Short Skirts and Flying Chopsticks: Revisiting the “Worst” Essay on Korea, 10 Years Later

In the summer of 2008, the New York Times ran “Urban Seoul,” a piece of about 800 words on life as an American expatriate in Korea. Its author, a writer in his mid-30s named Gabe Hudson, had arrived here the previous year to take professorship at Yonsei University, becoming the founding chair of the creative writing program at its Underwood International College. This reflection on “the ups and downs of newbie life in Seoul,” as the Korea Joongang Daily‘s Richard Scott-Ashe writes, “sparked some lively debate on local blogs, foreign and Korean alike.” That’s one way of putting it. A decade after its publication, the collective Seoul expat memory still regards Hudson’s short essay as the standard-bearer for bad Western writing on Korea, the worst first-person sketch of the country to appear in a major publication this century.

One can criticize Hudson for writing about a foreign country from a place of ignorance, but he says as much himself up front. “I don’t speak Korean and most Koreans don’t really speak English,” he admits in the first sentence, “except my students, who speak as many as four languages and who bow to me when they walk by on campus.” A Korea-resident Westerner not speaking Korean is, as every new expat here discovers — some with a shock, some with relief — more or less par for the course. So is the expectation of English proficiency for students in Korea’s most prestigious universities, the top three of which, Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University, constitute the striven-for holy trinity of “SKY” schools.

That linguistic contrast alone could provide the basis for an entire book on Korean society, but Hudson confines himself to his own experience of awe and bewilderment. “When Ja-Won buzzes the front door to my apartment, an image of her face instantly appears on the silver Samsung video screen on my living-room wall,” he writes of the beginning of a night out with his Korean girlfriend. “When I step into the hall to greet her, the door behind me suctions itself closed, locks itself with a motor and speaks to me in Korean.” His description of Korea in the 2000s begins to sound uncannily like many a Western writer’s description of Japan in the 1980s: “In the elevator, all sharp angles and shiny silver, a computer monitor plays Korean commercials continuously.”

The similarity goes beyond Hudson’s view of Korean technology to his view of the streets of Seoul, “an infinite maze of neon signs and high-rise buildings and faces, faces, faces. Step on the street and be prepared to get mowed down by a sea of men in pinstripe suits and women dressed to the nines.” The savvy foreigner must “mysteriously flow through oncoming waves of Korean bodies without ever bumping into them. You keep your eyes straight ahead while you continuously twist and turn to slide into new space.” But whatever lack of originality Hudson’s critics bemoaned in his description of futuristic, crowded Seoul (I myself can only get exercised about his reference to living on “Jongno Street,” which to someone with any knowledge of the Korean language is an irritating “the El Camino”-type redundancy), they took more exception to his meditation on the fact that his girlfriend wears a miniskirt year-round. “Well, most Seoul women are slaves to fashion,” he concludes, “which also explains the near epidemic of plastic surgery here.”

At the restaurant, where Hudson is “always the only Western person in the joint,” their chopsticks begin to “fly with joy.” The miniskirted Ja-Won “beams across the table and tells me that I ‘eat Korean food better than a Korean man.'” But before long one of the locals puts an damper on the evening: “I looked up and saw a middle-aged Korean man in a suit leering over our table. He said something very rude-sounding to Ja-Won. I could only make out the word ‘American.'” His patience already worn thin by previous encounters with such self-appointed defenders of the race, Hudson stands up and tells the man, in English, that “I’d break his face if he came any closer.” That gets the Korean to back down, but it also gives Hudson pause: “That night in Seoul I had to admit to myself that it has been hard adjusting to life there these past several months.”

Hudson ended up staying in Korea for a few more years, until 2012, before returning to America. In an essay published last year at Literary Hub about how long it took him to finish his second book Gork, The Teenage Dragon, he names his move here among his attempts “to bandage the gaping wound that was my Non-Writing Self,” a self that seems to have emerged not long after he made his debut as a writer after studying under the likes of Ben Marcus and Robert Coover. “Fifteen years ago, Hudson’s Gulf War satire Dear Mr. President made about as big of a splash as a story collection can make,” writes Rolling Stone‘s Lincoln Michel. “Hudson was included in the New Yorker’s 2001 debut fiction issue — with Jonathan Safran Foer and Nell Freudenberger — and then in Granta’s Best Young American Novelists list in 2007, alongside Foer and Freudenberger again, as well as Karen Russell, Yiyun Li and Anthony Doerr, among others.”

Then, “from the perspective of the literary world at least, he disappeared.” Like many an Asian country, Korea has long held out the promise to Westerners of a reasonably comfortable place  to disappear, especially Westerners who once enjoyed some acclaim in their own countries. (Again I think of Japan in the ’80s, the owners of whose baseball teams made famously lavish offers to American players considered washed up back home.) “Before long, my spirit was a war-torn landscape littered with the corpses of the Writer I Used to Be and the Writer I Might Have Been,” Hudson tells Michel. He continued “pretending to be a relatively OK and mentally-healthy fiction writer. For most of that time, I was teaching creative writing in academia. I never knew soul-crushing until I encountered Faculty Meeting Soul-Crushing.” This from a man who not just joined the Marines after college but specifically requested to be a “grunt.”

Still, the less palatable qualities of “Urban Seoul” surely reflect the embattled state of mind brought on by living in Korea both without the language and with writer’s block. Some of the fault must also lie with the New York Times itself, which even in 2008 — before it laid off the copy editors, before perpetual reaction to Donald Trump made it “shriller and more indiscriminate,” as David Bromwich puts it — wasn’t quite what it used to be. In 2013 and 2014 it tapped Kim Young-ha to write on Korean issues for its international edition, and the devastation its editors wrought on the eight columns he produced must be seen to be believed. If that’s the treatment accorded to one of Korea’s most prominent novelists (incidentally, one whose work I’d written about for LARB a few months before), imagine what Hudson’s piece might have gone through before reaching its dumped-on published state.

The New York Times brought “Urban Seoul” back to my mind last month with “Finding Yourself in Los Angeles,” a travel piece by the novelist Reif Larsen. Like Hudson’s essay, Larsen’s version of the reflection by a Brooklyn-forged 30-something fiction specialist on a place he barely knows drew heavy ridicule — or in the Times‘ words, “significant feedback” — from locals “who found the piece dismissive of Latino culture and clichéd in its portrayal of the city.” As an enthusiast of writing on Los Angeles, my spirits fell when I realized that it, too, read like an article from the ’80s, or even the ’30s, not least because of its fixation on driving. Larsen even proposes, as his version of the Seoul ballet, the “festina lente” of the Los Angeles freeway, “a kind of existential calm that settles over you when surrounded by such a sea of cars, when there is no chance of anyone getting anywhere anytime soon.” On the subway he feels “a slight sense of metaphysical unease in the train car, as if everyone was looking around and wondering: Why aren’t you in a car?

Even more disheartening than “Finding Yourself in Los Angeles” itself was, after the negative reaction came in, the pageant of contrition subsequently put on by both author and publication. “Your concerns are being heard,” not one but two travel-section editors assured their incensed readers, “and the issues you raise make us aware that we need to do a better job capturing the true Los Angeles.” Larsen chose to recant on Twitter, posting a six-part thread in which he acknowledges having “jokingly referred to a neighborhood as a source of ‘useless items’ as though it didn’t have its own rich history.” He goes on, as if before a re-education committee: “I should’ve taken my own advice in the article & realized that places and objects of sanctuary, retreat, and reverence can take on all forms. I now see that this neighborhood is a potentially vital source of items for a number of communities, including the Latino community.”

Had “Urban Seoul” been published not a decade ago but this year — the year of, among other public apologies, poet Anders Carlson-Wee’s own extended Twitter self-criticism session in response to the charge of having used “disparaging and ableist language” in verse — Hudson would almost certainly have had to explain any number of offenses: perpetuating stereotypes, prioritizing the male gaze, failing to properly acknowledge the privileges accorded him by Korean society due (illegitimately, by definition) to his sex and race. In other words, he would have had to add to the grim modern spectacle described by Thomas Chatterton Williams, writing about l’affaire Carlson-Wee in The American Scholar, as “the artist’s own chilling fatigue, his lack of will or belief or energy to mount any kind of self-defense, to insist on the validity of his own view. So, through weakness and capitulation — his own, as well as his editors’ — an imaginary offense is somehow made to exist.”

Now a writer, especially a writer from one kind of place looking to write about another kind of place, might hesitate to put pen to paper at all. That would be a loss, especially for Western writing on Korea — a subgenre, and maybe the only subgenre, that interests me as much as writing on Los Angeles — since, even 10 years after a piece like “Urban Seoul” could appear in the Paper of Record, it has yet to quite come into its own. It still suffers from a “missing middle,” the yawning empty space between texts written only for readers with a specialist interest in Korea and those written for readers who nothing more about Korea except where to find it on a map, if that. “Urban Seoul” falls squarely into the latter category, but all of us invested in writing for a wide audience about Korea, or any country like it, haven’t made as much progress beyond it as we like to think we have.

 

Related Korea Blog posts:

Hagwon Horror Stories: Kevin M. Maher’s English-Teaching Expat Novel No Couches in Korea

Dropping an America Bomb on Hyundai: Frank Ahrens’s Life-in-Korea Memoir Seoul Man

Simon Winchester’s Korea, 30 Years On: Classic Travelogue or Cultural Offense?

Eating Korea: an Anthony Bourdain-Approved Search for the Culinary Soul of an Ever-Changing Country

 

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.

 

Image by Holly Wales via the New York Times.
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