An insight into an expat’s adventures in the publishing world.
No Couches in Korea was released this summer in 2016. The story almost entirely takes place in Busan, South Korea during 1996-1997, just year prior to IMF. It ends with reflection in 2016 on how much South Korea has changed in the last twenty years.
As the author, the story reflects the South Korea that I knew. After I left Busan in 1996-1997, I returned to live in Seoul during the years 2000-2008. My experiences in these two cities couldn’t have been more different. Equally, as someone who continues to live in Asia, I consistently return to visit Seoul, and the 2016 experience is another Korea altogether. I felt it was important to share my memories of Pusan in 1996, and provide something as a record of that time. Equally, as you read it, it could just as well take place in 2016 outside of the 1996 contextual cues. The expat experience is just as universal now as it was then.
Focusing on the differences, it is inconceivable to imagine a South Korea before the internet and cellphones. But when I first arrived, we had neither, so the complete lack of connection with the outside world was immense. Living in Busan, I remember the first internet cafe as it opened. Those of us in the expat community set up an email account for the first time, but checking it was something you only did once or twice a week, when you made your way to that one internet cafe in the city. A few years later, Korea would have a PC-Bang in every niche and cranny of the country. We had no way to make any connection like that previously, and even telephone calls were resigned to landlines. This meant that when you left your apartment, you lost all contact with people. Additionally, extensive construction was going on in the mid-1990s; for example, Busan only had one subway line, as opposed to the five it has now. This impacted public spaces, and trying to catch a bus was more like being a participant at either a rugby or an American football match. Mostly though, it was the lack of Western amenities – few textbooks, little English reading material, and almost no other food options outside of Korean. It created a sense of isolation, and a fully immersed Korean experience, with the only outlet being to connect to the people around you. If I were to sum up No Couches in Korea, I would have to say it had entirely to do with connections. Connecting with the expat community, and connecting with Korea. There wasn’t much more to connect with.
What was special about Busan at that time was the influx of foreign English teachers that arrived for the first time in such numbers. The amount of attention was substantial, compared to how I experienced it a few years later when I was moved to Seoul. In Busan at that time, I could feel that many Koreans had never seen a foreigner before. Suddenly, we were being employed by newly opened language schools in their small neighborhoods. Prior to that time, in Busan in particular, they might see the occasional U.S. soldier or Russian sailor, but they were in fairly confined areas near the port or a military base. The sudden influx of foreign teachers, with these English hagwons popping up everywhere, put foreign faces directly into the sights of Koreans living their ordinary lives. We were suddenly in their supermarkets, neighborhood streets, restaurants and nightlife establishments. Additionally, they could talk to us by signing up for these newly opened English schools. A unique element to my own situation was that I lived next to one of the largest dog markets in all of South Korea, Gupo’s Dog Market in Busan. With this book, I wanted to record exactly what that experience was like for foreigners from a direct personal experience.
In regards to sales, I have printed 400 copies of No Couches in Korea already, and have distributed them predominately in the Busan and Seoul areas, and to a lesser extent in the United States. Earlier this summer (2016), I was promoting, distributing, and giving book signings, and simultaneously I took an extensive note-taking journey to all of the places that were originally in the book. I wanted to add more of a Busan context for 1996, but even more for the current 2016 sections found in the last few chapters. Because of this, if anyone got a hold of this book this summer, you will see a significant amount of additional Korean content. There is now an additional 50 pages, with a 20-page section that was largely irrelevant removed. In short, the version available now has changed significantly from what was in print at the beginning of the summer.
At the moment, the book is a self-published work, mostly because I want 100% control over the content at this time. I am also promoting it with a YouTube channel and a Facebook page that share the same name as the book. Both can also be found on my www.kevinmaher.com website. Please subscribe to those if this article interests you. My other published writing has been in the form of short stories both in South Korea and Macau. I was published in Macau’s Script Road short story collection Rule of Three (2015), published by GrandePraia. My story was selected as the best of the English submissions. I also had several stories in Scott Burgeson’s Outlanders: Tales of Korea (2008), published in Seoul by Nalari Press.
Photos by: Kevin M Maher
Story by: Kevin M. Maher