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Uprooted - A Review of Scott Burgeson's Korea Bug
by Thor May
Korea Bug - the zine that infected a nation by
J. Scott Burgeson
One of the more harmless expletives in my native dialect is 'go to buggery'. This is a rather milder invitation to disappear than the damning 'go to hell'. Few users ever check the dictionary etymology, or suspect that they are willing their annoyer to have a fun time with the back end of a sheep.
Scott Burgeson's Korea Bug sort of creeps up on you like that. You can begin this book as an unreconstructed hedonist mucking about on the Korean funny farm, and finish up worrying about your existential qualifications to carry the white man's burden of civilizing the natives.
Not that Burgeson preaches. To preach you need a theology, whereas Burgeson's delight is to set up with a microphone the singer and the tailor, the mudang and the missionary, the taekkyon master and the artist, whores, sailors and migrant workers, and sundry outside-country-characters. It takes all kinds of people to make the world go around, and if Burgeson has a message it is that we need them all, in Korea or wherever.
Yet Korea Bug is no telephone directory. The author has chosen his players not for ordinariness, but for the kind of quirky distinctiveness that we gradually understand he craves for himself. Nothing wrong with that; I sympathize entirely. The irony is that the characters often reveal themselves to be exceptionally ordinary in daily ways, regardless of their job title.
The mudang is furious that another old lady has been chosen by the government as an "intangible cultural treasure", and puts her rival down with withering scorn.
The disc jockey laments that Hongdae (Seoul) clubs are not floating on drugs like Shinjuku, but turns out to have a bunch of generalized opinions that tell us quite a lot about the world view of a Zainichi (Korean-Japanese), which he is.
A female film director cheerfully admits that she could only succeed in a male Korean environment by regularly drinking her film crew under the table.
A legendary gisaeng, who has accumulated fabulous property wealth and donated it to an offbeat Buddhist monk, turns out to have as her dearest ambition to be an English country lady, born as a "genius" so the government would pay for her education. Yet she sums up her worldly experience with the quote "One should always regard others as a potential thief". How sad.
A pioneering Islamic missionary from Thailand laments that Korea was never on his list of missionary destinations (America his first choice), and still after twenty-three years about the only thing he likes about the place is soccer... "99% of my spirit is in my country, Thailand".
A taekkyon master graciously admits that Korea's trademark martial art, taekwon-do, is really a post-liberation (1945) mish-mash, mostly lifted from Japanese karate, and that the real indigenous fighting art, taekkyon, has origins too diffuse and village-level ordinary to trace.
Perhaps the best service that Korea Bug does is to give both Koreans and blow-ins space to show that they can be extraordinary people with ordinary emotions and expectations. Hey, they are like us after all. We are not surprised when the book ends with a forum discussion amongst people just like some of us - more or less privileged, mainly white expatriates - wondering what they are really contributing to Korea, or what they should be contributing. Coming from a country of immigration, Australia, I sometimes wonder if such soul searching has much more relevance for Koreans than the tut-tutting of, say, a Lithuanian ladies' knitting circle in suburban Sydney. This speculation is given a bit of heat by an extensive section in Korea Bug which deals with the fire-cracker flare and disappearance of expatriate zines in Korea, decade after decade. A chapter on some of the zanier foreign books published about Korea adds to this sense of foreigner irrelevance.
Yet the ironies of intention don't end there. Scott Burgeson apparently gets his social kicks from flogging copies Bug on the pavements of Seoul, fencing the questions and occasional insults from passing human wildlife. It turns out that most of the real buyers are the species under examination, Koreans. Well, how often do you look at someone else's face in the mirror? Probably not often enough.
If you are a "more or less privileged, mainly white expatriate", or even an underprivileged trash hagwon worker, or heaven forbid, an untouchable Bangladeshi sweatshop worker, this book has something to offer you. In the very least you will meet some of those other people who make the world go around, meet them as people rather than just as an elbow in the ribs on a peak hour subway train. Scott Burgeson's Korea Bug is one of the better investments you can make in South Korea.
For an inside lead on the Bug's current habitat, go to Scott Burgeson's website at http://kingbaeksu.com (best run with sound on).
9 October , 2005
Uprooted - A Review of Scott Burgeson's Korea Bug copyrighted © Thorold (Thor) May 2005 all
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