Alex and I have been friends, co-workers and co-bloggers going back several years now to when we both lived in South Korea. While writing my book, Stranger in a Stranger Land: My Six Years in Korea, Alex graciously offered to help me edit it and also functioned as a cultural fact-checker for me. He was the first person to ever it cover-to-cover, and I was blown away when he asked to write the foreword. Please give it a read and below that you’ll find the opening paragraphs of Chapter 1. (Did I just write a foreword to a foreword? Yep!)
Foreword By Alex Pak
I am a gyopo (gyo-po). That means my parents were expatriated Koreans who sought to give me a life outside the Republic of Korea (a.k.a South Korea). As a US-born Korean American, my experience in the country my parents once called home was a bittersweet one. On one hand, I was exposed to an amazing nightlife, beautiful women, and great food, but the romantic vision I had before I went to Korea was shattered after a couple weeks of life on the peninsula. Never had I known a country with so much hidden tension and conflict. The first of my many reality checks came to me during my first month there. I had planned, like most in my situation, to work my day job and pick up some private tutoring gigs on the side to make some extra cash.
Unlike my non-Korean peers, I had relatives in Korea and friends of my parents who were more than happy to send me some referrals for some private tutoring as I tried to get on my feet. As a part of this process, I interviewed with about a dozen different families. After my first two meetings, my mother’s friend called me and told me that I should stop speaking Korean so well because the parents believed someone who could speak Korean fluently could not also speak English well.
This was just one of the many stereotypes I had to deal with while living in Bundang, a satellite city of Seoul, for 18 months. I can honestly say that I’ve never learned more about myself, my ethnicity and my upbringing than I did during that year and a half overseas. That I felt slighted made me a bit embarrassed after I read the shenanigans Brian went through, but to be honest, I think it made his story all the more entertaining.
It has always been my opinion that the mark of a good writer is directly related to their ability to pull you into an experience. In that respect, Brian’s tale of his six years in South Korea is not only a chronicle of his time, but also evidence to the fact that he is an amazing storyteller. I first met Brian when I had the good fortune of being hired as an editor for the curriculum research and development department of a large chain of private English schools located just outside of Seoul.
There, I learned a great deal about the country my parents call their gohhyang (goh-hyang), or simply put, their homeland. I can tell you, yes Brian’s stories are all true. The nightlife is second to none, the women are gorgeous, and the food is to die for. Yet, against the vibrant backdrop of a city that truly never sleeps, you can feel the cultural, racial, and gender-based conflicts that still dictate much of the interpersonal relationships that exist there today.
In spending time with Brian, I was able to not only find a new friend, but get exposure to a side of Korea I had never seen before. Being a US-born Korean, most natives say that the Korea that each of us knows and learned about is the Korea known by our parents. My experience really showed me how true that was. There I was, an entitled kid from Southern California, consoling myself because I was facing what I saw as “injustices,” and I felt like a crusader fighting against them. Then I read Brian’s story. I literally found myself, mouth open, in awe of some of the experiences that he had to deal with as a foreigner, an American and as a Black man (talk about intersectionality). This taught me that the image a country projects to the world is often much different that the experience you have while living there. As much as Korea changed me and helped me find myself, I think that seeing that experience through Brian’s eyes made it that much more meaningful.
As you start traveling with Brian through his narrative, you will find an entertaining and meaningful journey of discovery. His use of humor and wit to illustrate the complex social dynamics present in South Korea makes it hard not to chuckle at the various events that colored his time there. That’s it for me. Now, on to the good stuff….
Chapter 1 Welcome to Korea
I can’t say for certain, but it’s quite possible a smile came across my face the first time I pushed a woman. What I do know is an odd sense of pride instantly replaced my feeling of frustration. Even better, I could effortlessly breathe again.
Getting her out of my way allowed me to emerge from a brightly-lit, black-haired sea of humanity packed so tightly together a sardine can would seem wastefully spacious by comparison. Instantly, I went from the hot, sticky confinement of a subway car, with its stuffy recycled air, to the cool breeze and electric hum of that same car building up speed and pushing air on to my face as it left the stop.
But I didn’t have time to appreciate my improved situation or to wonder why I, again, seemed to be the only one around who minded these cramped conditions. I had to join the exodus of people jostling for position, as they quickly made their way to the exits to get to work. Not a word was spoken, not that I was likely to understand anything anyway. The only sound to be heard was that of hundreds of people’s shoes hitting the dimly-lit station’s marble stairs in unison, as they made their way to the city streets above.
As one of the more than 7 million daily subway passengers in Seoul, South Korea, pushing this woman marked a significant development in my reluctant cultural adaptation.[i] And it had only taken me three short years to achieve it! Gently and not so gently pushing someone to get them out of the way in a crowded place isn’t generally considered rude in Korea. Hell, being bumped hard by a passerby on an empty sidewalk typically doesn’t even warrant an apology there.
Honestly, the best piece of advice I can give anyone visiting the peninsula and planning on riding any form of public transportation is to never ever stand between an old Korean woman and an open seat. While most of them might be small and fragile-looking, I swear, they can go through a person like a blitzing linebacker on his way to a quarterback. As near as I can tell, the most valued thing to an elderly person there – aside from having successful grandchildren – is an open seat on the subway. In 2008, the year I first arrived, the pushing, bumping and line cutting that regularly occurs was one of the easiest to see – and most dramatic to witness – cultural differences in a country full of them.
Admittedly, I didn’t do a good job of integrating into Korean culture during my six years there. However, this shouldn’t be mistaken for me not trying to understand it, or adapting where I could.
To be fair, though, Korea doesn’t make it easy for an outsider to assimilate, as many expats who made genuine efforts to do so can attest, such as my friend Duke. He once had to spend three days in a rural village silently watching as his friend’s family engaged in one heated argument after another about why there was a foreigner in the house during Korea’s equivalent of Thanksgiving.
Along with not being fully welcomed by many Koreans, some aspects of daily life there simply run counter to Western notions of common sense. For example, if you’re about to get off an elevator and you’re standing with your nose to its opening doors, it would not be uncommon for a couple of people standing behind you to force their way out first. This is to say nothing of the people who will simultaneously try to make their way on. No expat I know of has ever been able to make sense of this, regardless of how well they fused with the culture.
While I now look back on my time in Korea and recognize I was more of an observer than an integrator, the act of pushing a woman cannot be overstated in terms of how large of a cultural departure it represented for me. I was surprised and a little concerned that I had finally given in to the near necessity of forcefully making my way off insanely crowded subway cars and buses. But like I said, I was also kind of proud.
To order an ebook or paperback copy of Stranger in a Stranger Land, click this link and enter the promo code LULURC for 20% and free international shipping.
[i] What are the world’s best metro systems? | CNN Travel. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://travel.cnn.com/explorations/life/10-best-metro-systems-746919