Suh Sang-Rok

In 1997, Suh Sang-Rok was earning about US$7500 a month. He was a vice-president of Sammi, the 26th biggest conglomerate in South Korea and the world’s third biggest producer of specialty steel. In 1997, when the Korean economy collapsed, Sammi went bankrupt. The company had been expanding so quickly and borrowing so much money it could not keep going in difficult times.

Suh Sang-Rok did not lose his job immediately. He remained employed while arrangements were made for closing the company down. But he had nothing to do—and he realized that before long he would be out of work. Even though he had been making good money, and was 62 years old, Suh Sang-Rok hadn’t saved much, and, because his company had gone bankrupt, he didn’t have a pension. He couldn’t retire. So he started thinking about what he was going to do next.

He decided that he didn’t want to stay in the business world any longer. He was tired of that kind of life. In particular, he was tired of having to eat everyday with the company’s bankers, lying to them and trying to persuade them to lend Sammi more money so it could stay in business. He called it “a pig’s life” and complained he often had to eat five or six meals a day.

Suh Sang-Rok also started to think about the ‘values’—the Korean ideas about good behaviour—that he had followed all his life. One of these ideas was that ‘status’ is very important—and most people believed that the best way to get status was to have a high level job and a good salary. Anyone in that position who lost their job had lost their status—and their honour. In other words, they had ‘lost face.’

But after thinking about things for a while, Suh Sang-Rok decided he didn’t believe in that value any more. He decided, as he said, that, “If you like your job, no matter how much or how little it pays, that is honourable.” And he also said, “Being in a high-level position you dislike or are not qualified for is dishonourable.”

So Suh Sang-Rok started to look for another kind of job—as a waiter in a one of the good restaurants he had spent so much time eating in. At first he couldn’t find anything because of his background. Restaurant owners were worried that Suh Sang-Rok’s former co-workers would be embarrassed to have him waiting on them. But eventually he found a job as a waiter at an expensive hotel in downtown Seoul. His starting salary was about US$750 a month.

He said he was very happy because he didn’t have to lie anymore and his wife was happy because he had more time to spend with her. He admitted that some younger men who had been his fellow-executives at Sammi felt threatened by what he had done. They asked him, “If you, a vice-president, have become a waiter, what will happen to me if I lose my job?”

“How about becoming an assistant waiter?” was his answer.

- information from the Toronto Star, 1999