Book review: Dispatches from the Peninsula, by Chris Tharp
Chris Tharp of Busan Haps fame tells all in his newest autobiographical tale!
I’m sure that’s he’d like the headline to read, at least. The Signal 8 Press book, split into twenty-ish relatively long chapters, will sound familiar to anyone that has called Korea home for more than a couple of months. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, but not much has changed between Chris’s introduction to Korea circa 1999, my own in March 2008, and the one I gave to my new co-worker mere weeks ago. People still drink soju in massive quantities (the better for workplace connections), the foreigner community is still fragmented and jaded, and teaching English is still a fairly safe haven for people with college degrees and clean background checks. Koreans are still trying to start conversations in broken English, sometimes sounding a little too proud for ekeing out ‘Hello!’ or ‘Where you peu-rom?’ to the white face.
Rewind your Korean story back to when you first arrived. Remember all those stories you traded at the bar (and the ones you might still tell the newbies you run across)? They’ve been compiled into one, politically incorrect volume for reminiscing, remembering, or sharing. From starting a hagwon job to using connections to land a university job, Chris’s exploits exude a sort of everyman perspective. If you’re new to Korea, the stories serve as a decent introduction on what to expect; if Korea has been home for awhile, it might shock you into doing something with your time here.
For better or worse, Chris calls it as it is, no bullshit, and there’s no defending local practices the rest of us have all but accepted. That’s perhaps one reason I find his like for kimchee, as he calls it, genuine. I never get the sense that he’s leading the audience down his particular rabbit hole, as he stays in fairly typical expat territory – drinking, traveling, friends, encounters with the locals, and so on. I haven’t yet had my motorcycle stolen from a student, but the underlying emotions and morals are all familiar.
The interludes interspersed throughout the book are at best random, and aren’t as related to the ongoing narrative as they should be. Thankfully, one chapter naturally flows into the next, and the only sense of time that passes is either the urge to visit the bathroom or get another drink.
One highlight is the complete version of the Babopalooza story – something the vast majority of expats (myself included) don’t have in their institutional memory. If you’ve been in Korea for more than a few months, you’ve likely heard the story of some theater people in Busan that got busted after a performance of satire (of both Korean and Western culture). That horror story has been passed down and mangled enough times that it was nice to read the full account from the source.
Despite the ample soju stories and people met, Chris never seems too detached from family, as a chapter on the author’s father can attest. Additional chapters on his mother and grandfather cement the familial connection. Live here long enough, and you’ll eventually have to confront the mortality of those you love – and how to respond to that unalterable fact. I really enjoyed how Chris honored Korean tradition and his family at the same time.
If there’s a complaint to register about the book, it’s that it’s a memoir. As someone more interested in creating my own stories than reading about someone else’s, there wasn’t a particular must-read moment for me. Memoirs can make for interesting stories, of course, and can serve as a welcome alternative to the flowery prose from recruiters or the cynical horror stories overheard at the expat bar.
The ending comes a bit abruptly, somewhat like a car braking suddenly on the interstate for no apparent reason. The pre-release PDF version I received ended with a conversation about the Yeonpyeong-do bombing – an event significant enough for the history books, but one that will date the memoir significantly. In the eyes of this reviewer, the hero needs to ride off into the sunset with a sense of timelessness.
As a whole, the book is eminently readable in one sitting, and easily thrown in a bag for reading on the subway. It’s surprisingly readable no matter the setting – I took in the first couple chapters while at work and finished it over a couple beers in front of the local Family Mart. It’s a rare book that fits in either setting.
Purchase the e-book or the printed version of Dispatches from the Peninsula on Amazon. If you live in Seoul, Itaewon’s What the Book will have printed books for sale.
Disclosure: Chris in South Korea received a review copy of the e-book.
© Chris Backe – 2011
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