One of the last things I did before publishing my book, Stranger in a Stranger Land: My Six Years in Korea, was work on the dedication section, not that the many people who I wanted to thank and acknowledge hadn’t been on my mind the whole time. I guess I just didn’t want to jinx myself by writing a dedication section before the book was completely done. But as I got down to writing out the long list of people who assisted, encouraged and supported me during both my time in Korea and, more specifically, with the book, one thing more than any other kept popping up as needing to be recognized for the role it played in helping me create this book, and that was the nearly year-long trip around the world I was on while writing it.
Working on it whenever I found a place with a reasonably comfortable chair, a sturdy tabletop, a good view and decent access to food and drinks to chill out for a few days, I finished the first draft in about seven months, while backpacking and living out of hostels, hotels built into caves, houseboats, beach huts, mountain cabins, and ancient fortresses. I spent the remainder of my time on the road and the following eight months back in the States editing it. What I ended up with was a 76,000-word memoir that I think accurately describes what life was like for me and many other expats who were lucky enough to have spent time in “The Land of the Morning Clam.”
Getting to write a book, which is largely about cultural interactions, while traveling in places like Myanmar, Cambodia, Nepal, Serbia, England and Turkey, really helped me gain perspective on my time in Korea. These new experiences forced me to rethink some of the claims I had initially made in the first draft such as when I wrote that Korea was the most chaotic place I had ever been. This is because after traveling to large cities throughout Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, I had to account for what I had witnessed, and I was left with no choice but to re-calibrate that statement and many others. And while I could have gotten away with simply saying, “At the time, it was the most chaotic place I had ever been,” I ended up doing much more than that and tried to explain Korea’s hectic streets and the busy sections of Seoul while better and more accurately framing it in the larger context of the world.
In short, being on the road and witnessing so many distinct cultures up close while writing about what was, at the time, the most outstanding life experience I had ever had, gave me instant perspective that demanded to be taken into account. That, along with some helpful comments from my editors, kept me, I like to believe, from being hyperbolic in my statements and observations about Korea. Korea wasn’t an outlier or an extreme of humanity anymore, it was a place that existed in the huge continuum of human culture.
While on the road, I was able go out and explore an isolated country like Myanmar, and when I finally found a comfortable place to nest for a few days and work on the book again, my many new experiences became reflected in my writing. Sometimes they caused me to moderate something I had said about the peninsula. Other times they helped me confirm something about the country was as distinctive to it as I had claimed.
The road also deserves so much credit for influencing this book because of the people it brought me into contact with. Most of them had never been to Korea and were able to, through the course of discussing my time there, help me realize some of the unique things about the place that I had become completely used to. More importantly, however, people from the huge network of friends I made while living there kept popping up on my journey. I met up with, ran into or stayed with more than 40 friends from my time living in Korea. Sometimes this meant spending a couple of weeks traveling together, and debriefing about our time there: what we missed and what we didn’t. Other times it meant literally sitting in a café, seeing someone walk by on a street in a place as remote as Nepal and running out to go say hi and catch up.
During these “catch ups,” I was able to bounce my thoughts about our former second home off them and more than a few times it led to me getting a great story about their life there. Often times, I was able to use these stories to perfectly demonstrate one aspect of expat life in Korea or another and these stories gave the book colorful and oftentimes humorous anecdotes to bluster my claims, observations and cited facts.
I felt the immenseness of this Korean expat community even when I was high up in the Himalayan Mountains in the beautiful and isolated town of Minali, India. I stayed there for two weeks to finish the first draft of the book and that very same night, and despite being an 18 hour bus ride from the nearest major city, I was still able to go out with a friend from Korea, who just happened to be in the same town, for some celebratory beers.
All this said, I still do not think of myself as a writer, just like I do not think of myself as a photographer. True, I taken some objectively amazing pictures, and I have now written a book, but I feel these things are both the results of the places I’ve been and the opportunities I’ve been fortunate enough to have. As I’m fond of saying about the pictures I took during my trip, “If I had dropped my camera down the stairs, the result would have been amazing pictures.” The places I went were often just that effortlessly spectacular. As far as this book goes, simply having the chance to live in a culture as distinct as South Korea’s for as long as I did gave me something to say and a story to share. If anyone should feel I told it well…well, much of the credit belongs to the road that helped me some much in telling it.
For more on Brian’s book, click here.