Last weekend, I picked up a cue stick and played some billiards with a friend, something I hadn’t done in a long, long time. The friend had recently been let go from his very high post at a ‘H’uge Korean conglomerate, and so I went to see him, basically to commiserate and to chew the proverbial fat.


I know personally what it’s like to be out of a high ranking job. In 2003, I resigned as a CEO from a successful multinational subsidiary in Korea over a matter of principle, then moved back to the States. I hadn’t planned on moving back, but difficulty in quickly procuring a similar level position and the fact that I’d purchased – only the year before – a house in Texas seemed to me at the time an irresistible beckoning call.

Once there, I did various work including real estate investment(in which I blew a not-inconsiderable-to-me $200,000), overseas youth camp facilitator, commercial/residential realtor and SAT cram school for youth (I even got an offer from CIA to be a spy, but that’s another story) while raising my two daughters. I was your reverse-goose-parent, having decided that my wife should continue on with her career in Korea as a university professor while I sent the kids to college in the U.S.

So, what has all that got to do with Korea’s new silent killer, ‘saving face’?

Meeting my friend and hearing about what plans he had(actually, didn’t have) for his future made me think of the fate of so many other middle-aged populace who struggle with joblessness. In Korea, it’s typical for these ‘early-retirees’ to try their hand at some kind of entrepreneurial proposition – they can because they are given a legally-mandated lump sum severance pay – but the reality is about 70 to 80% of them lose half their wealth engaging in such ventures. But it’s not just about the money. It’s humiliation, it’s shame, it’s not being able to save face at the age when you’re supposed to be above worldly cares and in contentment.

One would think that with words “saving” and “face” in a single phrase that such a concept had to be, if not beneficial, at least innocuous, but that seems not to be the case in Korea, or for that matter in the larger universe.

I was reminded of  what happened about a month ago in Seoul.

A once esteemed member of Korean society (an elite by any standards as he attended top notch Korean university, studied overseas, worked as a high-ranking executive at a multinational corporation, lived in posh Seochogu apartment, etc) murdered his wife and two daughters largely because he could not countenance his failure and justify it to the women who mattered most to him. More specifically, he could not face the fact that not only had he been unemployed for the last few years but on top of that wasted large sums of money(though by average person’s standards his family still had a ton of equity left, more than half a million dollars).

But to someone who was used to the lavish living – overseas trips, foreign-made luxury vehicles, million-dollar-plus condos – the prospect of having to admit defeat, that he was not making it in this society despite his stellar credentials and shiny past, was just too much. Then, probably a cross word or a sly accusation about his incompetence or manhood or something just as trivial probably set him off because now, he was not only a pariah among friends and associates but a laughing stock to his own family – the ultimate loss of face.

Of course I’m extrapolating, but I can understand how it might have unfolded this way. I think it was about two months after I’d come back to Korea for good. Kids were visiting, and the four of us were crammed into our little officetel we were using temporarily before our home was ready. The real funny thing is I don’t even remember what triggered it, but what I do remember is that I was so enraged – that my wife could be so callous of my feelings and situation in front of the kids, that basically she had made me lose face in front of my own family – I thought I could literally kill someone.

Really, at the moment. I couldn’t imagine a more powerful emotion than shame, of losing face, and could not rationally think anything through. So I resorted to a trick I learned long ago in a comic book. I went downstairs and bought a bottle of soju (Korea’s vodka-like drink with half the dosage), went to the rooftop, then drank the whole thing in one sitting. That sobered me up pretty quick; I mean from my distemper, ’cause as soon as I returned to the officetel I fell asleep.

Next morning, my wife came up to me sheepishly and apologized, not realizing how close she had come to being throttled. I smiled and said “No worries, honey, but let’s be sure to keep a box of soju in the house.” She stared at me pop-eyed because I normally never drink anything at home. But you know, I’m willing to make that sacrifice if need be. Much better than murder and jail time from trying to save a little face.


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