In late December, I headed off to undertake a three-month internship with a fellow Kiwi intern in Seoul – the capital and beating heart of South Korea’s cultural industry.
The internship was at CJ Cultural Foundation, part of CJ Culture group lifestyle conglomerate.
At the time of writing this article, I am about half way through my internship, so there is plenty left to explore and learn. This article covers only a snapshot of what I have learnt through this experience so far.
Seoul is an incredible convenient and liveable city, with public transport that makes it a breeze to get around. You can even get by with basic, or no, Korean language skills as most people understand English, so I wasn’t too worried about adjusting to life here.
What I was worried about was corporate work culture. I had no idea what to expect as I had never worked in a big company before, and I had been warned by many that the work culture in Asia was strict, unforgiving and demanded a level of work ethic we do not see in New Zealand.
Looking back on it now, I needn’t have stressed so much – there certainly are cultural differences but nothing you can’t adapt to if you pay attention. For instance, a big difference from a typical office in New Zealand is that it is very quiet, as people focus on their individual tasks and talk in low voices.
There are definitely hierarchies in place, sometimes invisible due to things like age rather than job title. And even though the Culture Foundation is known to be a more casual work environment than most companies, there are unspoken rules of etiquette - like every culture has.
However, as foreigners (especially ones who don’t speak Korean), we are exempt from many of the expectations that would be placed on us if we were Korean interns. Basically, people are very tolerant of us, friendly and understanding; all you really have to do is be respectful, make an effort and put your best foot forward, just like you would in New Zealand.
There’s plenty of upsides to the company culture here too – for one thing, lunch is served by the company, and it’s totally socially acceptable to brush your teeth in the bathroom afterwards to freshen up.
The highlight of our trip so far has been a two-week tour and intensive education on the South Korean film-making industry. We’ve had the opportunity to visit a film set, a special effects facility, meet and talk to screenwriters as well as visit the Seoul Action School, where we saw some amazing stunt people literally jump down from the rafters and engage in stage combat.
Of course, most of our time has been spent in the office, researching global CSR (corporate social responsibility) initiatives, but we’ve had plenty of opportunities to get out and experience events like concerts, musicals and showcases of Culture Foundation facilitates.
We’ve also made the most of our weekends, visiting must see tourist hot spots like Gyeongbokgung Palace, Bukchon Hanok Village and Nami Island.
My biggest take away from the experience so far has been that South Korean and New Zealand creatives and filmmakers are very similar. We have the same dedication, grit and spirit to accomplish what we need to despite the challenges.
The biggest difference is resources – large conglomerates and audience size in Seoul has really helped to industrialize and rapidly increase South Korea’s output of local films in the past few decades. But the people are the same – they are passionate about telling stories, and it’s been comforting to find out that we are on the right path when it comes to creating high quality local content with global appeal.
As for the future of New Zealand–South Korea relations, I feel there is huge potential. Many South Korean filmmakers are unaware of the New Zealand film industry or its growing links with the US market. With more exchanges between the two countries, I am sure over time we will be able to create the critical mass of relationships needed to facilitate a co-production or meaningful cultural exchange – I hope to carry out my research in this area and hopefully be part of this ongoing relationship.
Once you are in Seoul, it’s hard to leave. I hope I can make Seoul and South Korea a part of future career.