21 Years a F.O.B (Fresh Off the Boat)
The Bicultural Start-Up Kid
Not until a couple of years ago did I realize how much an impact my childhood had on my approach to business. In many ways, I am merely a product of my environment. I am not here to bore you with the age-old debate on nature vs nurture, but I’d like to share with you my upbringing in order to share my philosophy on the outlier approach to business.
I am the son of a Korean-American immigrant family that first came to the United States in 1986. My dad, who graduated from Seoul National University (considered the “Harvard of Korea”), pursued his PhD at the University of Minnesota while my mother supplemented our income by studying nursing after she had earned her master’s degree in architecture in Korea. Because both my parents were students while I was growing up, we were never well off. My birthday unluckily falls a week before Christmas so I rarely had my own, separate, birthday party – let alone birthday gifts. Instead, my parents merged my birthday with Christmas to cut costs and run a lean, mean startup household operation.
Frugality was always emphasized. We seldom dined out and my younger brother wore hand-me-downs from me, and from other relatives who shipped over used clothes from Korea. As a kid I was so stressed about money that I frequently sneaked into my dad’s study and counted how much money he had left in his wallet. One day, when I found only $5 in his wallet after having counted $80 in there the day before, I was sure we were finished. I had seen American kids in the neighborhood with lemonade stands and I immediately began thinking about how to run my own lemonade business – the one I was undoubtedly going to have to launch to keep my family afloat. I was about 5 years old and didn’t even know what a bank was. Luckily, when my dad walked in and saw my worried face he explained that he had deposited the missing $75 in the bank.
We spoke Korean at home and I was not introduced to English until I was four or five. As one of the few Asian kids in my class growing up in Minnesota, I struggled to express myself verbally during my earlier years. I guess this is where I’m supposed to talk about how I got picked on and bullied because of how different I was – being one of the the only Asian kids in my class and all – but my childhood was nothing like that. Sure, I spoke and looked different than my classmates, but I never thought I was different, and it didn’t occur to me to think others saw me as different, despite my unusual Korean name, Hyun Seok Hong (홍현석). I learned to compensate for my language limitations by developing a keen eye for body language and social cues, and then imitating them.
Watching hours of cartoons helped me develop a kind of slapstick humor that made me one of the funniest kids in class. I realized quickly that humor had no cultural barriers. I was also capable of reciting funny lines I saw on TV and would blurt them out at odd moments during class. I remember my dad picking me up from school one day when I was in the first grade. He seemed very proud that my teacher had told him I was the funniest student in her class. He asked me to tell him a joke. I couldn’t. Pretty much all my jokes were slapstick and I was still figuring out English.
Looking back now, I realize that very early I learned the art of body language by studying others around me. I copied the way they talked and acted just so I would fit in. Without any real conscious effort, I was mirroring their body language and this skill became second nature to me. Psychologists say that mirroring body language is a non-verbal way of saying, “I am like you; I feel the same.” We simply imitate the gestures, speech patterns, and attitudes of our peers. Most of the time we do this subconsciously, but talented business professionals hone their ability to notice these social cues and mimic body language in order to communicate more successfully.
When I was eight, my dad finished his PhD. I was getting accustomed to becoming an American and I was finally adapting. I made a ton of great friends and school was getting easier. Unfortunately, my dad could not find the career opportunities he had hoped for in the states. By now I really didn’t want to go back, and neither did my parents, but we eventually decided to move back to Korea. What made it more difficult was the fact that I was an F.O.B…again. This time an American F.O.B. in Korea.
Tireless Work Ethic
As “American-Korean” immigrants, moving back to Korea this time, life in Korea wasn’t easy. We first settled our family of four in a one-room condominium that was about 600 square feet. Condominiums in Korea are small, but this one was microscopic, and the neighborhood wasn’t all that friendly, either. My mom started a business as an English tutor. Getting her business off the ground was not easy. I still remember a couple of bone-chilling winter nights when my mother and I trudged through snow dropping off flyer after flyer in apartment building mailboxes.
Nor was school a pleasant stroll through the park. Classes were held six days a week and I had to take care of my three-year-old brother because both my parents worked and weren’t home. For a ten-year-old who had it easy in the states, this was a lot of responsibility.
In East Asia, education is as valued as religion. Graduating from certain schools not only makes someone seem smart, but to a certain extent, holy.
The academic expectations were overwhelming. Many of the students, including myself, had a schedule jam packed with after school activities – piano lessons, Taekwondo, art classes, Kumon, it never stopped. My day did not end until 8:00 or 9:00. Competition for a good education was fierce, and still is.
It wasn’t until I was about twelve that our family’s financial situation started to stabilize thanks to my mom’s success with her business. Because of this, I’ve always respected my mom tremendously for her sacrifice. When she talks about those days in Korea, she often mentions how she would cry between tutoring sessions because of the workload. After about two years, her hard work paid off. She was great at sales and she knew how to connect with parents. When we moved to a condominium that was twice the size of our first one, I was extremely proud of our family.
It wasn’t just our family that worked hard. Many people don’t know this, or have forgotten, but following the 1997 Asian financial crisis in 1997, Korea’s GDP per capita in 1998 was just $8000, a tremendous drop from $12,000 the year before. The 1998 GDP per capita number wasn’t too far ahead of countries such as the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, which had a GDP per capita of about $5000 while the U.S. was at about $35,000. Asia was hit hard and trillions of dollars were lost. Many of my relatives lost jobs and my classmates were going through tough times. Since then, Korea’s economy has more than tripled. The whole nation was working extremely hard to keep things afloat. By the time I was nine, I was already a two-time immigrant, and by the time I was twelve, I had experienced the worst economic collapse in modern-day Korea. These experiences significantly impacted my perception of the world. I saw firsthand not just the resilience of my family, but the resilience of a country fighting through economic hardship.
Questioning the Norm
In the 7th grade, I vividly remember studying Korean history and the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), and that the curriculum didn’t cover how the Mongolians annexed Korea in the 13th century. It only mentioned a few battles around the 13th century, then skipped over about 150 years and jumped right into the Josun Dynasty which happened in 1392. This was strange. I had just learned about this time period in the History channel, which was part of the American Forces Network (A T.V. channel for American soldiers stationed in Korea) and it mentioned how Korea was actually annexed for eighty years. It was as if Koreans were too ashamed to admit what had actually occurred and didn’t want to teach this to the next generation. This had a profound impact on me: when writing history, even countries can have two different perspectives of the same incident. I learned not to accept anything at face value and was left always questioning, and sometimes challenging, authority.
At that time, there weren’t many Korean students who moved back from the states to attend elementary school in Korea. I was unique in a very homogenous population and I still had peculiar habits that carried over from my fishing and swimming days in Minnesota. I walked around the city barefoot and shirtless. I was also getting into American hip hop, Korean Pop (K-Pop), and NBA basketball, so I wore baggy pants and had bleached bangs (to add to my fashion-maven allure). Yes – it made no sense, but it made it easy to make friends since I was “bicultural trendy”. Because I had been exposed to a little bit of American culture at a young age, the difficulty was adapting to Korea’s conservative culture. Creativity was not encouraged and entrepreneurship was looked down on – and to a certain extent, still is. Furthermore, Korea’s education system was focused on주입식 교욱 (Cramming Method of Education) so inventive solutions to problems and open discussions in the classroom were not encouraged.
Despite Korea’s robotic and unimaginative style of teaching, many of my friends wanted to go to Seoul National University, just like my dad. Getting accepted to a top college in Korea, according to my teachers, guaranteed prestige, wealth, and personal happiness. This made no sense to me. Because of my parents’ school loans, we were never well-off and my mom always seemed frustrated by our financial limitations – i.e., not happy. Money was scarce and I remember I took an ass-whooping for spending $5 on a friend’s birthday gift.
I was very confused. Why pursue an education that didn’t give you much back financially? In my young eyes, education did not guarantee financial success – if anything it set you back. Korea was the opposite of America. If you couldn’t get into certain schools by the time you were eighteen, there were very limited opportunities. Every kid wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer. Any other profession was looked down on by classmates and even teachers. Furthermore, Koreans were sick of businesses. Because of the Asian financial crisis, Koreans wanted stability more than anything. Becoming a doctor, lawyer, or accountant pretty much defined the Korean dream.
Slowly but surely as I matured, I started to lose the passion for academic excellence. This caused massive disharmony in our family and by the time I was in middle school, I started running away from home. I spent some nights sleeping in the subway stations or on the stairs of apartment buildings and would disappear for a couple of nights at a time. Little did I know that the survival instincts I developed during my rebellious teenage youth would help me so much in later years running a bootstrapped startup. (As it turns out, there are quite a few similarities!) Eventually, troubled by my B+ average grades and also because of my parents’ unwavering belief in America’s education system, we moved back to the states.
Learning to Become American Again
My second stint as an F.O.B in America started in 10th grade. We moved back and settled in La Crescenta, California, a quaint suburb about fifteen miles north of Los Angeles. There I attended Crescenta Valley High School, which was carefully hand-picked by my meticulous parents to ensure that my brother and I would have the best chance of attending an elite college. CVHS. was an award-winning public school and many other hopeful parents relocated their families to this school district for their kids’ education.
Because I had a lot of friends in Korea, I was not thrilled with this decision. What truly fueled my resentment was the irony of my father wanting me to have an American education when I knew that he didn’t always believe the American Dream worked for everyone, especially immigrants like us. After all, wasn’t he the one who moved back to Korea for better opportunities?
He emphasized financial security and preached about living comfortably with low risk. He would remind us that we should not look for careers outside of California because there would be a greater chance of facing racial discrimination.
One side of me was angry at society for its innate unfairness. My dad was a good person and deserved better opportunities in the states. I started to believe that my dad had been shortchanged in terms of opportunities in the states, and that experience had shaped his perception of America, which was now negatively affecting me. Another side of me was angry at my father for throwing in the towel. He discouraged me from applying to any schools outside of California. Why let your own experiences define your son’s? In retaliation, I never submitted my college application forms despite the fact that I completed them. In the end, after the deadlines had passed, my dad found out I had not actually applied and he was the one who clicked Submit to send in my applications.
Out of the eight UCs (Universities of California), I was lucky enough to get accepted to two – UC Riverside and UC Santa Cruz. The decision was easy: UC Riverside was four hours closer. I never even bothered to visit the campus before I moved in, even though it was only an hour away from our house. At that time, four years of college seemed longer than an eternity and I secretly had no interest in completing my education.
Through the lens of my youth, I was more intrigued in becoming an American. America was so cool and Americans were so free-spirited. I was fascinated with the culture and the opportunities. I remember not too long after we moved from Korea, I was invited to a friend’s Sweet 16 birthday party. Stacey was super cute and I had never been to an American party before. I wondered if all American parties were like the movie American Pie. I’d never even hugged a girl, what do I do? Just thinking about possibly hugging a girl, or holding a girl’s hand for the first time, I couldn’t sleep for days.
On weekends, I watched FOX all day. I knew Americans loved to watch football on Sundays, and after the games I watched The Simpsons, and Futurama, followed by King of the Hill. I didn’t enjoy these marathon TV sessions too much, but I wanted to watch the shows Americans watched.
While my interest in education was wavering, my passion for American culture and my interest in entrepreneurship was growing. I read articles about entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and young bankers on Wall Street. These types of opportunities were unheard of in Korea and I believed that there had to be a route to get there.
I wasn’t as worried about my education as I was about my English. I was an awkward high-schooler; a couple of shades too dark and too Filipino-looking to blend in with the Koreans who made up almost 40% of the student body at my school, and too fresh off the boat with a touch of a Minnesooh-ta accent (if you’re not familiar, they tend to drag their “o”s and “a”s over there) to blend in with the Americans. Outside of speaking English from the ages of five to nine, I hadn’t spoken very much of it for the seven years we were in Korea. The tough part of re-learning and learning English was putting the right words in the right place in a sentence. For example, in Korean, you say “I school go to.” In English, it’s “I go to school.” Kids would ask me, “Where are you from man? You talk real funny and for sure you don’t look Korean.”
As I grew older, I realized moving around as a kid had been a blessing in disguise. My youth was constant adaption and social survival. By the time I was graduating high school, I had spent all my eighteen years growing up without having a complete command of any language. I spent my youth observing and studying others. People always seemed so interesting. I never had much trouble making friends, but I always felt as if I were watching them from afar. I was constantly trying to learn their language and culture.
This curiosity and passion about people turned into an unusual habit of keeping a journal that started when I was seventeen. To learn the language and culture better, I wrote in my diary in first, second, and third person. I wrote a lot about my new American friends and my interactions with them. Sometimes I would put myself in someone else’s shoes and write as if I were that person for that particular day.
What interested me most were times when individuals deviated from their expected behavior. Why was that person upset that day? What did that person eat that could have affected his or her mood? Did he or she have enough coffee or sleep? What kind of personal relationships are affecting her? I would write down patterns and changes.
For one of my friends who was always late, I had a formula that predicted the number of minutes he would be late based on how much time was remaining before our meet up. It was quite accurate for years, until I told him about my formula. This was a huge mistake. Once he knew my formula always expected him to be late, it gave him the perfect excuse to be even less punctual!
Other times my journal would serve merely as a best friend. Life in a new country is not always easy, particularly when you are pushing yourself to adapt to the culture. When you’re trapped in a world where talking and listening is not your forte, you naturally prefer to read and write. During college, there were days I would write three to four journal entries a day. At times when I had trouble expressing myself, I would resort to writing in Korean.
It wasn’t until my fourth year of college when my roommate of all four years told me, “You finally sound like an American that was born here.” Hearing such a compliment from an actual American, I nearly fell into tears on the spot. Often people develop certain skill sets to compensate for their weaknesses. In my case, not only had I developed strong body language skills, but I had also developed a deeper understanding of people through my numerous journal entries and observations over the years. Once my English caught up to my peers, I was well-positioned to realize my potential. Ultimately, growing up as an outsider helped me develop the outlier approach philosophy.