Announcing the First Book of The Grand Narrative Book Club: “If I Had Your Face” by Frances Cha, Thursday 27 January 7:00pm

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.

If you wannabe my lover, you gotta get with my books.

Or, if you just want to be my friend (your loss!), I’ll settle for a shared love of books in general.

Just as in a romance though, a relationship on that basis can still entail a bittersweet mix of passion and frustrated longing. Specifically, as my own taste in books has rarely meshed with my friends’, I’ve found there’s only so much I can wax lyrical about my latest conquests when they’re so unlikely to ever read them themselves. And with 52 books read in 2021, plus a goal of 72 in 2022, that’s of lot of pent-up passion not to have an outlet for.

But you already know where it’s going to go now.

As I type this, I’m loving If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha, “a fierce social commentary about gender roles, class divisions and, yes, plastic surgery in South Korea.” I’ve been especially struck by how realistically Cha depicts the daily lives and conversations of the four main young(ish) Korean female characters, much more so than in previous Korean or Korea-related fiction I’ve encountered. “Finally,” I said to myself, “I’ve found characters in a book talking just like my Korean friends and I talk!”

Yet we’re not in our 20s or early-30s either. Beyond the swearing and sex talk that I love so much, does Cha indeed portray their lives realistically? It’s been especially difficult for someone with my background to tell, slowing down my reading with so many nagging thoughts and questions.

Then something occurred to me in the shower. It’s a popular book, making Time’s list of 100 must-read books in 2020 for instance, meaning there’s many of you out there with your own opinions, insights, and maybe even your own nagging questions. So why not share them with each other on Zoom?

I’m envisaging something very intimate and informal, cameras on, with a maximum of 12 participants (but in practice probably much fewer than that). To ensure it’s as safe a space as possible, I’ll screen all attendees as much as I’m able, the Zoom link will be invite only, and once it’s started I’ll be very busy behind the scenes to ensure things run smoothly.

Just for that last reason alone, I want to be clear that this will be a discussion, and definitely not any kind of lecture, webinar, or even dominated by me. While in my duties as host I will have prepared many hopefully interesting questions and potential talking points to raise if necessary, I strongly encourage—nay, demand—everyone attending to come up with at least couple of their own (please!).

For those amongst you who are interested but haven’t read the book yet, I’m thinking that by Thursday, January 27 is plenty of time to order, read, and digest it, and that 7pm on that evening (Korean time) is both late enough to drink eat first, and early enough to get a discussion of a decent length in before people get tired. We could also decide the next month’s book then too.

If you’re interested in attending, please leave a comment below (your email address will only be visible to me) or contact me, and I’ll get in touch in a group email closer to the date. Any thoughts, suggestions, and advice for running a book club would also be very welcome.

See you on Zoom!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

One Quick Thing You Absolutely Must Read to Understand Modern East Asia

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes. Original image source: The Chosun Ilbo, August 2015. For a discussion, see here.

It’s not often that one brief book chapter helps your whole degree make sense overnight. Even less often that someone will rescue a nearly 30 year-old, long since out of print tome from obscurity and offer that chapter as a free download.

Let me thank Shuyi Chua of the Education University of Hong Kong then, for providing a scan of Manuel Castells’ “Four Asian tigers With a Dragon Head: A comparative analysis of the state, economy, and society in the Asian Pacific Rim,” from R. Appelbaum & J. Henderson (eds.), States and development in the Asian Pacific Rim (1992). Not only did it give me one of my first genuine Eureka moments at university, but it’s still so relevant and helpful today that it took pride of place in my recent presentation above, and hence my finding Chua’s link.

(It’s probably still technically illegal to offer it publicly though, which is why I’ve never done so myself. So take advantage while you can!)

Let me also thank Professor Michael Free and his students at Kangwon National University, for the opportunity to wax lyrical about some of my favorite topics to them. If anyone reading would also like me to present to their students sometime in person or via Zoom, if for no other reason than to remind them that it’s not just you that gets excited about your subjects, please give me a buzz.

Finally, a big apology to everyone for not writing for so long. With so little physical social interaction over the summer, and with even what face-to-face contact I do get now almost entirely confined to my family and students, then frankly the weeks and months somewhat blurred into one another, making it difficult to pay much attention to the deadlines I set myself on the (always too many) posts I have in the pipeline. Inspired by my work on the presentation now though, I will try very hard to have one of my longer and more thought-provoking ones ready for you next week.

Until then!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Your Burning Questions about Korean Feminism, Sexuality, and Pop Culture—Answered!

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes. Photo (cropped) by Tsuyuri Hara on Unsplash.

Please send them in, either in the comments below, on the Facebook event page, or on the registration form, and I’ll answer them in person next Tuesday July 13 at 7:30pm (KST), in a Zoom interview organized by Rhea Metituk (rhealm@gmail.com) of the KOTESOL Women and Gender Equality Special Interest Group. Everyone is welcome to join, it won’t be recorded, and you can rest assured that Rhea will be graciously but ruthlessly ensuring the KOTESOL Code of Conduct is followed by all participants.

And I do mean please send them in. Good answers need preparation, the only ruse I know to bluff people into thinking I’m smart. Also, bear in mind that from my perspective I’ll be the least interesting person in the room, and would rather ask you questions instead. A long list of yours to get through first however, means there’ll probably only be time to cover the topics you want. So please ask away! 🤓

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

The Grand Narrative is Evolving

I’m about to lose 1000s of followers. Yet I couldn’t feel any more relieved or enthusiastic.

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes. Photo by Christian Diokno from Pexels.

No, not ending—evolving. Radically changing form, in order to survive and thrive.

Sorry if I alarmed you. So too, for my unexpected recent hiatus from writing. Real life just kept intruding, whether it was through moving apartments, chronic insomnia, teaching face-to-face again, noise complaints from my new neighbors, going though a bottle of whiskey every few days, one of my few close friends ghosting me, or so on.

But suffice to say we’ve all had our demons to face after over a year of Covid, and most people’s have presented far more of a challenge than mine. To let you get back to dealing with yours then, here’s the TL;DR:

Starting in July, I’m going to be dramatically cutting back on what I post to social media, in favor of longer twitter threads and Facebook posts designed to spark conversations instead. And, sometimes extending those conversations to Zoom and Clubhouse.

If you’ve primarily been relying on me as a news source, then I completely understand unfollowing me after hearing this. Sail thee well.

If you’d like an entirely too frank explanation for the change though, to understand why I’m so excited, and why only the smartest and most interesting among you are going to want to stick around? Then read on.

Photo by Marga Santoso on Unsplash.

Basically, the process began when Hootsuite announced it was altering its pricing plans.

If you haven’t heard of it, Hootsuite is a social media service I’ve been freely using for posting and scheduling links simultaneously across the blog’s Facebook, Twitter, and so on. It’s saved a lot of time compared to posting each link into each social media network manually.

From July however, its free service is going to be rendered effectively useless, and its next tier will cost $19 a month.

I’m not complaining. For what it provides, it’s definitely worth the money. If I could have paid monthly or 3-monthly, I probably would have.

Yet it can only be done in an annual lump sum of $228, which is very unwise on Hootsuite’s part. Because that feels like so much more money, it prompts hard questions in users’ minds about the real value they place on social media, which I think Hootsuite would rather they didn’t ask.

You see, with me, I was forced to admit I’ve been using social media as a crutch.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Way back when social media was first taking off, all the blogging gurus advised getting on board. Create an audience there they said, and more people will see your blog posts than if you just relied on email sign-ups and google searches alone. It made sense, and still does.

The issue is creating and maintaining that audience, which I’ve naturally been doing by regularly posting links to (mostly) East-Asian feminism, sexuality, and pop-culture stories. Which may sound like the easiest thing in the world, but consider the full process.

First, those stories have to be found. So, by now I have hundreds of google keyword alerts, email subscriptions, twitter search feeds, and RSS feeds set up to deliver them to me which you don’t, and have lost track of all the related groups and forums I’m in. All those have to be continuously updated too, as old sites die and new ones emerge.

Then, from all the ensuing links, a shortlist of articles, videos, artworks, and podcasts has to be blitzed through to make sure they’re interesting and suitable. Which again doesn’t sound like a grind at all for a geek, but in reality there just isn’t the time to absorb their content in any great depth.

Next, their links, headlines, and ledes need copying, pasting, and posting, before finally, with a huge sigh of relief, I can schedule them, trying to ensure a variety of content throughout the day and the maximum possible audiences.

Put that all together, and it can easily add up to an hour’s work every day—more actually, if I wasn’t so good at it by now. As I’ve been doing it for ten years.

It’s become very much a ritual, mostly performed over breakfast and my morning coffees, then again as soon as I return home from work. Both increasingly precious windows of free time which, you know, most real and aspiring writers would use to actually write.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels.

Yeah, all that time and effort does sound nuts in hindsight. But it’s also how I came to gain over 10,000 followers. I’ve seen how people really do sit up and take notice when they see numbers like that next to your name. And, when that happens, that feeling that the world is a happy place and that you are a notable person in it, is every bit as addictive and sublime as all that whiskey I’ve been drinking.

It’s still all a crutch though, because ultimately it’s just been an avoidance mechanism.

However much hard work is involved in pursuing likes, and however much it feels like I’m “advancing my brand” when I put a link up to do so, doing my own work presents far more of a challenge.

As a cishet white male specializing in the subjects that I do, it can be a struggle finding topics about which I feel I actually have something valuable and worthwhile to say. So, to gain the knowledge and confidence to do so, I rely heavily on Korean-language sources. But locating and translating those is hard. Interviews, difficult to arrange—nay, find the time and energy for—when you’re middle-aged and have a full time-job and a family. Putting what you do obtain all together and writing something cohesive, sometimes a herculean task. Trying to learn from established writers how to make the end result at least vaguely enjoyable and readable, thoroughly depressing—as if I’m a permanently stunted child, who will never, ever rise to their level. And, after all that, don’t even get me started on persuading people to actually read what you do finally come up with.

To continue a theme, if you don’t do any of that yourself, you really no have idea of the work involved. No, really you don’t.

Just a small taste of what’s on my desk and screen while working on my next post. Photo (edited) by cottonbro from Pexels.

It’s so much easier to just post links instead. So what if that ends up taking the place of my own work that day? There’s always mañana. Besides which, a story about the latest K-pop controversy will almost always get me far more likes and new followers than my writing will.

Yet if people responded more in the comments, then the social media schmoozing would feel much more worthwhile. But honestly? Most of the time, it’s as if I’m just screaming into the void, whether we’re talking about my own writing or the stories I link to.

Or indeed, not talking.

Only getting comments once in a blue moon on my blog, I understand—for those, I would need to go through the rigmarole of self-hosting, necessary to install the much more user-friendly Disqus commenting system. But on Facebook especially, with 4300 followers? Or on Twitter, with 3600? I don’t mean to exaggerate that I don’t get any comments at all, and I’m very grateful to all of you who have ever taken the time to leave any. Yet somehow, even when I respond to a long, thoughtful comment in kind, there’s rarely the sparks there that flare into the longer conversations I encounter on other people’s pages, groups, and tweets, despite them having much smaller numbers.

Put all that together, and I’d be hard pressed to name more than a dozen of you I’ve regularly interacted with.

I’m not gonna lie—it’s been lonely.

“You’ll talk about about my writing with me, won’t you? Please?” Photo (cropped) by cottonbro from Pexels.

It’s not you, it’s me. I know there’s much more I could do to increase engagement, and I’d appreciate your help in learning how. Indeed, jumping ahead, having real conversations with you from now on is precisely what this change is all about.

Another elephant in the room is that without that interaction, it’s exacerbated my feelings of being taken for granted. I don’t mean to make anyone feel guilty by mentioning that (okay, maybe just a little), and I readily admit I myself only donate to the tiniest fraction of the people and sites I follow. But if, likewise, even if only just the tiniest fraction of 1% of my followers had made occasional, minimal donations, I could easily have afforded to keep using Hootsuite. Instead, despite my stats showing me that people sometimes spend hours poring over my long posts that took me months of work, and despite 1000s of people a day clicking on the stories I find and post for them, I haven’t received so much as a dollar for providing either in over four years.

Source: Fanpop.

For sure, I don’t mean to imply anybody should feel under any obligation whatsoever. It’s always been entirely my choice to do what I do, and for the most part I’ve enjoyed it.

But I am, after all, just one person. My feelings have weighed heavily in my decision to make this change, so it would be disingenuous of me not to include them in my explanation. That, you know, just a note of thanks here and there would have been nice in the last few years, let alone an occasional $5 donation.

Without those, I just can’t keep running what has essentially become a free newswire service. Let alone if it’s going to start costing me $228 a year to do so.

So I won’t.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels.

What I will be doing on social media from now on is: choosing only the most interesting, relevant, and awesome news stories, music videos, advertisements, interviews, artworks, podcasts, and books; writing some brief commentary and adding translations as per necessary; and then posting those, with the deliberate intention of getting conversations going.

Honestly, I’ve no idea how long or how often those will be yet. It’s a work in progress, which I wouldn’t want to lose all my newfound extra writing time to. I’m certain though, that it will mean losing the vast majority of my followers.

But even if as few as 100 remain?

Who I can have real conversations with, that we learn from each other in?

That we mutually look forward to hearing each other’s commentary and insights from?

And who sometimes have their own cool stuff they’d like to share with everyone?

Then it will all be worth it.

And I do mean conversations. It’s 2021. It’s finally occurred to this grizzled old blogger that there’s no reason to just type at people anymore. So, by genuine coincidence, the KOTESOL Women and Gender Equality Special Interest Group has already arranged a Zoom session with me for a ruthlessly moderated/completely chill chat about life, the universe, and East-Asian feminism, sexuality, pop-culture, and the blog in 2 weeks (I’ll make a separate announcement soon), and I would love for Zoom chats to become a regular thing if enough people join them. I’d like to set up a regular room on Clubhouse too, now that the semester break has begun and I can familiarize myself with how to use it.

I know, right? Me feeling excited and optimistic about the blog, for the first time in years? This is going to take some getting used to!

From Pictures for Sad Children by John Campbell. Source: unknown.

Meanwhile, the blog itself will change a lot behind the scenes, but little on the surface. As revealing how and why would require an explanation just as long again however (but you’re still free to ask!), suffice to say I’ll be returning to longform writing only, will refuse to be distracted by the 100s of folders of potential post topics I’ve had bookmarked for years, and will exclusively work on actually continuing and—heaven forbid—even completing my “Asian” vs. “Western” Women’s Bodies and then Queer Female Gaze series, which will take a few months at least. Finally, before the year is out, I’ll also be aiming to complete a journal article on Erving Goffman and Korean advertisements I’ve been putting off for, oh, only about 10 years. Then in the next 6 months after that, another on the gender politics of Korean school uniforms.

I may look as relaxed as this guy, but in reality I’m sweating buckets about finding a ringlight suitable for countering a shiny bald head in the next two weeks. Any suggestions? Image by Pexels from Pixabay.

Here’s to hearing many of your thoughts and comments from now on then, wherever or however I receive them! 😊 And please don’t worry about the drinking—I’m already over a month sober, and 5 kg lighter!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Webinar Series: The Impact of Korean Popular Culture on North America

Please see here for more information and links for registering.

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Watching the Sunset of my 20th Year in Korea

Twenty years ago today when I arrived in Korea, the first ajeossi I encountered was one of the most awesome men I’d ever met. But the next ajeossi was my boss, who stole my female coworker’s underwear.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Thursday, May 11 2000, was Buddha’s Birthday—a national holiday. Which was a blessing, in hindsight. If I’d arrived any other weekday afternoon, it’s likely my new boss would have demanded I teach the evening shift. As it was, he had to be content with driving me straight to his hagwon from the airport, then lecturing me on minutiae about the textbooks—despite knowing full well I’d just spent the last 18 hours traveling, and that I had a terrible flu to boot. After putting up with about half an hour of this, even falling asleep at one point, it finally dawned on me that this was no simple cultural misunderstanding. He really was being that thoughtless, and had no intention of letting me shower and sleep in the apartment I’d be sharing with my coworkers first. So, I had to insist. That was when I found out I’d be teaching at 6:30AM the next day, rather than 8:30AM as I’d been told by my recruiter, and would only be getting six hours sleep a night for the next year.

My boss thought he was being reasonable. Maybe he was. Due to my recruiter’s incompetence, I’d arrived two weeks late. And it was my recruiter who’d lied to me about the horrendous split schedule, he insisted, not him.

So, when my boss broke into my apartment a few months later, and stole all my female coworker’s lingerie, he had a perfectly reasonable explanation for that too.

You see, a few days earlier a male coworker had wisely fled back to Utah upon receiving his first paycheck. (He still owes me 50,000 won, so let’s call him Alan.) My boss’s reaction was to use his key to the apartment to sneak in while my female coworker, her fiance, and I were sleeping in our bedrooms, go into Alan’s old bedroom, take all his belongings, then ransom them when Alan inevitably called from Salt Lake City to demand my boss send them over.

That Alan would have taken everything of value, and would not be all that heartbroken over a few tourist maps of Jinju, some odd socks left under the bed, and dirty ashtrays, never seemed to have occurred to him. Nor, that all the bras and panties hanging up to dry probably didn’t belong to Alan either, but rather to my female coworker taking advantage of the newly-vacated bedroom.

With great reluctance, the next morning my coworker’s fiance and I had to physically restrain her from punching our boss, and her underwear was rapidly returned to her. Genuinely confused as to why she couldn’t understand it had all been just a big misunderstanding though, let alone why she’d scream at him in front of the entire staff and students of the hagwon that she’d beat the shit out of him if he ever pulled anything like that again, the only remorse he could offer was in the form of a gift of a whole can of Pocari Sweat a few days later. Then, by asking her to teach Alan’s classes for free.

I’m surprised I lasted the whole year there, considering.*

Fortunately though, my boss wasn’t the first Korean person I’d met on my travels. That would be the very friendly ajeossi sitting next me on the plane. Who, correctly perceiving that I was completely freaking out over my first solo trip and move overseas, warmly welcomed me to Korea, told me how delighted he was I’d chosen to teach in his country, and then gave me several warm, affectionate, lingering pats on my inner thigh to make sure I knew it. The first time I’d been touched there by a man, I quickly realized, since my father had dressed me as a child.

Did I mention the plane hadn’t even taken off yet?

Again fortunately though, I’d already read that Korean men were much more physically affectionate than New Zealand men. I’d also just happened to have spent the last 18 months living with stereotypically, flamboyantly gay sex workers, who’d all been convinced I was also gay really, and who constantly vied with each other to prove it (let’s just say my boss’s break-in wasn’t the first time I’d woken up to find underwear had gone missing). So, truthfully, I didn’t need to think twice about giving him the benefit of the doubt. And, sure enough, he gave no other indication that it was meant as anything other than genuine friendliness. Later, at Gimpo airport (no Incheon back then), instead of going home to his family he spent well over an hour of his time ensuring my zombie-like self got on my connecting flight to Jinju first.

I really regret now not holding on to his business card.

But it would be an exaggeration to say that my experience of meeting him would inevitably lead to this blog 8 years later. I already knew there were healthier alternatives to New Zealand’s (then?) homophobic, toxic masculinity—that was precisely why I was leaving. Still, it’s a nice story I like to pretend that did, which always gets laughs from students as I use it to break the ice at the beginning of the semester.

The one about my hagwon boss though, which is just too surreal to be made up? I wisely reserve that one until the end of the semester, when we all know each other a bit better.

Maybe one day, one of those same students will then feel comfortable enough with me to suggest that my current university photo above, taken for my recruiter in April 2000, is a little out of date? ;)

*Update: Perhaps I should add that it’s only so easy to laugh now, because the break-in was only the latest and most egregious in a series of equally bizarre displays of behavior by my boss. Also, because his shortness and waif-like physique meant that, despite everything, it was still very difficult for any of us find him physically threatening (my female coworker was much taller than me).

But of course, people coming into your home while you’re sleeping is no joke, no matter who they are. And unfortunately, even if the same thing happened to a young teacher today, the particulars of Korea’s teaching visa, which ties you to your employer, mean there’d be still very little they could realistically do about it. Specifically, if we’d quit our jobs, even with the required month’s notice, then our visas would have been instantly revoked and we would have been forced to leave the country, not being able to work in Korea again until the period of our original contract had expired. And perhaps not even then, considering how often such “uncooperative” teachers got flagged by immigration.

So, we all stayed. But actually things improved a great deal from then on, because we’d well and truly burned our bridges with our boss through everything said and done that morning. But that’s a story for the comments section!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)