Radical books in Seoul redux

Greetings. It’s been a long, productive and stressful time since I last updated this blog, and that’s not in any danger of changing. The tl;dr version is I’ve had to put my writing energy into publishable things rather than a blog. But in the meantime I’ve amassed a lot of photos. So here you go: what I hope to be a series of occasional visual updates about Seoul, Korea, fashion, politics and all-sorts.

Until yesterday I believed I’d found the only used bookshop in Seoul with leftist literature, in an underground mall near Myeongdong, the tourist area. But a friend introduced me to another underground bookshop in Sinchon, a major student neighbourhood. I’d walked by this particular shop a dozen times and never noticed it, because the entrance is a stairwell surrounded by stacks of old magazines. But go downstairs and it’s a treasure trove: aisle upon aisle, organized by section instead of thrown together randomly, and unlike the first place, the owner doesn’t chain smoke so you can stay there without your eyes watering. Oh yeah, and it’s ₩2-3000 ($2.50-$3.50) for softcovers and ₩4-6000 for hardcovers. It looks like a library:


That’s world history, organized by country, equal parts Korean and English with a smattering of Japanese, French and German books mixed in. The difference between this place and a library is that sometimes the aisle tapers to nothing:


That’s American history hiding behind those boxes. One day I hope to actually see what’s there, because a lot of the selection is US military discards, and the army are voracious readers, apparently. For example:


John Kenneth Galbraith’s How To Control the Military. Partially obscured by the dust jacket is ‘Property of US Army’. Know your enemy, I guess, or just gallows humour. But it’s not all military discards: there are a lot of reprints from Korea’s democracy movement days in the 80s and 90s, and a large minority of that movement were also anti-capitalist. Want a copy of Marx-Engels Works in the original German?


There’s a good selection from Progress Publishers – the Soviet foreign languages imprint – scattered throughout the stacks:


Literary theory and literature, feminism, sociology, politics, even someone’s highschool yearbook from 1957:


I couldn’t take it all with me; as it was, I stayed till I was dizzy from hunger and still didn’t see everything. But I managed to find some great obscurities:


… a country-by-country takedown of all the terrible things the Stalinists did in the 3rd World.


… a bootleg copy of Trotsky’s takedown of Stalin.


… a Marxist study of the second neoliberal experiment (the first being Chile under Pinochet), when the ruling class decided to stop funding NYC public services and engineer a crisis to break the city unions and lower property values.


I wasn’t going to get this, but passages like the following changed my mind:

I have a sense of humour that would nearly cause me to laugh at a funeral, providing it wasn’t my own. But when I am dealing with ignorant swine of police, my humor deserts me, and all I want to do is to needle them as best I can according to their particular brand of insolence. I started singing Gaelic songs, very rebel ones at that, and soon a lot of the other blokes joined in too.
    The fracas started on our way back from the cemetery. It was short and sweet like an ass’s gallop but in those few moments I lived a full life’s span, and in the years that followed I was never to forget them.

The author’s photo clinched it. This is what authors should look like:


The bookshop reminded me of why I love reading: the vast number of stories, issues and lovers of language who have contributed to our collective memory about who we are and how to change the world.

Help the Aged

Last Friday I was privileged to attend a social policy conference, where I heard some excellent presentations by academics and policymakers on the elderly in Korea. They have a hard life: Korea Expose – an excellent site for social commentary – writes in No Country For Old People that

45 percent of South Korean households consisting of seniors over the age of 65 make less than half the median household disposable income. Among seniors who live by themselves, that figure jumps up to more than 76 percent. In comparison, the OECD average is 13.5 percent.

The article describes in depth the heartbreaking life of the 1.75 million seniors making a living pulling recycling carts, sometimes into their 90s.


These figures are going to get worse, for two reasons. One is the demographic bulge on its way. In 1980, 4% of the population was over 65. Today it’s 12%, and by 2050 it will be 43%, nearly one in two. By 2030, half of employed workers will be over 50. Japan is weathering this shift right now, and devotes 8.9% of its GDP to elder care. Korea spends 1.7%. Clearly something will have to change. But it’s not just a matter of aging, nor of just increasing government spending.

The second reason is retirement: Korea is the only OECD country where the employer sets the age at which you have to stop working. Wages are fixed to seniority – decades of loyalty are rewarded with higher wages, so that someone with 30 years’ experience makes 3.3 times as much money as a new workers. But in order to save money, companies will often force workers to retire in their 50s or even 40s. This sounds ideal, but pensions are approximately $200 a month, which is impossible to live on. So although ‘official’ retirement happens early, Korea has the second-highest actual retirement age in the OECD: 71.1. It’s that huge gap – between mandatory and actual retirement – that gets filled with recycling carts.

Work for a living (The Wire)

The government is aware of the problem and has legislated a higher, mandatory retirement age of 60, beginning in 2017. This means that workers with seniority can’t be pushed out of their jobs in favour of younger, cheaper workers. But the giant corporations that form the lion’s share of the Korean economy balked at this and forced a compromise: ‘peak wages’. This means that wages will peak at age 55 and drop progressively until age 60.

If workers retire early, the government has to pay pensions – which ultimately come from tax dollars on corporations, or on workers’ wages paid by corporations. If workers retire later, corporations have to pay higher wages directly. Either way, the elderly – who literally built the Korean economy with their own sweat and blood in a few generations – are left with very little.

Hard work (Anna)

Unions have to fight for older workers’ rights. If workers could maintain their wages till they retire, and then be guaranteed decent pensions afterwards, this would not only solve elderly poverty but provide space for new, younger workers. And that, in turn would go a long way to correcting a mistaken impression many people have of Korea.

The long working hours and low productivity of Korea have been documented many times. This often gets translated as an into Orientalist terms, blaming ‘culture’, Confucianism or group loyalty – the exact term isn’t important, but it lends the impression of there being something fundamentally irrational in the Korean psyche that values desk-warming.

Homer retired

The explanation is both simpler and rational: if you’re going to be forced to retire at age 50, it makes perfect sense to work as much as possible now. Earn as much as you can, advance as far as possible, because your company job won’t be around for as long as you need it.

Yet if workers’ future was guaranteed, the spin-off benefits would be incalculable. Parents would no longer have to push their kids to get into a good university to get a corporate job, in order for the kids to take care of them in their old age. Families would no longer be split up as young people, often supervised by their moms, are sent overseas to the ‘good’ university, leaving fathers working long hours back home alone (the Korean term for them is ‘goose father’, referring to migration.) Young adults could have time to experiment with different career and life choices instead of being focused on getting into a company as soon as possible. Conversely, those who didn’t choose a corporate job wouldn’t feel washed up if they hadn’t ‘made it’ by the time they’re 30. In short, the promise of future security would open up huge possibilities in the present.

Work (Panda! Go Panda!)

Against the Disneyfication of Korea

#HappySeoul is the tag for a cover of Pharrell William’s Happy. In the video, expats and locals dance through a sun-kissed, verdant Seoul. Watch it because everyone in it is happy:

Thematically, shots of happy kids follow on from writhing girls in short-shorts. In the last shot, what appears to be a pregnant woman gets Happy Seoul written across her belly. Even her fetus will be happy. Seoul is hot… it’s cute… it’s heart-warming and family-oriented. Through jarring juxtaposition, #HappySeoul is all things to all people. What’s wrong with this picture?

1: this is not Seoul.

The video lacks smokers around every corner, people spitting on the sidewalk, and constant traffic, as Korea’s full-sized sedans perform their own dance of the machines along tiny sidestreets. Seoul is not this quiet and does not have this much public space: the city has 8% green space, the lowest of any big city in the developed world. Seoul is mainly huge roads and blocks of indistinguishable apartments that go on for miles.

Dance in this traffic – the street next to #HappySeoul’s BMX riders.

Dance in this smog – the spring dust storms from China combine with Seoul’s choking fumes to block visibility.

Dance in these crowds – Friday night in Hongdae.

The video’s lithe, expat dancers unintentionally reflect the pressures of the western labour markets: many ESL teachers have a fine arts background and can’t find work in their own countries. But if you come to Seoul, you will not find midriff-baring subway dancers or bikini-clad young women hanging out in the reclaimed river. Korea is conservative. There are many beautiful and sexy people in Seoul, but as I’ve pointed out, this is largely due to the brutal, unrelenting quest for status. The dancers posing in front of the Han, or in the Haebangchon underpass, could only strike those poses due to years of hard work and practice. Their apparent leisure is a product of Korea’s punishing work ethic.

In short, Korean society is not happy. There are many good social indicators of this fact. In the OECD, Korea has:

– the highest suicide rate
– the highest elderly poverty rate (and, relatedly, suicide rate among the elderly)
– the second-longest working hours and the lowest productivity
– the highest per capita rate of plastic surgery in Asia


If you visit the neighbourhoods featured in the video (I live in one of them), you will see happy people. But you’ll also see evidence of the above statistics. So what is this video actually saying?

2. Just because you say something doesn’t make it so

The response by the filmmakers and commentators to these points has been instructive. For example:

-Wow! You witnessed all that beauty and “Happy” and THAT is what you come up with??? That actually says more about YOU than the Korean people… Just watch the video again & have a “Happy” day.

-whatever the reason is, they made this video to share happiness, so don’t fight over records and such, be happy for whatever there is to be happy about right now.

-Actually this is seoul to the fullest. A few of my friends were in this video (worked on it too) and it was all done on a volunteer basis. Peopled turned up and just danced around on camera for free. Unless you were there during the shooting of this project please have several seats because you know nothing about Seoul.

Han on display – art in Hongdae

Pointing out #HappySeoul’s inaccuracy means succumbing to pessimism, projecting your own jaundiced perspective on the dancing masses. And even if there are some statistics suggesting otherwise, why point it out and make it worse? Be part of the solution rather than the problem.

But this isn’t the correct way to pose the question. It’s not about how optimistic or pessimistic you are, it’s whether the image you create has any relationship to reality. And if the city in #HappySeoul has a tenuous link to the real Seoul, what purpose does making a video like this serve?

The video captures one truth: Korean people are friendly and gregarious. You can’t sit in a cafe without at least one group of young women nearby, clapping and laughing. It’s common for Korean women to playfully slap their boyfriends. Korean social norms are expressive. But this video is all jeong and no han; as I argued in my last post, Korean society is equal parts solidarity and sorrow. This is not just an abstract statement: it’s constantly on display in the shouting, shoving and arguments that are part of pedestrian traffic here. The middle-aged men spewing complex colour palettes on the sidewalk after a night of company-enforced drinking are neither happy nor dancing.

There are bikini-clad women in Seoul, inexplicably advertising drumming lessons.

At best, a video full of happy people in an unhappy city is an attempt at reframing. There’s some truth to the cognitive therapy adage that if you find positive aspects of a bad situation, you can feel more hopeful and gain the strength to change it. But that only works if your circumstances are amenable to changing. The fatal flaw of cognitive therapy is that for those people in circumstances or structures well beyond your control, the reframing collapses in on itself and becomes a new way of self-blame. And that’s the conclusion commentators have drawn: if you can watch this video and not be happy, there must be something wrong with you. Which is a message that fits very well with neoliberal ideology: bootstrap yourself into a career, security and happiness. If you can’t do it, try harder. Those who have ‘made it’ have no responsibility to explain their rose-tintedness. They are free to blame the losers – and because there are winners, there must be losers.

At worst, this video is an active, if unwitting, obfuscation of social reality. What is a denial of very real social problems, from state repression to inequality, but a kind of sociopathy, an unwillingness to see the suffering on display on the streets of Seoul? It becomes propaganda, disturbing because of its very banality. The everyday of Seoul is dancing and smiling, it says. Come spend your money to experience it. Those who don’t fit don’t exist. They are the cracks in the pavement that our happy dancing will stomp on.

Yeonnam-dong’s own grumpy cat – if you’re pure-bred, you’re valuable enough to be kept on a leash.

Suffering is not motivational. Ripping the veil from people’s eyes doesn’t make them want to change it. This video resonates because it fills a need: people want to be happy, and to imagine a place where happy exists. This is fine in a Disney film, or in one of the giant theme parks that are so popular here. There’s no illusion about the escapism on offer in a theme park. But I think extending that narrative to an entire city is a form of violence. It denies the complex reality of 24 million people struggling to sell themselves in order to survive. #HappySeoul is not a story of redemption, of people facing challenges and learning to overcome them, or – god forbid – failing and learning about themselves. It’s an erasure of those struggles, an aestheticization of politics, like Benjamin warned us about. Given that it was made largely by foreigners, for foreign consumption, it even flirts with orientalist notions of happy Koreans, echoing similar images produced under Japanese occupation.

Not the Paris Commune – the ‘commune of radicals’ stripped of meaning and used to sell designer clothing.

For that reason, #HappySeoul accomplishes what it sets out to do: display a metropolis of smiling, carefree extroverts. And it accomplishes a darker purpose its makers may be unaware of: it disappears the conflicts and pain that make Seoul a real, vibrant, difficult place to live. #HappySeoul is propaganda that Koreans themselves have disavowed. Even mayor Park Won-soon doesn’t want Seoul portrayed this way: as he explained upon commissioning the video Bitter Sweet Seoul,

“Seoul has a sad history. If we try to project only the good side, it’s not the real thing,” Mr. Park said.

“Seoul is not a place in monotone; It has so many different colors… Having it depicted through this film will ultimately help attract more tourists,” the mayor said.

What does depicting Seoul with only one colour accomplish?

She’s Gone

Listen to this as you read and this post will make a lot more sense.

Or, for those with delicate ears or who hold an aversion to cheese, this is Steelheart, singing their hit She’s Gone. It’s bog-standard, paint-by-numbers 1990 hair metal. Steelheart are an also-ran, overshadowed by Guns n Roses and Motley Crue and then eclipsed when grunge music, with its air of authentic working class desperation, forced most hair metallers into a long over-due rest.

But not in Asia. Steelheart – and She’s Gone in particular – remain massively popular. In Korea, my girlfriend remembers hearing them constantly growing up in the 90s. Comedians make fun of She’s Gone because everybody knows it. And it’s become a noraebang (karaoke) standard.

A South Korean cover:

My question – to which I’ve been unable to get a satisfactory answer – is why. Steelheart is a second-string faux glam band with a power ballad, identical to any other band of the era, churned out as they were according to the diktats of record company executives (as Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snyder explains.) I hated this music in the 80s and I hate it now: it’s formulaic, non-creative garbage. If you don’t like it, don’t listen to it, as the pundits of youtube say – and I don’t.

But a lot of people in Korea do, and not just here. In Vietnam:

In Indonesia:

Zhao Han of China absolutely kills it:

Steelheart has eclipsed even the much more lovable Anvil as being – metaphorically at least – ‘big in Japan’ (I can’t find any Japanese covers.) Since nobody seems to have an explanation, here’s mine.

Technical proficiency

Koreans aspire to be the best. The concept of an innate talent exists but is mediated by effort: the understanding that if you try – I mean really hard, hours of daily practice for years at a time – you can succeed.

For example, consider ballerina Kang Sue-jin, a master of her field. She worked as a principal dancer at the Stuttgart ballet and is widely admired for her strength, agility and beauty:


But in Korea, the most popular photo of Kang is not of her dancing. It’s of her feet:

kang sue-jin's feet

When I first saw this photo I was a little repulsed. But this is not a deformity; my girlfriend explained that in Korea it represents the will to achieve. Success is worth personal disfigurement. It gives “Courageous Korean Gymnast Screams For 10 Minutes” a ring of truth:

As an example of the power ballad genre, She’s Gone is very good. Singer Miljenko Matijevic is incredibly proficient at hitting the high notes. It’s not creative, but that quality isn’t prized in Korean business, either in the tech or music industries. He’s excellent at what he does, and that’s enough.

Grunge is modernity in decay

Grunge music did not have to kill off hair metal in the U.S. The bloated spandexed, sneering, over-coiffed corpse of late-80s corporate rock keeled over and died of its own accord. Bombast, melodrama and balls-to-the-walls excess only made sense in an environment of greed and aspirational individualism. There was bound to be a reaction; the early 90s recession only quickened it. The end of the USSR and the end of history, the tightening vice of neoliberalism, and the sense that right here, right now was not the best place to be after all meant that pop music needed to channel a new authenticity. Nirvana and grunge provided it. The ripped jeans and second-hand flannel drew their aesthetic from the Salvation Army shops of the northwest where Kurt Cobain used to shop. The music was dark, about despair rather than proclamations, and cynical in the way only someone who’d had their heart broken by their own expectations could appreciate. Which in the early 90s was a sizeable chunk of people.

But not in Korea. Put differently, grunge was not aspirational. Until quite recently, there was tangible evidence for Koreans that working hard would bring results – if not for you then for your children. There was plenty to be cynical about, not least the super-exploitation of the Korean working class and the government’s brutal dictatorship. But upward mobility was possible. The democracy movement was fighting to share the wealth and reunify the country, not for the right to be miserable. Cynicism and irony are the product of wealthy societies, the decay of expectations. And music that expresses cynicism has no place in a nation-building project, left or right-wing.

Cynic? (La Chienne)

There are other reasons why grunge wouldn’t hold in Korea. Kpop’s infuriating, chirpy sameness comes from a courtly tradition (via Japan, or so I’ve been told), that saw musicians as background rather the centre of attention. The traditions of Korean drama display emotions on the surface: every soap opera episode has to feature sobbing characters, often more than one. But conversely, depression was, until recently, not spoken of here – to admit to being depressed was to admit insanity. When harmony and social peace matter, only the powerful get to express their feelings publicly. Even today, metal shows that express this kind of angst still count attendees in the high single digits. All of these factors help explain why a power ballad, with its formal, stylized outpouring of socially acceptable melodrama – but with no distancing or critical self-reflection – would succeed where grunge fails.

I still love Nirvana and will never be able to hear She’s Gone without cringing. But to give Steelheart their due, they captured a moment of blustery confidence in American culture that translated well to Asia. With the advent of the age of austerity, I await with interest what cynical pop culture will look like in Korea.

A tour of Yeonnam-dong in Seoul

I’ve recently moved to a new neighbourhood in central Seoul. Yeonnam-dong (연남동) is a small corner of the city made of twisty streets, walled by 4 storey buildings. Traditionally a Chinese-Korean area, it was segregated in the 1970s by the Korean dictator Park Chung-hee, who distrusted migrants and decreed that they couldn’t own property, isolating Chinese-Koreans there instead. Today it’s beginning to gentrify. It’s on the border of uber-popular Hongdae and Sinchon, both student-heavy neighbourhoods, and it’s near an exit of the airport railroad, making it popular with tourists and hipsters.

Yeonnam Mafia, a beer and fries place, an increasing popular trend in SEoul.

I moved to Yeonnam-dong because I got an instant good feeling from wandering the alleys. Unlike much of Seoul, it hasn’t been invaded by giant thoroughfares or malls and its old, low-level houses are being replaced with other houses rather than the ubiquitous 20 storey blocks that sprout most places. I have no doubt that older residents are being displaced by the new development. But Hongdae is now such a retail centre that landlords are kicking out residential tenants to build shops. In Yeonnam-dong, they’re building guest houses and small apartments instead.

Tearing down…

And building up.

And sometimes, rather than tearing down the old houses, they’re renovated instead.

The best feature of this neighbourhood isn’t even built yet. Yeonnam-dong abuts the old Gyeongui railway between Seoul and Pyongyang, which is being turned into a 10 km park. If you look on google street view, you’ll see it’s been a wasteground lined with grey metal panels for at least 4 years. However, the first section should be finished by the end of the year. This may not seem significant if you live in a city with public spaces, but most of Seoul is concreted over, and good luck finding a place to sit down. So a park, even an over-designed one, is a rare amenity.


This also means that the businesses nearby, currently tiny restaurants and bars, will soon have a pleasant green view instead of grey hoarding. Assuming on-street parking is banned, no sure thing in such a car-friendly city.

Restaurants facing the soon-to-be-park.

But that’s another great thing about Yeonnam-dong. Its streets are too narrow to accommodate many cars. Giant cars = status here, but Yeonnam-dong was designed prior to that, which means that the SUVs and full-sized sedans can only move one at a time through my neighbourhood. I rarely step aside to let them pass.

Good luck finding a passing lane.

There’s only one small road that sees constant traffic, partly because it’s wide enough to pass parked cars:

But mainly because it opens up to an intersection heading east, which is inaccessible from the west otherwise:

Sending a constant flow of cars down a tiny residential street because they can’t get to the thoroughfare otherwise is terrible traffic planning. But this kind of unpleasantness doesn’t extend very far into Yeonnam-dong. The streets get narrower and narrower:

Until my street, which is blocked by a well-placed telephone pole:

Result: my neighbourhood is quiet at night.

Which makes it great for cafes. These are mainly lined along the main streets but are beginning to creep in.
A vintage cafe. That 1980s-era pencil sharpener is yours for $120.

Deep inside Yeonnam-dong, a model-making workshop for all your Gundam needs.

Cafe Fishcamp and some local strays.
I don’t think that cat needs a leash, but it doesn’t appear to be bothered.

A little further afield

Yeonnam-dong is surrounded by many equally small – though not as pleasingly serpentine – neighbourhoods. However, it wouldn’t be Seoul without some enterprising developer lining the old railway bed with towers:

I like towers, but Seoul’s lack the audacity of Hong Kong’s – supertall and close together – or the uniqueness of New York. They’re tall enough to block the sun, short enough to be nondescript, and designed like the gridlocked metropolis I subjected my Sims to in Sim City 4. There are reasons they look this way, which are too complex for a short paragraph. However, thankfully this row is on the opposite side of the park.

A spooky abandoned restaurant. If you look closely someone’s scrawled “Fuck You” in big black letters on the glass.


Some graffiti on the park hoardings by exit 6 & 7 of Hongik station, across the road:


Happy Thanksgiving

Chuseouk, the harvest festival, has emptied Seoul of half its inhabitants and made the city (relatively) quiet. Tired of choosing between tinned meat and shampoo as a chuseok gift? Now you don’t have to:


The markets are full of rice pastries, but I don’t like the chuseok ones: they’re small, hard and slimy, with dry peanut paste in the middle. I prefer the soft red bean ones. That said, they’re quite popular at this time of year, and apparently improve considerably with steaming:

Finally, 4 is unlucky, 13 is not:

Stranger in a Korean land

Regular blog readers will be aware of my ambivalent attitude towards work. Having freed myself from that particular shackle, I was ecstatic and planned a week of craft beer and debauchery. My body had other ideas, and a few days later my scratchy throat progressed to a fever and chest cough, and my social activities were reduced to stumbling to a nearby cafe to read the newspaper. I was sick for two weeks.

In hindsight it makes sense: a year of keeping to a more-or-less rigid schedule, not to mention reconciling myself to the irreconcilable drudgery of wage labour, left me mentally and physically exhausted. There’s some cognitive dissonance involved: in the few lucid moments I had to and from the office, I planned glorious blog entries on the state, imperialism and social movements, and an ambitious research agenda to haul myself back on the academic wagon. But post-work mostly involved Simpsons episodes and trying to keep my sinuses from overflowing.

Duff Gardens hoorah!
Duff Gardens hoorah!

It’s also meant engaging with where I am. Working in an English-speaking office, absorbing English-language TV and books at home, and writing English-language job applications insulated me from the reality that I’m in a foreign country. Believe it or not, despite being surrounded by 24 million Koreans it’s easy to live in a bubble.

I can get British groceries from Home plus, the joint supermarket venture with Tesco’s. I can eat subpar Italian food in nearly every neighbourhood and Thai and ‘American’ in the central, foreigner-friendly ones. The internet allows me constant contact with foreign media outlets (and allows me to bypass the English-language papers in Seoul, which are remarkably content-free). The essentials of everyday life, like paying bills and rent, are entirely automated. If I wanted to, my only contact with Korean daily life would be the dozens of people serving my cappuccinos each week. This is not a good thing, but keeping that distance has helped me survive, because, post-work, I’ve realized how strange and foreign I am, or the place I’m in is – or both.

Some random Seoul graffiti: this one is in Haebangchon

‘Foreigner’ carries pejorative connotations in the west: someone dissociated from and rejected by mainstream society. But in Korea it’s the catch-all term for the 3% of people who aren’t from here. A friend of mine has observed that two years marks a turning point for most foreigners: they either find some reason to integrate or they give up and go home.

The familiarity of home has a strong pull on me. I wanted to leave Canadian comfort for many years, and I still find my country bland and insipid when it’s not being viciously reactionary, such as with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s support of Israeli state terror. I don’t identify in the slightest with whatever counts as authentic Canadian culture (except for maple syrup. I can’t live without that.) But I miss the diversity that comes with official Canadian multiculturalism.

This is skin-deep, to the extent that multiculturalism doesn’t mean much more than restaurants from different parts of the world, different music coming out of car stereos and the occasional street festival. As a white person, I have the privilege of sampling different cultures without committing to any of them or experiencing the racism that attends minority status.


However, there’s also a comfort level with seeing different kinds of people on the street, and there being different cultural practices available. I’ve only experienced this in one other city, London, which is a large part of why I felt so comfortable there. Even the surface-y multicultural stuff – like a good curry or kalamata olives in the grocery store – starts to grate when it’s missing.

It’s ridiculous to claim South Korea is a monolith. Korea is riven with multiple fractures of class, gender, sexuality and, in a different way, geography, as it’s trapped between the ocean and the Stalinists. This introduces a new form of status – those who can leave for education or citizenship, and those who are stuck here. Which leads to a defensive Korean nationalism vs. cosmopolitanism, which in turn is mapped onto class. For example, it’s no accident that the most foreign luxury cars are bought, and the most English is spoken in Gangnam, a place Koreans call “another country” (another wealthy country, as Psy reminded us.)


But the promotion of Korea as a centralized, unified entity has a long history. There’s nothing like repeated invasions and occupations to give you a sense of national purpose. This means that there actually is something identifiably Korean, and it’s more than a flag. I maintain that Canada and many other countries have no national identity other than a few surfacey details like sports teams and national dishes. (This doesn’t stop wars being waged using those symbols for their respective capitalists, of course.) Korea, on the other hand, has markers of a distinct culture, in its food and fashion on the surface, but also in its family relations, formal respect for authority and spirit of social solidarity. Koreans are proud of this, and even the ones who want to get the hell out of Korea are hardly going to reject it wholesale.

What I’m slowly getting to is that my experience of being a foreigner in Korea is different than being a foreigner in western countries I’ve been to. Most migrants eke out miserable lives on the margins in the hopes that their children will have better lives. But in theory, if you’re the right colour, class and gender, you can pretty much do as you please in London as you can in New York as in Toronto. Society won’t judge you, because society doesn’t share that much between its disparate individuals pursuing their fractured autonomous identities.

A dress in a vintage shop. Colour me good, Ryan Gosling. Colour me good.

In Korea, being a foreigner means working very hard to find all the places that you can consume different, foreign things; being subjected to intense curiosity about your foreign ways; and constantly feeling not just on the outside of the mainstream, as a migrant in any country must feel, but being outside of a thing called ‘Korea’. It’s presented that way by Koreans themselves: Korean people are the first to say that “in Korea, we are X and Y”, in a way I’ve never encountered in another country. Indeed, the existence of the category “foreigner” is the clearest sign of this: it designates some essential otherness that erases differences. There’s Korean, and there’s everything else.

I have the privilege of a Korean girlfriend, who has not only helped me negotiate the more difficult aspects of life here but given me access to Korean society that I wouldn’t have otherwise. We’ve been to weddings, pool halls, noraebang (karaoke to use its Japanese term). So I haven’t been sucked into an expat bubble, exclusively hanging out with foreigners – which would be easy considering I live in the expat neighborhood. It’s also meant I haven’t had to function on my own as a foreigner in a strange society. Moreover, my girlfriend has given me insight into the real functioning of Korean society, beyond the tourist board image of Korea and the polite-and-friendly front that Koreans present to white foreigners. Thanks to her I know about things I don’t hear foreigners or the government talk about, like:

– the intense appearance-ism that leads to plastic surgery, comb-overs and disturbing kpop advice videos
– the shyness that Korean people feel about speaking English, and their shame at lacking English abilities
– the ageism permeating Korean society: women are over the hill at 30 if they’re not married and careered, while middle-aged men are an object of ridicule

My girlfriend’s knowledge of how things really work here, and her ability to confirm or correct my own impressions, has been invaluable.

She counts on her fingers by closing them; I count by opening them.

But despite this, I’m still experiencing what I’m going to call ‘delayed culture shock’, or maybe ‘culture weariness’ is better. There are dozens of blogposts about culture shock in Korea: the poor-quality public toilets, the shared soup dishes, the differing ways of addressing older and younger people. Some of these are written within weeks of foreigners’ arrival here – it’s not hard to figure out how things are different from back home, and the observable differences are quaint and manageable. For example, I don’t really consider a staff person repeating “Welcome to Uniqlo” every 5 minutes when I’m buying underwear that big of a shock. Learning that a caramel macchiato is actually just a latte with caramel syrup was disappointing but not earth-shattering. I just learned to ask for an espresso macchiato.

No, what bothers me about my medium-term adaptation to Korea is that the longer I stay here, the more deeply-rooted things I learn about how Korea works… and the less I like some aspects of it. Maybe I would’ve figured this stuff out earlier had I been single and working in a private school. But newly unemployed, and woozy from cold meds, I had time to contemplate the aspects of life I find difficult. The constant second-hand smoke, the poor selection of vegetarian food and the near-complete ignorance of what that is, the complete lack of public space, to the point where houses are walled to hide gardens from the road and sidewalks are a rarity, notions of public and private health I find baffling – these are wearying. (For example, gym shoes that only see use in the gym are banned from locker room floors, so as not to track dirt in. Yet nobody uses flip-flops in the shower room, despite the obvious threat of fungal infections.)

Just in case you weren’t sure what hipsters are into

It’s also the lack of English. You may ask what kind of an asshole comes to another country and expects them to speak his language, and you’d be right. In my defence, I’m the kind of asshole who believed that 15 years of mandatory, relentless English studying by every Korean person meant actually learning English. But English is a requirement to get into a good university and company job. As a friend put it, it’s a sign of submission, proof that you will be a pliant worker. And there’s no surer way to kill learning than to make it entirely test- and performance-driven. So I don’t blame Koreans in the slightest for not knowing how to speak English: I would do exactly the same in their shoes. If anything, not learning English is a Korean form of passive resistance to the concentration of money and power at the top.

So, while this makes it hard for me to communicate, this is my fault: my Korean skills are below the abysmal level they attained last year, and I feel badly that I can’t communicate beyond smiles and hello with the old women who squat outside my front door every morning. Everyone I know who’s mastered Korean has studied it full-time for at least 6 months. When I’m not struggling to scrape together the $10,000 a minimum rent deposit requires, I’ll do just that.

Most Seoul cafe names are non-sequiturs, but Thanks A Latte nailed it.

Less trivially, as I’ve written before, the intense focus on status – which many expats seem to be oblivious too because they’re not targets of it – is deeply troublesome. And the explicit hierarchies – the expectation that you must do what older people tell you because they’re older, the deference to authority and its flip side, the adherence to group culture, the rigid gender roles – my resistance to these has been growing. Living in Korea as a foreigner has made me aware of how western I am. For that I’m grateful, because going abroad has cured me of some naive, false universalism I held back home – the idea that most people enjoy living the same way.

For instance, I’ve learned that I dislike the “all together” attitude and, instead, really value my privacy. I don’t just mean physical space, though I can’t say I enjoy being squeezed on a sidewalk by slow-moving groups. It’s more the expectation that people must eat, drink, and walk together at all times. For example, my Korean friends tell me that there’s immense social pressure to eat lunch together at the office, which would’ve killed me at my last job. It’s indicative of a social, expressive culture that values reciprocity and feedback… which apparently I don’t.

Kimchi II (Our Fragrance)
Though this is from a DPRK film, there’s a grain of truth in his self-criticism.

As I face the next period of uncertainty, stuck in a country that I’m not sure I want to be in, work visa-less yet unclear where else I could go at the moment… I’m learning that in a crisis, it’s possible to let go of all the politics, caring about people and events happening thousands of miles away that will never affect me personally. On days when I’m wondering how I’ll pay my rent deposit, and stop my greedy landlord from overcharging me for repairs, it’s occurred to me that, if not for Facebook and progressive websites, the broader world wouldn’t even exist for me.

But after all that, there are still things to do: work or looking for it, rent/mortgage, getting to work, paying for groceries and hoping to afford an occasional holiday weekend. So the contradictions – chiefly of having little income when some people have vastly more – don’t go away, and politics comes back, but more personalized and in some ways more scary. There’s no leaving the issue behind at the pub after the demonstration and resuming everyday life. This is everyday life in a society that does not guarantee our means of existence, and it’s hard.

Life isn't fair

I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour

I’ve been quiet about work on this blog, as I’ve been waiting for various papers to be shuffled, ducks to line up, etc. In the interim, I’ve taken on a number of tasks, such as:

– writing a journal article
– turning it into a conference presentation
– assembling paperwork to teach two courses at different universities
– finding a new apartment

Race (Long-distance runner)

Each of those could be broken down into a dozen steps, all at various stages of completion. To give just one example: to get paid for a job at a Korean university, I had to supply my Korean bank account. But despite operating in the most wired country in the world, where you can pay bills simply by swiping your smartphone, the university only deposits wages into 3 banks… none of which were mine. Presumably there’s some monopoly licensing agreement, like when a school only permits certain soft drink brands to be sold on campus. So I had to open a new account just for that university. This is separate from the multiple levels of paperwork required to get permission to teach.

All this is worth it because I’ve decided to stay in Korea for the time being. As much as I miss my friends (and my books) back home, there’s nothing there but part-time contract employment, and even those jobs are being bitterly fought over by underemployed PhDs. In Korea, I’ve learned the importance of networking. I applied for over 100 academic jobs and got nowhere; I got introduced to people, who introduced me to other people, who offered me jobs without an interview. If I wish I’d learned one thing during grad school, it’s that ‘it’s all who you know’.

A steady job (Modern Times)
At some point anyway.

Life is looking a mite more stable than previously. Yes, I’ll be teaching for dismal wages – 40% of western contract salaries, which are already terrible – and I’ll go further into debt to pay Korea’s ridiculous rent deposits, but I’ll be building my CV, networking, writing, teaching.

Except I won’t. My work visa just got turned down. The reason? The university is paying me too little. Korea will only issue visas if you make a minimum of $1.5K a month, and I make far less than that. I made up for it by getting a contract at a different university – every adjunct prof knows the joy of cobbling together contracts to make a wage. Except that if I can’t get a visa for the first one, I can’t get a visa for the second. Unlike other countries, Korea issues visas according to your workplace, not your residence.

It makes little sense (The Purple Ball)

It’s not just that I move in two weeks, and I’ve paid a thousand dollar non-refundable deposit. It’s not just that I have a dozen other pressing tasks already, and I don’t need to be negotiating my status. It’s that Korea says it’s open to the world, and it wants foreign expertise. The government PR department calls it “the Korean dream”: just like America, people with skills can come here and create a life for themselves. But as my Korean friend told me the first week I was here, the Korean government doesn’t actually want foreigners in the country. They’re tolerated for specific jobs, mainly English-teaching. In what no doubt is an attempt to protect ESL teacher wages, they’re willing to fuck over those of us who are willing to be super-exploited because, well, that’s the nature of adjunct work.

So, as of today I’m in debt, jobless and, if I renege on my lease, out a thousand dollars and one very angry landlord, who’s so Confucian that even the real estate agents had to sit quietly while he lectured us. Or, if I stick it out in Korea, I become deeply indebted with no income, all because my university failed to learn the rules before it told me I could have a job. (Naturally I checked the rules too, but the government never mentioned an income requirement.)

Nothing goes as planned (The Matrix III)

I feel like I’ve given a lot to this country, chiefly financially, but also as a foreign ambassador of sorts. Westerners have a mixed reputation here: despite misplaced gratitude for saving the country from Communism, Westerners are often touted on social media as drunks, perverts and thieves. There is truth to this, although no more than for any other group. Yet I try to be consistently polite. I get out of the way of people when they’re barrelling into me, I don’t complain when I request a vegetarian meal and get ignored, and most of all, I try very hard to write and teach what I’m requested to do. For the most part this is appreciated, with one glaring exception: the Immigration Department, who doesn’t give a damn about me or my university, and only cares about enforcing opaque, arbitrary rules that they won’t tell me about beforehand. And my university is willing to offer me work without understanding how to make it legal. In short, coming to Korea has occasioned an enormous amount of personal growth and fulfillment; but professionally, coming to work in Korea was a really bad decision.

There’s a reason why foreign faculty last an average of a single year in Korea before getting fed up and going home. The work rules are just too arbitrary. Don’t agree to work in Korea unless you have everything sorted out beforehand… and be prepared to have the rules changed on you as you go.

Fuckers (Street Angel)