When I came to Korea in 1990 to live and work, my knowledge of Korea was what I was able to glean from a South Korean Fodor’s travel guide, travel information from the Korea National Tourism Agency, a couple badly photocopied pages of firsthand experiences by English teachers at the language school I would be teaching at in southern Seoul, and a feature story in a 1979 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Nowadays, finding out information about what life is like in Korea is easy thanks to all the websites and blogs devoted to Korea and the trove of books which have been published about Korea in the past 20 years (including one from this reviewer: Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm). There is no dearth of information about Korea and it seems with every new book or blog about Korea another “expert” chimes in.
Well, another expert, Daniel Tudor, has chimed in with Korea: The Impossible Country and this is one expert who knows his stuff about Korea. Indeed, this old Korean hat found a trove of fresh insights about Korea as well as some succinct explanations of Korean customs and traditions and one of the best explanations that I’ve ever come across of that ever so explanation-evasive Korean “cultural code”, han.
It’s all here. Anything and everything you’ve heard or wondered about Korea is explored here, up close and personal. He examines everything from Shamanism and Confucianism to the rise of democracy in Korea and nationalism. With journalistic flair and the desire for getting at the truth, whether to satisfy his own curiosity or not, Tudor unravels all that is mysterious, intriguing, and sometimes frustrating about Korea to get at the very heart of what makes Korea, Korea.
Although this is not an academic study, (those looking for a more of an academic study about Korea might want to choose Don Oberdorfer’s, The Two Koreas or Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun) there is much to be learned and digested here. And even if you have already lived and worked in Korea for any length of time, Tudor offers fresh insights into contemporary Korean society whether he’s talking about Korea’s drinking culture or the role of women (though he might need to update his book soon with the election of Park Guen-hye).
Though a bit heavy on the historical, cultural, anthropological, psychological attributes of Korean society and things Korean for short term visitors to Korea, it should be standard issue for anyone who is going to be here for the long term. Tudor excels with his ability to describe the Korean-ness of Korea. Additionally, it should be required reading for anyone doing business in Korea: from students and military personnel to business persons and diplomats.
Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm (paperback)