In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit…
I am not a hobbit. I do not live in a hole in the ground. Yet, my goals in life couldn’t be put plainer than when Bilbo Baggins, in The Fellowship of the Ring, tells the wizard Gandalf “I want to see mountains and find somewhere where I can finish my book.”
The truth is, I identify a lot with Bilbo and all hobbits. I’m not all that tall. I have hairy feet. I approve of elevensies (a meal promptly at 11:00am). As an introvert, I’m also a bit of a homebody. I like routine. I like to schedule my meals ahead of time, and not be late for them. More than anything, though, I like to have certainty, which is what hobbits do best. They live in a quiet farming community, the Shire, living with the same neighbors they’ve always had, living in the same houses, and working the same jobs to the end of their days. They’re certainly not the adventurous type. While on one hand that may sound boring, you never hear of a hobbit filing for unemployment, writing cover letters, or worrying about health insurance. Their station in life is secure.
Central Ohio reminds me of the Shire sometimes. Like the Shire, Ohio is not a place of mountain ranges or mighty rivers, but of woods and fields and ‘good tilled earth.’ It even rather looks like the Shire if you squint hard enough in the right corners. Aesthetics notwithstanding, it’s where I grew up and it’s where things make sense to me. Therefore it is where I most identify with as home.
This is the story of how this hobbit came back home to his Shire via South Korea.
There’s an estimated 30,000 waygook saram, or ‘foreign people,’ teaching English in South Korea, officially the Republic of Korea. Their reasons are as varied as their countries of origin. Some come to boost their ESL career. Others come to satisfy their wanderlust. A good many come because they need a job. I met a couple who came so that their Korean health insurance would pay for a pregnancy. If you’re an American, then this will make complete sense to you. Me? I taught English in South Korea with my wife, Maria, because it was my best ticket back to Ohio, even though I knew practically nothing about it. After living there for two years, I know almost something about it now.
Before living there, I regarded South Korea as most Americans do: as the forgotten child of East Asia. This is simply because we haven’t developed many stereotypes about the country or its citizens. We “know” a lot more about China and Japan. When we think of China we think of pandas, communism, Jackie Chan and General Tzo’s chicken (non-existent in China, actually). Meanwhile, Japan has given us Godzilla, Pokémon, and sushi. We’ve seen movies with sumo wrestlers and samurai. We remember that we fought Japan hard in WWII, dropped atomic bombs on two of their cities, and that we’ve generally been friends ever since. Now how easy is it to generate a list of things associated with South Korea? Not very, at least to the untrained eye.
So what has Korea given us on the same level as Pikachu? A lot, actually. Samsung, the manufacturer of more smartphones than any other company in the world, is Korean. LG Electronics is Korean. Hyundai and Kia cars are Korean. In the span of three sentences, South Korea has influenced the way you communicate, watch TV, and commute. South Korea isn’t only exporting things we need, but things we are beginning to like. Korean barbecue restaurants are opening at a breakneck pace. Kimchi is gaining traction as a health food and even as a topping on tacos. Gradually, our attention is shifting to South Korea; we are adding its people and things to our cultural lexicon. After all, the Avengers cared enough about Seoul to destroy a small part of it in a car chase in the film Avengers: Age of Ultron. You know you’ve got America’s attention when your cities are the subject of our disaster movies. Meanwhile, South Korean culture is exploding in popularity throughout the rest of Asia in a movement known as the Hallyu Wave. Millions devour the country’s TV Dramas, romantic comedies, and music. In some circles, these things are already popular in the United States.
But let’s not reduce South Korea to pop culture references like we do China and Japan. It’s an actual place, after all, full of actual people. The country is about the size of Indiana, but with the population of Texas, New York, and Indiana combined. 70% of the country is mountainous, so there’s not much space for over 50 million people to pitch their tent, grow their food, and putt a few rounds. This makes South Korea one of the most crowded countries in the world. None of the country’s mountains are particularly tall; the highest, Hallasan on Jeju Island, is only 6,400 feet – about as tall as the loftiest of the Appalachians. In fact, there is nothing jaw dropping about South Korean geography. There are taller, wider, deeper, hotter, colder, and wetter places just about everywhere else in the world. It may not make for riveting statistics, but it makes South Korea a pretty comfortable place to live. It’s nestled safely in the temperate zone, with four distinct seasons plus a monsoon in the summer.
South Korea is also a lot wealthier and developed than you probably supposed, although this shouldn’t come as a surprise with the likes of Samsung and Hyundai throwing their weight around. It wasn’t always that way. In 1960, the country’s per capita income was below Haiti’s. Today, South Korea’s economy is the 11th largest in the world, powered by the aforementioned manufacturing and technology juggernauts. Korea joined the OECD, or Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, in 1996, which is an unofficial but widely accepted certification as an advanced, developed country. It doesn’t barely pass muster either. South Korea is the only country in the OECD that was once an aid recipient but is now an aid donor. In 2016, the country’s Human Development Index — a composite score based on life expectancy, education and per capita income — ranked the 19th highest in the world. By comparison, the United States was 10th, the United Kingdom 16th, France 21st and Italy 26th. Clearly, South Korea has been busy and we haven’t noticed.
But don’t think for a second that you have South Korea pegged already; it’s a hard place to figure. I’m not going to tell you that it’s a ‘land of contrasts’ (any country can be defined as such if you look hard enough) but I’ll go one further: South Korea is downright contradictory. It is at once a collective hive of busy workers producing for the good of the mother country and a nation of individuals competing against each other for space and success. It’s a country with one of the most highly-educated workforces in the world, yet a substantial percentage of the population believes that if you leave a fan on in a room with all the windows closed, you could suffocate. Korean culture places so much emphasis on appearances that job applications often require photographs along with resumes, yet you will never see a more drab landscape than a Korean metropolis. I’ve never been in a place more resistant to definition than South Korea. Really, the Koreans should be proud. This is not an easy achievement.
If you’re reading this book, you likely fall into two camps: you are in some fashion interested in South Korea either because you’re going or you’ve been, or you know me and I asked you to read it and you’re being polite. Either way, you’re likely to read this book with the desire to better understand South Korea. Full disclosure: I do not understand South Korea. I know some useful things about it, some places to go, and some food to eat, all of which I will happily share in this book, but there is no country on Earth, least of all South Korea, that can be summed up in a few hundred pages. Instead, my hope is that I paint a picture of the terrifying and rewarding experience of living abroad. Living in another country is a high risk/high reward activity, after all. The risk is that your heart may never be whole again, that some part of you will always be elsewhere and you will never again exist in one place. The reward is a modicum of perspective. For some, this price is too great. Better to be safe in a tree than lost in the woods. I understand, but I do not agree. In one year in a foreign country, preferably one that does not speak your language, you will learn more about yourself and your place in the world than 10 years at home. You’ll feel smaller than you ever thought you could, but it’s in this smallness as a foreigner, as a hobbit trying to get home, as a ‘waygook,’ that you learn two very important lessons: the hard truth that the world does not revolve around you or your tribe, and that one of the best things about homes is returning to them.
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