White hands, zucchini and a mean girlfriend
The word, which literally means “white hands,” is also a slang term for somebody who is unemployed, but in Burgeson’s case this is more than a self-deprecating joke.
For Burgeson, the concept of “white” conveys the ethnic source of his guilt that, in turn, is the basis for his writing, which is mostly derived from his 11 years living as an American expatriate in the “land of the mourning calm,” as he calls Korea.
But, by getting his hands dirty as he writes, edits and publishes “Korea Bug,” one of the first expat zines to address Korean culture, he has managed to develop a unique position in Korea’s media world.
On a recent weekday morning, Burgeson showed up in front of a bank headquarters in central Seoul. The meeting place was near his home in Jongno, where, for many years, he has lived in a series of yeogwans or inns.
At first sight he looks like a serious man. He wears blue dress pants with a striped shirt and carries a classic leather case. He has Celtic script tattooed on his arm, a mark of his Irish heritage. Unless he sneers neurotically, he hardly smiles at all.
Over coffee, he complains about the reviews of his latest book “Korea Consumer Report” (Daehanminguk Sayonghugi). He says local newspapers have focused excessively on his negative comments about modern Korea, including his attack on the urban development of Seoul and the country’s incipient nationalism.
In one of the reviews, written by a Korean novelist, the writer accuses Burgeson of “eating, excreting and consuming Korean culture to suit his tastes.”
Indeed the new book, which has sold more than 10,000 copies in two months, does report disturbing aspects of Korea and Burgeson sometimes seems determined to provoke. In his preface, titled “Welcome to My Hate,” he curses his ex-girlfriend ― a Korean ― who ditched him and blocked his ability to write just as a big deadline approached.
In his post-breakup period he says he was like “a mouse trapped in the stinking streets of Seoul,” and he says Korean society is like “a perverted high school.”
In “People I Hate,” he scorns Korean yuppies who live in wealthy districts, Paris Hilton wannabes and cheap English teachers whom he believes have polluted Itaewon.
Yet these attacks on Korea are nothing new.
Whether it’s a profile of an ordinary middle aged office worker and his tedious lifestyle in “The Ajossi,” Burgeson’s notes on “vulgar nationalism” or his chat with a lesbian couple, he is telling a story that many of us already know too well or have at least read in the columns of progressive newspapers.
Even so, the book seems to offend many people.
At the Website Yes 24, an Internet bookstore, a reader identified as ankuk21 wrote: “The book is full of superficial ideas about Korea that everyone knows about. It’s unclear where the author’s anger comes from, because the idiots he grouses about exist everywhere around the world.”
Another reader criticized the author’s attempt to draw a social portrait of Korean males based on an interview with a single Korean. “It’s foolish to draw simplistic conclusions about one race without considering the spectrum of characters that vary depending on their background,” wrote a blogger called jedi012.
Perhaps the attacks on Burgeson’s book were inevitable, because it comes from an outsider, who is addressing his audience with brutal directness.
But in many ways, that’s exactly why Burgeson’s writings are so enjoyable.
His musings on a gisaeng, or geisha house, and the spectacular Mass Games he saw on a trip to North Korea seemed designed to confront people’s biases.
“It seems like the Korean media sometimes use me to represent their culture for their own purposes,” says Burgeson, puffing away on a Doraji, a highly unpopular brand of Korean cigarette that’s regarded as a grandfather’s smoke. “My book does not reflect their narcissistic vision of Korea, and that causes a problem.”
Or it may simply be the style of his writing, which is saturated with dark humor and sarcasm.
When he was selling the English versions of his “Bug” on the streets during his earlier years, many Koreans were puzzled by its kitsch cover, which was decorated with an old-fashioned font and photographs of plastic baskets and other miscellaneous goods that are sold in markets.
“It looks too cheap,” they told him, as they emphasized that the images present a negative image of Korean culture.
In his introduction to “Nasty Korean Studies” (Balchikhan Hangukhak), Burgeson shared a similar frustration about the public’s fear of cultural misrepresentation, which he had experienced with the local broadcaster of a documentary.
On the set, Burgeson says he was told he could not smoke and was not allowed to make critical comments about sensitive issues ― like the consumption of dog meat or the effect that street vendors might have on foreigners’ perceptions ― because Koreans have an image of foreigners as people who always smile on camera and offer superficial compliments about Korean traditions.
Curiously, his book, which offers a distinctly liberal view of modern Korea, has enjoyed a lot of publicity from the conservative press.
“Korea Consumer Report” was featured prominently in an interview the author did with the Chosun Ilbo, a well-known conservative daily newspaper.
He was also commissioned to write columns and participate in the paper’s panels on Korea’s globalization efforts. During our recent meeting, Burgeson offered three reasons why his latest book had not been mentioned in Hankyeoreh, a leftist paper, who gave generous coverage of his past books.
One might be that Hankyeoreh is too nationalistic to feature criticisms from an American. Two, the paper, which has increasingly focused on Southeast Asia as a way of emphasizing its ideological posture, may have avoided Burgeson because his opinion comes from the perspective of an “oppressor.”
In the worst case scenario, his book had been neglected because the Chosun Ilbo ran an article first.
The good news for Burgeson is that many Koreans have begun to get a masochistic pleasure from his provocative views on the “nasty habits” of Koreans.
As one of his readers recently wrote on the Internet, “We are way beyond the point of swallowing rude and bitter criticism from foreigners like this.”
Shelton Bumgarner is the former editor of ROKon Magazine, an expat magazine that ran a nasty review which Burgeson had written about Bumgarner’s work.
“Scott is one of those guys who has a bark that is worse than his bite,” he says. “The moment I read his review of ROKon, I knew I had to publish it. I thought it was a hoot. I have enough experience in the media business to realize that he was probably channeling Hunter S. Thompson when he wrote it. I think he fancies himself to be a gadfly and I’m ok with that.”
Burgeson’s passion for writing is something that many Koreans overlook.
He seemed extremely offended when a local television producer told him that his Korean friends believe his book sells in Korea because he is white.
So far, he has published five zines in Korea, excluding a revised version of “Maximum Korea.” Next he plans to go to China, for about a year, to write a novel about Korea.
But, compared to his earlier publications, which examined the underground aspects of Korean subculture before “the media discovered and sensationalized them,” his latest work has become more dense and theoretical.
On a recent Monday afternoon, he gave a lecture to university students at Sungkyunkwan University about the underground literary movement in America during the ‘60s.
He drew parallels between the condition of young people governed by bourgeoisie desires in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” with the current state of South Korean capitalism, and between North Korea’s totalitarian state and George Orwell’s “1984.”
Once the lecture was over, he invited his good friend Zane Ivy, an artist, to give a performance about the condition of worldwide Americanization.
The show was telling.
On stage, Ivy lit incense and performed a bizarre shamanistic ritual in front of an easel where there was a picture of President George W. Bush. Then he took out a fat zucchini and walked around the room in a suit and cowboy boots, and shook the zucchini, which he had affixed to his pelvis as he faced the students. In the background Marilyn Manson’s remake of “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” played.
Near the end of the performance he took a plain yogurt out of his bag and threw it onto Bush’s face.
The students in the class were stunned. Some turned away. When the mood had calmed down, one student asked Burgeson about his ultimate goal in life.
Suddenly, his eyes softened.
After a pause, he smiled and said, “I want to write more books.”
By Park Soo-mee Staff Writer [firstname.lastname@example.org]