By Colin Marshall
Korea has inspired several volumes of English-language travel writing, even narratives of extended sojourn in or repeat visits to the country over long periods of time, but a full-fledged, high-profile memoir or novel of the expatriate-in-Korea experience has yet to materialize. Kevin M. Maher’s No Couches in Korea, which recounts the experiences of a young man who leaves his native America, his girlfriend, and their cat behind to teach English in the coastal city of Busan, falls somewhere between memoir and novel. Though formally neither here nor there, it nevertheless opens a window onto the sort of lives lived within a quasi-professional subculture that, for better or worse, has colored and continues to color the expat community in Korea to a deeper extent than most anywhere else in Asia.
The author’s biographical blurb unhesitatingly informs us that, just like his protagonist, he “first arrived in South Korea for a one year stint in 1996,” although the book’s narrator bears not the name Kevin M. Maher but Adam Wanderson. Driven purely by a lust for, well, you guessed it, the 26-year-old Adam signs on to join the “wave of English instruction spreading from Japan through the rest of Asia, now seeping into South Korea,” and less than 24 hours after his flight touches down finds himself cast before a roomful of expectant, if not proficient, middle-school students. “Typical Korean bullshit,” declares his only slightly more experienced colleague over and over again. “If you have a white face, they figure you can teach English. No one here speaks English well; it doesn’t matter if you’re good or bad — they’d never know.”
Adam has entered the shady if tolerably lucrative world of hagwon (Maher uses the alternative romanization hogwan), the private educational institutes in which Korean students still spend so much of their time outside regular school hours. But many hagwon count as educational in only the loosest sense of the word, drilling kids in preparation for the Suneung, Korea’s all-important equivalent of the SAT, or, as in the “English” classes we see Adam “teach,” having a Westerner repeat nouns at them over the course of a couple of hours. In one instance he throws up his hands and has the class play hangman, a game that now dominates the English-class memories of entire generations of Korean students.
A hagwon, explains the fellow American showing Adam the ropes, “makes money if they tell the students they have a foreigner. It doesn’t matter what you teach, or how, as long as you’re there.” Adam’s experience, however harrowing, actually sounds rather mild when compared to the seemingly infinite number of real-life hagwon horror stories in circulation. I remember hearing one about a young American woman who, on her bleary ride in from the airport, looked up to see her own face staring down at her from ten stories up: her new company had already begun branding themselves with her face — and more to the point, her blonde hair — by putting the image from the photo they’d required her to send on their billboards. Though the English-education industry remains unchanged in its essence (that of a colossal racket that plays on the insecurity of Koreans about their place in society and Korea about its place in the world), the longer ago someone went to Korea to teach English, the more questionable the business practices and dysfunctional the living arrangements they generally endured.
These conditions, especially at the numerous independent hagwon “without any rules to adhere to or a relationship to honor,” led to “an epidemic of ‘midnight runners,’ foreigners who left the country without notice, seemingly in the middle of the night.” Adam’s situation never deteriorates to quite that point, though the Sisyphean nature of the job itself combined with the ever-shifting dynamics of his roommate situation — the hagwon places him in an apartment shared by a succession of white American and Canadian braggarts, sexual compulsives, and social incompetents, prompting a generally appropriate reference to The Real World — do push him away. By the middle of the book, Adam declares within the span of three pages that “I was miserable and depressed,” that “I’m just so sick of everything,” that “everyone was miserable,” and that “everything had gone to hell.”
The long nadir of this story, told by a middle-aged Adam in the year 2016, illustrates one aspect of what he calls “a common theme among Korea expats — the love/hate relationship they had developed with Korea,” a diagnosis by no means known only in this country. In Japan it has long gone under the name Seidensticker Syndrome, a variety of love, in the words of Ian Buruma, “that can turn to hate and then back to love again at enormous speed,” named for the eminent and reputedly cranky translator of The Tale of Genji and historian of Tokyo Edwin Seidensticker. Donald Richie, who also made his name as an expat writer in Japan, once recorded a conversation where Seidensticker insisted to him that “you will not allow yourself to be furious with these people. Yet, you know at heart you are.” Richie replies that Seidensticker “really hated himself, not these people, and that he should acknowledge the depths of his self-loathing.”
Whatever the role of self-loathing, the relationship between long-term Western expatriates in Korea and their host country does, to this day, seem uncommonly dysfunctional, much more so than among those in Japan. Intention must play a role, and Westerners, as the American North Korea analyst Brian Reynolds Myers (himself a resident of Busan since just after Maher’s departure) said when I interviewed him about life in South Korea: “People do not come here with the intention of living here for a long time. Korea is not a country that foreigners fall in love with to the extent that they fall in love with China or Japan. You will meet China freaks and you will meet Japan freaks. The Korea freak is not so often encountered.” Even among the expats who ultimately stay, many seem, like Adam, perpetually one bad day from pressing themselves back into the bosom of Portland, Oregon.
Adam marvels, in the book’s present-day coda, at meeting a foreigner who’s come to Korea for a two-month stay motivated solely by not just interest in the country, but culinary interest. “It was a far cry from ten years ago, when most expat bars were filled with people complaining about contractual disagreements, culture shock differences, and the plain overwork of teaching all day. Hmm… tourists in Korea?” This in contrast to the attitude on display when the much younger Adam first meets a colleague called Skate, already driven near-psychotic by resentment:
“Fuckin’ Koreans!” Skate yelled out as he opened his beer. “You’ll see, man, you’ll be trying to get out of the elevator, and they’ll all just stand there trying to get in as you’re trying to get out. That’s a Korean, man. Fuckin’ Koreans. I hate ’em!”
“So why are you teaching here?” I asked.
“Fuck, I don’t know, I probably shouldn’t. Fuckin’ Koreans. The women are fucking hot, though.” Skate approached the window and yelled again, “Fuck you, Korea!”
Many disgruntled expats have issued such cris de coeur, but the reasons behind the “fuck you” illuminate less than does the nature of the entity addressed as “Korea.” In that sense, Adam’s experience proves representative: experiencing Korea exclusively through the cultural pinhole of classes with hangman-playing children and barely intelligible adults followed by long nights in expat bars with Western friends and acquaintances plus the rare English-speaking Korean, they and only they soon come to constitute his conception of the country itself.
This perceptual narrowing afflicts English teachers with a distinct severity, second only to Korea-stationed United States military personnel, although soldiers may actually have received some mandatory preparation before their placement. Many narratives of Westerners in Japan begin, regardless of the era, with a period of intensive study in the Westerner’s country of origin, often to the point of attaining functionality in the Japanese language before setting foot in the country. The bulk of those who come to teach English in Korea, by contrast, turn up without so much as the knowledge culled from a phrase book on the flight over, arriving, and often also departing, in a state of near-complete ignorance about their destination but that it offered a chance to make a little money and, as the Navy used to say to guys fresh out of high school, “see the world.”
They thus arrive as Adam does, perceiving nothing but “Korean circles and lines on similar looking buildings.” This wonder, or wonder-like incomprehension, soon gives way to embitterment — proximate causes in this book include the local population’s rudeness, unpredictability, lack of English ability, and tendency to stare at foreigners — without the Westerner ever having grasped the full extent of their own disengagement from the society and culture around them. A resigned Adam, who retreats by riding around in the back of buses all day reading novels (always English-language novels, never Korean), describes the Korean people with a bizarre metaphor: “They had a heart of gold, but also had a tremendously thick layer of aggressive self-serving skin.”
Still, Adam, and Maher, taught English in a different time. They also taught English in a different place — or rather, a place that has historically lagged behind the capital, long a magnet for foreigners and Koreans alike, in every respect. Though its size, setting, and amenities would qualify it as a beloved major city in America, Busan (Maher spells it Pusan, using the romanization current in his day) has endured ages of not just the dismissive attitudes of Seoulites but of the invidious comparisons with Seoul so often heard in Busan itself. “Size is no guarantee of modernity, as the desperate inequality and violence of the two greatest of all urban concentrations, São Paulo and Bombay, testify,” wrote scholar Perry Anderson on a visit to 1996, the year of Maher’s arrival. “But that is still the Third World. Seoul is not part of it.” Was Busan?
“What a Londoner notices first is the ways in which the city is more advanced than his own,” writes Anderson, marveling at the Seoul Metropolitan Subway System. “One is constantly struck by the intelligence brought to the inconspicuous details of living, as if the routines of urban existence were being freshly invented for the first time.” At that same time, Korea’s second city had torn itself up in order to construct the second line of its own subway, resulting in numerous instances of transportation unpleasantness (such as having to take a bus through the country’s largest dog-meat market) that draw no small amount of grumbling from Adam. The utter lack of connection with the world outside Korea, apart from the occasional handwritten letter and extravagantly expensive transpacific telephone call, would have also made the Busan and the Korea of twenty years ago feel more “Third World” to a Westerner than its impressive economic statistics might have suggested.
Maher does capture, if not in great detail, something of the country’s preparation for the 21st century, writing of the arrival of internet cafes which make possible his protagonist’s discovery of the internet. (“What’s an e-mail?” “It’s like a written letter, but through the computer.”) Adam attends the very first Busan International Film Festival, now the biggest such event in Asia, but spends only two sentences on it, and he misses out on other interesting times in Korea by spending a big chunk of the book outside it. Finally fed up, he promises his American ex-girlfriend a reunion, but not before he makes the southeast Asian rounds from Thailand (“I wanted to meet Thai people and experience the culture,” he complains, having inexplicably gone to the tourist Mecca of Chiang Mai) to Nepal (where he feels “reduced to a walking dollar sign in a land I’d always assumed was beyond materialism”) to Singapore (“a clean place, and all the bookstores were in English”).
Back in America only to find the relationship damaged beyond repair, Adam, plunging fully in Gen-X directionlessness, sets out on a soul-searching road trip that twice lands him on his parents’ couch (of the kind that, in his experience, don’t exist in Korea). This odyssey underscores how little remains for him in what he’d reflexively considered his homeland, bringing him to the clumsy realization that life, or at least life as he can live it, lay elsewhere: “I wanted more growth, more learning, more experiences, and getting abroad again would be how I would do that again.” Apparently anywhere abroad would do — anywhere he could be “among those expats, forging another expat existence” — and he very nearly submits to the 1990s vogue for eastern Europe among post-collegiate Americans, deciding “with 100 percent certainty on Budapest.”
That decision, however, doesn’t survive its first encounter with a surprisingly cheap one-way fare back to Busan, and Adam returns to South Korea just in time to experience firsthand the local economic ravages of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. Disappointingly, he leaves this traumatic period, tellingly known in this development-proud country simply as “IMF,” oddly under-acknowledged. “Monk Bar appealed more to foreigners,” he says of a favorite Busan expat jazz club he could frequent once again. “It was a place where people could go by themselves, have some drinks, and interact with the people at the bar. Few would have guessed that the owner of Monk Bar would be committing suicide when the IMF hit” — a story Adam lets drop, but which could have made for an entire novel of its own.
Maher attempts to pack a great deal of life, how much of it his and how much of it Adam’s I couldn’t say, into No Couches in Korea‘s final thirty pages. The narrative, previously populated mostly by one-note characters with names like Melvin, Paris, and King, starts to include real, living people like the travel writer and fellow mid-1990s Busan resident Rolf Potts. In its final chapter, the book, ouroboros-like, comes around to include its own publication: “It was 2016, and I was sitting at a restaurant that was once the Blue Note bar in Pusan. I was reflecting on the existence of my book, No Couches in Korea, that I held in my hands.” It’s like something out of Paul Auster.
Most English teachers in Korea, lacking an independent interest in the country itself and feeling age thirty approach while having accumulated virtually no professional experience in any area, tend to get their fill after a year or two or five. They return to their own countries, with money saved up and their itch to travel satiated, in order to settle into their “real” careers, but the Adam Wandersons of the world, upon discovering that they really can’t go home again, settle instead into a kind of slow-motion regional transience. (Maher himself now lives in “the comfortable city of Macau.”) People do it, drifting from place to place in a kind of low-budget English-speaking demimonde, although No Couches in Korea doesn’t make the lifestyle sound especially appealing. “We can’t all live in Korea forever, can we?” Adam writes on a postcard to his once and future roommates sent during his American exile. The question, entirely rhetorical, reveals the core assumption of life as an English teacher abroad that no one country can bear too many years spent there. Korea certainly can’t — or at least not the Korea to which they limit themselves.
Related Korea Blog posts:
Lost in Seoul, a New York Poet’s Memoir of Marrying into a Transforming Korea
Isabella Bird Bishop: Pioneering Female Traveler and Prototypical Westerner in Korea
The Adventures of Percival Lowell, Famed Astronomer and Early Writer on Korea
Korea’s English Fever, or English Cancer?
You can read more of the Korea Blog here and follow Colin Marshall at his web site, on Twitter