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 Why Is This Silly Book So Popular?


What's So Good about Korea, Maarten?
by Maarten Meijer
327pp. Hyeonamsa

Last September, right around the time Korea Bug came out, I noticed another book about Korea written by a white boy had hit the
shelves of local bookstores: What's So Good about Korea, Maarten? (2005) by Maarten Meijer. I was kind of pissed off by it, actually,
since at Kyobo Bookstore in Kwanghwamun, my Korean publisher had secured a good table-display position for Korea Bug and even
made a little pop-up sign for it to draw the attention of customers in the Foreign Books section, but then like a week later What's So
Good? had somehow managed to take that same exact spot and have its own much bigger pop-up sign. Soon it had no less than
three very prominent display positions at Kyobo, including the coveted "Wall of Fame" where steady sellers about Korea like How
Koreans Talk and Korea Unmasked greet passersby along the main looping corridor of the store, lending it the air of a major
bestselling title that cannot or ought not be ignored. I also noticed that it was quickly placed in the "Bestsellers" category on the Web
site of Seoul Selection, the most well-known local online retailer of books about Korea in English; nearly a year later, it's still listed as
a Bestseller on Seoul Selection, and still enjoys prominent display (in three different locations) at Kyobo, Korea's top bookseller.
Clearly, an instant popular classic about Korea had been penned, and a new Korea pundit had joined the illustrious ranks of Michael
Breen, Bruce Cumings and other Western luminaries with a fondness for kalbi and kimchi.

Meanwhile, sales of Korea Bug were modest at best, despite enthusiastic reviews in both The Korea Times and The Korea Herald
among others (considering that I'd majorly dissed a former managing editor of The Herald in the Introduction to Korea Bug, their
positive review meant that they considered Korea Bug good enough to transcend petty politics, and I do respect them for their
magnanimity). More than anything else, I felt bad for my publisher Eunhaeng Namu (Ginko Tree), since they'd spent a fair chunk of
change on the printing and marketing for Korea Bug, and would have a hard time even breaking even on it. At the same time, however,
I was not at all surprised and had even anticipated such an outcome by formulating "Bethell's Law" in Korea Bug, named after the
pioneering English newspaperman Ernest T. Bethell: "The foreign community in Korea has always been much too fragmented,
transient and diverse to broadly support any publications that fail to hew closely and safely to the proverbial lowest common
denominator."

Thus, the crucial difference between What's So Good? and Korea Bug is that the former is a general introductory guide to mainstream
(South) Korean culture and society, whereas Korea Bug is more focused on alternative, buried or hidden aspects of local culture and
society. It has long been lamented that people do not read as many books at they used to, what with the Internet, cable TV and so on,
and expats in Korea are no exception. Indeed, the majority of Western expats in Korea have come here to make money first and
foremost, rather than being specifically attracted by the culture (which has traditionally been much more of a draw in neighboring
Japan or China, for example). Furthermore, the average expat in Korea is only here for a year or two, and is not terribly dedicated
long-term to exploring the intricacies of Korean culture in its considerable diversity and variety. As a result, the amount of money
they're willing to invest on books about Korea is minimal (although the opposite is certainly true in the case of local beverages, as
anyone who has spent time in Hongdae or It'aewon can attest). Nevertheless, most expats here are intelligent enough to realize that
they're living in another culture that is different from their own, and, especially when they first arrive, they're looking to familiarize
themselves with their local surroundings, and hoping to get a quick and firm handle on the general way that things operate here. For
this reason, they'll dutifully pick up a book or two that "explains" Korea to them in simple or easy-to-digest form (like the comic-book
format Korea Unmasked, which I often see Western tourists and Korean-Americans flipping through at Kyobo), or provides a basic
overview of the language (like How Koreans Talk or Roadmap to Korean), but their interest in Korean culture is broad and practical,
focused mainly on getting the "big picture," on mastering the dominant local paradigm, if you will. Of course, there are also long-term
expats here who have already figured out the mainstream fundamentals of Korean culture, and have developed an interest in more
alternative or targeted aspects of Korean culture, but this is a relatively small group and they do not represent the kind of purchasing
power that can generate bestsellers. They are a niche market within what is already a niche market, and comprise perhaps several
thousand local individuals at most. I personally value and respect them highly as they constitute my primary readership here, at least
in English, and over the years I have had the pleasure of knowing and meeting many of them; although they come in all shades and
stripes, it can be said for certain that all of them are quite unique, interesting and very bugged-out individuals.

In any case, once the average newbie or contract ESL teacher has put up a few obligatory books about Korea on their shelves at
home, things generally stop there, because they've come to Korea to make money, so why waste one's earnings on books when
there are student loans to pay off, overpriced drinks to buy and undersized skirts (or dicks) to chase? And if you're really interested in
further exploring the more arcane or obscure aspects of Korea, there's always the Internet, which offers two main benefits that books
simply can't compete with: it's essentially free, and it offers great therapeutic value for lonely or alienated foreigners seeking
interactive solace and psychic ventilation. Hence the popularity of sites like Dave's ESL Cafe, which as far as learning anything about
Korea is a textbook example of the blind leading the blind (although no doubt many of its members consider themselves visionaries),
and The Marmot's Hole, which, despite the pretensions of many of its participants, often seems to be little more than a pissing
contest at a virtual sausage party. Well, I understand that Korea often has that effect on people, which as stated above is precisely
why many find that a year or two is all they're willing to give of their lives to this Land of Mourning Calm.

Speaking for myself, I felt no immediate compulsion to add Meijer's book to my personal library as I've been in Korea for close to 9
years now and really don't need to be reintroduced to it (these days I'm trying to forget all the received wisdom I've accumulated in
my head here over the years). More to the point, however, is the fact that it just seemed so, well, cheesy (given that Meijer is Dutch,
there must be some kind of causal relation there; when I lived in Berlin back in the early '90s, my German friends were fond of
referring to the Dutch as "cheeseheads," which, to be fair, is not nearly as bad as being known as a stinky and sour "Kraut"). First of
all, there was the title itself, which on a purely rhetorical level is odd in that it is not something the author would say or write himself,
but instead would be addressed to him by someone else (sort of like the current motto for Seoul, "Hi Seoul," is not anything the
average Seoulite would ever actually say, but what an idealized visitor here might offer up as a perky greeting to the smelly Big
Kimchi, if it's possible to even imagine such a fairy-tale scenario). Most likely, the title was created by committee at Hyeonamsa,
Meijer's publisher, and was perhaps intended to connote the cheerful and earnest atmosphere of a classroom of either Korean or
foreign students (in fact, Meijer has a Ph.D. in Russian Literature from Moscow State University, and has been an educator since
arriving in Korea in 2000), or possibly to suggest the intrigued skepticism of a non-Korean visiting or considering a visit to the
peninsula. Either way, the title implies a value judgement about Korea will be made by the book (the key word here is "good"), and
its cover design already tells us Meijer's position pretty clearly: he's shamelessly and quite literally wrapped up in the South Korean
flag, which I admit is a reliably effective if rather obvious marketing strategy aimed at nationalistic Koreans looking for affirmation from
foreigners here, if nothing else. Now, I can understand if you're a "patriotic" Korean (or Yank or Kraut) and want to wrap yourself up in
your own nation's flag every now and then, even if I might personally find it a bit tacky to do so (especially in more extreme
manifestations, or whenever politicians do it), but when you're not even South Korean and are wrapping yourself up in the South
Korean flag (and with a goofy grin on your face, no less), then there's only one word to describe you and that's "cheesy." In effect,
then, that would make Meijer a very cheesy cheesehead--a double cheeseball, or cheeseball squared--and hence hardly the kind of
writer I would expect to offer incisive and provocative analysis about a country that needs as much incisive and provocative analysis
as it can possibly get.

In the end, however, my curiosity got the better of me and I did recently bite down and force myself to digest Meijer's densely cheesy
book. Admittedly, there's always a certain fascination about what other Westerners have to say or write about Korea, no matter how
misinformed, misguided, ideologically warped or downright wacky they may be (indeed, that's half the fun), and I consider myself
something of a connoisseur of books about Korea by Westerners. Alas, there's not nearly as much good old-fashioned pulpy trash
written about Korea as there has been about her bad-ass island neighbor to the East (you don't know nothin' about Japan until you've
read Earl Normon's Kill Me in Shimbashi [1960], Paul Daniels' The Transitor Girls [1964] and James Holledge's Kimono Strip: An
Intimate Glimpse into the Country of Ten Thousand Pleasures [1965]), but as I've already said, English-language books about Korea
is a tiny niche market within the global marketplace, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. If the majority of books about Korea
in English are dull, dry and often dorky, I suppose that's a reflection of the type of Westerners who come to Korea more than anything
else. And if goofball books like What's So Good? become bestsellers here, that's also entirely indicative of the goofball nature of so
many expats in Korea who simply don't know any better or just don't care. In any case, I've done my mea culpa and admitted that I
was peeved about Meijer's book muscling in on my space at Kyobo and so on, but that's not why I'm turned off by his thick slice of
kimchi-flecked cheese (it should be clear by now that I blame indifferent and clueless expats here for the overall lame English-
language book publishing environment here, rather than lame authors themselves; the problem, in other words, lies on the demand
side of the equation, and not on supply). The reason I don't like his book is that it sucks, pure and simple, and it's frankly astonishing
that he's been able to pass himself off as some sort of authority on Korean culture up until now and not get called on his shameless,
farcical bluff. But as the old saying goes, In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

I knew that Meijer's book would be a real pain in the ass to get through when I immediately encountered the following sentence on
the second page of the Introduction: "Korean people are generally warm-hearted, whereas northern Europeans, for instance, generally
are not." (Two pages later, he backs up this bold claim by stating, "One of the great strengths of Koreans is the depth of their hearts. I
believe they have an emotional capacity beyond that of most ordinary Americans or Europeans--at least the ones I know.") This is
such an absurd and ridiculous statement that it's hard to take it seriously enough to bother dismissing it. First of all, I've lived in
London and Berlin and have met just as many "warm-hearted" people there as I have here (and have also known plenty of "warm-
hearted" northern Europeans and Americans right here in Korea, as well as in Japan and other Asian countries); I also know plenty of
good Western men here who've had their hearts ripped out by cold and ruthless Korean women with a talent for practical survival that
far exceeds their emotional capacity (sort of like the Uhm Jung-hwa character in Marriage is a Crazy Thing [2002], who dumps the
guy she has good sex with because he's a "poor" university lecturer in order to marry a rich doctor she has no genuine feelings for,
and then continues to use her former lover for sex and companionship whenever she's bored or lonely; or the many young South
Korean women who heartlessly dump their boyfriends when they enter compulsive military service, because they're too selfish and
self-centered to stand by their man for two years while they do their patriotic duty for the nation). I would also be circumspect before
claiming too readily that the inhabitants of a country that invented the blues, jazz, rock 'n' roll, punk and hip-hop somehow have less
emotional capacity than the inhabitants of a nation whose best-known musical export is that saccharine simulacrum known as K-pop,
but hey, maybe I'm a bit biased here. And speaking of the U.S., where do the 2 million ethnic Koreans there fit into Meijer's facile
binary opposition? Do they remain "Korean" only as long as they have "warm hearts," and then become true Americans as soon as a
jagged sliver of ice has lodged itself permanently in their hearts? Or is it in fact possible that through cross-pollination and cultural
synthesis, many Korean-Americans might be able to combine the best of both cultural worlds, remaining both "warm-hearted" (to
retain Meijer's operative term) and yet just as authentically American as any other immigrant group in the U.S.? In which case,
Meijer's basic dichtomy has reached what deconstructionists might refer to as an aporia or logical snafu, thereby revealing the
structural shakiness of an essentializing system that cannot maintain itself without endless qualifications, exceptions and
modifications. A mirage masquerading as truth, a smoke screen of stereotypes, a perceptual hologram that dissolves as soon as
you try to grasp it.

The fact of the matter is that Meijer is missing the entire point with all his shallow talk of the "emotional capacity" of different peoples,
races and nations. The reality is that while every individual in the world may or may not have their own particular "emotional
capacity," different cultures have developed different codes, conventions and traditions that both sanction and discourage emotional
expression in different ways, and in different contexts. So while it may seem stereotypically true to the casual observer that the
average English person is more "reserved" in public than the average Korean (which, incidentally, is not my experience at all), this
does not mean that the former has any less "emotional capacity" than the latter. It just means that both individuals externalize and
express their emotions in different ways, largely in accordance with the environment in which they grew up (which would include
parental influence, socioeconomic background, education and a variety of other factors, along with the broader cultural landscape).
The most I'm willing to concede for our purposes here is that Korea is what anthropologist Edward T. Hall would call a "high-context"
society, with a whole lot of role-playing and ritualized behavior going on in daily life, and only naive foreigners and country bumpkins
actually believe the hype and take everything they see here at face value (and this includes expat ESL "teachers" who get their asses
kissed everyday in the classroom, and immediately conclude as Meijer does that this is because in Korea every teacher is "a second
parent," or some other type of exalted demigod). The point is that in Korea (and anywhere else), culture and identity are constructed
and contingent, ever shifting and sliding, but Meijer is too fixated on pinpointing and articulating the "essence" of the Korean character,
on listing the ABC's of Korean culture and identity and presenting them as simple, solid facts, that he generally seems unconcerned
about nuance and complexity, about questioning and thereby transcending the tired cliches and shopworn stereotypes of the place
he's writing about. For this reason, he has no problem using such dodgy phrases as "the Korean mind" or "the rationalistic West"
uncritically and repeatedly, and at times is downright comical in his attempts to "explain" his subject, as when he writes, "It seems
that Koreans are genetically destined to be great singers..." Gee, that explains how Lee Hyo-ri made it to the top of the K-pop charts!
At other times, he's richly condescending, summing up the Korean character with bromides about their "childlike ability to live in the
moment," or, get this, claiming that "Koreans have the pure, childlike faith that they can achieve anything because they do not
rationally and deliberately consider possible obstacles involved." Ah yes, the mythic "noble savage" lives on, rediscovered in fancy
designer clothing! And, inevitably, just about any type of contemporary Korean behavior can be explained by appealing to either
Confucianism, shamanism or Buddhism as an underlying cause; thus: "Koreans have a natural inclination toward free-flowing
improvisation. The root of this countercurrent to convention is shamanism, the most ancient tradition to have shaped the Korean
national psychology." Leaving aside the dubious notion of "national psychology," how can "tradition" be a countercurrent to
"convention" when the traditional is by definition conventional? And is it not possible that in a highly structured society like Korea's,
when individuals here (or abroad) find themselves in (what they perceive to be) unstructured situations, they are naturally more likely
to behave in an unstructured manner? I am reminded of a Royal Asiatic Society lecture I recently attended here in Seoul, given by an
American Ph.D. in cultural psychology who after a year in South Korea was certain that the popularity of Western-style dance clubs
in Hongdae was evidence of the deep shamanic influence on Korean culture (the DJ as "techno shaman" leading the dancers to
"transcendance" and all that). When I suggested that with its overwhelming focus on alcohol sales and consumption (unlike at raves
and in clubs from Sydney to Tokyo to London to San Francisco, where mind-altering psychedelics are far more common and hence
far more conducive to genuine "transcendance"), the overall nightlife scene in Hongdae reminded me of a sleazy, sloppy, Spring
Break-like bacchanal more than anything else, she sniffed at my uninformed hubris and instantly dismissed such objections, for the
Great White Explorer had journeyed to the very heart of this exotic Oriental land and discovered its true, mystical essence. Yes, I'm
sure that philosophizing about shamanic transcendance at clubs like Nb, Harlem or M2 will greatly improve your chances of getting
lucky and conducting your own private gut or erotic exorcism at one of the many motels in the area!

The problem with Meijer's basic methodology is that he really has no basic methodology, beyond haphazardly regurgitating what
he's read in other (mostly English-language) sources, and mistaking his own limited personal experiences and impressions of Korea
for timeless, transcendental truisms. I knew right away that his approach was suspect when I read in the Introduction: "My main focus
is neither on politics nor on the economy, as in the case with most recent analyses of the Korean situation. I focus on the people and
what matters most to them, or what I believe should matter most to them: family, morality, education, social integration, religion, art,
culture, and international understanding. These are at the heart of the country, whereas politics and the economy, though they
increasingly monopolize people's time and attention, are only the mechanics of the national household." If you believe as I and many
others do that in the postmodern era, culture and economics coalesce (cf Jameson, Baudrillard, et al), and if you agree as I and
many others do that contemporary South Korea is a postmodern society, then it is disingenuous at the very least to somehow
magically cordon off economics and politics from your analysis of Korean culture and society, when in fact economics and political
ideology overdetermine culture and society at every level in South Korea and indeed around the world. (Certainly it is image-based
marketing that is "at the heart" of mainstream South Korea, the very engine that drives the country around in circles if not necessarily
forward, which would explain the success of a Britney Spears clone like Lee Hyo-ri far more convincingly than spurious talk of
genetically determined singing ability.) This point cannot be stressed enough: South Korea is a hypercapitalist juggernaut first and
foremost, and any honest discussion of its culture and society must start from this basic fact and proceed from there.

From what I can tell, Meijer's own ideological position is too vague and muddled to say for certain if he is intentionally or
unintentionally being obscurantist here; if anything, he fits the mold of a moderate American-style Republican, preaching "family
values" throughout the book and generally endorsing the liberal economic model of multinational-led globalization (as when he pooh-
poohs striking unionists here for scaring off foreign investors with their loud "bloodthirsty slogans," or uses up nearly a page producing
what reads like a "sponsored" advertisement for Samsung: "In the luxury Samsung Tower Palace, residents can turn on air
conditioners from their cell phones and log on to the Internet at the kitchen stove or the refrigerator." Pity those pesky labor unions
can't be turned off and on so easily!) As for family values, there's nothing wrong with them in themselves, and in an ideal world
families would be more loving and supportive than they are in much of the world today; but as is often the case, Meijer is such a
moralistic zealot that he often sees what he wants to see, rather than what is really there (note that he writes, "I focus on the people
and what matters most to them, or what I believe should matter most to them..."; here we find the backdoor through which Meijer will
smuggle his own imported agenda, which in many cases might more appropriately be entitled, "What's So Bad about Korea,
Maarten?"). For Meijer, premarital sex is bad and the sexual revolution in the West was also bad, and not the kind of thing that South
Korea should emulate at all ("In the 1960s the Beatles sang, "I wanna hold your hand." By the 1980s George Michael was singing, "I
want your sex." Ultimately, the exuberance over the sexual liberation of the '70s gave way to the AIDS epidemic of the '90s. If these
trends continue unabated, Koreans may likewise be in for a rude awakening, when the time comes to harvest the fruits of their present
infatuation."); prostitution and extramaritial sex, it goes without saying, are also terrible, as Meijer reminds us repeatedly and ad
nauseam. All fine and well, except that Meijer's overly simplistic moral framework blinds him to the deeper connections between
these different phenomena: for instance, while it was normal during the Choson Period for Koreans to marry in their teenage years,
when in the modern period the standard marriage age was delayed and extended by a decade or more (largely in order to serve the
productive interests of the industrializing state, which required intensive development, use and exploitation of its own human capital),
an alternate outlet for sexual activity was required for men in particular who could not enter into a socially approved sexual
relationship until well past their sexual prime, and so the mass-market sex industry expanded and flourished here in direct support
of the institution of marriage; furthermore, since many couples even today marry for practical rather than purely romantic reasons (up
until the '90s, arranged or brokered marriages were standard, and the practice is still common), it is hardly surprising that many
husbands and wives seek more satisfying emotional and sexual relationships outside of wedlock. So while it may be morally
satisfying for Meijer to champion the institution of marriage and denounce marital infidelity, prostitution and other "immoral activity"
(as he calls it), many of these latter phenomena can in fact be seen as a natural consequence of or reaction against an overly rigid,
patriarchical conception of marriage, but of course when Meijer prefers to minimize the economic and political dimensions of his
subject, he cannot help but come closer to fuzzy Sunday-morning sermonizing than rigorous sociological analysis. Indeed, Meijer's
tendency to naturalize capitalistic and, to a lesser extent, patriarchal and Christian values by treating them implicitly as universally
given rather than problematic and contingent means that he is himself implicated in the very gender regime whose worst excesses
he seeks to critique.

Likewise, Meijer's discussion of the comfort-women issue is similarly blinkered and unhelpful, framing it solely in narrow nationalistic
or state-based terms as is the local tendency and thereby perpetuating a distorted discourse of national blaming, scapegoating, rivalry
and competition that is seemingly as strong now as it was 60 or 70 years ago. Yes, we all know as Meijer tells us that "Japan" did
something terribly bad to "Korea" when it recruited local women to serve as sex slaves for the Japanese imperial army during WWII,
and Meijer is terribly eloquent when he writes indignantly, "Since 1992, a small group of these elderly women, now in their seventies
and eighties, has been staging weekly demonstrations in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. It is heartrending to see these frail,
gray-haired old ladies sitting outside, rain or shine, trying to get justice done. Though the Korean government helps them financially,
so far none of the aging victims have received redress from the Japanese authorities for the grievous wrong done to them." What
Meijer leaves out of this one-sided account is that a) Many collaborationist Korean men sold out their own Korean sisters for personal
financial gain by actively helping the Japanese recruit these young women throughout the countryside; b) Korea as a whole failed to
welcome these abused innocent women back or reintegrate them into society after the war, a cruel yet classic example of "blaming
the victim" (most suffered in silence for half a century as social outcasts in their own home country); c) The Park Chung Hee
administration absolved Japan of all future claims when it signed the normalization treaty with Japan in 1965, receiving a massive
lump settlement and key technology transfers that helped directly jumpstart the South Korean economy (in effect prioritizing national
economic growth above all else). The problem with Meijer's approach is that by adopting wholesale the nationalistic Korean line on
the comfort-women issue, he diverts attention from the larger picture, namely, that these women were also exploited, victimized and
oppressed by a more generalized transnational regime of patriarchal values in East Asia that still retains its essential hegemony to
this day. Once again, we see how effectively and insidiously Meijer affirms the local status quo, when what is really needed are more
voices and perspectives that help women, workers, minorities and other disempowered groups recognize their solidarity across
national borders and divisions--rather than continually being pitted against each other along national lines by cynical politicians and
their intellectual cronies (or dupes). Reactionary nationalism is nothing more than the politics of divide and rule by another name.

Of course, when you don't do any original or primary research on your own, you're only as good as the secondary sources you
rely on for the information that goes into your book, and given Meijer's obvious lack of familiarity or expertise with the greater East
Asian cultural sphere (on several occasions, for instance, he fails to appreciate the profound difference between Confucianism and
Neo-Confucianism, which is like conflating ethics and metaphysics), I suppose it's only natural for him to allow himself to be
seduced by a rather solipsistic Korean point of view. But surely even his Korean editors should have caught and corrected the
following embarrassing blunder before it saw its way into print: "A unique Korean creation more than two millennia old, taegwondo
[sic], 'the way of hand and foot,' has evolved into a highly sophisticated spiritual and physical tradition." Au contraire, Mr. Meijer! In
fact, taekwondo was invented in the 20th century by Koreans who'd studied karate in Japan during the colonial period, and combined
many of those techniques with those of taekkyon, a well-known and ancient Korean martial art, to create taekwondo (indeed, the
name "taekwondo" itself derives from "taekkyon"). Any half-educated Korean today knows that taekkyon is essentially indigenous
whereas taekwondo is a relatively recent Korean-Japanese hybrid, so it's hard not to conclude that Meijer is either a shameless
propagandist keen on "sanitizing" taekwondo's true origins or, much worse, simply doesn't know what he's talking about; either way,
such gross factual errors undermine the reliability and credibility of Meijer's book even as a basic primer on Korean culture for the lay
reader. In any case, ultimate blame rests on his Korean editors, who elsewhere were too half-assed to notice or care that he
confuses Han'gul (the Korean alphabet) with Han'gung-mal (the South Korean language) no less than four times throughout the book
(as when he writes, "Whereas hangeul [sic] has designations for the day after tomorrow and for three days from now..." or observes
of Konglish, "This hybrid hangeul is a thorn in the side of the many Korean linguists who are concerned about the future of their native
tongue."). To be sure, I can see how newcomers to South Korea might mix up the words Han'gul and Han'gung-mal since they sort
of sound like they share the same root, but in fact etymologically they're completely unrelated: "Han'gul" basically means "great
writing" or "one script," while "Han'gung-mal" is a contraction of "Daehan Min'guk" (the Republic of Korea, i.e., the South) and "mal" or
"language" (and not to be confused with "Choson-mal," the radically distinct dialect or language spoken in the North, "Choson" being
the old name for Korea that literally means "The Land of Morning Calm"). This is really basic stuff that for some reason Meijer still
hasn't mastered after 5-plus years here, Ph.D. and all. Imagine a South Korean academic writing a primer on U.S. culture and
proclaiming confidently, "While the Roman alphabet requires years of study to speak, read and write effectively, it is essential to
gaining access to the vast riches of American culture." Publishers in the U.S. would laugh and toss his manuscript in the garbage bin
before he'd even left their offices, and yet just because Meijer is white, has an advanced degree and is willing to wrap himself like a
dork in the South Korean flag, that's apparently good enough to get a juicy book contract in the so-called "Hub of Asia." Pathetic!

There are so many other things about this book that are just so wrong that I'd have to write a whole book myself just to handle them
all properly, be it Meijer's blanket dismissal of local inns and motels as "bunkers of immorality" (yogwans and motels cater to a
diverse clientele that varies greatly according to location, from budget-minded tourists in downtown urban areas to students seeking a
place to study or party together around their universities to young couples in entertainment zones looking for a place to bonk, which is
hardly "immoral" in my opinion as long as they're consenting adults), or his outdated claim that "Kissing in public is not accepted and
premarital sex is still considered taboo." (I live in Chongno-1-ga in downtown Seoul and see young couples sucking face on the main
drag all the time, and when he refers to the taboo of premarital sex, what he really means is that for women, at least, it used to be
taboo, since men here have long fornicated freely before marriage--a drunken brothel visit has traditionally been a rite of passage for
young men about to enter military service--and these days, the female virginity cult is in the process of rapid dismantling: after Korea
defeated Togo during the recent World Cup, for example, a randy and decidedly unvirginal Korean lass was photographed with her
miniskirt hiked way up astride a young buck on top of an SUV in Apkujong, surrounded by a crowd of cheering onlookers; those more
cynically inclined might suggest that the only taboos in faux-chic Apkujong are to be poor, ugly or fat.) But perhaps the wrongest thing
about this book is Meijer's compulsive overuse of normative statements and reductive generalizations that mainly take the form of
"Korea is X" or "Koreans are Y" and so on and so forth. I admit that it's fun to speak in broad terms every now and then for comic
effect (see above), and such indulgences have their place in the appropriate forum, but Meijer is no Oscar Wilde and is not joking
around when he writes: "Some foreigners assert that Koreans are racist. I do not believe that this is true." No, he's being quite serious
here, which is seriously problematic on so many different levels. For starters, Meijer's expression is sloppy and hence logically
invalid, since the statement "Some foreigners assert that Koreans are racist" cannot be simultaneously true and untrue. (Of course it's
true that some foreigners here say that, just as it's true that Meijer's editors at Hyeonamsa are incompetent!) Anyway, I get his point
("Koreans are not racist"), but isn't it racist to ascribe a priori a particular attitude or disposition to an entire population based solely on
their common ethnic and/or national affiliation, even if it happens to be a "positive" characteristic (i.e., "All Jews are intelligent" or "All
blacks are great dancers")? Indeed, I personally know dozens of South Koreans who agree without qualification that racism exists in
South Korea (as it does in every society to varying degrees), so is Meijer saying that they're wrong and that he knows how Koreans
really think better than Koreans do? As Edward Said famously argued, when a Westerner presumes to speak for non-Westerners in a
manner more authoritative and "truthful" than they can themselves, in effect knowing them better than they know themselves, then this
is called Orientalism and as such is an inherently racist mode of discourse based on a hierarchical production of knowledge across
cultures. Once again, it would seem, the logic of Meijer's reasoning is anything but--and he dares, pot-like, to call Koreans
"irrational"!

A more rigorous discussion of whether or not racism exists in Korea and how it operates here would begin by noting how the concept
of Tan'il Minjok ("One People/Race/Nation/Ethnic Group," i.e., Korea) has been artificially constructed in order to serve specific
ideological goals (as if all the invasions that Korea suffered down through the centuries added nothing to the local gene pool), which
has in turn often resulted in widespread social discrimination against non-Koreans and verifiable institutional racism (there are, for
example, concrete historical and legal reasons why Seoul is the only major world city without a real Chinatown, and heaven help you
if you're a non-Korean and are infected with the HIV virus by a Korean here, for you must leave the country right away or face
deportation). Just as it is noncontroversial to state that there is discrimination here based on gender, age, region, class and education,
so is there discrimination here directed against those of a non-Korean ethnic or racial background, and as a minority myself I
encounter such prejudicial behavior regularly; indeed, it would be something of a miracle for a country like Korea that has traditionally
been one of the world's most relatively homogenous societies to transform itself into a paradise of racial tolerance and multicultural
harmony at the mere drop of a hat. While I cannot speak for the experiences of other foreigners in Korea, here's one personal
anecdote that directly contradicts Meijer's above statement on the alleged nonexistence of racism in Korea: I recently went down to
Kyongju in South Kyongsang Province to clear my head for a few days, and stayed at my regular neohan'ok-style yogwan (a "bunker
of immorality"!) near Tumuli Park in the center of the city. There's a tearoom just down from the yogwan on the corner, and two years
ago when I was last in Kyongju, I visited it and enjoyed buying coffee for one of the girls who worked there as is the custom (for the
price of a cup of coffee they will sit with you for a little while and shoot the breeze and do their best to entertain you); we got along
well enough that for the next three days, she delivered coffee to my yogwan on her scooter regularly as is also the custom, although
there was no hanky-panky involved other than my desire to cadge some rather unconventional Korean conversation lessons (and
which she didn't seem to mind as I was a good tipper and played the part of a perfect gentleman). On my most recent visit, however,
there seemed to have been a management change of some sort as the tearoom's madam was different, and none of the girls offered
to sit with me despite the fact that I was well-dressed, well-groomed and capable in the local language. As I was leaving, I asked the
middle-aged madam for a lighter, which normally has the tearoom's number on it in case one needs to request a delivery, but she
was quite sullen and after claiming that there were no shop lighters, scrounged around the stove area in the back and found a greasy
half-used lighter from some tallan jujom or karaoke bar to give me; the vibe was quickly becoming awkward, but I nevertheless asked,
"Well, in case I need a delivery, could you tell me the number here?" Without a blink, she shot back, "We only deliver to offices." At that
point, she had no idea that I was staying at one of the local yogwans, or that I was a repeat customer from way back, but I got the hint
and let the issue slide rather than being an indignant, scene-making ugly American, and I also thought that they could possibly have
changed their policy on where they would and wouldn't deliver to, so on that point I decided to just give her the benefit of the doubt
and take my leave gracefully. But I soon discovered that the crusty old bat had been lying through her tobacco-stained teeth, since I
saw several of the girls from the tearoom deliver to other (Korean) guests at my yogwan repeatedly over the next three days; I even
tried to smile at them a few times when we passed each other in the hallway or out in front, but I might as well have been the Invisible
Man as far as they were concerned. (So much for the stereotype that people in the countryside are friendlier than people Seoul.) I
suppose that many who hear this story will come up with all sorts of rationalizations and justifications for the madam's behavior
towards me, but I have no doubt that had I been Korean (or even Japanese) I would have received far better service, and not been
blown off so readily with an obvious lie and been treated essentially as a nonperson. One can quibble about precise terminology, but
as far as I'm concerned, when one is dehumanized and discriminated against because one is not a member of the local ethnic
majority, then that is racism plain and simple. What had changed since my previous visit to the tearoom in 2004? Well, obviously there
are some Koreans willing to treat foreigners as regular human beings, and others who think most foreigners are basically freaks and
would rather not have to deal with them, and by all appearances the new madam belonged to the latter group. Or perhaps the great
English Rectum, I mean English Spectrum, scandal of early 2005 (in which some clueless expat ESL teachers here had posted online
pictures of Korean bimbos in wet T-shirts frolicking with drunken big noses at a bar in Hongdae, igniting a national uproar among
South Korea's notoriously volatile "Netizens" and the general populace) had led her to conclude that since I was a single white male,
I was obviously an English teacher and everyone knows that all English teachers in Korea are depraved sexual beasts and there was
no way that she would endanger her girls by allowing them to come within spitting distance of me, let alone be alone with me in a
room where I would certainly try to rape or otherwise defile them. Then again, perhaps she was a regular viewer of MBC's hit
dramedy game show "Surprise TV," and years of watching inept, nonprofessional foreign "actors" dress up as bewigged clowns and
generally play the fool (great armies of South Koreans go mental whenever Hollywood has a South Korean actor play a North Korean
because it's not "authentic" and hence "insulting" to their culture, but they care not a fig when Jackie O is played by a Russian tart
from It'aewon and JFK speaks in a broad Aussie strine, which is simply par for the course on "Surprise TV") had helped reaffirm and
reinforce a preexisting stereotype in her head that all foreigners were unreal alien beings from another dimension whose most useful
function was to provide cheap laughs and exotic distraction, a variation on the theme of "blackface" minstrelsy (call it "whiteface"
Occidentalism) that did little to encourage crosscultural empathy and mutual understanding. Or, who knows, perhaps she was just
having a bad day, or didn't like the stylish disco cut of my buttoned-down flower-print shirt. All I know is that by raising the very
important issue of racism and then quickly dropping it like a piping hot roasted sweet potato, Meijer adds nothing new or enlightening
to the debate, be it over the persistence of racism and cultural stereotyping in the local media or dysfunctional interpersonal
psychodramas like my little tearoom incident that most foreigners here experience almost daily. More to the point, by affirming the
status quo once again in a superficially well-meaning but ultimately condescending manner (as if South Koreans weren't yet
grown-up enough to be able to handle a tough-minded critical approach to these issues and still needed to be mollycoddled like
children), Meijer proves all too well the adage made famous by Eldridge Cleaver back in the '60s: "If you're not part of the solution,
you're part of the problem." What's truly surprising is not that Meijer and his publisher expect people to fork over W12,000 for such
reactionary rubbish (hubris is by definition delusional), but that so many people here are actually willing to pay it. What gives? Why is
this silly book so popular?

I've been in Korea long enough to have met an endless parade of ignorant foreigners suffering from "head-up-the-ass syndrome"
who after a year or two here or even a few months are convinced that they "know" Korea perfectly well and require no further
supplementation to their body of knowledge about this country. One of my fellow teachers at Hongik University who's been here for
about two years hates Korea and never leaves his tiny ESL bubble or cocoon in Hongdae where all his basic life needs are met, from
work to accomodation to nightly swims in the local watering holes; when I told him I thought it would be depressing to live in
Poserville Central and spend all my time there, and suggested his attitude towards Korea might improve if he travelled around the
countryside a bit or even made a few forays downtown to the historical parts of the city where the general vibe is much warmer and
far less cold and artificial than in shallow, upstart Hongdae, he replied that since he'd lived in China for several years he did not need
to explore the rest of Seoul or Korea since it was all basically a copy of Chinese culture and therefore offered little that he had not
already seen in China or did not already know. I regret to say that this particular individual is American, although he would not be the
first Yank to base such hauteur on an impossible foundation of total ignorance (the present Bush administration, which has managed
to destabilize the entire Middle East and piss off much of the rest of the world with its shitty attitude and hick assumptions, comes
immediately to mind). The problem with glib, generalist books like What's So Good about Korea, Maarten? is they only feed this
arrogant delusion that it is possible to know Korea easily and quickly, and then once you've been given all the answers there's no
need to ask any more questions. It's similar to the way that many lazy, half-assed students in high school or college would rather
read the CliffsNotes to Moby Dick or Lord Jim than dig into the novel itself, because all they care about is getting a good grade instead
of expanding their mind or learning how to think for themselves. They're so fixated on the goal that they don't know how to enjoy the
journey, when in fact the journey itself is the goal, of course. I've been to expat parties here in Seoul and heard foreigners quoting
arguments from What's So Good? and passing them off as their own, and when I politely disagreed and offered informed
counterarguments or counterexamples, they huffily refused to listen or entertain alternate possibilities because they'd gotten their
information from a book written by a guy with a Ph.D., so what the hell did I know? In short, they've stopped thinking, which is no
doubt another big reason why What's So Good? is so popular, since it requires little genuine thought for the average reader to digest,
and goes down so nice and easy. And it certainly doesn't help that most Korean clerks at local bookstores do not actually read the
English-language books on Korea that they stock (I know because I talk to them, and some of them are even fans of my work that's
appeared in Korean), so any random book with a flashy cover or catchy title can be given prominent display regardless of its actual
merits or lack thereof. At the same time, the local English-language media are, as a whole, so indifferent to books that tripe like
What's So Good? can easily slip under the critical radar and escape the public incineration they truly deserve. In its last three years,
K-Scene, Seoul's most popular English-language magazine, has reviewed exactly one book about Korea (that's 0.33 titles per year),
and the JoongAng Daily reviews on average half a dozen books a year (on a good year 2 or 3 of them might actually be books written
by foreigners about Korea). I've complained to them about this repeatedly and heard all sorts of lame excuses, but the long and short
of it is that they're just too cheap to devote the proper resources to the task. One could argue that if South Korea really wants to
promote itself as a sophisticated and "developed" country to the outside world, its English-language media need to do more than just
review restaurants and fashion shows and the occasional Hollywood divertissement, but even on a purely practical level, publications
like K-Scene and JoongAng Daily are missing out on considerable advertising revenue from local publishers who are willing to spend
significant sums to promote their books in the pages of publications they think have the pull and weight to influence book-buying
readers. I'm all too aware of the basic division of labor at local English-language newspapers (in which the bulk of articles are written
by Korean reporters who speak and write English as a second language and all the copywriting is done by native English speakers,
meaning that the latter are too busy copywriting full-time to read and review books and the Korean reporters are themselves too busy
reporting to read "difficult" or challenging English-language books on a regular basis), but the simple fact of the matter is that hundreds
of books in English about Korea are published every year around the world, and the local English-language media are just not doing
their job properly when they ignore the overwhelming majority of them. It is a given and oft-noted fact that Korea is overrun with
foreigners suffering like my friend above from "head-up-the-ass syndrome," and it must be said that any ESL "teacher" who lacks
proper training and skills and has only come here for the money is essentially a whore, since in both instances the individual is
earning income based on attributes acquired by mere accident of birth--physical appeal in the case of prostitutes and the English
language in the case of ESL whores--and lovelessly sell themselves for cold hard cash to the highest bidder (although I admit that
even this extreme analogy can be construed as insulting to those professional prostitutes who actually do have skills and take pride in
doing their job well, in which case they are not really whores but are more appropriately categorized as "sex workers"); to paraphrase
Terrence Howard's enraged lament to Ludacris in the great film Crash (2004), these ignorant, benighted fools are embarrassing
themselves, and even worse they're embarrassing me. The English-language media in Korea need to get their priorities straight
and realize that they have a moral duty to help lead these poor lost souls out of the valley of darkness to a better and brighter place,
where knowledge and discovery rather than blind selfishness are the order of the day; they need to elevate their whole game by
several higher levels and focus all their energies on promoting a general culture of intellectual pursuit in which ideas are sexy and
exciting and, most important, are relevant to lives of those English speakers who for whatever reason find themselves here in Korea;
and, yes, they need to make sure that all those ESL whores and other ignorami who have no interest in Korean culture feel like the
biggest losers in the world because their retarded attitude is causing them to miss out on one of the most amazing, cutting-edge
parties around. What this means, for starters, is that whenever an important new book about Korea comes out, the local English-
language media must take the lead and do all they can to ensure that it's a genuine literary event that has everyone talking, and
rushing to their local bookstore so that they can join in on the discussion and debate, and in turn be a part of the greater community
here; if nothing else, regular exposure to decently written English-language books in a variety of fields and genres might have some
sort of beneficial osmosis effect, and help all those dry and deadly dull ESL hacks in the English-language media here actually learn
how to write well in the hallowed language of Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer. Gee, now wouldn't that be a
real mind fuck?

It is practically religious dogma these days that the Internet offers the most convenient means of transmission and dissemination of
ideas, but this is only true for those who confuse such distinct categories as quantity and quality, information and knowledge, opinion
and genuine wisdom. In fact, books are a far more efficient and convenient medium of discourse insofar as they are the concentrated
expression of an author's ideas that may have taken them years to research, think about, write and edit, but will only take you a few
fleeting hours to upload to your brain and, who knows, maybe even your heart and soul. That's a pretty good trade-off (the ratio is
largely reversed when reading blogs), and one I'm willing to make since life is short and I'm really just a lazy baeksu who much
prefers to have someone else do the heavy lifting for me whenever possible. So let the bloggers blog and the chattering masses
chatter, and in the meantime, why not pick up a few more books about Korea and thereby enhance the quality of your Korea
experience by enhancing the overall quality of your knowledge and understanding of this ancient land? If nothing else, you'll save
a good deal of time by keeping company with scholars and other writers who tend to know what they're talking about, rather than
frittering it away in cyberspace where any poser with a new Blogger account is suddenly a Korea Expert. Here, then, are a few select
titles to get you started: Isabella Bird Bishop's Korea and Her Neighbours (1898) is hands-down the best English-language travel book
ever written about Korea, a now-mythic record of a lost era that will teach you more about Korea than you could ever learn reading
expat K-blogs nonstop 24-7 for the next three months (it helped not a little that she was out and about in the country every day instead
of parked in front of a computer screen at all hours chasing memes and spectral virtual dreams, like poor little Neo at the start of The
Matrix). Bruce Cumings' Korea's Place in the Sun (1997) is the most enjoyable, authoritative and endlessly provocative history of
Korea that you'll find in a single volume, and Michael Breen's The Koreans (1998) is a witty and excellent general introduction to
modern Korean society that makes inferior books like What's So Good? seem redundant and quite unnecessary (admittedly, it may be
getting a bit long in the tooth these days, but I have it on good authority that a revised and updated version is in the works and will be
out shortly). Paul S. Crane's classic Korean Patterns (1967) is a sort of structuralist account of "the national character" that unlike
Meijer's book was written at a time when such a project was still roughly feasible, although it is my personal opinion that such
concepts as "kibun" or "nunch'i" are made too much of as keys to the Korean psyche (Meijer makes a veritable fetish of them), since
personal well-being and an ability to read others are almost universally valued, and in any case if Koreans have such great nunch'i
or people-reading skills, why is there so much scamming and fakery going on here at all levels of society (and even within many
families)? If gender's your thing, Nancy Abelman's The Melodrama of Mobility (2003) and Laura C. Nelson's Measured Excess (2000)
both offer a sophisticated look at the place and role(s) of women in contemporary Korean society, while Kim Kyung-hyun's The
Remasculinization of Korean Cinema (2004) is a theoretically intense examination of the representation of men and masculinity in
Korean film in the 1980s and '90s. On the other hand, if you're more interested in the expat experience in Korea, Donald N. Clark's
Living Dangerously in Korea (2003) is a superb chronicle of roundeye adventures and paleface shenanigans here in the first half of the
20th Century, and Martin Limon's Jade Lady Burning (1992) and Slicky Boys (1997) are wicked hard-boiled thrillers set mainly in
It'aewon back in the '70s, when men were men, the local women were called "business girls," and the area had not yet been invaded
by so-called Third World immigrants as it has today because it was still basically Third World itself (so far, Limon's written four books
in the series and counting). Of course, one can't forget about North Korea, and Bradley K. Martin's superfat Under the Loving Care of
the Fatherly Leader (2004) is one book that will suck you up into its many mysteries and secrets and not soon let you go (if you're
daunted by its sheer massiveness, just think of it as a sort of encyclopedia on all things North Korean that can be perused at will by
theme, subject or historical period, rather than being read straight through); and I should also mention that you're a damn sucker if
you throw your money away on Lonely Planet's overpriced and underwritten Korea or Seoul guides, when Moon Publication's South
Korea Handbook is superior in every way and is a true class act. Finally, I would also urge you to read The Analects of Confucius, so
that the next time you hear someone talking about how "Confucian" Korea is, or are making such observations yourself, you have a
basic understanding of what that really means; and I would also recommend all Japan haters in Korea to read Alan Booth's brilliant
and hilarious The Roads to Sata: A 2000-Mile Walk Through Japan (1985), so that you can see what a truly magical, diverse and
unique country Japan is, warts and all, and maybe think twice the next time you're tempted to make some uninformed generalized
put-down about her people. In my opinion, The Roads to Sata is the best English-language book about Japan ever written, and puts
Simon Winchester's Korea: A Walk through the Land of Miracles (1988) to utter shame, given that it is such a lame and shallow ripoff
of Booth's basic concept (it was essentially a rushed hack job timed for the '88 Seoul Olympics gravy train). Perhaps some day in the
near or distant future Korea, too, will consistently inspire literary works of the same calibre from its expatriate population, although I
have my doubts given how distracted and frazzled most everyone is here nowadays. In any case, I've done my best for now to help
raise the general level of literateness here, and leave the rest up to you, my dear and dedicated reader. If you're at Kyobo or
Youngpoong or Bandi & Luni's and having a hard time finding any of the above titles (an all-too-likely occurrence, alas), by all means
tell the clerks in the Foreign Books section there to get on the ball and order multiple copies of each for their shelves (they mean well,
I'm sure, but in most cases simply don't have an adequate working knowledge of their own inventory and can use all the help they
can get). And while you're at it, go ahead and point to the cheesehead draped in the South Korean flag and ask them in all
seriousness, "Why is that silly book so popular?" I for one would hope that Korea can do a whole lot better than that.

Hopefully, so do you.




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