Sunday, February 15, 2009

"Let's Go Visit Little America and Eat With Forks!"

Over the past couple of weeks, my friend Rob was visiting as he slowly made his way back to Newfoundland from Seoul, where he had been teaching English. This is a social phenomenon I find fascinating, that so many young people, humanities majors mostly, are going to Asia to teach English on year-long contracts after graduation. The pay is often very good, and a lot of their expenses like moving costs and accommodation, are taken care of by the company. I know growing numbers of people who have done this, are doing it now, or plan to. I've sometimes joked about how eventually, Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, and Shanghai are going to develop neighbourhoods with significant numbers of North Americans and their white or biracial descendants, just like Chinatowns and Little Toykos in Western cities.

Little America, self-contained cities of whitish people in a few high rises.

I think at some point in the future, I'll write a book about some of these English teachers, fictional of course, based loosely on the stories of people I know who've gone to Asia. I might go to Korea myself after I finish my PhD, mostly just to do first hand research for this book, which I might call Little America. It sounds like an incredible kind of journey to take, and there are lots of ways to approach the scenario, many hooks to hang stories from.

Korean culture is far more conformist than we're used to in North America. Rob describes how enthusiastically a whole class of elementary school students joins in denouncing one of their fellows when they commit some minor infraction. "Teacher, he's chewing gum in class!" In Canada, a kid who does that gets beaten up at lunchtime. But in Korea, the first one to tell on somebody gets popularity points.

There's almost no homegrown rock music in Korea. Older people listen to traditional music, and younger people listen to K-Pop, which I've sampled at the bottom of the post. Some of these songs are actually pretty catchy, even though the members of the groups are even less differentiated than the members of the old American boy and girl bands. You can't even tell which one is the Cute One™. They're all goddesses. One is usually a little more badass than the rest, because she's the one who does cheesy raps in the middle of the song. I say cheesy raps, because Lil Wayne could eat these people for breakfast.

There is a stereotype here in Canada of the Westerner going to teach in Asia and coming back with a hot Asian girlfriend or wife. It happened to my friend Dave, whose wife is Japanese. But Rob told me that many women in Korea look to Western English teachers as someone to cheat on their boyfriends with. There are many one night stands, but it's almost as if the experience is just to cross one more item off their bucket lists. "Slept with a Westerner. Check." The dynamic on the whole is about consequence free sex, which is attractive in some ways, but tiring in others.

And yes, Korean businessmen really do act that way when they're excited.
Incidentally, the title of my almost-finished book has changed again. It's called "Small Man's Town," and I think it's going to stay that way. I had trouble saying "Laughing Lovers" out loud to people. But "Small Man's Town" gets to the heart of the book's major themes much better. I think of it as my love letter to Newfoundland and Memorial University, especially since I doubt I'll ever want to go back on a permanent basis. But it's also kind of a breakup letter, and "Small Man's Town" delivers that very directly and clearly.

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