reflect a narrow or more biased approach of the t
Mar 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'm always a touch hesitant to plaster on that fifth star with the "amazing" label - it seems as though only a VERY limited number of listens ought to make it to that level. But to say I "really liked it" would be almost as wrong.

The "Seoul Man" title seems intended to catch the eye, as the story is really Ahrens' memoir, which I suspect he may someday wish to extend with a similar story of some later years. Seoul holds the story together, but it is not limited to only that. One will learn a fai
Jan 06, 2017 rated it it was ok
The topic is a very important one as Korea has become a very important country in the world economically and politically. Unfortunately, in my opinion the book is very superficial and really doesn't give a lot of insight I believe in helping someone understand Korean culture and society. A lot of the material in the book seems to focus on the authors personal life and family and seems to have a little to do with the title of the book. I have lived many years in Korea and speak the Korean langua ...more
Stefano Young
Mar 30, 2019 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Jul 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
I liked it. I just did. I liked all the talk about Hyundai and its efforts to become a brand, not just an automaker (though it planted distracting thoughts of luxury and creature comforts in my head just as I had finally started to accept the idea of replacing our sedan with a smaller, more practical hybrid). I liked learning about corporate Korea - chaebols and the life of ‘salarymen’ – as well as the more recent attempts to introduce more individualism, entrepreneurship and diversity to the Ko ...more
May 04, 2019 rated it liked it
The initial parts about Seoul and adjusting to live there were interesting. The descriptions of Hyundai and its evolution as a company and brand were also interesting at first until it got boring after hearing about yet another car launch whilst the part about living in a different culture became less prominent in the book. The portions about Jakarta were too brief, superficial and simplistic and I can't help but be annoyed that his career took precedence over his wife's when I'm quite certain t ...more
This book was so much more interesting and engaging than I expected. It touched on the behind the scenes perspective of working at Hyundai during a pivotal time, the expat life in Korea and Jakarta, introduced me to a lot of Korean history and culture I should already know, but appreciated differently from the perspective of a fish-out-of-water American, and even layered in the surprising layer of faith and how that played a role through it all. Surprisingly one of my favorite reads of the year.
Aug 05, 2019 rated it really liked it
Perhaps it would have been better titled Seoul/Soul Man. Yes, much of the story is about working in Seoul and gave insights into Korea which I was glad to read.
However, it is more a story of a man and changes in his life including career change, marriage and first child. The book addresses the very real challenges of two careers and a family. It shares how building a life requires change and compromises for what becomes most important.
Also "soul" would touch on his acknowledging the importance o
Chris Mi
Dec 31, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Well written, cohesive story of moving to Seoul. Lots of interesting details about culture differences and business in Korea. The author is a 49 yr old white guy who doesn’t like Korean food, so slightly unrelatable and sometimes obtuse in the telling. I read a couple reviews before reading this and yes there are a few chapters scattered in the last 20% of the book where the author indulges in talking about family struggle. I skimmed those. Overall a good read. Wish I’d read this before visiting ...more
This is an excellent read, especially for anyone familiar with South Korea, its culture and management style. Having worked in Korea for 8 years, the author helped me understand some of the ambiguity of management styles employed, especially as they apply to Choebal led companies. His descriptions of behind the scenes rise of Hyundai motors was also interesting and enlightening. This was an easy read and I thoroughly enjoyed it on many levels, from the author’s being an expat, to raising a child ...more
Jasmyn Barca
Aug 01, 2020 rated it liked it
Ahrens doesn't travel the way I do, and he admits that he is aware of his self-centered double-standards as a white American male throughout his years abroad. Those instances were hard to read at times without a grimace on my face. However, I learned a lot about a country and culture that I have yet to experience and therefore still enjoyed reading. Also, I am un-interested in cars and the auto industry in general but Ahrens was able to write about it and keep, even me, entertained and informed.
Jan 06, 2019 rated it really liked it
Excellent book on Korean corporate life. I was pleasantly surprised at how accurately it was described - including the surrounding society and historical context. I would recommend this book to all foreigners looking for corporate life in Korea. Korean corporate life, especially at the executive level, is tough, just like in US fortune 500 companies. For foreigners, times that by 3 or more (adding language, cultural shock...).
Sep 02, 2019 rated it liked it
As someone who lived as an expat myself, I could identify with much of what Ahrens describes. Though I didn't live in Korea, I nodded along with the universal realizations, frustrations, and overall what-is-happening moments that corresponded with my time overseas. Overall, I enjoyed the author's descriptions of cultural clashes and personal growth but was bored by the corporate and automotive stuff. This is more due to my subjective interests than the author's writing skills.
calico Rosenberg
Jul 18, 2020 rated it it was ok
The entire book reads like he is. well sort of kissing up to Hyundai; but whay bothers me most are all the missed punn opportunities in he title. I mean aloi g the lines of 'heart and Seoul' or--and quit thinking od thwae after after this second one becau se I feel like I topped out --'my seoul drive.' All in all the very beginning was quite good but the rest was a bit monotaneous and dragged on. it all sort of tried too hard to be metaphoric about everything
Jan 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
An intriguing book that looks at Korean corporate culture, loses a bit of steam at the end as the author talked about more personal stuff, I guess I should care about that . Maybe not. Anyways the book moves at a good pace and provides insight as to how cultural differences in the workplace can potentially lead to conflict without either side knowing it.
Jun 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, asia, memoir
This is a well written memoir. I enjoyed learning a bit more about Korean culture from an American perspective. Sometimes it had too much about Hyundai - car fans may enjoy this much detail and the company and how cars are made and I enjoyed some but sometimes it was overkill. I was more interested in working with people aspects of this book and those were good.
Jul 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Very entertaining account of an American hired as an executive in S. Korea. What he experienced is very telling of Korean culture. It also has an insightful explanation of underlying attitude and commonly understood beliefs of Koreans. Thoroughly enjoyed it.
Anna Gorodkova
Nov 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
The informative book with the real meaning of life. Author described cultural features, historical background and which influence it had on him.
How did this book make me feel? I was impressed by ambition and thirst for new, as well as the sacrifice his wife.
Kristi Bumpus
Feb 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book was rather light on "unexpected hilarity," but I found it an extremely interesting perspective on auto manufacturing and Korean culture. If that sounds boring, it was written in a narrative style that made it not so -- at least to me. I really enjoyed the book.
George Lai
Feb 25, 2017 rated it liked it
An interesting read on an expat's working stint in a Korean chaebol.
Jul 16, 2017 rated it liked it
A frequently funny, entertaining look at an ex-pat's time working for Hyundai in Seoul, Korea. There was a lot I could relate to from my own time living abroad in China.
Steven Yenzer
Dec 11, 2017 rated it liked it
Light but enjoyable. The weird mix of car stuff and ex-pat stuff is probably not going to interest everyone, but I liked it.
Great autobiography book with accents on Hyundai, cars, work, family, relations and priorities. All these coming along author's understanding of Korea. Worth reading.
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