Michael Booth’s Three Tigers, One Mountain isn’t a book about Korea, but in a sense it contains a book about Korea. Subtitled A Journey through the Bitter History and Current Conflicts of China, Korea, and Japan, it takes on an entire region in the form of a travelogue driven by one question: “Why can’t the nations of east Asia get on?” Commissioned last year to review the book for another publication, I had enough space to deal with its largest emergent theme, the origin and persistence of anti-Japanese sentiment in Asia, but not to get into depth on Booth’s treatment of any one tiger in particular. Japan has drawn on-again-off-again interest in Western publishing since the days of Lafcadio Hearn, and in recent years almost too much has been said about the rise of “the Dragon.” But the rarity of books on Korea, even these days when the place makes political, economic, and cultural news, compels me to consideration even when Korea shares a book with other countries.
Though the English-language press now gives space to Korea, much of that space is occupied by the same subjects as if they’re set on repeat: the increasing global popularity of K-pop, K-dramas, and the rest of the “Korean Wave”; the dominance of hulking corporate chaebol like Samsung, Hyundai, and LG; the discomfiting enthusiasm for plastic surgery among Koreans; the periodic resurfacing of South Koreans’ animus toward the Japanese; the surprising indifference of South Koreans toward North Korea; the constant pressure faced by Korean students; the thoroughgoing unhappiness of the Korean population. I may joke with reporter friends about how clapped-out such topics have become, but — as the foregoing links suggest — I’ve also gone to those wells once or twice myself, despite not being a journalist. I do my best to approach the clichés of 21st-century Korea from unusual angles, but the fact remains that much of what’s interesting about Korea still gets ignored in favor of what may once have been interesting.
Booth also hits all these points, as well as others that might be expected from a broad introduction to modern Korea. What elevates this above standard reportage is his use of the first person: Booth has built his reputation in part as a travel writer, and the most illuminating parts of his book convey Korea as seen through his eyes as he motors around the country. (It feels at times like an automotive version of Korean journeys previously undertaken by his fellow Englishmen: Simon Winchester in Korea: A Walk through the Land of Miracles, Clive Leatherdale in To Dream of Pigs, Graham Holliday in Eating Korea.) As the travel-narrative genre dictates, Booth doesn’t just observe, he experiences. In the obligatory cosmetic-surgery chapter he goes to Gangnam to get his nose worked on. (He doesn’t just seek an intellectual understanding of the industry but, to take a common Korean saying literally, “feels it on his skin.”) Discussing tae kwon do, he doesn’t just frame it as “the country’s first post-war attempt at cultural branding” — something well worth noting — he puts on a set of “white pajamas” and takes a lesson himself, much as Anthony Bourdain did when he showed up here.
Three Tigers, One Mountain begins in Japan, a country about which Booth has written two books before, both focused on its cuisine. His travels in Korea constitute the middle section, and he approaches the country as a personal terra incognita. This allowed me to at least vicariously experience Korea as I’ve long claimed to want to: for the first time. Of course, having been born and raised in the United States, I also at one time had to have my own first experience of Korea, but by then I’d been living in Los Angeles’ Koreatown for years and studying Korean for the better part of a decade. I felt no culture shock at all; the only surprise was how few Westerners living in Korea had bothered to learn the language. Booth, who keeps having to deter himself from making comparisons to Japan (“I am in Korea now. Things are different here”), sees the Land of the Morning Calm with relatively fresh eyes.
He also, for better or for worse, hears it with fresh ears. It’s an undiplomatic point to make, but the longer I live here the less I can resist condemning the lack of Korean language skills among not just U.S. military personnel and English teachers, from whom nothing is expected, but even the Westerners who write about Korea. Booth writes of receiving, early in his travels in Korea, a sudden message on his cellphone: “It seems to be some kind of text alert but it is in Korean.” That flat “but” speaks volumes — as if the second half of the sentence might as well have read “but the screen was broken” — and so does the request he subsequently makes of the next gas-station attendant he sees, presumably in English, to tell him what the message means. (It turns out to be a warning about the heat, sent by the same national alert system that now delivers word of new coronavirus cases.)
Not only does Booth make no apologies for his inability to read or speak Korean, he doesn’t acknowledge the possibility that he might have learned to do so, even in theory. But this isn’t exactly his fault: the conventions of Anglo-American travel writing have long since hardened around the monoglot narrator, and the niche into which Booth’s publishers have come to place him — a New York Times quote calling him “the next Bill Bryson” appears in promotional material — encourages a degree of good-natured bumbling. Booth writes of getting bullied by a waitress while attempting to order a meal and flailing desperately in search of directions to certain historical sites. “They don’t speak any English so I attempt a mime,” he writes in a representative passage, “but that only serves to confuse matters further.”
These comic scenes alternate with quotation, sometimes at length, of the English-speaking sources whom Booth enlists to explain Korea and its often-troubled relationships with its neighbors. As in most books of this kind, the mixture is heavy on academics, foreign journalists, outspoken ideologues, and the occasional cooperative man on the street (or more likely here, student in the coffee shop). Many if not most of them have been shaped by the West: even Booth’s Koreans sources give him names like “Philip” and “Stephanie.” In most countries, the information one gets in English may well be more or less the same as the information gets in the local language. But those who come to know Korea in both English and Korean have felt the sometimes chasmic gap between what’s written and said about it the native language versus any other. The impulse to keep apart words directed within the country and words directed outside it remains strong, and not readily grasped by those of us from English-speaking lands.
Booth’s interviewees include a few Seoul-resident foreigners with whom I myself chat now and again — no surprise, given the small size of expatriate circles here — and his book gave me occasion to rue my having missed the chance to interview him myself. I don’t mean that I didn’t meet him in Korea (though I didn’t), nor that I wanted to talk to him about Asia. I mean I missed the chance to interview him on his home turf: not his native England, but his adopted homeland of Denmark. Years ago I went to Copenhagen to record a series of interviews for a podcast I used to host called Notebook on Cities and Culture. Booth’s The Almost Nearly Perfect People, a book about the Nordic countries as Three Tigers, One Mountain is about northeast Asia, would have made him an ideal guest — but because it still wouldn’t be published for a few months, I didn’t know to look him up. Ever since, I wonder what his “Nordic miracle”-deflating perspective might have brought to the show.
There were those who laughed at my attempts to get as much of a handle on the Danish language as I could before making my trip: “Everyone speaks English there,” they say about not just Denmark but all of Scandinavia. Some say it about Korea as well, but in the case of Denmark it’s actually true. Nevertheless, after I’d spent a little time in Copenhagen I also felt the truth of what several non-Danes living there told me: no matter how fluently and willingly everyone around you speaks English, you’ll always feel shut out of the culture to the extent that you can’t speak Danish. Booth, who does speak Danish, would surely have much of interest to say on the matter. I’d have enjoyed if in in Three Tigers, One Mountain he’d gone into more depth comparing what he learns of Korean culture with what he knows of Danish culture, beyond comparing the Korean concept of han — an evergreen trope in English writing on Korea — to the Danish concept of hygge.
Booth writes of having “seen han described variously as a suppressed grudge, helpless rage, unrequited resentment or a brooding sense of grievance, preferably remaining unresolved.” In The Almost Nearly Perfect People he describes hygge as “a deceptively relaxed and informal, uniquely Danish form of cosiness or conviviality, which is actually highly codified, with strict social rituals that exercise a relentless, tyrannical pressure to conform.” Both han and hygge are “omnipresent, intangible, understood by all, accepted as an intrinsic part” of their respective cultures. “And like the Danes with hygge, the Koreans like to make out that han is untranslatable.” Surprisingly, in Three Tigers, One Mountain Booth doesn’t seize on how hygge has become a vogue word in Korea as well. In 2015 Oh Yeon-ho, CEO of the online news platform OhmyNews, published a book about how his many trips to Denmark showed that country to be the model of happiness for Korea to emulate — a notion to which I would’ve liked to see Booth apply his formidable wit.
Booth also draws from his life experience when dealing with more concrete aspects of Korea, as when he notices tattoos “employed to a near-Scandinavian degree by both men and women.” Whether he draws from that the same impression that longer-term Korea observers would of a society fraying at the edges he doesn’t say. What bothers him, aesthetically, is what bothers most Westerners who come here: the built environment. His approach to Seoul puts him in the mind of “some Ballardian anthropocene dystopia.” Of his first look at the southern city of Busan, he writes vividly and not inaccurately that “the rash of cheap laser-printed signage on shops and businesses makes everything look like a Streatham fried chicken joint.” Everywhere “cranes scratch at the skyline, adding to the forest of forty-story tower blocks, none of which appear to have detained an architect at a drawing board for very long.”
Don’t get a Westerner started on those forty-story tower blocks. I have no strong feelings about them myself — and even once wrote an essay here in praise of the “vertical life” in Seoul — but from what I’ve seen they tend to inflict a special offense on Anglo-American sensibilities. Their very height could be part of the problem, as could their narrow range of design and color, but Booth gets into an aspect seldom directly addressed: the identifying numbers painted on each tower’s exterior. “Why do I find those numbers so soul-crushing?” he asks himself. “Ordinary houses have numbers, why should I feel differently about forty-story apartment blocks? The Orwellian-ness, I guess. The fact that you would need to number something so colossal which by dint of it sheer scale should be easy to identify, yet in the presence of so many others of a similar size is rendered quotidian to the point of anonymity.”
Here Booth makes, or begins to make, a genuinely fascinating aesthetic and cultural inquiry. Unfortunately he leaves it as an aside, a thought that floats up as he drives from one city to another. But the passage shows how perceptive he can be when he trusts his perceptions and follows where they lead, rather than handing the text over to statistics or the word of interviewees. Even before he arrives in Korea, Booth makes a more telling observation about the country than I feel I have in my years living here. “They have a nifty method for avoiding the tedium of queueing,” he writes of the Koreans waiting for the ferry home from the port at Fukuoka. “They simply let their luggage do it for them, placing their suitcases in front or behind the Japanese while they pop off for some last-minute duty-free shopping. This seems to suggest a unique combination of high social trust and blithe entitlement.”
I always see a missed opportunity in a travelogue written without knowledge of the language of the country in question, especially one by such a skilled writer. Not that he singles out Korea for that treatment: in his chapters on Japan he claims no knowledge of Japanese, nor of Mandarin in his chapters on China and Taiwan. But even in the very premise of Three Tigers, One Mountain he demonstrates a powerful insight seldom articulated in popular writing: you can’t hope to understand a country and its culture unless you also understand its context, the nature of the other countries around it and its history with those countries. For Michael Booth in Korea, this in the main means hearing the whole range of grievances lodged against its former colonial ruler, Japan. But it also means hearing the whole range of grievances lodged elsewhere against Koreans. As an English-speaking woman he meets in Taiwan puts it, “They get up people’s noses” — a remark in which a long cultural history lies buried.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall hosts the Korean-language podcast 콜린의 한국 (Colin’s Korea) and is at work on a book called The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles. You can follow him at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.