In a similar vein to Chris Tharp’s and Jeffrey Miler’s recent contributions to literature, Alex Clermont’s Eating Kimchi and Nodding Politely will feel familiar to expats that have spent any time working in Korea. While the self-styled creative non-fiction features no plot line, the mostly autobiographical tales are a vivid reminder of what it’s like to arrive in Korea and know almost nothing about the country.
Told entirely in first-person, the author makes no secret of the words having a former life as blog posts. While some were written when the author first arrived, the stories themselves are mostly timeless – first experiences with Korean restaurants, students that talk back in unexpected ways, lost in translation moments, and instructions in Korean culture. Elements of many an English teacher’s story are present: private lessons, learning about Korea’s idiosyncrasies, and otherwise stretching a one-year stay into a longer one.
With that in mind, the tone changes frequently – from poetic and sweet to rough and frank. He confides in an adult student about his sex life, gets taught the definition of irony by a teenager, and as a shock to every foreigner in Korea, he gets drunk with his fellow teachers at a hoeshik (after-work drinking party). This is, of course, a surprisingly normal part of life in Korea (though one that seems less common these days).
To be clear, this is a short book – one sitting, or about one and a half beers, if that’s your way of counting. It’s an interesting, albeit very typical, story about coming to Korea, working, and continuing the search for life’s meaning. The progression seen in the four short parts of the ’Banchan’ story offers some interesting character development, but I wish there was more of a sense of the author’s success during his time in Korea. The collection of short stories ends unexpectedly with the author’s biography, and without an indication of where he is now. It’s the sign of a new author – one to watch in the future.
Recommended, if you enjoy short stories about faraway places.
Disclaimer: Chris in South Korea received a review copy of the book.