Tag Archives: Korea

Bored in Korea? Read a book!

Slide1Teakettle Mountain, the story of one loser English teacher’s quest to not be a loser, has been re-released on amazon.com. Check out the story reviewers are calling “a joy to read”—available now for $2.99, less than a third the cost of a cup of coffee in our adoptive homeland!

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Fight The Power

Why have I stopped blogging? Because blogging doesn’t pay. Writing books doesn’t really pay either, but it does pay something, and I decided over the last two months to devote all my creative powers toward using writing to make that something into a bigger and more substantial something that would be sufficient to extricate both myself and my family from Korea. Not surprisingly, we’re all still here.

But I was inspired to return briefly to my defunct website to describe an encounter I just had at a restaurant with my two-year-old son as well as a family of Koreans, who sat down across from us and commenced to parrot everything I said in English while simultaneously commenting, in Korean, on what my son and I were doing. I told my son to have some rice in English, and the boy across from us told his father the same thing in the same language, explaining that it meant 밥 먹어라 in Korean. His father went on to say “habbuh some lie-ssuh” about thirty times to the rest of his family, who were all very much amused by his antics. My son then lifted up a fork to eat the rest of his rice. This is strange in Korea, where people only use steel spoons and chopsticks to eat Korean food, forks and knives being reserved for unhealthy and barbarous western cuisine. When I heard the boy across from us say “pokkuh” with surprise and amusement, I looked up at him and his family—for the first time—and discovered that they were all staring at us and smiling.

I couldn’t resist. I berated them, in Korean, for treating us like zoo animals. I know I conjugated my verbs politely, but the emotion inside of me was so strong that I can barely remember what I said. I can remember seeing those amazing smiles of theirs—those “The Foreigner Is Going To Amuse Us” smiles—fade into extremely awkward and stilted “We Don’t Know What To Do” smiles as I said something like, “Is this funny? Is this funny? If you went to America, and spoke Korean, and heard people speaking Korean around you, you would feel bad. For us, we feel bad. It’s not funny.”

Simplistic it is, and I may not have even gotten that much across. Who knows. But it did shut them up. I addressed all of them, as well, looking mother and father and older brother and younger brother straight in the eyes, and they were so surprised they said nothing back. When I finally glanced down to my son, who was still eating white rice with his fork as though nothing out of the ordinary was happening at all, they were still smiling at me like mannequins. It was spectacular. I told my son to finish up, and actually started laughing with him. We paid, thanked the restaurant’s owner as politely as we could, and walked out.

Maybe I would have let it go if they had done the same thing to me before yesterday, when I suspect one of my college students pretended to ddong-chim me for the amusement his friends. I only saw him do so out of the corner of my eye, and I’m not even really sure that’s what he was doing to begin with, but I didn’t yell at him for it—I let it go, actually, when I should have flung him out of the classroom, and because I let it go, the anger seethed inside me, twisting in my gut like a knife for the rest of the day, through the night, and all the way into this afternoon. I regretted my restraint, and I will probably wind up yelling at him in the next class we have together.

But as a result of this restraint and subsequent regret I decided to unleash the fury of my silver Korean tongue, my second soul, at the exact moment I encountered a fresh instance of barbarism that was not only directed toward me, but toward my son. Some readers may think I was less than diplomatic, but seriously, they were talking about us as if we were zoo animals—they were insulting us, right in front of us, as if we didn’t care. I mean, who does that? Who goes to a restaurant—which was otherwise empty, by the way—and starts talking about the people sitting right next to them as if they’re an exhibit in a museum? Who does that, and then smiles pleasantly, as if the people on display don’t care—as if those people enjoy being dehumanized? I shouldn’t have said anything, honestly. What I should have done was pull a Klaus Kinski. I should have picked up my bowl of hot soup and flung it at the boy’s father and said HAVE SOME RICE!

On a related note, last night, a boy came up to me while I was trying without much success to remember the passcode required to get inside a massive apartment building, where one of my students was waiting for me. I was several minutes late and feeling extremely frustrated. He walked up to me, and said, in English, “where are you from?” Without looking at him and also without thinking I said “your mom”. He said, “your home?” And I said, “no, your mom.” He stopped talking to me after that. I then remembered the passcode and got inside.

One more slightly related story. Another blogger has recently related a complaint about Korea’s four-thousand-year history. An older Korean in-law came up to him and said, “did you know Korea has a four-thousand-year history?” or something like that, and it made this blogger feel bad. I found this encounter interesting for numerous reasons, one of those being that a friend from Hampshire engaged in a rather epic battle with a Korean nationalist to remove that exact same [ridiculous] claim from wikipedia’s History of Korea page.

I told my (Korean) wife about this encounter, testing her to see if she would make the bogus claim that Korea is the oldest country on Earth, and she had the presence of mind to say “everyone has a four-thousand-year history”, or something to that effect. And for most of my readers, particularly those reading from beyond the half-peninsula’s shores, that is a truism, but inside Korea it really is possible to encounter people who believe that they could go four thousand years back in time and talk with their ancestors in modern Korean about the scientific wonders of Hangul and the spectacular beauty of 우리 나라 Dokdo over a bowl of spicy kimchi stew.

Now, in four years of dwelling in Korea, I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve met who believe these things. One was a random retired schoolteacher. Another was kind of crazy, and introduced himself to me by declaring that an American soldier had killed his grandmother. A third was my mother-in-law, who said that Korean scenery is the most beautiful in the world (my wife corrected her and said that other places are much more beautiful, but why does there even have to be a contest? Parts of Korea are beautiful, parts of the rest of the world are beautiful, everything is wonderful). That’s it. For the rest of the hundreds or even thousands of people I’ve spoken to, these issues have not come up.

But, on the off-chance that someone does come up to you and decides to pick a fight by saying “my country is older than yours” or “my alphabet is prettier than yours”, I recommend fighting them back. I won’t speculate as to why these people act this way, but I do know that by simply nodding and smiling and saying wow, that’s interesting, they aren’t going to stop. That family I berated, for instance, will probably think twice about discussing other foreigners as if they are zoo animals in the future…although I wouldn’t be surprised if they did the exact same thing again in the exact same place and got yelled at in the exact same way, only to ask themselves, “why are these foreigners such assholes?”

First, the claim that Korea is four thousand or five thousand years old or whatever is based on a text called the Samguk Yusa which was written seven hundred years ago. This text does say that an ancient Korean dynasty was founded a long way back, but in the same breath as saying that its founder, Dangun, came out of the sky, talked to bears and tigers, and invented medicine. Thus!, telling people that Korea is older than [insert country here] because it was founded by Dangun is really no different from saying that Greece was founded by Zeus or that England was founded by a dragonslayer named Beowulf or that Iraq was founded by Gilgamesh. Ancient civilizations were present in all of these places, just as they were present throughout much of the rest of the world—some were hunting deer, others were building pyramids, why is one better than the other?—and there is some historical basis for these myths, but can we really trace a direct link between our world and theirs? Would anyone from that period of history feel comfortable or at home in ours? Would anyone from our period feel comfortable or at home in theirs? Why do we then claim them as our own? Why, also, do we sometimes associate ourselves with sports teams made up of muscular men who want nothing to do with us? And why do I see colors when I rub my eyes?

Second, the claim that Hangul, the Korean script, is scientific. It is not a myth. People do say this. I’ve asked them what they mean when they do, and they immediately say “I have no idea.” I’m not really sure what they mean by scientific—what hypothesis is the written language testing or proving?—but there is a direct link between certain letters of Hangul as well as certain letters of the Roman alphabet, so if Hangul is scientific, the Roman alphabet is scientific too (even if these letters descended from arbitrary Egyptian hieroglyphics). The letter ㅂ looks and sounds like a B; the letter ㅋ looks and sounds like a K; the letter ㄴ is sometimes pronounced as an L; the letter ㅣ is sometimes pronounced as an i; the letter ㅍ looks and sounds like the Greek equivalent π. Other letters resemble one another: ㅌ, ㄷ, and ㄹ are all fairly familiar-looking to Westerners who know nothing about Hangul. So if someone comes up to you and says Hangul is scientific, you can say, hey, great, my alphabet is scientific, too!

A final note. The first paragraph I wrote here implies that I am desperate to leave Korea. And, to tell you the truth, when I find myself walking around the trash-strewn streets of Gyeongju with my son, I can’t help but feel ashamed. I’m like, really, Ian? This is the best you can do? You’re going to raise your son in a place that smells like diarrhea? When your parents raised you around Park Slope and Acadia National Park? Don’t get me wrong. I like Korea. I speak Korean. I’ve married a Korean person. I have a great relationship with her parents. She has a great relationship with mine. My son is half-Korean. I thoroughly enjoy my job at a university in Korea. But when I think of my son walking around these mountains of garbage, bent over multiple-choice exams in a hagwon at twelve in the morning, listening to yet another group of idiots say hello to him in English, I can’t help but consider that a failure. I can’t help but feeling to the depth of my soul that I am capable of more. We’re getting out of here. He’s going to live in a place that treats him like a human being. America has its problems, but jesus christ, as least the kid can go outside. And my insane hope to break free from all of this insanity is to write a book that people actually read. Or to just get a decent job.

I will escape, one day, and you’ll read about it here, when I do. Then these ridiculous stories about zoo animals in restaurants will end forever.

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Literary News

Item. Teakettle Mountain will be available for free starting in about two hours (Around 12AM Tuesday Pacific Time / Around 4PM in Krrrreeeya) until Friday at the same time. Snap up a copy before it’s too late!

Item. After several rejection letters, an agent I queried has requested more materials for Sorabol, which I’m currently attempting to publish via more traditional methods, after having already put it up on amazon as a kindle ebook. It’s still very possible that he’ll pass on it after taking some more time to look it over, but I think I’ve passed a sort of milestone in the authorial cursus honorum—getting a reply which is not a rejection form used for the slush pile.

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Sorabol’s Opening Lines

Nothing was normal about the death of the monk named Ichadon. At his own insistence the execution was a public event paid for by the royal purse. Treasurer Jee of the Sixth Bone Rank wrote that the signs erected and the criers employed for advertising in the weeks leading up to the beheading cost in excess of two thousand knives, and that urgent repairs to the walls of Acha Fortress were halted for several weeks as a result. Though it cannot be said that the attendees did not get their moneys’ worth, further spending was incurred after tiered seats were constructed at the execution square, before the Great Dolmen in the center of the capital city of Sorabol. Minister Pan, also of the Sixth Bone Rank, estimates that ten thousand citizens were gathered in attendance. Ambassadors from Northern Wei, Southern Liang, Hundred Vassals, Kaolee, and the Dwarf Kingdom, were present, and greatly impressed by the remarkable events which occurred on the Eighth Sun of the Fourth Moon of the Thirteenth Harvest in the Reign of Great King Fa, who ruled during The Era of First Establishment [527 CE].

Get the Kindle ebook on amazon for $2.99.

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When The Storm Lay Gyeongju Low

My son and I were wandering the Bronze Age petroglyphs on the far side of the Hyeongsan River and the feeling in the air was already bizarre, as he had just pointed at one of the sheer cliffs and exclaimed “Buddha!”, despite having no apparent knowledge that the area was some kind of sacred fertility precinct thousands of years ago (in Korean it’s called “애기 청소 / Aegee Chungso / Baby-Washing”). The carvings on the rocks are visible if you look closely—I only discovered them after taking a picture, draining the colors, and then fiddling with the contrast—but I find it somewhat eerie that the boy found his own arcane way of sensing their spiritual significance. A nearby sign warns people, only in Korean, not to engage in shamanistic rituals, there are heaped-up graves watched over by broken tombstones carved with Chinese letters crowding the surrounding forests, and another nearby sign claims that all kinds of strange things have been seen here; that it was a retreat for poets as well as anti-Japanese guerrillas.


We made our way up to Geumjangdae, a reconstructed Joseon-style pavilion overlooking the river, and discovered at once that ominous stormclouds were looming over the mountains. They looked like something out of Ghostbusters or Independence Day; the special effects that God chose to employ on that Sunday afternoon were indeed somewhat cheesy and not quite up to the new standard set by Pacific Rim, which I had seen only a few hours before (and which was so awesome I may go to see it again tomorrow (with earplugs))…

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The storm moved fast, with the billowing wind, and I had only a few moments to snap some pictures with my iPhone (while my son had only a few moments to run around screaming and playing with the other children) before we had to rush in under the safety of the pavilion’s jade roof. The darkness covered the city, and rain burst out of the gales.

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There were about two dozen Koreans inside the pavilion, both children and adults, and most of them were flustered by the rain. For whatever reason the people here generally despise getting even slightly wet, and will carry umbrellas around en masse even in the mistiest drizzles, or when there are just lots of harmless clouds in the sky; I hear they do the same thing in Japan to conform to the divine pronouncements of that country’s trustworthy meteorologists; inside the pavilion the adults were yelling at their kids to get away from the rain, yelling into their phones that it was raining, yelling at each other that the rain was coming, yelling as if their voices could drown out the downpour itself, while the children laughed and ran and screamed—my son among them.

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The thunder boomed and cracked, the rain rushed down into the leaves in waterfalls, and my smiling son jumped into my arms and shouted: “Helicopter!” As I rested against one of the red pillars (after snapping about a thousand pictures) to wait out the storm, sensing that it would be over quickly—since that which comes quickly, goes quickly—texting my wife, who was relaxing at home after six straight grueling days of caring for seniors with dementia, to reassure her that we had not been swept away by any tornados, an older Korean man approached me and asked me what I was doing there. I told him I worked as an English teacher at — University, and that I could speak Korean because I was married to a Korean woman; his twenty- or thirty-something son then approached me and declared rather quickly, with his hands on his hips, that he was a math professor at Toronto University, while his wife held down the same occupation at Northeastern.

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When the old man asked me where I had graduated, I tried to say that it was no use, since in four years of living here not one Korean I’ve spoken to has ever heard of Hampshire College—which, with its written evaluations, student-directed creative projects, and gradeless testless radical ideas, all set in a wide patch of idyllic farmland, is the absolute antithesis of the multiple-choice exams that plague the cement high-rises of Korea—and then when I finally did tell him, he, of course, didn’t know what I was talking about. His pretty daughter (in-law?), who was like the Asian version of Jim Carrey’s lost love in The Truman Show, then asked me what my major was, and after wondering if I should say history, creative writing, or Greek / Roman / 19th Century European Literature, I settled on “English Literature”, and she nodded, and that was the end of that.

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The rain seemed to be letting up, and I said it was nice meeting them, and then went on my way with my son, walking down the steps past the soaking foliage, to meet my wife, who was walking up toward us in flip-flops with a pair of umbrellas, having driven out in her noble chariot to rescue us from the tempest. My son seized one of these umbrellas, and then on the walk back down to the car my wife slipped and fell in the mud, coating her rear with what looked like fecal matter. This might have amused my son, who has spent every day of the last two years doing the same thing to his own nethers with real fecal matter, but he was too transfixed with the power of the brella, as he calls it, to notice.

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We got back home, and all the swelter and tension in the air had been exploded, torn up, and carried away, by the storm, which was then pouring over the mountains and far away. Cool breezes flowed into the windows from the blue night, and my son fell asleep at 7PM, overcome with excitement, sleeping twelve hours into the next morning, and giving me a chance to finish Salammbo and get started on The Temptation of St. Anthony, in which I soon read—

Immediately he is cloyed with orgiastic excesses, sated with fury of extermination; and a great desire comes upon him to wallow in vileness. For the degradation of that which terrifies men is an outrage inflicted upon their minds—it affords yet one more way to stupefy them; and as nothing is viler than a brute, Anthony goes up upon the table on all fours, and bellows like a bull.

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Book Report

Sorabol’s free promotion has ended, but it can be considered quite a success. It was at the top of two of amazon’s lists (Historical Fiction and Asian Myths I think…) and it was also around number 1,100 in the entire Kindle store, which isn’t bad at all considering the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of books available. A lot of people downloaded the book, far more than I ever expected, in fact; my writing has never really been read by more than a handful of readers, and I think that this ploy has increased my exposure. I may be experimenting with more giveaways in the future—since, at this point in my life, if I had to choose between being read and making money, I would definitely choose the first option over the second.

Thanks to everyone who decided to take a look at this book. I hope you enjoy it.

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How To Fight The Hellos

It’s always confused me, this occasional predilection Asia has for greeting non-Asians with an English hello—I was once helloed as faraway as the Balinese countryside, while riding on the back of a speeding motorbike, by a uniformed schoolchild—and though I can’t speak for the tone used in China, Japan, or other countries, my impression is that in Korea the speaker is generally attempting to alienate you from his culture, to establish that you are a member of a different tribe, to amuse his friends, or to sate a Pavlovian reflex implanted within his consciousness by his television or his elders: when you see a person who looks slightly different, you must say hello in English.

While living in Australia my Korean wife complained that people addressed her in Chinese or Japanese—never Korean—and though I know that Asians are subject to all sorts of racism back in America (do you know kung-fu? do you eat a lot of rice? / being passed over for promotion / getting good grades because of your tiger mom / rarely appearing in films that take place outside of ancient China / no, where are you from?), the least you can say is that they can usually walk the streets without being concerned about people regularly greeting them in languages other than English, though now that I think about it I bet that happens all the time.

In Korea I can remember the first time a stranger said hello to me. I was getting off a bus in Busan when a young man did it, and I, not knowing that he was trying to throw an insult my way, said hello back in a friendly tone. I even smiled and waved a little, like a perfect bumpkin used to the country life back in Maine, where people say hello to one another even if they’re strangers just to be nice, but here the man didn’t respond—he just laughed as his girlfriend yelped and hit him with her bag. Then they walked away.

This first hello fit into a general pattern. Young male, always in the company of friends, never alone, says hello, and then laughs snidely regardless of your response. If you are with a Korean, however, they will probably hold back from attacking you.

There are plenty of exceptions. Children sometimes say hello out of genuine curiosity, and will shift into Korean if you speak with them—“Are you a foreigner?” “I’m a human, like you.”—and a man once came up out of nowhere and shook my hand with genuine warmth; young women occasionally get in on the action for reasons beyond my comprehension.

For four years I endured the hellos without any retaliation. They always bothered me. I’m so sensitive that they would ruin my mood for hours. A hello would remind me that I am not welcome here, that I am not a part of this culture, that I am not expected to understand anything the people do here in the slightest, that I can never hope to be fully comfortable in this place.

My Korean wife finally demanded that I fight back. The first phrase she suggested was 한국말로 해라, hangook mal-lo hela, say it in Korean. In the case of laughing packs of high school boys, she said I should say: 임마, 왜 웃어? eem-ma, way u-saw, hey asshole, why are you laughing?, with the caveat that in their company one should probably just let it go, as there have been a number of crimes associated with high school kids beating the shit out of old people for perceived slights. So far as I know, foreigners have escaped their wroth, though I usually have to hold back from tearing off my clothes and charging into their ranks, kicking, screaming, spitting, and biting, whenever I see them prowling around the sidewalkless roads.

Another whining complaint is related to the egregious use of the term waygookin or waygook salam, foreigner, which drives me out of my mind. If you happen to feel the urge to comment on this post to remind me that other people don’t care about this shit, don’t bother, because I’m already way ahead of you—I don’t care. But, on the other hand, if you happen to be bothered by this somewhat inappropriate word used virtually whenever a non-Korean person appears on television or really anywhere at all, my indomitable wife, whose skeleton, Wolverine-like, was cast from liquid titanium (or whatever), has a few suggestions for you: when people start talking about you as if you can’t understand them, using the Korean word for foreigner, simply say: 외국인 왜요? 외국인 좋아요? 외국인 나빠요? Way-gook-een way-yo? Way-gook-een jo-ah-yo? Way-gook-een na-pa-yo? Why foreigners? Foreigners are good? Foreigners are bad? That should shut them up, and hopefully get them to think twice about using the term so shamelessly again.

I do think I discovered the source of the hellos. Although daycare is free, ubiquitous, and seemingly relatively decent in Korea—a friend’s awlineecheep even comes with a video camera he can access on the internet any time, to make sure no one is soiling his son’s virtue—most Korean families still insist on having their older and, usually, uneducated relatives take care of their young children every day. I’ve seen multiple old women shouting, swearing, and beating kids in public here, while a couple of weeks ago I had a remarkable encounter with an elderly halmoni who was walking around with a four-year old in a nearby apartment complex, where I was waiting for a special-session-that-must-not-be-named to start.

This crazy woman pointed at me and shouted, to her grandchild, in Korean: “Foreigner! Foreigner! Look! It’s a foreigner! Foreignerrrrrrr!” “Ajumma,” I said, after looking up, looking down, getting angry, and deciding to fight, “That’s rude. How would you feel if you went to a different country, and people started shouting that you were an Asian?”

Although my Korean is shaky at best, I think I got the point across, as she simply nodded and walked away with a frozen smile that said she utterly despised me—how dare you express the fact that you have a soul?!? I had a similar encounter at a nearby Starbucks, said something more or less the same, and actually got an apology from the inane mother who was mouthing off this bullshit in an attempt to entertain her infant spawn.

A lot of the time people aren’t aware that they’re acting like barbarians, or objectifying you; they do so with the warmest smiles, thinking that you enjoy playing the role of the bumbling idiot who stepped off the airplane five minutes ago—even after living here for four years. An ajumma at a decent restaurant I frequent asked me if it was okay for her daughter to say hello to me in English—asked me in Korean—and I told her that Korean was better. She said something like how that was ridiculous, her daughter (young, terrified, cowering behind her legs) was great at English, and then I tried and failed to add that Korean was more welcoming. I still don’t know exactly how to say that, but I think it may be close to 더 환영것같다. This woman has always been nice to me, but I could have added, if this were not the case, that I am not her daughter’s toy—just as my son is not the toy of the legions of young women who ask to get his picture taken almost whenever we venture outside.

A lot of you are going to say that I’m whining about nothing, but I don’t care. This is a big deal to me. When you say hello in Korean, that’s great, I love it, I’m happy to talk with you, regardless of who you are. When you say hello in English, you make me into an Other, you associate me with things that in reality I am only very loosely associated with, you objectify me, you exclude me, you turn me into a tool of your amusement, and in all likelihood you really need to shut the hell up.

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Kingdoms In The Sun


You find whoever you’re looking for whenever you’re not looking.

Ian James was lost in Asia. Having slogged through six months of teaching English in a South Korean public school, he escaped to Indochina to ply the waves of the Mekong River and wander the city-sized temples of Angkor Wat, romancing whoever he could find along the way, struggling to find a purpose to his existence. This search for love and meaning seemed hopeless until, at last, he found her: Gold Silver Jade, the heir to the throne of the Korean Empire, clopping along the streets of Busan in gleaming stilettos.

Standalone sequel to Teakettle Mountain, Kingdoms In The Sun is a genre-bending travelogue, mixing the memoir of an exile with the fantastic shaman-laden history of modern Korea. Dark, amusing, and unpredictable, you won’t be able to put it down.

Get the Kindle book on Amazon for $2.99.

And now, an excerpt—


Several years of patient misery later we find Yi as a rather marriageable eighteen-year-old woman consulting the services of a matchmaker, formerly a certain shaman and philosopher. The city outside her old house with the sign in both Chinese and Korean letters is roaring because it seems as though every tinderwood lean-to in Gyeongju is being swept aside and replaced by a four-story rectangular apartment block of bright pink cement. Bulldozers are roving rampant through the city, along with dozens of cheap Doosan cranes, backhoes, and dumptrucks, while thousands of helmeted construction workers are pouring into the troughs left in their wake, hauling away the debris and erecting the largest structures anyone’s ever seen, usually in two months or less for each building. These operations are all directed by young men in strange suits and ties that flap up against their shaven faces in the dusty wind.

The cement flows in rivers. Government offices, motels, Turkish Bathhouses, karaoke rooms, restaurants, schools, light industrial factories with blue-striped smokestacks, a hospital, a dozen pharmacies, a university, two new bridges to span the Elder Brother River and two to cross the North Stream that flows into it, banks, a train station, police and fire stations, bus stations, even gas stations, all with English signs that nobody can read, with strange English names written in the Korean alphabet, like “Chelluh Menshyeon”—Chère Mansion—which people can sometimes sound out, though nobody knows what they mean. The apple orchards are cut down, sculptures from the Shilla Dynasty are accidentally dug up and then purposefully carted away into the new national museum, and the president himself orders his army of workers to carve out a new lake and erect a complex of enormous modern hotels, golf courses, and theme parks for the tourists who will soon come to see the giant Buddha in the mountain and the grassy burial mounds whose bellies are being disemboweled with pickaxes and toothbrushes by teams of archeologists.

Capitalism is attacking this nation. American and Japanese money is pouring in, and everyone is working around the clock. Yi and her family can afford to eat rice now and then, although most of the time they have to stick to prepackaged noodles for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They treat themselves to meat no more than once a month. Hot tar ozone fills the air, as does the scream of machinery, while airplanes are floating in the white sky like bits of silver origami, and trains are pounding along the tracks as fast as the workers can lay them, and hordes of little children are running around everywhere. There are squarish boxy cars on the roads—motorbikes—green taxis designed like cigarette packs on wheels—all honking like they’re getting paid for it.

Every single man spends every single moment of every single day smoking cigarettes, and they all start this habit the very moment that first follicle of pubic hair sprouts out of their crotches. The decadent days of the meter-long tobacco pipes that only the yangban nobles could afford—resting them on their ashtrays—have receded into the ancient past, although you can still find some of these pipes gathering dust and pollen in the junk stores at the traditional markets.

Sitting on the hard wood floor before a squat wood table, the two women, the old and the new, shout through the machine-gun clattering of a nearby jackhammer, as sunlit dust billows through the gaps in the walls. Neither one can hear the other—

“What? What? I can’t—”

“Check this one out! Good prospects! Has a trade! A tailor! You can never lose a trade! You’ll eat rice every day! Meet Mr. Bak!”


The matchmaker slaps down a black-and-white photograph of Bak looking handsome and serious while refusing, like everyone else, to smile in front of the camera.

“You’ll never have to worry about food if you marry this one!”


Bak was a remarkable creature, resilient like a volcanic rock that’s still burning with glow long after the end of the eruptions which gave birth to it. His family had descended from far more recent nobility: up until the 1990s Busan was producing most of the world’s shoes, and his parents had owned a prosperous shoe factory in the heart of the city back when it was Fuzhan under the Japanese. Then, one day, before the war, the factory burned down, they lost everything, including the joke-bo, or the family’s entire genealogical history, a series of very old books which set down the names and occupations of their ancestors extending back two thousand years to the days when people in Korea were not yet capable of producing bronze. Bak’s tough ritzy mother, glammed up in gems, was reduced to penury. The stones went to the shareholders and loan-collectors; rather than start over from the very beginning again her husband liquefied his mind in alcohol and expired late one evening by collapsing into a dirt street and choking on his own bile. After conceiving her second child with him—the first was stillborn a decade before, though since she was a daughter only the mother mourned the loss—this woman struck out on her in own in Gyeongju, the ancient capital of Korea, where she opened up a restaurant in a traditional market near the old Japanese train station. Here there were a few relatives around who might be able to help her out now and then on those increasingly frequent occasions when she didn’t possess a single won to her name.

There was also another set of relatives in Busan, although this group didn’t help her at all. Her husband had been rich enough to afford a second wife, a concubine, or chup, and through this wife he’d sired an entire family which was so wealthy they lived in a house with a courtyard and a water fountain. She begged them for help each time they got together to sacrifice on the anniversary of her husband’s death, but they always refused because it made them happy to see this first original and legitimate wife, this powerful woman, forced to the most pathetic desperation. It was pleasing to see her beg, and even more pleasing to gently, politely, turn her down.

Her second child, Bak, was a screamer from the first, and caught nearly every illness known to man, though because of his family’s poverty his immune system had to fight off all of these diseases without the aid of food or medicine. His mother was so poor she couldn’t afford to eat rice more than once every couple of weeks; even getting his fingertip pricked by the local acupuncturist was far beyond her means. In her own words, Bak “nearly died four times.” He rounded out his grave childhood illnesses with a bout of polio which shriveled up his right leg and left him barely able to walk on his own for the rest of his life, catching the disease a decade after a vaccine had been found for it in the Beautiful Country. His leg was now thinner than his arm.

He’d already learned to walk by that time, but after the days of shrieking and vomiting and sweating had ended his mother found that whenever she stood him up, he fell down again, like a marionette with no one to hold the strings. She was forced to carry him in a white sling on her back as she cooked spicy red stews, washed dishes, and waited on tables, enduring daily questions from her customers (“Why can’t your boy walk?” “What’s wrong with your son?” “You know your baby’s too big for that sling!”) with smiling patience long after he was a heavy two- and then three-year-old with his long legs dangling down her back.

But this was only the beginning of his troubles. Bak’s single mother had to work at her restaurant all the time, locking up her shop between breakfast and lunch, lunch and dinner, and dinner and ten at night, to hawk the city’s best gimbap on idling trains. Sometimes she had no choice but to leave her toddler trapped inside her little windowless apartment with some food and the human equivalent of litter boxes, in the absence of running water. There he passed the time by screaming his heart out by the door.

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I Was On National TV In Korea For Ten Minutes…

…and, as a result, I’ve shamed all of my ancestors, from Adam on down. You should be able to watch the video here. The segment with my family starts at about 44:00.

For the last two days I was unable to find it, and now that it’s in my possession I’m honestly too disgusted with my appearance to sit through and torture myself for ten minutes by watching it. Both my (beautiful) wife and I were writhing in horror within seconds…this is an existential crisis, this is Camus’ “stranger who at certain seconds comes to meet us in a mirror”, since I think I don’t look or sound like that guy in that video.

So how did this happen?

The KBS crew somehow found pictures of my son on my wife’s blog (which she hasn’t updated in a year), texted her on Sunday, came down on Monday, filmed us in the evening (when I’m in a t-shirt), and then the following afternoon (in the black long-sleeved shirt). They went back to Seoul on Tuesday night, edited the footage on Wednesday, and broadcast it on 7:30AM Thursday morning. The Korean public has a mild interest in shows about “foreigners” who have married into Korean families—though if you speak the language, eat the food, follow the laws, and respect the culture, there is really nothing foreign about you, in my opinion. I am a human being; I consider nothing that is human alien to me.

This crew consisted of two people: the cameraman, who was amazing, in that he shot all three of us for several hours, and was asking us questions about our lives at the same time, without stopping, in a very friendly fashion; and then a woman who played on her phone a lot and periodically gave a new tape to the cameraman. She also distracted my son (who attacks us whenever we stop focusing on him) by letting him watch Pororo on her phone, which has convinced me that his life will be destroyed if we somehow wind up doing this for a living.

During the first day I went completely berserk. I’m not sure why. I challenged Kang Ho-dong, a famous wrestler and talk show host, to a wrestling match; I used some extremely lame Kung Fu moves I learned from a source that is so shameful I dare not mention it here; and then on the next day I sang and played guitar for the first time in my life, which is probably not advisable…I can barely play guitar, and until that morning I hadn’t picked mine up for six months or so. Starting at 5AM I spent three hours practicing to Corey Harris, though I’m not sure it really paid off.

While I haven’t watched the video, I did skim over it, and it looks to me like they cut a lot of my insanity out (even if the segment seems to start with me explaining that Gyeongju’s famous ancient observatory looks like a bakery…). It was impossible, however, for them to cut out the incredible amount of hamminess that I rammed into that camera lens. I did play Go for the first time with my father-in-law, which was really enjoyable for both of us.

Although I am deeply ashamed with what I have done here, I would definitely do it again—if only for the chance of fulfilling my childhood dream of kicking Kang Ho-dong’s ass.

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Nice New Review Of Teakettle Mountain

On Amazon.com

Teakettle Mountain is a wonderful and humorous portrayal of life in South Korea. The detail is amazing – of the people, the place and the culture, as well as the pace and structure of life – absolutely fascinating. I feel like I’ve boarded a plane and physically visited the country.

Ian James’ grip and use of language is a joy to read. I didn’t curl up with the book, Teakettle Mountain curled up with me, and didn’t let me out of its embrace until I had read the last word. It is so full of wonderfully original descriptions it was difficult to find a favourite, and after much deliberation I’ve chosen: ‘Ms Yoon, who spoke American English as though she were a textbook that had been electrified and, Frankenstein-like, bought to life.’

Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t all nicey-nicey and touchy-feely – it’s uncomfortable reading at times. Ian James has chosen honesty above political correctness when writing about his experiences and observations and, as a result, I felt like I really was reading about people, rather than characters or. caricatures. He applies the same acerbic honesty to his observations about himself, and this was truly a joy to read – roll on part 2!.

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