Interning at Samsung

I interned at Samsung America the summer after my freshman year.  It was my first experience with a real corporation, so I showed up dressed in college-kid slacks and tie,  excited about having this super important official job.

Now this super important official job was located in Samsung America’s headquarters in La Mirada, off the 5 freeway.  From the freeway, the building looked so tall!  It had to have been at least 10 to 15 stories.  It was with pride that I pulled into the parking lot.

Super excited about this super important official job I was there to do, I walked in and promptly discovered that the facade was literally that, an optical illusion.  The actual building was only two stories high, but achieved the look of verticality from glass panes that were stacked in ten rows atop each other, 3-5 panes per floor.

This was in the early 2000s, when Samsung’s primary products were televisions, printers, video players, CD-R’s, etc., before a single phone.  It was a prestigious company back then, but not at the level of the past 10 years.  And I became very intimately acquainted with all these primary products over my time there, not because I helped market them or do analysis on them, but because I spent most of my time there in the storage closet, which was a repository of old hardware.

My immediate supervisor was a short, bespectacled senior manager whose eyes were blurry behind his frames, and whose own ambivalence about his role in the company caused my summer to be a pretty unproductive, although amusing one.

Let’s just call him Mr. Lee, because I have a 20% chance of being right anyway.  Mr. Lee was well-meaning and honest, but maybe too honest.

After a two-day period of being introduced to people around the office, and being feted with lunches, I asked for work to do, to which he responded that there was nothing to do.

Dumbfounded, I asked what he meant.  I’m here on an internship, I said.

So, he said.  We have people to do everything already, he replied, casting a hand around the office.  You’re here to learn.

And what I discovered the learning was, was life lessons imparted in 3-hour lecture form, in Korean, by this man on an overseas posting.  They usually took place after lunch, in the storage closet.  More on the significance of this storage closet later.

I came into work three days a week.  In the mornings I was unsupervised and free.  One day I walked into another intern’s office (a guy from Harvard), and discovered him watching footage of a Korean pop star’s sex tape scandal with his own immediate supervisor, a man likely in his 30s.  His supervisor excitedly asked him to make a copy for him.

Sometimes I tried to do work.  This consisted of organizing files, and going out to get coffee.  When I asked for real work, I was waved off by everyone in the office, as if instructed by an invisible set of orders on high.

They can do it better than you, Mr. Lee said to me.

His lectures to me usually started right after lunch and sometimes lasted until 3 or 4pm.  And I’m embarrassed to admit, I remember almost nothing about them.  My Korean wasn’t as good as it is now, so even at the time, I understood maybe ~30%.  Add the effect of heavy lunch-induced food comas, so that the most distinct thing I remember is repeatedly dozing off right in front of Mr. Lee’s face and feeling bad about it, but as I blinked my eyes wide open with superhuman effort, him not even pausing, missing a beat, or commenting on my slumber, and instead continuing in his rapid, undulating, quite dramatic exhortations about working hard and being an immigrant and being loyal.

At home, I looked up ways to stay awake through food comas, and came across such tactics as biting your tongue and pinching yourself hard.  Neither worked for me.  I was too tired to summon the effort.

Mr. Lee himself had been sent by HQ on this overseas posting, and while he wasn’t the head of the office, he was a powerful #2.  Not so powerful that he could do anything he wanted, but still – three hour storage closet breaks can only be administered by someone with some clout.

The #1, boss of bosses, was an even older gentleman who was also bespectacled, and who Mr. Lee tried to avoid at all costs using various tactics and techniques.  If, in the parking lot, Mr. Lee spotted the Boss, he would instruct me and other underlings to duck inside the car so that we were not visible.  He himself would recline the seat back all the way so as to avoid detection.  More than once as we made our way up to the executive floor (the second floor of the 2-story building), he instructed me to crouch under the cubicles and commando-style, move towards the back while keeping out of the Boss’ line of sight.  This was way easier for him, because he didn’t have much crouching to do.  Our destination during these crawls was the storage closet, where the Boss never seemed to think to check.

The other staff in the office saw us and knew exactly what we were doing, but never said anything.  After all, Mr. Lee was the #2.

During our lectures, Mr. Lee became more animated and passionate than I ever saw him.  It’s like he could finally be the person he wanted to be, through his words.  By the way, I am not exaggerating about the duration of his lectures.  Directly after lunch, I knew I would be tied up until it was time to leave.

It was almost as if Mr. Lee didn’t want me to work.  A lot of it was defined by the fact that he resented the corporate hierarchy and his place in it, but looking back on it now, I wonder if in some way he was looking out for me.

It’s your job to learn, he had said.  To be a student.  Not to engage in the mindless drudgery that his staff was buried in.  The subtext: not so fast.

And you can’t give 3 hour lectures imparting the entirety of your life experience to someone you don’t like.  Probably the opposite.

I realize in retrospect that in many ways, without explicitly meaning to be, he was quite kind.

Zombies

When you mention anything to him, he waves it off dismissively.  You talk about what the young people are doing.  He scoffs.  He watches Bitcoin prices obsessively – in hopes that it will fall – and vindicate his preconceived notions about it.

It’s hard to hold a conversation with him, because he sits with his arms crossed, leaning back from you in a fortress of resistance, and interrupts every few seconds.  Squinting.

He has worked a long time, a long, long time, sacrificing time with family and friends, might be on his second or third wife, and most of all – has waited.  In his waiting, he has soothed himself from vicious bosses, midnight revisions, 20-hour flights, drudgery, and the career voyeurism of former colleagues making it big – or busting, with one simple mantra.  Which was that he was on the right path.  That all he had to do was stick around, avoid conflict, and he would rise in the ranks.  Meaningfulness, in his job, has been lost decades ago.  Chaos at home, disrespect and slights, politics – against all these things he’s sought solace at work.  And has found it.

And most likely, he’s been lucky.  Lucky to survive recessions, lucky his firm was either an indirect beneficiary of the tax code or secret bailouts, and most of all, lucky to have chosen this firm, which had been a toss-up at the time.  He is lucky that the way roles and responsibilities have been divided at the firm, have likely inflated his accomplishments and hidden his failures.  He is lucky that the company has such a strong culture that likely if he does not exist, the firm would do just as well.  But he does not believe in such things as luck.

By his will and determination alone, he has made it.  He’s a partner, director, C-suite exec, producer, whatever.  And now, the decades of self-soothing and justification have paid off, and because it’s no longer necessary, he has let the motivational rafters, break.

And thus other things have broken.

He is impatient, he does not listen past a few sentences.  He listens and reads only things that confirm his worldview and soothe him.  Things are put neatly into binary categories, the simplest of which is good and bad, useful and worthless – especially when it comes to people.  In the decades he has spent supporting his fragile, illusory motivations, his logic has turned to cobwebs.  His empathy does not exist.  His ability to listen is gone.  He knows everything already, does not need to change himself, his diet, his friends, his opinions, anything.

He knows everything.  He is already dead.

Kids, don’t be like these men.