Life in South Korea: An Interview with Cemal Baki, Farplas Korea Branch Manager
In this interview, Cemal Baki talks about life, culture, and business in South Korea, and how they all differ from – and yet are similar to – Turkiye.
How long have you been working in South Korea?
Although I had visited several times for business before establishing our Farplas Korea office, I didn’t make the move to South Korea and begin this new adventure until 2018. Thanks to the help of our colleague, Daeheub, we were able to find a suitable office among more than 30 options in less than a month. After finalizing the legal setup, we were operational in April 2018, and I am very excited that we are now celebrating our 3rd year in this beautiful country.
Where did you work at Farplas before?
Before moving to Korea, I was a member of the Farplas design team in the Product Development department for about seven years. On my last project with Renault, I had the opportunity to work as both a design and project engineer.
What ran through your mind when you were first offered this opportunity?
My wife and I had wanted to live abroad so when the opportunity to go to Korea presented itself, it took all of five minutes to discuss with my wife, and we immediately came to a mutual decision. Since I had had the opportunity to travel to Korea several times before for business trips, I was already familiar with the culture and lifestyle. One of the first questions that crossed my mind was whether or not we would be able to keep up with the schedule of the AC3 (the new i10) project, one of the first of the projects that we initiated in collaboration with Hyundai. The AC3 project had already started when we decided to set up our office, and the design period was almost completed. The first sample production had begun before our office was even functional. We completed our part of the project by aligning our schedule with our customer’s calendar and successfully handing off the production to Turkiye.
How do you spend your weekends? What do you do in your spare time?
There is a significant expat population in Suwon, where we live. It is considered part of “greater Seoul,” only 30 kilometers from the city. We are friends with 30 people from France, England, Bangladesh, South Africa, Germany, and the US with whom we regularly get together. Especially before the pandemic, we traveled all over the country together on the weekends, and usually rented a house and lived like locals for a couple of days. As you know, South Korea is surrounded by water on three sides, so we have had the opportunity to explore a wide variety of coastal towns. I also try to capture everyday life as much as possible through photography during my travels and leisure time.
Has your spouse gotten used to living in Korea? What activities is she involved in there?
My wife was a high school English teacher back in Turkiye. Shortly after coming here, she received multiple teaching offers from language academies and from the Municipality of Suwon (the city that we live in). Due to current circumstances worldwide, she is working part-time and providing online English education to adults. She’s pretty content with her current schedule as she has the convenience of working from home and determining her own work hours. When it comes to life in South Korea, she was able to adapt smoothly and swiftly, thanks to the help of our friends here, both Korean and international.
How is your relationship with the local food? What are your favorite local delicacies? Can you share their photos and some recipes?
No matter where I am, I always try to experience the local flavors to the fullest. For this reason, I have had the opportunity to try many dishes during my previous travels. However, after settling and living here for a long time, I can say that among my favorites are Korean soups and “찌개” – “jjigae” as referred to by Koreans (we can call it stew as it resembles Turkish pot dishes). One famous soup among these is Yukgaejang, a spicy vegetable and meat soup, and Samgye-tang, a chicken broth soup filled with ginseng, various vegetables, and rice. Of course, when you order these soups or other entrees at a restaurant, they are accompanied by many different cold side dishes. Aside from Korean barbecue, which is quite popular among foreigners, there are many vegetable and protein-balanced options in Korea.
How is Korean business culture compared to Turkish culture?
There is a hierarchy system in most companies here, with respect and importance given to individuals who are of high status and/or who are older in age. Despite this hierarchical structure, however, Korea is at the top of the world rankings in many fields. “How?” you may ask. When it comes to business, unlike us Turks, Koreans focus on one goal with determination and work to achieve success without question. One of the most interesting office habits that I’ve seen here is wearing sandals at work.
Do Koreans and Turks share any similarities?
In my opinion, the most similar aspect that we share is our unrelenting hospitality. Just like us, Koreans have the utmost respect for their elders and family in general. Even as a foreigner, you can genuinely sense their solidarity, congeniality, and hospitality. If I were to give an example regarding their sharing nature, it would be that often when they buy too much of a particular food item, they will assuredly bring the excess to the office to share with their colleagues. Or, when visiting a friend’s house, instead of buying a random gift, they will bring something practical like household items. One may receive laundry detergent or toilet paper as a gift! Overall, I think that the warmth and sincerity that lie beneath these actions are very similar to our customs.
In the future, if you return to Turkiye or work in a completely different country, how will you remember South Korea?
I am pretty sure that I will never forget our collaboration with Hyundai in our first year. Coming from an organization with a very different corporate culture in Turkiye, we quickly adapted to the Korean work environment and created an entirely new structure. Of course, looking back now, this process has benefited me in more ways than I can count. Meeting the requirements of complex and multidisciplinary problems all at once, coming up with solutions at the right time and in the correct order, and communicating with internal and external customers effectively was a significant step-up in my career.
How’s your Korean? Do you only speak English or use some Korean terms in your daily life?
Unfortunately, Korean is entirely different from any language that I’ve tried to learn in the past (e.g. French, German). English has become an essential language in our lives due to its universal usage in education, social, and business settings. That is why it has been much more effortless for us to learn Latin-based languages. Korean, however, does not have any similar words to English or any other European languages. The only visible advantage is that both Korean and Turkish come from the same common language family (Ural-Altay), so the grammatical structures are very similar. At the moment, of course, we speak more English than Korean. However, my wife and I started actively studying Korean about a month ago. We are studying intensively two days a week with the hope of reaching a proficient level in 6 to 8 months, which is considered a short period to learn Korean.
Do you have anything you would like to add?
Aside from our ongoing projects, we are working on new deals and collaborations in South Korea for Farplas and Fark Labs. Since we embarked on our journey in South Korea, we have significantly strengthened Farplas’ position in the region. I am excited about what the future holds, and I am convinced that sustainable growth will follow—on all levels. Thank you for this opportunity.