The Year in Review

I don’t think I have the strength to write a whole year in review, because I ended up staying up all night to finalize my grading, and then waking up early because I hadn’t heard back from the office assistant I emailed the gradesheets to (for system entry).

I’ll give it a stab, though. Let’s see:


I got to a good place with my writing itself, this year, but I also found myself without enough time to do it as much as I should be doing. For the first time in years, I’ve had a steady face-to-face crit group I could show work to, and to whom I could offer critiques of my own, and I’ve been teaching creative writing courses as well, which has been fun. But I haven’t had enough time to work on stories, let alone the novels that several publishers have indicated interest in and several writer friends have suggested I should have written a year ago.

Yes, I am doing something about that.

But I’ve been frustrated because it’s been hard to get into the groove, to get writing again, producing and revising and sending out stuff. Part of it’s energy, part of it is frame of mind, and part of it is just time. For example, did I mention I was up all night finalizing grades?

Ahem. Which brings us to…


I think I really hit my stride with teaching, in some ways. I was a little less organized, this year, but I made up for that with passion and with the students I’ve inspired. And I am not really bragging: SF writers are supposed to blow your mind; teachers, in my opinion, are supposed to inspire their students to be inquisitive again, to aspire to learn more, to excel in their studies.

When you have this kind of conception of teaching, it becomes more than just a job–in good ways and in difficult ones too. The time expenditure goes up, as I alluded to above. So does the energy. But you also learn a lot more yourself about whatever it is you are teaching, about human nature, and so on. In the meantime, I’ve streamlined a lot of things, like how I do peer feedback (using Polls on Google Docs is amazing), and how group critique in writing courses works.

That said, this has been a year of growing frustration for me. I see a tide shifting in a direction I’m leery about going; I see the trend among my brightest students now to be, well, essentially a desire for abjuration, for escape. It’s sad in a way, but in another I feel like both I and those few are seeing things more clearly than most people; and what saddens me most is how the next-most-bright-students seem to represent a precipitious, and indeed calamitous, drop in the awareness I observe in their brightest peers. This seems exaggerated of late.

Again, there is a book of essays I need to write about this, but I need the time. The sad thing is, I fear even if I write it, people will not heed it.


I’m finally in a place where I’m making beers I’m not just willing to share, but proud to share. I don’t think I’ve quite come into my own, but I’m making quite serviceable brews, with my recent Abbey Weiss and Gentle Haejeok Oatmeal Stout being quite sensational. I’m also very happy with my Belgian Pale Ale (and plan on brewing another similar batch); I’m experimenting, and that means sometimes chickens, sometimes feathers, but I see that as a good thing.

My only regret is that the solution to my complaints in the above areas means probably giving up brewing for a while… at least, brewing beer. I suspect meads and ciders will be possible, though, so I won’t go stark raving mad.


I’ll be really honest:  have a much more social life now than I have had in a long time. That said, a lot of that is linked to my writer friends, and most of them are leaving in March. Ahem. That said, it’s been really fulfilling and refreshing to have a bunch of like-minded, and pretty cool, writers to hang out with.

The problem for me is that I’ve just been embittered by three things, I think: the frustrations I mention above regarding work; the frustrations of being an expat in Korea (which are not insignificant); and the extreme frustrations of living in a slum, which is what Yeokgok is. I sometimes conflate Korea (which is frustrating) with Yeokgok (which is infuriating, awful, and sometimes dangerous). Almost certainly that’s unfair, but it is hard to convince one’s feelings that one is being unreasonable. One’s feelings are: this place is so unremittingly unpleasant, I cannot stand it any longer.

Of course, for all that Miss Jiwaku and a few other Koreans I talk to regularly have driven home that I’m not crazy in all this. Yes, I am given to ranting a lot lately. Yes, I probably shouldn’t be in Korea anymore… as one guy in my city put it (in song), “Living abroad has done irreparable damage to my soul.” Well, if we had souls I’d put it that way. Anyway. The fact that Miss Jiwaku also makes a face when some Korean girl group appears on TV, that she gets pissed off at the staring/scowling subway assholes, that she often says to me, “I don’t wanna live in Korea anymore,” because of how people around her are becoming plastic-surgeried, TV-drama-dulled, makeup-obsessed drones reminds me that

At the same time, I try to remember that there are lots of cool Koreans too. The cabbies who don’t suck, and don’t seem on the edge of assault at any moment. The people who smile on the subway without doing so in puzzled reaction to my telling them not to stare. The people who are doing their own thing. My SF friends here are really mostly very interesting, cool people. And it’s a pity I couldn’t get together with them more often, as it would have helped stave off some of the sense that, as I’ve observed before, Korean society seems to me to be coming apart at the seams, less stable and livable by the year, something that seems to be driving the most interesting Koreans I know abroad in numbers that are, well, unmistakable.

But against that backdrop, my own life has been going pretty well. Things are good with Miss Jiwaku, with my lifer friends (many of whom are eager to leave in the next year or two, too), and everyone seems to be in an okay place, bitterness aside. Which is interesting.

Anyway, my grades have been handed in, and it looks like I have an interesting few months ahead of me. Plenty to do, so I should go get on it. I’ll try post a roundup of books I read this year soon.

9 thoughts on “The Year in Review

  1. Not really applicable to your post, but I have a copy of the Machine of Death book lined up. I’m looking forward to your story… Plus you got Jeffrey Brown illustrating it! He’s pretty awesome… I have a couple of sketches of his and he signed his books for me… He’s one of my favorite comic artists.

  2. You mentioned it before in one of your other posts, but I’m curious: in what way do you think Korean society is ‘coming apart at the seams,’ as you put it? I know exactly where you are coming from regarding your negative experiences here and the ex-pat bitterness that tends to build up over time, but I’ve always felt that Korean society has been making good progress, and rapid progress at that. No doubt some of the problems will take some serious ironing out (and some will always remain) but by and large – barring some unforeseen crisis – I can’t help but assume that Korea will be a much more pleasant place in the next 10-20 years.

  3. Josh,

    Yeah, I am actually looking forward to getting my hands on it. (They didn’t give contrib copies in the contract, but I can get a discount.) I hadn’t heard of Brown till it was announced he was illustrating my story, but then I checked him out and was very pleased. It’s a good, suited illustration.

    Of course, the story was, maybe, my second pro-payment sale. Long, long time ago, in other words.


    Well, I think it has to do with how you look at things, and what you prioritize. Economic development is of course pretty much complete: Korea is, economically, what looks like a first world country.

    Then again, the gap between rich and poor is so profound, and growing just as rapidly as the “development” that seems to be given prime importance here. Do you know how much of Seoul lives in basements? How many people are dropping out of high school (and how many the government claims are)? How profound the technological surveillance that Korean citizens take for granted is? How ingrained an expectation of not just corruption but ineptitude is for government?

    I was talking with an American friend here who’s been through the grad school system and, as he put it, “… the system is fundamentally broken.” He was commenting on how lots of profs don’t even get it that all the stuff students here struggle to learn at the graduate level, is basic to undergrad education in the same (humanities) fields in the West… and how nobody seems interested in doing anything about it.

    Which to me is a bigger problem: people here are incredibly schooled (which is a problem in itself, not only in its effect on thinking but also on families: I’ve never seen families so fragmented and alienated from one another as here, and frankly the social structure and values suggest that family has arrived at almost the bottom priority in Korean society). Overschooled people don’t learn to question, to think for themselves on many issues, to shut up and go with the crowd all too often, which has frightening political implications. (Such as the aforementioned wide acceptance of ridiculous forms of surveillance.) Little surprise: if you talk to people who actually go through the exam hell necessary to become a schoolteacher, what you find far too many zombies, broken by the experience and destroyed by their “success” and what continued “success” requires. Sure, some teachers aren’t like that, and some continue to care… but they’re not going to fix the system; nobody with the passion and rage and risk-taking impetus to do so would ever put up with the whole rigmarole it takes to become a teacher, after all… or one of the government bureaucrats who administrate the education system.

    Then there’s social life. Everywhere I turn, I see a society that is cracking apart from the pressures to “succeed,” to “conform,” to “look good” to the point where makeup and plastic surgery are everyday small talk topics (and I’m talking not about my own experiences, but the horror that Miss Jiwaku experiences every time she meets old friends, enrolls in a class, or otherwise finds herself thrown into a social situation with Korean people. Of course there are people who aren’t like that… some are her friends, some are mine… but when one meets someone with, say, a contrary opinion about plastic surgery or makeup, or who actually appreciates any kind of art at all (literature, cinema, music besides Kpop, paintings, whatever) it’s something that is noteworthy. Sometimes I feel like Korea has had the art and beauty ripped out of its soul, mulched, and used to fertilize economic development. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s also not surprising that what you see is a resulting empathy deficit, relationship deficit, a deficit indeed of love. There’s a reason that my students, when they are suicidal or in emotional distress, often turn to me. There’s a reason the suicide rate here is so high, and that nobody is doing much of anything about it on the institutional level… and while one might claim it’s the taboos connected to mental health, all kinds of other taboos have been ushered into the open in the last decade. The reason nobody does anything about the (essentially Victorian) mental health system here is generalized, institutionalized lack of compassion and interest.

    A lot of people within the realm of my and Miss Jiwaku’s experience don’t seem to quite get how one could take into account the internal, subjective experience of someone unlike themselves… and I’m not even talking about gays, or non-Koreans, or children, but of people with different interests or political opinions. When you hear what above-average young men think are the problems plaguing women here, it blows your mind. Nothing about generalized, institutionalized sexism; nah, it’s about how hard it is to wake up early and put on makeup.

    That kind of existence isn’t sustainable, and it’s hardly surprising that, as I say, everyone I know here who is more than a little bit different is either living secluded from it in a nice apartment building (and a nice car, so they don’t get attacked on the subway like we did this afternoon), or is eager to find some place where they can live a little more free and a little more happy.

    The fact that so many Koreans think Jakarta (with its awful water, crazy crime, endless traffic jams, and corrupt-as-hell government) is a shithole, but continue to live there and praise life in Indonesia as so much less stressful and annoying than life in Korea, should tell us something.

    What I’m saying is that my sense is people are profoundly, and pretty widely, unhappy, with a desperate, terrified feeling, stress out the wazoo, and a social situation changing much faster than they can even track it… let alone adjust to or accept it.

    Which is, to steal a page from Joyce (or a line anyway), to suggest that Korea is becoming a kind of nightmare from which most Koreans cannot wake… even when they feel it is nightmarish.

    As for the next 10-20 years, I have no idea, and I may change my mind, but I have this feeling there’s a lot of pissed off older men who will not fit into the continued economic development, a lot non-Korean men and women who will, a lot of resentment across that line, and a lot of Koreans waiting for everyone over the age of about 40 or 45 to die out so they can “get away with” enjoying themselves a little.

    But I think those older men are going to do everything they can to twist things in their favor while they have the chance. The debt will have to be paid by their kids and grandkids, who should be getting mad about it now while they can, but they mostly can’t see it… too busy ogling Girls’ Generation, trying to get “good jobs” and join the ranks of the working poor, and get whatever plastic surgery they need to get ahead.

    Which is not to say I don’t think other societies aren’t crumbling too. A horrifying example is the absolute destruction of liberty in the USA that’s happened in the eight short years since I left Canada. I’m frankly brokenhearted about that, and terrified. And don’t get me started on the ongoing economic domino collapse of Europe. (This is my impression at the moment.)

    But I’d rather be in a place where people are literate (in the sense that they read books and appreciate literature), appreciate art and diverse music, have a vibrant culture to give them an imaginative center of gravity as things fall apart. And that’s the thing that scares me about Korea… all of that was thrown onto the bonfire of modernization. What you get when you do that is a society with no moral, emotional, or value center. Not family values, but… a sense of something other than the crass capitalist values being important.

    Sadly, when that happens, your society loses the thing that holds it together: relationships between people. As Miss Jiwaku puts it with growing regularity, “It’s sick.” And the sickness, untreated, is going to do serious damage here, since most people cannot pole vault across that growing gap between rich and poor.

    But hey, whatever. I could be wrong. Maybe I’m seeing things through a negative lens, maybe my subjective feelings are skewing my perceptions.

    Maybe it doesn’t help that, just an hour or two after I tried to write something more balanced and reasonable, Miss Jiwaku and I caught a train and when I caught some guy staring and shrugged as if to ask, “What?” he started a loud, rude argument full of the standard shit about me being a soldier, an arrogant American, threatening to fight me, telling me not to look down on him, and so on. We ended up leaving the train car… not that we should have to, but it’s better than being attacked by a nutball who wants to work out his frustrations on strangers.

    And yeah, the encounter finally drove the nail all the way into the wood. I’ve well and truly had it.

    EDIT (1 Jan 2010): Well and truly. I mentioned this to a Korean coworker who spent a long time living in Canada, and she said sometimes she got nasty comments from locals there… but nowhere near as often, and not so extreme. There’s simply no excuse for it. None.

  4. I don’t think I’ve ever commented before. I know we have mutual friends and I have read your blog randomly over the years (you were just too prolific for me to keep up with every day). However,I was chatting with a friend who said he thought your days in Korea might be numbered so I came by to see what might have given him that indication. I hope you find what makes you happy and hope you have a Happy New Year, whether it’s in Korea or abroad.

    1. Joel…

      Hey, thanks man. Yeah, I never ended up following your blog… it was among so many Korea-related blogs, and I think I’d hit saturation point by the time I saw it, though I read it from time to time… long ago. These days, Korea-blogs in general I keep away from. :)

      I’m curious who you were chatting with, though. Not that I’ve been secretive about my not being so happy here anymore, but, I’m just curious.

      I wish you a Happy New Year too, and happiness and all that good stuff.

  5. It must have been long ago. I abandoned my blog when I moved to Seoul in 2006.

    Well a lot of people mention your name when I meet them. Nick from 전주대, Kevin Kim, Charles from Liminality or my friend Mike who reads your blog seem to be the ones who mention it most. Since I haven’t talked to Nick or Kevin since they went to America part of me thinks it must have been Charles or Mike.

    I don’t recall specifically though.

  6. Could be Charles, I guess. I don’t think I know Mike… unless it’s Nick’s friend Mike from Jeonju, who is back in the USA now too…

    Anyway, yeah, it was a long time ago. I haven’t been much interested in blogs about Korea for some time, aside from very occasional posts (like the one I’m sure you saw my long comments on the other day).

  7. No I haven’t talked to that Mike, or Leon or Shawn for that matter, since before I last talked to Nick. My friend mike used to write the blog and if he commented he might use his Korean name, Taemin. Actually the more I think about it, the more I think that it was him that told me.

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