Korea has inspired several volumes of English-language travel writing, even narratives of extended sojourn in or repeat visits to the country over long periods of time, but a full-fledged, high-profile memoir or novel of the expatriate-in-Korea experience has yet to materialize. Kevin M. Maher’s No Couches in Korea, which recounts the experiences of a young man who leaves his native America, his girlfriend, and their cat behind to teach English in the coastal city of Busan, falls somewhere between memoir and novel. Though formally neither here nor there, it nevertheless opens a window onto the sort of lives lived within a quasi-professional subculture that, for better or worse, has colored and continues to color the expat community in Korea to a deeper extent than most anywhere else in Asia.
The author’s biographical blurb unhesitatingly informs us that, just like his protagonist, he “first arrived in South Korea for a one year stint in 1996,” although the book’s narrator bears not the name Kevin M. Maher but Adam Wanderson. Driven purely by a lust for, well, you guessed it, the 26-year-old Adam signs on to join the “wave of English instruction spreading from Japan through the rest of Asia, now seeping into South Korea,” and less than 24 hours after his flight touches down finds himself cast before a roomful of expectant, if not proficient, middle-school students. “Typical Korean bullshit,” declares his only slightly more experienced colleague over and over again. “If you have a white face, they figure you can teach English. No one here speaks English well; it doesn’t matter if you’re good or bad — they’d never know.”
Adam has entered the shady if tolerably lucrative world of hagwon (Maher uses the alternative romanization hogwan), the private educational institutes in which Korean students still spend so much of their time outside regular school hours. But many hagwon count as educational in only the loosest sense of the word, drilling kids in preparation for the Suneung, Korea’s all-important equivalent of the SAT, or, as in the “English” classes we see Adam “teach,” having a Westerner repeat nouns at them over the course of a couple of hours. In one instance he throws up his hands and has the class play hangman, a game that now dominates the English-class memories of entire generations of Korean students.
Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.