Unpacking with Danielle

Travel & Exploration

Tag: working

Goin’ to Asia, Again

southeast asia

It’s December 10th.  I’ve been back in the US for 3 months.  2/3 of that time has been relaxing.  I’ve slept a lot.  I’ve gotten back into jogging and yoga.  I’ve reconnected with lots of friends and relatives up and down the east coast.  I’ve even managed to stick to a low carb diet and lose 17 lbs.

But I’ve got the itchiest fucking feet and I can’t wait to catapult myself back to Asia.

I leave in a month, January 10th.

Why then?  My friend Liz, who I grew up with, is going to Singapore for a month for work.  She wants to travel on weekends and is nervous to do it on her own.  That’s where I come in.

Liz and me before our 10th grade dance.

Liz and me before our 10th grade dance.

A more accurate portrayal of our friendship. Slaving away doing homework at my kitchen table.

A more accurate portrayal of our friendship. Slaving away doing homework at my kitchen table.


In my mind, traveling in Asia is easy.  Flights and hotels in the region are cheap, many attractions are comfortable with last minute planning, and there’s always something interesting happening, even when you’re just lounging in a cafe.

‘What is that guy doing?’

‘What kind of bug is that?’

How do they poop?’

It’s so easy I end up driving myself crazy considering all the possibilities.  There’s so much I want to do, and putting the puzzle together to make it all fit is a challenge.  When it comes to travel, FOMO is very real for me, at least during the planning stage.  In the moment, though, I’m not above saying, ‘Fuck it.  I’m tired,’

So what’s the plan for this trip?  I fly into Bangkok on January 11th.  Spend the week there, adjusting to the time and seeing the city.  Liz will meet me there the following weekend.  Then off to Bali for a week.  Liz will meet me that weekend.  Then we’ll fly together to Singapore.  I’ll stay with her, in her corporate housing, spending her hefty per diem, for the week.  From there, we’ll go to Ho Chi Minh City.  After that, Liz will go back to Singapore and I’ll stay in Vietnam, or something.


What’s different about this trip is that I don’t know when I’m coming back.  Every other trip has had a definite start and end date.  This has a fixed start, but no fixed end.  That’s unusual for me, but I have my reasons.

Originally I thought I’d teach English in Vietnam next.  That I’d use Liz’s work trip as a deadline to get myself back to Asia, and that after she left I’d settle in Ho Chi Minh City, find a job, and teach again.  But part of being home has made me realize that’s not what I want.  I liked teaching English, but not enough to want to make a career out of it.  What I really want is to travel.  And I really want my home base to be in a thriving, multicultural city.

Earlier this year I came up with a challenge for myself: visit one new country for each year I’m alive.  That means, when I’m 54 years old, I will have visited at least 54 countries.  I’m 31 and I’ve been to 27, so I have some catching up to do.  This trip is an excuse to get 4 or more countries on my list.

That said, I don’t want to be adrift.  After being tied down to jobs for many years, a few months of running wild is nice.  REALLY NICE.  But I am craving having projects and working in teams again.  I am, and always will be, independent and a free spirit, but there is a sense of purpose and security that comes with being tied to something, and if I get a long leash, I’m happy.

So I figure as I travel, I can job hunt.  As long as I have wifi and a VPN, it’s no different than being in New Jersey.  And any place or person I’d want to work for would have a hell of a lot of respect and admiration for my approach.  Then once we’ve sealed the deal, I can board a plane and head wherever I’m needed.

Until then, I’ll be trip planning, job hunting, and probably contacting you for leads 😛  If you’re curious, I want to return to either non-profits or tech (I love tech solutions for social problems).  Check me out here.


And in case you’re curious…

Countries I’ve Visited:

  1. USA
  2. Canada
  3. The Bahamas
  4. Mexico
  5. Colombia
  6. Peru
  7. Bolivia
  8. Chile
  9. Argentina
  10. England
  11. Ireland
  12. Scotland
  13. Wales
  14. The Netherlands
  15. Belgium
  16. France
  17. Portugal
  18. Italy
  19. Hungary
  20. Norway
  21. Australia
  22. Qatar
  23. South Korea
  24. Malaysia
  25. Japan
  26. Hong Kong
  27. China

These are the countries I can comfortably say I’ve been in and done some exploring.  There are others I could list, like North Korea, because I technically was on their soil during the DMZ tour, but come on.  I didn’t really visit North Korea (though I’d love to go and keep my eyes wide and mouth shut).



Korean Work Culture

Koreans love to work.  They are addicted to work.  Work is their everything.

Sometimes I feel like it’s impossible to make plans with Koreans because they’re always at work.  They never know when they’ll get out so they can’t commit to seeing you.

I know a lot of Americans think that we’re overworked, and we are. But Koreans take it to a whole ‘nother level.

Let me explain.

Most Koreans I know who work for a company work a minimum of 70 hours a week.  Anything less than that would make people think  they’ re just not committed to their job, and that’s a really horrible thing for people to think about you in a country obsessed with work.

So if you’re working 70+ hours a week, you must be getting a lot done, right?  Well, no.  The reason is that while they stay at work a long time, they tend to not have the most productive work habits.  I’m not making this up.  A study found that Koreans were the least productive of all OECD countries.

From how I understand it, a large part of work in Korea is about face.  You have to be there, you have to be available, you have to be a yes-man, you have to stay late, you have to go out with your co-workers- you have to do all these things so people think you care, that you’re dedicated, that you’re loyal, that you’re committed.  What you produce in that time is far less important.  The important thing is that you follow these few specific social norms so everyone believes you’re committed to your job.

Things about Korean work culture that I find peculiar are:

  • You can’t leave until your boss goes home.  Your boss can’t go home until their boss goes home.  Your boss’s boss can’t go home until their boss goes home.  This goes all the way up the the CEO.  So if the CEO stays late, EVERYONE else will be there late.  This keeps lots of lower level employees just hanging around the office trying to look busy until they can leave.
  • If your boss wants to go out drinking, you have to go and you have to drink.  Not attending would be extremely rude and not drinking every drink offered to you would also be extremely rude.  People get pissed drunk with their bosses all the time, even if they don’t want to.
  • Consequently, people are often seriously hungover at work.  No one bats an eyelash at this.  People openly admit to being out late drinking, and being hungover.  People will sleep at their desks.  Obviously, productivity is low when you’re hungover.
  • There’s a strict hierarchy and they value the “yes-man” so much that communication suffers.  People will get assignments and agree to do them without asking questions, including basic clarification questions.  No one ever pushes back.  This can result in poor quality work, unnecessary work, and work that misses the mark entirely.
  • Poor time management skills.  I see this in the schools as well.  Someone with authority will ask someone beneath them to do a project with hardly any notice, so it’s rushed.  This can result in poor time management in two ways: 1- leaders do not consider the needs of their staff to do quality work, so, as I mentioned before, the staff has to rush to get it done, and 2- always getting projects at the last minute does not help employees develop time management skills because the focus is always on hurrying, not on being smart about how to use their time to do the project well.
  • No sick leave.  Officially they have sick leave, but in practice you wouldn’t dare use it unless you were deathly ill.  My co-teachers told me the previous principal at my school would accuse teachers of feigning illness to get out of work.  In my teaching orientation I was advised to not use any of my 14 sick days for the year if I wanted to work a second year, as the school would view my using them as me being lazy.  I did use 3, once because I had a fever, once because I had a migraine, and once to go to the doctor to get more migraine medicine.  In addition to being sick, I was really worried about what would happen to me if I used them.  My principal later approached me each time to ask about my health, which at first I thought was really nice, but I later realized it was because he thought my condition must have been critical to warrant taking a day off.
  • Not surprisingly, all of this leads employees to being stressed, overwhelmed, and burnt out.

That said, Koreans seem to wear hard work as a badge of honor.  They like knowing they’re doing everything they can for their company/place of work.  It’s a huge compliment to tell someone they worked hard, even more so than telling them they did a good job.  They work hard and like knowing their effort is recognized.

So that’s what I’ve gathered after being in Korea for about a year.  What other thoughts and experiences do you have?