I just read some stories from China and wondered about reading a travel memoir in China, but I couldn’t find any interesting. Then I thought about a travel memoir to Korea and found this book. It comes from a really unique perspective in that the author is a black guy from New York City. But at the same time that it is a travel memoir, it is perhaps a simple story about loneliness, grief, and sadness. The author doesn’t get too much into his past except for the fact that his older brother became a crackhead and died recently, but you get the feeling that other bad things have happened in this guy’s life. He comes across as morose, sad, with a lot of burden on his shoulders. Getting a job teaching in Korea may seem like a way to escape all that, but interestingly, perhaps unknowing to the author, Korea represents everything he is feeling and going through. Alex smiles on the outside and jokes and laughs with his students, but on the inside there is a lot of pain, hardship, and loneliness, and in a strange twist, Alex in a sense IS Korea.
The Koreans and American black people have a lot in common, as Alex somewhat gets after talking about the origins of both Korean and African-American food. Both were basically scraps given to them by their oppressors, but they both turned around and made them taste great. In fact, today, the Japanese consider Korean street, organ food as trendy delicacies. The similarities go much deeper. There is a lot of cultural anger and sadness in both cultures as well as the display of masks and hidden meaning and language. If you forbid people from doing things, they simply find indirect means of doing it. Throughout the short 80-or-so pages of the memoir, you get poignant peeks at how sad Korean life is. The children are pressured to do well in school, and it’s all about rote memorization, repetition, and stressful examinations and grading. Universally, we all hate that, and it’s really all about obedience and conformity. I’m not sure the Koreans realize that this is all rooting in their past under Japanese occupation. Fathers then spend all their time at the office and don’t get the social interaction with their family, so they get drunk and fall into the arms of other men they call brothers. This is all the intimacy they get in their lives. Similarly, you sense that the housewives who take lessons from Alex also are sad and lonely and also suffer from their absent husbands whom they hardly even know anymore, so they latch on to Alex. Even one of their little kids who probably lacks much interaction with her father latches on to Alex.
Surprisingly, the book is not so much about traveling and eating through Korea with K-Pop and all, which I thought it might be, but it actually touches upon deeper sociological issues in Korea. I really like the way the author hits the nail on the head, perhaps due to his own immersion in loneliness and sadness. He also brings up cosmetic surgery which is a perfect analogy of everything in Korea, how it’s all about appearances and masks and the superficial. We put on an artificial smile and laugh generously to cover up our pain, loneliness, and sadness, and then here you have an entire nation that actually literally changes their faces to get rid of all form of uniqueness and differentness and adopt a certain sameness and collective identity. I don’t know how much thought Alex has put into this book, but he covers a lot of pretty profound concepts in a relatively short time, perhaps all because it rings so true in his own personal life. Finally, he notices that everyone gets stupid drunk in Korea, perhaps the only socially acceptable way of truly being yourself and taking off your mask.
In North Korea, you are forced to become part of the borg collective at gun point, but the interesting thing about South Korea, is that everyone chooses to become part of the corporate, collective borg. Almost like a science experiment, it shows the same culture adapting two different ways to collective pressures. Obviously, the South Korean option is better than the north, but none-the-less, the lingering effects of depravation, war, famine, and horrendous tragedy underlines everything about the South as well. While the North tries to forget by adopting a new batch of terror and fear, the South tries to forget by adopting a new batch of desires, wealth, and extravagance.