It’s a fairly rare expat in Korea who can claim twenty-plus years in Korea. Jeffrey Miller is one of those guys, of course, and his first-person perspective on Korea’s history since 1990 is a rock-solid one.
While Jeffrey’s previous book, War Remains (paperback, or for Kindle), was fictional, it was very much based in reality. In this effort, Waking Up in the Land of the Morning Calm starts off in Korea, complete with the fast-and-loose attitude that still pervades the country today. Section one tells Jeffrey’s personal story, much as Chris Tharp’s book did. The main difference here is the time frame – where Chris offers a more modern 21st century perspective, Jeffrey starts with his arrival circa 1990 – long before the 300 km/h KTX trains, Hongdae’s club scene and PC bang (computer rooms).
It’s in this first section where snippets of life are presented like pieces of a puzzle. The mentioned dates seem a bit disorganized, and it’s unclear whether the scattershot of dates was intentional or not. A few highlights include “I Climbed a Mountain for Buddha”,”Living Next-Door to Roh Tae-woo”, and the two parted “I Love the Smell of Tear Gas in the Afternoon”. Some of these tell the tale of close encouters, while others show Jeffrey as that bystander who later tells the story of being in the right place at the right time.
Sections two, three, and four, however, veer a much different way. Jeffrey was a writer for the Korea Times from 2000-2006, and many of the articles that once saw the light of day on paper now get a worthy second reading. It’s here where the star power comes out: reading through this section brings out a Who’s Who of people involved with some aspect of Korea. If you follow the author’s online presence, you may notice quite a few of these stories are also featured on his personal blog. What you don’t get on the blog, however, is much of the back story behind the circumstances – a facet that makes the purchase of the book worthwhile.
The final section, “Literary Stylings”, is fairly self-explanatory – poems and other random writings from previous decades. While there’s nothing that stands out as a gem for me personally, it’s an interesting glimpse into a writer’s evolution – and a reminder that a writer’s journey is never complete.
Overall, it’s a worthy read from a well-traveled writer. If you liked War Remains and the glimpse into Korea that book offered, you’ll enjoy peering back into yesteryear. At 514 pages, it’s not something you’re likely to finish in a single setting. Instead, it’s worth coming back to once in a while, or perhaps a good book to read while commuting. The stories are rarely more than several pages long, so it’s easy to pick up where you left off.
Recommended, if you enjoy reading about what Korea was like before you arrived or like first-person perspectives on recent history.
Full disclosure: Chris in South Korea received a review copy, and some of the links are affiliate links.