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 Zine Flash: ROKon

                       ROKon Issue One (July 2006)

I think no one in Seoul gave a 모기's ass when its biggest English-language rag, K-Scene (formerly Seoul Classified, known to
many long-term expats here as Seoul Crappified), finally crapped out in early August of 2006 after 8 years of pretending that it was
actually a real magazine. Of course, it had gotten off to a pretty lame start by shamelessly ripping off the basic concept and format of
Underground Exchange (1996-97), its far more colorful and irreverent predecessor. K-Scene was published by a dorky Korean ajosshi
and Amway kingpin in his 50s who knew jack about the expat community here and who was all about the King Sejongs and nothing
more (he also has his hands in real estate and insurance, and was a former Korean military officer and U.S.-trained lawyer); its last
sales manager and de facto office manager was a ridiculously dodgy-looking Pakistani scammer who had come to Korea after getting
booted out of Japan, and only stayed on at K-Scene because he'd overstayed his Korean visa ages ago and had nowhere else to go
(I had several interactions with him myself and can vouch that he was a master at talking three ways out of his ass). Sleazy Amway
hustlers and shifty Third World illegal aliens: Now there's a formula for success and general literary excellence! In the end, K-Scene
proved once again the truth of Bethell's Law: Mainly out of desperation, in early 2006 they'd hired the first guy who came along and
actually cared enough to tell them their magazine sucked big kimchi; a party-hard hipster originally from Trinidad, he had a solid track
record as a successful English-language magazine editor in Osaka, Japan, and by the spring of 2006, his editorial vision was starting
to have an obvious beneficial impact on K-Scene's tone and content. But for its clueless publisher, K-Scene was never more than a
would-be money-spinner that was mostly in the red, and he had no genuine interest in improving the magazine's content; K-Scene's
new editor finally bailed after tiring of the publisher's constant meddling and butchering of stories, and tiring of bass-ackwards Korea
as a whole. In turn, K-Scene's publisher decided that he'd had enough by that point as well, and that's basically all she wrote. So
there you have it: Just as K-Scene was starting to get better and become something like a real magazine, it dies -- or more
accurately is killed off. Bethell's Law affirmed yet again.

Don't you just love Korea, folks?

Back in late July, I heard through my good friend Zane Ivy of the appearance of a new expat zine called ROKon that he'd seen floating
about the stinky, muddied watering holes of Shit'aewon. At the time I was in monk mode and missed picking up a copy of Issue One
myself, but I'm always one to support expat zines here if I can and went out of my way to track down the next few issues of ROKon,
just to see what it was all about. Alas, ROKon probably chose the worst possible moment to birth itself from the creative loins of its
editor-in-chief Shelton "Lee" Bumgarner (what a name!), since it almost immediately decided to morph from a reasonably funky
photocopied, small-scale zine to a blatant and indeed conscious rip-off of K-Scene, albeit of a rather more shaggy disposition and
appearance -- call it K-Zine, if you like, although since it's not really a zine now, perhaps ROKs Off would be a more appropriate
moniker. In late September I started emailing Bumgarner (imagine the indignities he must have endured thoughout grade school and
high school with such a name!), introducing myself, offering my support and requesting 2 or 3 copies of Issue One both for reviewing
purposes on this site and for my own zine archive; he ignored about half of my emails, and the replies I did get seemed like mostly
grandiose cut-and-paste mission statements about how ROKon was aiming to fill the vacuum left by the demise of K-Scene, and by
the way did I know anyone who could help out with ad sales? I repeatedly suggested he read my extensive and in-depth history of
local expat zines in Korea Bug, as well as my online essay "Why Is This Silly Book So Popular?" for a cautionary breakdown of the
expat book market here; he expressed zero interest in such accounts, presumably because he was too busy reinventing the wheel to
need any advice or help from some random nobody such as myself. I know that Bumgarner, a fellow Yank from Richmond, Virginia,
often posts on The Marmot's Hole (after being here for all of two years or so, he seems to fancy himself quite the North Korea expert,
I must say, though he's never actually been there and by his own admission doesn't speak Korean), and also has at least two other
personal blogs of his own, so perhaps because I do not have a blog myself I'm simply not cool or linkable enough to merit his full
attention. In any case, he was at least kind enough to snail mail me a single dog-eared copy of Issue One, which I do appreciate,
although I did have to wait nearly a month and literally had to ask him 5 or 6 times before he finally garnered his bum and did so. Well,
I know that Kim Jong-il, Roh Moo-hyun and George W. Bush are all anxiously awaiting Bumgarner's latest thoughts on the current
nuclear standoff, and that their needs certainly take precedence over basic Netiquette or solidarity among fellow zinesters, so I'll just
be a good sport and forgive him his slackness this time around.

In all honesty, I'll say that I do like the first two issues of ROKon from July and August, before it went glossy and took on board former
K-Scene hacks like Johnny Red and Miss Tiff (I've met Miss Tiff, short for Tiffany, and unfortunately she is NOT a drag queen,
despite her name). The first two issues are zines because they have a very personal tone and feel, and have lots of weird stuff in
them, like Issue Two's interview with the nutty Aussie performance artist "The Watermelon Man," Aly Young's stimulating visit to
Loveland on Cheju Island, and Thal Ghitter's long and juicy first-person narrative of colonic-irrigation treatment in Thailand (I've
also met Tahl Ghitter, formerly of the now apparently defunct DDD, and although she's not a drag queen, either, she's definitely a
proud man-eater). Issue One has a fantastic story by an American lass doing a two-year stint for the Peace Corps in Mongolia, and
amazingly has a full-page review of the essay anthology "Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey," which
was a shocker because I hardly ever see interesting book reviews in the pages of local English-language publications anymore
(hopefully in the future they'll even review the odd English-language book about Korea, since it seems that no one else 'round these
parts can be fucked doing so nowadays). The September and October issues of ROKon, however, feel more like K-Scene with a
hangover, jammed with far too much filler and irrelevant pap, like a boring full-page article on how to buy a computer in Korea (in next
month's issue: "How to Wipe Your Own Ass!"), or a fluffy and entirely retarded 500-word story on karaoke that's been streched out to
two whole A4-sized pages (including more than a page that simply lists supposedly essential karaoke classics like Bon Jovi's
"Always" and The Red Hot Silly Peppers' "By the Way." Whatever! Rock on, my ass!). Look, is your life in Korea so boring that all
you can write about is some potted history of karaoke that you no doubt cribbed from Wikipedia, mixing in a few cheesy winks and
adolescent nods about how cool it is to have a "killer hangover from hell" and then pretending that anyone else east or west of Kansas
actually CARES? Why the hell did you even come here in the first place? Get the fuck out and go back to whatever fraternity house you
escaped from -- or more likely got kicked out of! I can't believe that some poor tree in Indonesia or Brazil had to sacrifice its life just
so that you could beer fart all over the precious pages of its memory! Whither civilization? Whither social evolution and the collective
progress of humanity? The Hub of Asia? More like its damn hubcap!

Don't you just love Korea, folks?

I also have to confess that I'm either bored, unimpressed or disagree with just about everything Bumgarner has to say about the
general state of affairs in this part of the world, be it his thoughts on North Korea, his musings on expats on Korea, or his delusional
notion of what a "cool" local bar is. I think part of the problem is that many of his essays feel less like zine or magazine articles and
more like hard-copy versions of rambling, off-the-cuff blog entries, which means they're liable to become quickly dated or irrelevant
when addressing topical issues like this past summer's North Korean missile tests or deranged media whore John Mark Karr, who
reportedly taught ESL here in Korea several years back; the other main problem, directly related to the first, is that Bumgarner has far
too many opinions on things he really doesn't know what he's talking about, or is simply too lazy to look into or research properly. As
Hal Hickman famously observed long ago (and the great Dirty Harry coolly concurred), "Opinions are like assholes -- everyone's got
one, but no one wants to look at the other guy's." What inquiring minds want is reliable information and good old-fashioned dirt, and,
barring that, an entertaining read and hopefully a few laughs; what we DON'T need or want is half-baked second- or third-hand
summaries of whatever Bumgarner was able to cobble together after Googling himself silly at 3 in the morning after pounding four too
many bottles of sHite at his favorite expat dive. A sample of hard-hitting investigative journalism, bumrushin' Bumgarner style (from
the September 2006 issue): "[Karr's] resume, dug up on the Internet, doesn't state exactly where he taught around 2001-2002, but the
idea that he was here at all is enough to give me the heebeejeebees. I always need [sic] expats were a pretty crazy bunch, but this
is ridiculous!" "Ridiculous" is right -- ridiculous how cavalierly Bumgarner lumps the million-plus expats and foreigners here -- the
great majority of them NOT English teachers, mind you -- together with a freakazoid like Karr, ridiculous how trite and uninformative
his observations on the matter are, and ridiculous how easy it is nowadays for any wannabe or blowhard with ten hairy digits to jack
into the Matrix and wack off in public with impunity. If Bumgarner had taken the time, say, to call up Korean Immigration, find out
where Karr worked when he was here and then interviewed his ex-employer or some of his former co-workers, THAT would have
been interesting and made ROKon actually relevant and worthy of its name (sort of like what Dominick Dunne did for his wise and
dishy column on Karr in the November issue of Vanity Fair, which if nothing else means that Bumgarner essentially got scooped by
an octogenarian toff in Connecticut; my own favorite part of the whole Karr saga was reading in Bangkok's The Nation that Thailand's
head of immigration police had sung the Bee Gees' "Words" to Karr on the way to the airport for deportation -- only in Amazing[TM]
Thailand!). Likewise in the same two-and-a-half-page article, entitled "Expat Nation" (an absurd oxymoron if ever I've heard one,
given how fragmented, fractious and notoriously noncommunal the expat "community" here is), Bumgarner has only hearsay and
clueless speculation to offer in his discussion of the recent "Kushibora" affair, in which the former head of Democrats Abroad Korea
and prominent blogger Kushibo was outed on as the fictional Republican lesbian blogger "Nora Park": "...Johnathan
[sic] 'Kushibo' Hilts was maybe, well, blogging as another well known -- and female -- blogger. A lesbian Republican blogger, at
that. We don't know for sure, though." "We don't know for sure, though" pretty much sums up Bumgarner's entire philosophy and
editorial policy, since he's too busy serial blogging to get his damn facts straight. For the record -- and you heard it here first --
Occidentalism was in fact tipped off about the true identity of "Nora Park" by a personal acquaintance and old-school Korea expat who
smelled a garlicky rat and hacked into the email accounts of both Kushibo and "Nora Park," discovered that their passwords were
identical and found enough incriminating evidence to convince Occidentalism to go public with the story. So, now you know for
sure -- how's it feel to be scooped yet again, Bumgarner? And by the way, my own definition of "old-school Korea expat" is anyone
who first came here before the great financial meltdown of '97-'98 (when the whole country was turned upside down and inside out),
so in the future, I'd suggest you show a bit more respect to your elders -- by which I mean in this case old-school kimchi krunchers
like myself who've gone out of their way to express interest in your "new-school" work. This is Korea, the Land of 공자, after all!

I could go on at length about all the other things that Bumgarner gets wrong, like his misguided and rather paranoid conviction that all
Canadians in Korea somehow have it out for Americans (I've been in East Asia since 1994 and have met, lived and worked with
dozens of very cool and well-mannered Canadians and never once had a Canuck lay into me for being a "stupid American" as
apparently Bumgarner often has; perhaps the problem is simply that Bumgarner is a punk-ass clown, which is certainly my first if
not necessarily accurate impression, and should try a bit harder to transcend stale stereotypes of "ugly Americans" and the like), or
his embarrassing boast that every time he debauches himself at "The Bar" in Shinch'on, the following morning when he wakes up he
feels "just a little bit hipper" (I've been to 느끼한 사람들 twice in years past, which was two times too many for personal comfort; "The
Barf" is a cesspool overflowing with oeguk trash, a pit, a hole, a toilet full of predatory male ESL teachers and Korean girls who are
either too naive or too slutty to even begin to wrap their heads around the concept of what a hip bar might actually entail, and every
minute longer I stayed there, I could hear a whistling sound as my own modest hip factor began to nosedive perilously). But really,
life is short and I don't want to be too hard on ROKon, since even in the third and fourth issues there are a few decent articles, like
Katie Leitch's amusing September write-up of her visit to Mt. Kumgang in North Korea, or Annie Padma's October feature on the folks
behind the recently released compilation, "Where the Wild Things Are: Music of a New Korea" (Double Asah). Then again, even
K-Scene regularly published stories in a similar vein, so ROKon is not exactly breaking new ground here (in effect, since the present
incarnation of ROKon is a desanitized rip-off of K-Scene, and K-Scene was a sanitized rip-off of Underground Exchange, we've
basically come full circle and are right back where we were ten years ago -- merely running in place rather than going anywhere
new or truly special). And given that there is yet another cheesy, newly launched English-language mag in Seoul called The Goob,
I mean, "The Groove" that is also a pretender to the porcelain throne formerly occupied by K-Scene, my advice to ROKon would be to
heed Bethell's Law and forget about trying to be a big-shot Magazine here in soulless Seoul and just concentrate on being a funky
little zine that appeals to discerning local readers. After all, the great majority of Seoul's English-speaking big noses are pretty damn
trashy and cheap (I blame the hagwons and other local schools for the ever-growing heap of oeguk trash, since they'll send a free
plane ticket here to any schmo who knows how to work an email account and thinks having yellow fever makes him a real teacher),
so if your goal is to capture and represent that market in a major way, you're going to have to be pretty damn trashy and cheap
yourself; at the same time, you're never going to generate much reader loyalty among such fickle fakers, since they're generally just
floating through this part of the world and in most cases are loyal to none other than themselves (and maybe Dave's ESL Cafe or
Ublove), so why even bother with them? Why knock yourself out when most people here won't even care? Why cast pearls before
swine? Really, they're just not worth it.

Finally, one last bit of advice: If you do in fact want to be a zine or even just a regular magazine, stop acting and looking so much like
a damn blog, which means can the pseudo-punditry if you don't know what you're talking about, and at least try to write stories that
aren't obsolete before the ink's even had a chance to dry. Don't you realize that if you're a zinester in Korea, blogs are the enemy,
since they've shattered the local expat public sphere into a thousand tiny pieces all shrieking through the white noise, "Look at me!!
Look at me!! Look at me!!" and meanwhile, everyone's so busy "writing" (and clicking and linking and pinging and blinging) that
they hardly have any time to actually read any more? I mean, even the JoongAng Daily now has a weekly K-blog round-up (the
postmodern cut-and-paste equivalent of old-fashioned "man-in-the-street" interviews), but has simply given up on reviewing books
these days -- how vulgar, middle-brow and pathetic is that? In any case, if I want informed commentary on North Korea, I'll read
Andrei Lankov; if I want provocative analysis of South Korean politics, I'll read Michael Breen; but if you're some random English
teacher who's only recently parachute dropped into the country, I really don't care what you think about North Korea or South Korean
politics, because you're just another asshole that needs to get wiped. All I care about is what your life is like here in Korea, and that
you write about it in an honest and interesting way. That shouldn't be such a hard task to pull off, but it seems like hardly anyone
knows how to do it nowadays. So rock on, dudes, fuck all the bullshit, and make sure people really mean your name when they say
it, OK?

Peace out!

(Don't you just live Korea, folks?)


1. 모기 ("mogi"): mosquito
2. 공자 ("Kongja"): Korean for Confucius
3. 느끼한 사람들 ("Nukkihan Saram-dul"): Oily People, a play on The Bar's Korean name, 놀이하는 사람들 or Playing People

Lucky, though [10]

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