Stranger in a Stranger Land: My Six Years in Korea BOOK REVIEW
After finishing law school, Brian M. Williams moved to South Korea to join the expatriate community of English school teachers. Shortly before his arrival, he was offered a new job in publishing making English textbooks for schools. During his six years in the country, he learned a lot about expat life, the Korean workplace, and navigating his way through a country whose language he did not speak. He now works in publishing while writing and editing for NetSideBar.
Since many individuals these days emigrate to new countries to work or to travel longterm, travel stories have become quite common in online media and books. It may not be unusual to see Facebook or Instagram updates from friends or professional photographers in exotic places. However, with the glamour attached to the nomadic lifestyle, many people dislike hearing of any negative experience from today’s traveler.
Few want to hear about how travel can be difficult or tiresome. Often, responses to personal experiences that are described as less than stupendous tend to be quite negative. The traveler is often accused of not being grateful for his or her opportunity.
As a long-term traveler, nomad—whatever term should be attributed to my current situation of living in a foreign country while also taking time off from said living situation to travel to other destinations—I have personally experienced the frustration that comes with simply just trying to tell it how is when faced with the question, “How was your trip?” This is why I enjoyed Brian’s honest commentary on South Korean society and culture in Stranger in a Stranger Land.
He never claims his words to be the end-all-be-all of cultural discussion on South Korea, where he lives for six years before writing the book. He simply states that these are his personal experiences and observations as well as secondhand stories. He does not jump right into a 100-page complaint about Korean culture, he discusses positives and negatives, comments on differences, and makes a lot of light-hearted jokes.
Since I appreciate travelers who keep it real with storytelling, my favorite bits of the book cover the outdated sexism and racism that Brian either observes or experiences. It is incredibly important not to sugar-coat or downplay these issues. I found it quite interesting that he notes a general sense of racism against all foreigners in Korea. Anyone who is not Korean is treated a certain way–often with more than just undertones of inferiority–and those with darker skin experience it more.
He paints a picture of a city that welcomes him for skills he possesses from growing up in an English-speaking country. He led me through his neighborhood to his favorite bar, through the expat dating scene, and through the intricacies of the Korean workplace. I thoroughly enjoyed his comparisons between Korean and American society like matching couples outfits, the glass ceiling for professional women, the drinking habits, and the way cities are built from the ground up.
Since I, and many people that I know personally, lack education in Korean society and history, I felt I learned quite a bit from this memoir. The witty comments weaved into the narrative and the overall feeling of taking everything with a grain of salt helped make this such an easy read.
Brian will introduce you to new ideas, concepts, and habits that he gained from living in Korea for six years. If you enjoy a book that brings a healthy combination of travel, fun anecdotes, serious issues, wit, and great cultural explanations and ideas to the table, pick this up. If you are considering moving to Korea–or any foreign country–or you are simply interested in learning something new, this book is for you.
“Seoul’s chaos wasn’t about it’s size. It was about the people running around inside it.”
“If drinking was the expats’ religion, then the Western bars were our churches.”
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