Expats in Asia

Henry Miller School of Overseas Living for Misanthropes
Notes from different corners of the world.
Oct. 25 2006 12:28 PM

Expats in Asia

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Vinyl Underground. Click image to expand.
Vinyl Underground offers expats a place to chill out

BUSAN, South Korea—I have a theory about why expatriates (and male expats in particular) tend to be so boozy and hedonistic. It has to do with the banality of workaday life and the basic human enthusiasm for vicarious fantasy.

For example, if you find life dull and you're really into science fiction, you can dress yourself up as a Klingon and live out your fantasies at a Star Trek convention. If you find life dull and you're really into football, you can play John Madden-endorsed video games. Would-be wizards can play Dungeons and Dragons, stymied Casanovas can surf porn, and wannabe commandos can play paint ball. Practiced in moderation, these are all healthy, normal expressions of American male culture.

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If you're a self-styled bohemian writer, however—if you aspire to live the life of a Henry Miller or a Charles Bukowski—you are by definition obligated to seek a seedy variation of authenticity. You can't settle for video games and fan conventions. To truly embrace your fantasies, you must actively booze, brawl, and womanize until you've achieved something resembling oblivion. And if you don't have the money, courage, or social cachet to do this in your hometown, moving overseas to indulge your inner misanthrope is a sensible and time-honored solution. In nearly every expat setting I've visited as a traveler—from Prague to Phuket to Porto-Novo—there seems to be this notion that being a writer has more to do with drinking and screwing than actually writing.

So, expat scenes invariably have plenty of writers and artists but a curiously scant quantity of writing and art. This isn't a new phenomenon: Ernest Hemingway alluded to it in The Sun Also Rises, when Bill Gorton jestingly upbraids Jake Barnes: "You drink yourself to death," he says. "You become obsessed with sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafes." George Orwell made a similar observation in "Inside the Whale" (an essay-length riff on Miller's Tropic of Cancer), pointing out that expatriate writers are disproportionately obsessed with "drinking, talking, meditating, and fornicating."

When I first arrived in Korea 10 years ago, I certainly fit into this self-deluding demographic. Frustrated by a writing career that had gone nowhere in the years after college, I threw myself into the anonymity of my new home—hitting the bars five nights a week, tenuously juggling two girlfriends at once, and pounding out stream-of-consciousness journal entries in a dubious attempt to channel Jack Kerouac. Between my hangovers and my unwillingness to embrace basic story structure, it proved to be one of the least productive years of my writing life.

It wasn't until my second year in Busan that I learned to spend less time in bars and more time working on my prose. Freed from the bland obligations of bohemian posturing, I read more, exercised daily, and studied Korean language and culture. I was, it turned out, far better at being Rolf Potts than Jack Kerouac. My writing went into more disciplined directions, and by the middle of my second year in Korea, I was publishing freelance essays in American travel magazines.

Oddly enough, the local expat barfly crowd reacted to my modest successes with as much scorn as solidarity. Expat writers I'd never met before came across my Web site and sent me bitter, rambling e-mails; old acquaintances unironically suggested that I had "sold out" to corporate media. A teaching colleague at my junior college in Korea hounded me for editorial contacts, coolly insinuating that my work was less than authentic because I wasn't shacking up with hookers and passing out in gutters on a regular basis. For the entirety of my first year in Busan, I'd described myself as a writer to anyone who asked; by end of my Korean sojourn—when I was actually beginning to make a decent income from writing—I'd stopped bringing up the topic altogether.

Curious to re-examine the scene that informed my first year in Busan, I've been balancing my days at the Pusan International Film Festival with evening forays into the city's night life. As might be expected, things have changed since I was last here. Tombstone, a basement dive where I once did a brief stint as bartender, is now a tea shop. The Dallas, a late-night disco where I rubbed shoulders with American soldiers and Korean prostitutes, went out of business when the local Army base closed down. The only haunt I still recognize from my late-'90s Busan tenure is a university-district pub called Crossroads, so I stop in.

Before long, I'm drinking a beer and chatting with a table full of Canadian English teachers. All of them, it turns out, are in debt from college, worried that they aren't living up to their self-perceived notions of mid-20s success, and embroiled in a love-hate relationship with Korea. This recalls my own situation 10 years ago, and I'm reminded why—beatnik pretensions aside—expats spend so much time in bars. For these young teachers, many of whom are working their first real job, life in a crowded Asian city can be alienating and stressful. Korean social expectations can be confusing, teaching hours can be exhausting, and simple privacy can be hard to come by. A place like Crossroads—with English-speaking bartenders, familiar music, and fellow expats who identify with your problems—can feel like a haven.

Taewan Guru. Click image to expand.
Taewan Guru has been part of the expat scene for a decade

The Canadians tell me that the owner, Dong-ha, is hanging out at his new jazz lounge across the street, so I head over to find him. As with Rick Blaine's cafe in Casablanca, the popularity of a given Busan expatriate bar has always hinged on the personality of its owner. When I first arrived in the city, university-district expats gravitated toward Shiva, a live-music club owned by Korean artist Taewan Guru. When Shiva was shut down for noise violations after Guru's ill-fated "Drug Street Punk Festival" in 1997, an aspiring filmmaker named Taejoon teamed up with some neighborhood toughs and opened up a club called Nirvana. When Taejoon's partners pocketed his investment money and went back to their standard gangster racket, the expat crowd flocked to a basement music bar called Monk—which flourished for several years until its owner, a soft-spoken jazz fanatic named Sungwhan, committed suicide by jumping off a 60-story hotel.

All those bar owners had an instinctive talent for catering to the needs of expats and exiles—but if anyone has truly earned the Rick Blaine mantle in Busan, it's Dong-ha, who opened Crossroads nine years ago. In the ensuing time, the easygoing 37-year-old has opened up four more bars around the city, and each of them is a magnet for foreigners. This success, I think, has more to do with sensibility than strategy. Unlike other Korean bar owners I've known, Dong-ha doesn't come from a world of collegiate abstractions. After dropping out of trade college, Dong-ha earned his Crossroads startup funds by working at a canning factory in Newfoundland. This working-class edge has no doubt helped Dong-ha navigate the underworld protocols of Korean bar ownership—and I suspect it also helps him identify with his clientele.

Busan's expat-teacher scene is not, after all, populated with Ivy League grads and cosmopolitan elites. Academically inclined Asia enthusiasts generally end up in China or Japan; trust-funded New Age backpackers head for Thailand or India; educated Koreaphiles typically gravitate toward Seoul. So, for the most part, the Busan expatriate scene comprises people who think that the $24,000 a year they can earn teaching English is great money. This was certainly the case when I arrived from Kansas—and the expats I met here were people like me: graduates of no-name colleges who grew up in places like Randle, Wash., or Moncton, New Brunswick. Some of us had debts to pay off; others were rebounding from bad marriages or dead-end careers. Few of us were trained as educators or independently interested in Korean culture.

Still, I'd wager that the lower-middle-class factors that bring people to a place like Busan only make the experience more vivid—and those who stick it out a year or more return home transformed by their time in Korea (even if they originally arrived with the exclusive intention of aping Henry Miller).

Dong-ha Kim. Click image to expand.
Dong-ha Kim owns five foreigner-friendly bars

I find Dong-ha setting up sound equipment. Unlike his counterpart in Casablanca, Dong-ha is not averse to drinking with customers, so the two of us take a seat at the bar and catch up on old times. Apart from getting married and expanding his businesses, he tells me, the most notable thing to happen in recent years was getting shut down and jailed on drug charges just before the 2002 World Cup, which Korea co-hosted with Japan.

Apparently, authorities had been tipped off that foreigners were openly smoking pot in a Dong-ha-owned club called Soul Trane, and a late-night police bust yielded a number of drug-positive urine tests. Dong-ha and several expats wound up getting carted off to jail for the night.

Had this happened in other parts of Asia, it would have been a fairly minor event. In Korea, though, both drugs and foreigners are an anomaly, so the story made headlines. Perhaps not grasping how marijuana works, Busan newspapers reported that expat teachers had been throwing "drug hallucination parties." None of the positive-testing foreigners had been caught in possession of drugs, but when reporters arrived at the jail, police posed them with piles of unrelated narcotics from the evidence room. For a moment, expats were the pariahs of Busan: Parents publicly worried that their children might get turned on to drugs in their English classes; ultranationalist "Netizens" (a busybody Korean variation of American political bloggers) called for all foreign teachers to be thrown out of the country.

As happens with media hysterics anywhere, the scandal eventually blew over. Dong-ha got a fine and brief jail time; a few foreigners were deported. Soul Trane reopened, and Dong-ha resumed his plans to start new clubs in the Kyungsung University district.

When I tell Dong-ha about Wonsuk Chin's plans to film Expats in Busan, he's intrigued—but he tells me the movie's release probably won't affect how the expatriate community functions. "More people might come here," he says, "but I think they'll live the same way they always have."

"How's that?"

"Most of the foreign teachers here aren't permanent people. I've been doing this for almost 10 years, and I've seen so many people come and go. When you aren't permanent, you can be whoever you want, because you know you're going home in the end. I think that's the attraction of coming here in the first place."

Dong-ha invites me to stick around for after-hours drinks, but I tell him I have to get up early in the morning to keep a date that's a long time in the making.

After two years of waiting, the time has finally come for me to meet an old friend and do some indoor fishing.

Rolf Potts is the author of two travel books, Vagabonding and Marco Polo Didn't Go There.