I leave tomorrow for a month long trip to the USA. As is always the case I’m stressed out and anxious, and one of the things that stresses me out the most is having the identical bullshit conversations with people about living in South Korea and Asia in general.
So, as one does, I made a bingo card of all my anxieties. This way even if I have a panic attack while listening to someone drone on I can still feel like a winner!
This past weekend I went to Gwangju for Alleycon, a fan con that wants to be a meeting place for local geeks, nerds, and dorks. A trifecta I identify with in variable proportions. It was a four hour bus ride, and overall a pretty good time, but a different vibe from last year. The biggest difference being due to the venue change from a university to a design building, which is the difference between 30 people filling a classroom and 30 people milling around a cavernous loft space. Not sure what the attendance numbers were but it felt emptier. I was also a little sad that there was no book swap. But I played a ton of games, met new people, and had a fun time. Not to mention you have to give credit to folks running a con. They’re up against a lot of expectations, and the whole effort smacks of the Sisyphean. Mishaps will occur. Folks will be discomfited. You’ll get blamed for it. And all for what? You’re not being paid and are just doing this out of love and an urge to do something for the community. So, hats off to the volunteers and folks running the con.
I hope they have it again next year. It’s a good thing those folks do. They do seem to be making the effort to build a community and inviting people to join them.
I realized my favorite thing about living in South Korea. And I don’t even think it’s a South Korean thing, as a hold over to being a country not the size of the USA thing. Like if I lived in Ireland or Italy, I suspect I’d encounter the same thing. It was also what made me like living in Queens, NY. I know, Queens!
Anyway, what I like is that the city where I live, Pohang, retains the quality where a single pedestrian who is probably elderly determines how the city is designed. It’s like if you took Betty White and made her a metric unit that measured urban accessibility. Okay, maybe not Betty White, maybe Jane Jacobs, but you get the idea.
Pohang is a kilojacobs city in that every neighborhood is self-sufficient. Within an easy walk of my house I have access to hardware stores, stationary stores, delis, grocery stores, a traditional market, and restaurants. It was something Joe Mitchell talked about in post-war New York where every neighborhood was a self-contained village. This single pedestrian is accommodated in other ways as well: lots of parks with places to sit down, a robust bus system, and cheap taxis. This is vastly different from the USA where the unit of urban measure is a family with an automobile, and therefore things can be spread out, the supermarket here, the school there, and your entertainment way over there. Public transportation is treated as a charity to be given to the unfortunate, and not as a tie that binds the city together.
Now, I am talking about a small city. I have no idea how Seoul compares, although even there I think it would conform to the model of Queens, NY as opposed to Detroit, MI. And like I said I don’t think this is necessarily a Korean thing, some kind of “Wow. Confucianism dictates that you treat your elders with so much respect!” bull shit, as it is related to country-size. The USA has “Settling This Vast Empty Land” as a foundational myth, and it shows in most of our cities.
Fortunately for me, Korea’s foundational myths don’t seem to effect urban planning all that much.
It starts like this:
I’m back home visiting the States and out and about as it’s generally when I have a social life. I try to cram in as much time as I can visiting everyone I know. Invariably I’ll meet someone I don’t know and it comes out in conversation that I live in South Korea at which point they’ll slip into a script where they mistake things they’ve heard about South Korea for knowing something about South Korea. It’s like they can’t help themselves, and they have to tell me right now about one of these four things:
1. North Korea and/or the Korean War. It’ll be about the war if it’s an older guy because that’s the war the guys my dad’s age remember from when they were kids. MacArthur will get mentioned. If it’s a younger person they’ll go on and on about North Korea cribbing from Vice documentaries.
2. Asian Sex Tourism. This is always a younger guy and he’s incapable of not sharing everything he knows about sex tourism. I find it best to back away from these people and leave them as quickly as possible.
3. Plastic Surgery. Mostly women bring this up. And they may or may not bring up foot-binding as well. This is what I term an obsession with an obsession. And you can generally throw a wrench in the works by asking them if they think getting braces is plastic surgery. At least with this one I can have a conversation.
4. Dog Eating. Not as common as the above three, but still on the list. As with the Korean War and sex tourism when someone starts down this road I can actually see their eyes gel over as the obsessional script-worm burrows through their psyche and erupts from their mouth.
A friend from home came to Korea for a visit. She was doing both the ROK and Japan in one Far East swing. I convinced her to leave Seoul and had down to the country. We met in Gyeongju the next city over from where I live. She was impressed by my Korean, which shocked me since I can’t speak the language. What I know is maybe a handful of phrases and numbers. Basically I can go into a store and ask how much something costs and know how much to pay when I’m told. But after living here for four years I’m also a lot more comfortable not knowing what people say to me and having a “conversation” regardless of the fact that I can’t speak the language. Either I’m listening for one word I know and reply with one of the hundred or so I know, or I’m just playing a rather involved game of charades, which gets you pretty damn far.
Sometimes I know exactly what’s being said in some scripted exchanges because I know the script. If I’m buying groceries and I’m asked a question, it’s probably about whether or now I want a bag. I get a lot of mileage out of stuff like that. Or it comes back to the comfort level. Some people, like the shop keepers in my neighborhood, I see everyday, and I’ve stopped and chatted with them where they’re speaking in Korean and I’m speaking in English, but we’re having a conversation that I can only imagine resembles that scene in Ghost Dog where Forest Whitaker and his friend that works in the Ice Cream truck and only speaks Creole are having a conversation about a man building a boat on the roof of an apartment building. Neither speaks the same language but they talk to each other just the same.
Or in other words you can get pretty far here simply by playing a decent game of charades.
Last week I spent over a quarter of a million Korean dollars on books. It’s actually only about 400 USD, but it sounds cooler as a quarter of a million bucks. At the time I quipped that this only increased the likelihood of my opening a bookstore café here in South Korea, because eventually we will have too many books and what else am I going to do?
Have you ever read Lavie Tidhar’s Osama?
It’s a great pulpy novel, but I’m not sure if my amazement of it is transferable to others unless you’ve lived overseas as an expat.*
“Alfred was a man full of stories; now he filled his life with those of others, the small shop filled with worn and battle-weary books that had seen more of the world in their time, he liked to say, than he had and, like himself, had finally come to rest, for a while at least.”
It might be hard to get unless you’ve absorbed that ambiance of random books hoofed into a foreign country and left behind by carefree, downsizing backpackers, of going into a bar or burger joint and seeing if they have a shelf of cast-off Penguin classics, or maybe you’ve had a mental conversation like this one my buddy Gord Sellar outlined:
“Huh, well, I suppose I could read some Tom Clancy, since this Alvin Toffler looks a little like a retread of his last book, and I’m not interested in the bodice ripper. I wish whoever bought the books I brought for trade-in would bring in a few of theirs so I’d have something to buy.”
It’s a world made of cast-offs. You find yourself reading anything you can find. And you’re reminded by how disposable books are (unless you’ve lived in a big city where you can regularly find books tossed out in the trash). They’re what most people leave behind when they divest themselves of access baggage.
Every city that boasts a marginally sized English speaking expat community will slowly start to accumulate books. Whether in a bar or a café, you’ll find a shelf. Tired old paperbacks, the hip authors from the decade before, the disposable pulp novels, and the ones someone read to improve themselves. Stuff you never knew existed like the works of Stephen Leather or the foreign to you analogs. (Quick, who is Australia’s answer to Michael Chabon? Australians, no helping.)
And if you’re a reader what happens? You accumulate more, and think, maybe I should consolidate the cast offs. Maybe I should be the person with the shelf instead of the shitty frathouse bar. And since I’m at it, I’ll make it a nice place to hang out. Maybe let people tutor here or get a cup of coffee.
And that’s how it happens.
Another English language bookstore gets born.
* I recognize expat is a loaded term. Right now my definition is an expat lives in a foreign country expecting to leave it at some point. An immigrant lives in a foreign country with the expectation of settling there. And there’s likely overlap between the two.