Posted : 2012-12-28 18:31
Updated : 2012-12-28 18:31

'Korean Straight Lines': entertaining vignettes of life here

"Korea Straight Lines" written by N.B. Armstrong; PreLime House: 144 pp., $6.85 (for Kindle Price)
Author N.B. Armstrong
By Chung Ah-young

It is not easy living in a foreign country mostly because of cultural differences. Some expatriates find these baffling, while others take them lightly. N.B. Armstrong, a British author and translator who has lived in Korea since 2000, favors the latter approach. In his book "Korean Straight Lines," he recounts his life in a unique way, tinged with humor and jokes.

The book is packed with anecdotes about life in Korea, which include incidents of miscommunication or misperceptions caused by cultural differences.

The author vividly touches upon various topics from social and cultural points of view, revealing his knowledge about Korea and his deep affection for it. However, the book doesn't appear to be critical of cultural differences or attempt to warn away foreigners planning to visit Korea. Rather it's close to a collection of informal essays, from which readers can enjoy entertaining vignettes.

"The straight lines of the title are an ironic reference, in a book that is mostly intended to be light-hearted.

"I hope people who are perhaps planning on living in Korea or visiting for a spell might read it and accept my illumination of a few pratfalls they might care to avoid," Armstrong said in an email interview with The Korea Times.

Living in Masan, South Gyeongsang Province, he writes the stories from trivial memories in various situations, from the bus stop, to the restaurant, "jjimjilbang" (Korean sauna) to "hagwon" (extracurricular cram schools).

"Certain things happen that at the time are baffling or confounding but which in retrospect and with the passage of time come to be seen as funny, or at least amusing. My gamble is that they will be amusing for the reader, too. Some of the situations, in the classroom or on the street or making new friends or joining in with something are common enough for foreigners living here, as well as Koreans who read the book, to hopefully identify with," he said.

Among others, the "Lunch for Sale" chapter introduces his bizarre experiences at a restaurant. One of his acquaintances invites him to dinner at a new pork restaurant on its opening day. When he gets there he realizes the restaurant is shooting an ad and needs foreign faces among the customers. As the shoot goes on, his awkward and embarrassing responses to the camera are recounted in a funny way. At the same time, he panics thinking that his visa as a hagwon English teacher will not allow for such activity. Armstrong also humorously describes a horrible experience of riding on a fairground orbiter. He said the event struck him as "peculiarly and uniquely Korean." "The orbiter went on and on, past all possible levels of fun, orbiting more and more and faster and faster! This chimed with my apprehension of Korean life, certainly at that time. Meanwhile I was passing out with greenness, which I foolishly thought of as the trans-cultural universal language of ‘help.' But apparently it isn't," he said.

Apart from the stories, the structure of the book is also unique. At the end of each chapter are key "hangeul" (Korean alphabet) expressions which are explained in English along with an appendix including Chinese characters.

"I have appended a chapter teaching ‘hangeul,' because of its ingeniousness and simplicity as well as the more or less unreadable transliterations from the Korean language. So I have listed a few words in Korean that hopefully non-Korean speakers will then have a go at sounding out loud once they've read the appendix," he said.

The Korean words derived from Chinese characters such as "gunsabuilche," which means "respect king, teacher and parents equally," and specific terms — "ajumma" referring to middle aged women — are explained along with old Korean sayings. Also, the Korean words and phrases are expressed through incidents revolving around some Korean celebrities — for example, "jingjip" (military conscripts) is told through MC Mong, a hip-hop singer who was allegedly accused of dodging mandatory military service but was later acquitted, and, "It's very famous" through Kang Ho-dong who was criticized for evading tax, along with short commentaries on them.

"Hopefully the little nuggets of language and cultural explication which round out each chapter will be informing, too, but they are in no way academic or encyclopedic in intent. There is little by way of travel or guide information but obviously I'm hoping that the book might serve as a kind of offbeat introduction to life as its lived in Korea today and provide a few very, very basic pointers about culture and history," he said.

The book basically offers entertainment mixed with satire and wit, sometimes making readers wonder over the veracity of the incidents although all actually happened. Also writing about the incidents in jokey language might cause misunderstanding over some situations in Korea. But the book provides more than the usual tourist information through the author's hilarious and poignant insights about this nation.

The book is available in a digital version.

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