White Monkey by Carlos Hughes

After reading a bunch of thick books, I like to take a break with something lighter.  White Monkey is a funny memoir of an Irish-English man who became an English teacher in Korea right after college, because his girlfriend broke up with him and took one of his roommates to Korea to teach English.  What a horrible idea right?  But from pain and atrocious decisions come great adventures.  The book is incredibly well-written and entertaining.  I’ve read a bunch of books on Korea now, and I try not to be overly genre-centric, but quite frankly, it’s an interesting country, especially since I’ve been there a few times, and it also happens to be a rather popular, trendy culture these days.  So I’ve read a book about an American CEO in Korea and a black-American English teacher.  There’s a huge amount of alienation and culture shock.  While the Koreans are very warm and friendly, it’s more like Southern charm.  They keep you at arm’s distance, especially if you’re not Korean and even if you’re Korean-American.  They’re a highly homogenous and exclusive society.  It’s easy to understand how foreigners feel excluded and discriminated against.  You may sit there thinking you’re a wonderful breath of fresh air, a novelty, something crazy and strange, but you’re using your American hat to think.  I love crazy, strange, different, weird, wild things.  I’d love to hang out with a space alien and teach him about our culture, but for people in a highly conservative, homogenous culture, you’re only entertaining at a bar.  Whenever I find myself at a rural bar in America, I’m always surprised at how friendly people are.  I am a big novelty, but if I was to move to that town, I’d be excluded.  The novelty would wear off really fast, and I’d just be viewed as some oddity worthy of ignoring.  On the other hand, if you’re an English teacher, you can also form a stronger bond with other English teachers.        

 Only when I got to a particularly shocking part of the book did I do a little research and discovered that the book is fiction.  However, being a fiction writer, I know a lot of fiction is based on fact.  The shocking part is when two of the middle-aged English teachers gloat about their sexual endeavors.  One gloats about having sex with 13-year-old high school girls (which supposedly is the age of consent in Korea) and the other about sex with kathoeys (boys or men who are transitioning to girl or women).  Both refer to their Korean coworkers and students in racially disparaging ways.  Unfortunately, I don’t think this is far from reality.  I can imagine that many English teachers go to Korea not because they are in love with the culture and people but rather as just a quick buck, and then I can also imagine that many turn that quick buck around to have sex with young prostitutes whether in Korea or some Southeast Asian country.  I’m not sure I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in teaching English in Korea, but it is definitely a more honest, cynical, and hilarious perspective of the whole endeavor as well as the Korean culture.  Knowing that Koreans are some of the most egocentric and defensive people in the world, I can only imagine this book has been banned in Korea and should the author show up anywhere near Korea, he would be sent to North Korea. 

 The author’s assessment of Korean culture, although not nuanced or diverse, is not untrue.  Some might not believe a boss could be such a caricature ass as Mr. Kim, but what people don’t understand about Korean culture is that a lot of it has been influenced by Japanese Occupation, and the Koreans were treated this way by the Japanese, especially in the military.  Korean bosses tend to be martial and even hit employees.  Apparently, they haven’t caught on to workplace violence, harassment, and discrimination laws as has America.  Yes, Koreans are obsessed with their looks.  This is not opinion.  They have the most cosmetic surgery per capita and the majority of male cosmetics are sold in Korea.  Again, this is all because of the Japanese Occupation and the constant destruction of Korean culture and ego.  You can’t really blame the Koreans for exaggerating their cultural importance and ego after decades of cultural annihilation.  What surprises me is how unruly the Korean children are, but it makes sense if they are raised not in a nurturing, attentive environment but a strict, disciplinarian one where they will make any attempts possible to exploit a weak authority figure and assert their individual interests.  My advice to English teachers in Korea is to be a scary, authoritarian ass and only later open yourself up and imprint your Western nurturing, loving culture.  What the book does not cover is how Korean children are not allowed to be children.  They are treated as pre-adults, and most of their free time is used honing pre-adult skills whether learning English, being tutored, or learning some archaic classical instrument. 

 At the same time, I keep finding myself reading the pseudo-memoirs of nerdy guys, and their perspectives on women.  Yes, you can throw me into that lot, although, I have a strong athletic streak, although arguably, many nerdy guys also have strong athletic abilities but mostly in solo endurance sports like running or road biking.  Fact of the matter, I am that 5’9” guy like the narrator.  For whatever reason, I grew up deluded.  It never occurred to me that women prefer 6’ guys over 5’9” guys.  It never occurred to me that 5’8” women were the equivalent of 6’ guys and a lot of guys prefer a 5’8” over a 5’4” woman.  It never occurred to me that as an average guy, I should be shooting for at most average women.  So what’s an average guy to do?  Well, he spends at awful lot of time pining over women but never getting them, so consequently, he spends an inordinate amount of time compensating or distracting himself from this rather ugly reality.  Some of them realize they have a lot of time to read and then write books, and this is the reason so few books are about tall, handsome men who get all the women and live a fun, adventurous life.  Name one.  Why write a book about the ideal life when you can live it?  Most likely, it gets written by a tall, handsome guy who suffers a great loss and then discovers he has plenty of time to write a book about his former glory.  The vast majority of books written out there are most likely by average or less than average-looking dudes, which is superficial, but it’s true, and many are funny, because you have to have a sense of humor about having such a big desire for something that has such little desire for you.  Fact is, many average Western guys wind up in Asia, because there, a 5’9” guy is the equivalent of a 6’ guy here.  I have never seen so many short Western guys as when I visited Korea.



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