Foreign voices speak out on their time in KoreaRichard Harris’s latest book is quite different from his last one, a text on learning the Korean language, “A Roadmap to Korean,” that was reviewed here last Christmas Day. But he can’t seem to leave the teaching behind in “Faces of Korea,” a collection of discourses by people who have not lived in Korea all their lives.
I use that phrase deliberately, because the people telling their stories are ethnic Koreans now carrying a foreign passport, short- and long-term foreign residents here and non-ethnic Korean passport holders. Their stays in Korea range from a few months to almost a lifetime.
The stories are interesting and show a broad array of reactions to the Korean experience. There are expressions of comfort and of frustration, of fascination and of dislike for the culture and daily living.
But there seems to be no common theme tying these stories together, and I am still not certain about the point that Harris intended to make in compiling them. It is more than an assembly of complaints about Korea; several of the interviews contain some scathing comments, but many also describe how much the speaker enjoys life here.
Harris cites several goals for himself: showing Koreans how foreigners live (although that’s difficult to do in an English-language book); showing how the foreign presence in Korea is “shaping the face” of Korean society (dubious at best, even though Western and Japanese pop culture imports are having that effect) and a more general “learning something about ourselves as human beings.”
That lack of cohesiveness is not necessarily a flaw. The foreign presence in Korea is, as Harris says, increasingly diverse, and he has reached beyond the standard Western presence of missionaries and English teachers to include comments from across the globe. That, indeed, is a strength.
But some of the essays sound a bit strange, and Harris rightfully disassociates himself from them by noting that he has not verified these travelers’ tales. At least one of the essays, by a Mormon churchman, has less to do with Korea than with his religious convictions. Passages in several accounts by illegal workers here suggest that their lack of work permits was gosh, just an honest mistake, or a series of them.
Perhaps the most jaw-dropping comment was by a Filipina, now a Korean citizen, who complained mildly about not realizing she was marrying into an entire Korean family, “not like in my culture where when you marry, it’s a union of the two.” About 99.5 percent of foreigners who have courted or married someone from the Philippines will get a giggle out of that assertion.
The book could also have done with a bit more editorial scrubbing. King Kojong authorized emigration from Korea to the United States in either 1889 or 1902, depending on which page you’re reading, and there are some “it’s” and “its” problems. I am also not sure of why Harris decided to include a hangul translation of Korean places, terms, schools and personal names. They are useless to someone who does not read Korean, and unnecessary for those who do.
But despite the problems, the book is interesting and at times evocative of what we oegugin, foreigners, encounter during our stay in the Land of the Morning Calm.
by John Hoog