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Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan

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Recounting his three years in Korea, the highest-ranking non-Korean executive at Hyundai sheds light on a business culture very few Western journalists ever experience in this revealing, moving, and hilarious memoir. When Frank Ahrens, a middle-aged bachelor and eighteen-year veteran at the Washington Post, fell in love with a diplomat, his life changed dramatically. Follow Recounting his three years in Korea, the highest-ranking non-Korean executive at Hyundai sheds light on a business culture very few Western journalists ever experience in this revealing, moving, and hilarious memoir. When Frank Ahrens, a middle-aged bachelor and eighteen-year veteran at the Washington Post, fell in love with a diplomat, his life changed dramatically. Following his new bride to her first appointment in Seoul, South Korea, Frank traded the newsroom for a corporate suite, becoming director of global communications at Hyundai Motors. In a land whose population is ninety-seven percent Korean, he was one of fewer than ten non-Koreans in a company of 5,000 employees. For the next three years, Frank traveled to auto shows and press conferences around the world, pitching Hyundai to former colleagues while trying to navigate cultural differences at home and at work. While his appreciation for absurdity enabled him to laugh his way through many awkward encounters, his job began to take a toll on his marriage and family. Eventually, he became a vice president—the highest-ranking non-Korean in the history of Hyundai—but at an untenable price. Filled with unique insights and told in his engaging, humorous voice, Seoul Man sheds light on a culture few Westerns know, and is a delightfully funny and heartwarming adventure for anyone who has ever felt like a fish out of water—all of us.


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Recounting his three years in Korea, the highest-ranking non-Korean executive at Hyundai sheds light on a business culture very few Western journalists ever experience in this revealing, moving, and hilarious memoir. When Frank Ahrens, a middle-aged bachelor and eighteen-year veteran at the Washington Post, fell in love with a diplomat, his life changed dramatically. Follow Recounting his three years in Korea, the highest-ranking non-Korean executive at Hyundai sheds light on a business culture very few Western journalists ever experience in this revealing, moving, and hilarious memoir. When Frank Ahrens, a middle-aged bachelor and eighteen-year veteran at the Washington Post, fell in love with a diplomat, his life changed dramatically. Following his new bride to her first appointment in Seoul, South Korea, Frank traded the newsroom for a corporate suite, becoming director of global communications at Hyundai Motors. In a land whose population is ninety-seven percent Korean, he was one of fewer than ten non-Koreans in a company of 5,000 employees. For the next three years, Frank traveled to auto shows and press conferences around the world, pitching Hyundai to former colleagues while trying to navigate cultural differences at home and at work. While his appreciation for absurdity enabled him to laugh his way through many awkward encounters, his job began to take a toll on his marriage and family. Eventually, he became a vice president—the highest-ranking non-Korean in the history of Hyundai—but at an untenable price. Filled with unique insights and told in his engaging, humorous voice, Seoul Man sheds light on a culture few Westerns know, and is a delightfully funny and heartwarming adventure for anyone who has ever felt like a fish out of water—all of us.

30 review for Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan

  1. 5 out of 5

    Christa Van

    Frank Ahrens was a happy journalist bachelor when love struck. In the span of a few months, he got married, changed jobs and moved across the world to Seoul, Korea. That is a LOT of change. This memoir talks a lot about his new job in the P.R. department of Hyundai motors and the differences in culture between Korea and the United States. Frank had always been a journalist so P.R., the auto industry and corporate life were new to him as was Korea. Some of the insights into the Korean rise to a f Frank Ahrens was a happy journalist bachelor when love struck. In the span of a few months, he got married, changed jobs and moved across the world to Seoul, Korea. That is a LOT of change. This memoir talks a lot about his new job in the P.R. department of Hyundai motors and the differences in culture between Korea and the United States. Frank had always been a journalist so P.R., the auto industry and corporate life were new to him as was Korea. Some of the insights into the Korean rise to a formidable economic power are excellent. Stories about the auto industry and Hyundai's goals to move up to a more respected position in the industry were also interesting. Korea is a country that has undergone a lot of change in a generation. Frank's personal stories of his life in Korea and the shelter given to the normal ex-pat struggles by living on a U. S. military base are insightful. At some point, however, this book seems to veer off into the personal story about how fatherhood makes you grow up (even at 49) and begins to focus on the importance of Christian belief in the author's life. That is all fine but is not mentioned in any of the marketing of this book. I think the book suffered from a lack of focus or maybe I'm just not amazed to hear that having a child changes your life when I thought I was reading about cars and culture.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Josh C.

    First and foremost, this is a pop-business book, and as such it's quite good. I learned plenty about the automotive industry, its PR environment, and Korean corporate culture, as well as the adjustment a journalist had to make moving into PR, but it's all lightweight stuff as the genre demands. The rest is where it fell down for me. There could have been more incisive general Korean cultural observations -- I'd be shocked if Ahrens doesn't have them -- but neither the business book framing nor Ah First and foremost, this is a pop-business book, and as such it's quite good. I learned plenty about the automotive industry, its PR environment, and Korean corporate culture, as well as the adjustment a journalist had to make moving into PR, but it's all lightweight stuff as the genre demands. The rest is where it fell down for me. There could have been more incisive general Korean cultural observations -- I'd be shocked if Ahrens doesn't have them -- but neither the business book framing nor Ahrens's obvious continuing loyalty to Hyundai seemed to allow him to go deeper. Living on-base at Yongsan as his wife's post permitted also was a major shortcut around some of the usual challenges of expat adjustment, as he readily admits, and it affects his insight. The book is also much heavier on Ahrens's mid-life personal maturation and new understanding of his faith than its PR suggests. If you're looking for that sort of thing, you'll enjoy it, and full credit to him as a person, but I had hoped for more Korea.

  3. 4 out of 5

    anna b

    Very readable expat view of life in South Korea and in the corporate world of Hyundai. Learned a little about history, N/S Korea relations, politics, culture and quirks.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Tenma

    The first 200+ pages of “Seoul Man” by Frank Ahrens are very informative. They provide wealth of information about the business culture in Korea (especially at Hyundai’s headquarter, where Frank worked for three years). The last 100 or so pages are about fatherhood and the author’s family affairs, which I thought were irrelevant. Overall, a big chunk of this book is about the impact of living overseas on ones marriage and family life. Some, like me, will find this distracting, while other, espec The first 200+ pages of “Seoul Man” by Frank Ahrens are very informative. They provide wealth of information about the business culture in Korea (especially at Hyundai’s headquarter, where Frank worked for three years). The last 100 or so pages are about fatherhood and the author’s family affairs, which I thought were irrelevant. Overall, a big chunk of this book is about the impact of living overseas on ones marriage and family life. Some, like me, will find this distracting, while other, especially those interested in parenthood, will find it appealing. It would make it easier to review this book by comparing it to another from the same genre. Recently I finished reading “Dispatches from the peninsula” By Chris Tharp. Both “Dispatches” and “Seoul Man” are memoirs by “older” American expats about their work and life experiences in Korea. “Dispatches” is a typical memoir or Travelogue by an expat English teacher where you will find plenty of references about students and their parents. The major differences between the two authors is that Chris lived among Koreans, had a Korean girlfriend, and enjoyed Korean food. He truly loved his experience and provided valuable insights about his travels throughout Korea. Frank, on the other hand, worked at a major corporation where he primarily interacted with adults. He had an American wife, lived on the American base in Seoul, disliked Korean food, and for most part, did not seem to comprehend and/or appreciate Korean culture. His book is primarily about his work experience since he did not seem to bother discovering what Korea had to offer. To him, almost anything that Koreans did that was different from how it is done in the west is awkward or nonsensical (at least that’s what his writing conveyed to me). I am not sure why the book was titled "Seoul Man". There is barely any discussion of Seoul. The author spent most of his time between work and home. A more fitting title would have been "Hyundai's Man in Seoul". Besides, i did not find anything unexpectedly hilarious in this book. It was mostly presented in a serious scholastic tone. A casual tourist or a young reader who is contemplating a teaching gig in Asia will probably enjoy “Dispatches” more. An older or a serious reader who is contemplating a move to Asia to pursue a professional, non-teaching job, will find Frank’s book invaluable as it provides insights into the mind of professionals and the work culture in corporate Korea. Car enthusiasts will also enjoy “Seoul Man” where they will find numerous references to Hyundai’s history and cars. This book changed my opinion about Korean cars. Although I may disagree with Frank's worldviews, it is apparent that he is a talented PR man. Best quote: "The birth of my child not only marked the beginning of her life but, in a real and meaningful way, the beginning of the end of mine"

  5. 5 out of 5

    Anatl

    Highly readable account of an American journalist who followed his wife to a government posting in Seoul South Korea while working for Hyundai's PR department. As he and his wife were living in the American military compound his immersion in Korean culture was limited to his work life. I was fascinated by the inside look at the auto industry and the history of the company. However, I was constantly frustrated with the author's cultural naivete and his lack of cultural orientation. Most of the in Highly readable account of an American journalist who followed his wife to a government posting in Seoul South Korea while working for Hyundai's PR department. As he and his wife were living in the American military compound his immersion in Korean culture was limited to his work life. I was fascinated by the inside look at the auto industry and the history of the company. However, I was constantly frustrated with the author's cultural naivete and his lack of cultural orientation. Most of the information on Korea in the book can also be gleaned from a short immersion in Korean films or TV.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Sharon

    I was drawn to this book because our younger daughter is currently in her sixth year of teaching English in Korea. It was so interesting the hear, from another ex-pat's perspective, many of the same parts of the Korean culture that our daughter has told us about. As she is dating a "salayrman", it was also very informative to hear about the Korean business culture. As a person who enjoys cars, I found the aspect of learning about Hyundai fascinating. I liked how the author interwove what it's li I was drawn to this book because our younger daughter is currently in her sixth year of teaching English in Korea. It was so interesting the hear, from another ex-pat's perspective, many of the same parts of the Korean culture that our daughter has told us about. As she is dating a "salayrman", it was also very informative to hear about the Korean business culture. As a person who enjoys cars, I found the aspect of learning about Hyundai fascinating. I liked how the author interwove what it's like to live and work in another country with how it affected his family life. I highly recommend this book if you are interested in Korea, Hyundai or prioritizing family life.

  7. 4 out of 5

    D

    I enjoyed the story about Korean culture and Hyundai, and that's what I thought the book was about, but then he started talking too much about himself and his family, which was not what I expected to read. I also dislike that he talked about Asian politics in an overly simplistic manner and how he was going to lift Indonesians out of poverty by giving them a job. The author means well, but he should have avoided discussing sensitive and irrelevant matters if they are not the book's focus.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Madhu

    Belonging to the same group of limited group of foreigners still working at the same firm as Frank, I must say that there are both positives as well as stark negatives of this book. First of all, it's a personal memoir and not a crash course on either Korean culture or the working culture of the firm he worked at. With highly limited involvement in the day to day workings of the company, which is not clearly expressed in the book, his experiences reflect a narrow or more biased approach of the t Belonging to the same group of limited group of foreigners still working at the same firm as Frank, I must say that there are both positives as well as stark negatives of this book. First of all, it's a personal memoir and not a crash course on either Korean culture or the working culture of the firm he worked at. With highly limited involvement in the day to day workings of the company, which is not clearly expressed in the book, his experiences reflect a narrow or more biased approach of the true reality. Though, most of his observations are true and factual in nature. Secondly, his remarks in Korea in general were partially blinded by his remarkable isolation from the country and the culture itself. Living in the US base while attending the military ration store hardly counts as a meaningful experience of a new country. His limited interaction with the country hides some of the deeper and more interesting facts for which Korea is very well known for. And last but not the least, half of the book is about his relationship with his wife and kids. Though set up in Korea, the memoir blatantly shifts focus towards personal issues, marginally affected by the location, but starkly separated from the main focus of the book. Overall it's a good read with ample detailed examples describing the workings of such a dynamic and largely unknown country to the outside world as Korea.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Eric

    I'm always a touch hesitant to plaster on that fifth star with the "amazing" label - it seems as though only a VERY limited number of listens ought to make it to that level. But to say I "really liked it" would be almost as wrong. The "Seoul Man" title seems intended to catch the eye, as the story is really Ahrens' memoir, which I suspect he may someday wish to extend with a similar story of some later years. Seoul holds the story together, but it is not limited to only that. One will learn a fai I'm always a touch hesitant to plaster on that fifth star with the "amazing" label - it seems as though only a VERY limited number of listens ought to make it to that level. But to say I "really liked it" would be almost as wrong. The "Seoul Man" title seems intended to catch the eye, as the story is really Ahrens' memoir, which I suspect he may someday wish to extend with a similar story of some later years. Seoul holds the story together, but it is not limited to only that. One will learn a fair amount about Korean business/professional culture, and while it will certainly not be exhaustive, one could do far worse in making it required reading for a preparatory feature of a stint there. It is very personal to Ahrens, which is probably why I've become partial to memoirs, and certainly the whole car thing - even though it is about the cars' builders more so than the cars - makes for interesting comparisons between American and Korean culture.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Vince

    The topic is a very important one as Korea has become a very important country in the world economically and politically. Unfortunately, in my opinion the book is very superficial and really doesn't give a lot of insight I believe in helping someone understand Korean culture and society. A lot of the material in the book seems to focus on the authors personal life and family and seems to have a little to do with the title of the book. I have lived many years in Korea and speak the Korean langua The topic is a very important one as Korea has become a very important country in the world economically and politically. Unfortunately, in my opinion the book is very superficial and really doesn't give a lot of insight I believe in helping someone understand Korean culture and society. A lot of the material in the book seems to focus on the authors personal life and family and seems to have a little to do with the title of the book. I have lived many years in Korea and speak the Korean language. I was very glad to see a book come out like this about Korea, but the content does not do the subject justice.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Stefano Young

    Frank Ahrens’ Seoul Man is the story of an American newspaperman’s three year stint in public relations at Hyundai Motor corporation in Seoul, South Korea. It’s also a story about change: a forty-something bachelor’s plunge into married life, when his bride suddenly falls from the sky. She "fell out of the sky", Ahrens writes, “but missed my lap." The changes continue, as Ahrens transitions from his job at the newspaper to a new post halfway around the world. From the start, Ahrens finds himself Frank Ahrens’ Seoul Man is the story of an American newspaperman’s three year stint in public relations at Hyundai Motor corporation in Seoul, South Korea. It’s also a story about change: a forty-something bachelor’s plunge into married life, when his bride suddenly falls from the sky. She "fell out of the sky", Ahrens writes, “but missed my lap." The changes continue, as Ahrens transitions from his job at the newspaper to a new post halfway around the world. From the start, Ahrens finds himself out of his element in Korea, pressured by his corporate buddies into participating in their ritual drinking and karaoke, or noraebang, culture. Ahrens remains an "America bomb" (the nickname given to him by his wife) for much of the book, stepping on toes at the office while gradually learning some of the differences between American and Korean cultures. Most nights he retreats to his bubble on a U.S. military base in Yongsan. The real meat of the story comes from his time at Hyundai. Even for those uninterested in car trends like myself, Ahrens paints a compelling picture of Hyundai’s rise from the ashes of the Korean War to become a “modern premium” car brand. He provides insights into the company’s strategy, as well as insights into his personal fears and insecurities as he watches the strategy unfold. A sizeable chunk of the book is dedicated to general Korean history, but I found myself glossing over those parts to get back to the Hyundai story and the story of Ahrens’ personal relationships. By the end, his wife becomes the one consistent thread, and the Korean characters are ultimately secondary. Ahrens includes an interesting profile of the vice president and heir to the Hyundai empire, but otherwise few Korean characters in the book stick out. Perhaps this is no fault of Ahrens’, because—and he makes this point in the book—sticking out in Korea is taboo. I imagine it's also difficult to develop deep relationships in three years while speaking through an interpreter much of the time. I wonder how the book might have been different had he lived with Koreans during his time at the company. Although Seoul Man’s tension wanes in places and its tone ventures at times into preachy and sentimental territory, overall it's a good read. Worth checking out.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Naama

    I liked it. I just did. I liked all the talk about Hyundai and its efforts to become a brand, not just an automaker (though it planted distracting thoughts of luxury and creature comforts in my head just as I had finally started to accept the idea of replacing our sedan with a smaller, more practical hybrid). I liked learning about corporate Korea - chaebols and the life of ‘salarymen’ – as well as the more recent attempts to introduce more individualism, entrepreneurship and diversity to the Ko I liked it. I just did. I liked all the talk about Hyundai and its efforts to become a brand, not just an automaker (though it planted distracting thoughts of luxury and creature comforts in my head just as I had finally started to accept the idea of replacing our sedan with a smaller, more practical hybrid). I liked learning about corporate Korea - chaebols and the life of ‘salarymen’ – as well as the more recent attempts to introduce more individualism, entrepreneurship and diversity to the Korean economy. I liked hearing about Korean culture, even if the descriptions just skimmed the very surface of what could’ve possibly been written had the writer formed relationships that went beyond professional (though his failure to do so seems to somewhat reflect on Korean culture). I liked the less-than-fairytale elements of the book and the description of very significant struggles in work-life balance for modern families.

  13. 4 out of 5

    starduest

    The initial parts about Seoul and adjusting to live there were interesting. The descriptions of Hyundai and its evolution as a company and brand were also interesting at first until it got boring after hearing about yet another car launch whilst the part about living in a different culture became less prominent in the book. The portions about Jakarta were too brief, superficial and simplistic and I can't help but be annoyed that his career took precedence over his wife's when I'm quite certain t The initial parts about Seoul and adjusting to live there were interesting. The descriptions of Hyundai and its evolution as a company and brand were also interesting at first until it got boring after hearing about yet another car launch whilst the part about living in a different culture became less prominent in the book. The portions about Jakarta were too brief, superficial and simplistic and I can't help but be annoyed that his career took precedence over his wife's when I'm quite certain that he can find PR work anywhere in the world whereas she only has one route and one employer in her diplomat ambitions.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Bethany

    This book was so much more interesting and engaging than I expected. It touched on the behind the scenes perspective of working at Hyundai during a pivotal time, the expat life in Korea and Jakarta, introduced me to a lot of Korean history and culture I should already know, but appreciated differently from the perspective of a fish-out-of-water American, and even layered in the surprising layer of faith and how that played a role through it all. Surprisingly one of my favorite reads of the year.

  15. 4 out of 5

    J

    Perhaps it would have been better titled Seoul/Soul Man. Yes, much of the story is about working in Seoul and gave insights into Korea which I was glad to read. However, it is more a story of a man and changes in his life including career change, marriage and first child. The book addresses the very real challenges of two careers and a family. It shares how building a life requires change and compromises for what becomes most important. Also "soul" would touch on his acknowledging the importance o Perhaps it would have been better titled Seoul/Soul Man. Yes, much of the story is about working in Seoul and gave insights into Korea which I was glad to read. However, it is more a story of a man and changes in his life including career change, marriage and first child. The book addresses the very real challenges of two careers and a family. It shares how building a life requires change and compromises for what becomes most important. Also "soul" would touch on his acknowledging the importance of his faith, how it was affected by circumstances and how it influenced decisions.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Chris Mi

    Well written, cohesive story of moving to Seoul. Lots of interesting details about culture differences and business in Korea. The author is a 49 yr old white guy who doesn’t like Korean food, so slightly unrelatable and sometimes obtuse in the telling. I read a couple reviews before reading this and yes there are a few chapters scattered in the last 20% of the book where the author indulges in talking about family struggle. I skimmed those. Overall a good read. Wish I’d read this before visiting Well written, cohesive story of moving to Seoul. Lots of interesting details about culture differences and business in Korea. The author is a 49 yr old white guy who doesn’t like Korean food, so slightly unrelatable and sometimes obtuse in the telling. I read a couple reviews before reading this and yes there are a few chapters scattered in the last 20% of the book where the author indulges in talking about family struggle. I skimmed those. Overall a good read. Wish I’d read this before visiting Seoul.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Richard

    This is an excellent read, especially for anyone familiar with South Korea, its culture and management style. Having worked in Korea for 8 years, the author helped me understand some of the ambiguity of management styles employed, especially as they apply to Choebal led companies. His descriptions of behind the scenes rise of Hyundai motors was also interesting and enlightening. This was an easy read and I thoroughly enjoyed it on many levels, from the author’s being an expat, to raising a child This is an excellent read, especially for anyone familiar with South Korea, its culture and management style. Having worked in Korea for 8 years, the author helped me understand some of the ambiguity of management styles employed, especially as they apply to Choebal led companies. His descriptions of behind the scenes rise of Hyundai motors was also interesting and enlightening. This was an easy read and I thoroughly enjoyed it on many levels, from the author’s being an expat, to raising a child with an expat wife living, at times, away from him in another country.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Jasmyn Barca

    Ahrens doesn't travel the way I do, and he admits that he is aware of his self-centered double-standards as a white American male throughout his years abroad. Those instances were hard to read at times without a grimace on my face. However, I learned a lot about a country and culture that I have yet to experience and therefore still enjoyed reading. Also, I am un-interested in cars and the auto industry in general but Ahrens was able to write about it and keep, even me, entertained and informed.

  19. 4 out of 5

    David

    Excellent book on Korean corporate life. I was pleasantly surprised at how accurately it was described - including the surrounding society and historical context. I would recommend this book to all foreigners looking for corporate life in Korea. Korean corporate life, especially at the executive level, is tough, just like in US fortune 500 companies. For foreigners, times that by 3 or more (adding language, cultural shock...).

  20. 5 out of 5

    Ruth

    As someone who lived as an expat myself, I could identify with much of what Ahrens describes. Though I didn't live in Korea, I nodded along with the universal realizations, frustrations, and overall what-is-happening moments that corresponded with my time overseas. Overall, I enjoyed the author's descriptions of cultural clashes and personal growth but was bored by the corporate and automotive stuff. This is more due to my subjective interests than the author's writing skills.

  21. 5 out of 5

    calico Rosenberg

    The entire book reads like he is. well sort of kissing up to Hyundai; but whay bothers me most are all the missed punn opportunities in he title. I mean aloi g the lines of 'heart and Seoul' or--and quit thinking od thwae after after this second one becau se I feel like I topped out --'my seoul drive.' All in all the very beginning was quite good but the rest was a bit monotaneous and dragged on. it all sort of tried too hard to be metaphoric about everything

  22. 5 out of 5

    Ricky

    An intriguing book that looks at Korean corporate culture, loses a bit of steam at the end as the author talked about more personal stuff, I guess I should care about that . Maybe not. Anyways the book moves at a good pace and provides insight as to how cultural differences in the workplace can potentially lead to conflict without either side knowing it.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

    This is a well written memoir. I enjoyed learning a bit more about Korean culture from an American perspective. Sometimes it had too much about Hyundai - car fans may enjoy this much detail and the company and how cars are made and I enjoyed some but sometimes it was overkill. I was more interested in working with people aspects of this book and those were good.

  24. 4 out of 5

    G

    Very entertaining account of an American hired as an executive in S. Korea. What he experienced is very telling of Korean culture. It also has an insightful explanation of underlying attitude and commonly understood beliefs of Koreans. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Anna Gorodkova

    The informative book with the real meaning of life. Author described cultural features, historical background and which influence it had on him. How did this book make me feel? I was impressed by ambition and thirst for new, as well as the sacrifice his wife.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Kristi Bumpus

    This book was rather light on "unexpected hilarity," but I found it an extremely interesting perspective on auto manufacturing and Korean culture. If that sounds boring, it was written in a narrative style that made it not so -- at least to me. I really enjoyed the book.

  27. 4 out of 5

    George Lai

    An interesting read on an expat's working stint in a Korean chaebol.

  28. 5 out of 5

    NinjaK

    A frequently funny, entertaining look at an ex-pat's time working for Hyundai in Seoul, Korea. There was a lot I could relate to from my own time living abroad in China.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Steven Yenzer

    Light but enjoyable. The weird mix of car stuff and ex-pat stuff is probably not going to interest everyone, but I liked it.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Vio

    Great autobiography book with accents on Hyundai, cars, work, family, relations and priorities. All these coming along author's understanding of Korea. Worth reading.

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