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Non Fiction

Meeting Mr Kim: Korea Travelogue

The North-South divide has been going on for 50 years. Over the last 50 years, the South has progressed by leaps and bounds and the North is still at its medieval existence of famine and oppression. It is strange to know, at least for me, that for the people who gave us Samsung, LG gadgets, Kia cars and Kimchi, I know so little about them. I looked around and there wasn’t many travel books about Korea either. I visited Koreain spring 1996 for business and remembered the bustling markets of Itaewon, where Hilton is, and Dongdaemon and Namdaemon, including the Kyongbuk Palace. That was all. This travel book about Korea made me pick up my pen and jot down places I wanted to visit if I ever go back there again and more than that Barclay Barclay tells you about the people that she meets and friends that she made in Korea.

Jennifer Barclay quits her high-pressure publishing job and followed her musician boyfriend, Gav, to South Korea, where his band had a contract to play funk with a band called Good Vibes at the Hyatt hotel. But life in Seoul was bewildering and lack of human contact.

Desperate to connect with Korean life and the people, she said goodbye to the capital and set off alone to explore the country, usually on the weekday and came back to be with her boyfriend on the weekends. Alone, she found her way to ancient tombs and Buddhist temples, strangers’ homes and forest-covered mountains, where she is helped by locals who are proud of their culture and making sure she is treated as an honoured guest to the country. Barclay can’t help but wonder if a Korean exploring a western country, with little money and only a mangled handle on the language, would be treated in the same manner.

People had come to my rescue and helped me constantly, perhaps partly because I was travelling honja (alone.) The discipline, obedience, orderliness and etiquette of Confucianism was more than balanced by the Korean people’s natural exuberance, their love for life and their country, and the unstoppable generosity and hospitality of the Buddhist spirit. They were a tight-knit family, but not unwilling to draw you in and make you a friend. I was acquiring very happy memories in Korea. – page 223

Barclay searched for the spirit of South Korea, discovering a land full of passion, tradition and spirituality, good humour and great food. At the end of it, as the blurb suggested she left with happy memories and perhaps a new set of values.

I came off this reading experience learning a bit more about the people and the country. I have a few Korean classmates when I was doing my postgraduate but due to the language barrier or innate Korean culture, they have kept to themselves most of the time and it was difficult to get to know them amidst the busy schedule and project works we have to work on. I was a little obtuse and cultural insensitive back then as I have rejected the proposal to accept 3 Korean classmates into our project team which I thought would compromise on the diversity make-up of the team which is much needed if we are to do an international project. That of course didn’t go down very well for the Korean pride and I suspect I may be the most hated person back then in the class! (Note: I don’t see any other way out of that decision, either). What I am trying to say is that after reading I began to see how pride play such an important place in the Korean society and that I haven’t handle it properly. Bearing in mind too that Korean couldn’t leave their country until 1989 and to a certain extent still harbours a sense of xenophobia.

China is beginning to envySouth Koreanot only for its pop stars but for the marriage of individual happiness and sophisticated consumerism with Confucian values about family loyalty, something China lost during the Cultural Revolution. South Korea has modernised and yet retained its traditions. – page 265

The best part of the travel was when Barclay travelled alone….

I’d most travelled alone before. Travelling with someone, you never really leave your own culture behind. You never forget who you are. You are more concerned about having a good time than stretching yourself. – page 84

There were more interesting encounters with the Korean people and more open invitation received to stay in temples and local abodes. I half suspect Barclay seeks out every single temple but I do appreciate that the book introduces me to many national parks that I have hardly heard of …Pukansan, Pokchusan, Tapkol and Seonunsa national parks. Every chapter opens with a short history about Korea. The ancient Shilla kingdom, the Confucian and Buddhism beliefs, the history of war with Japan and how the Korean language evolved. I love these bite-size history lessons.

Korean food is also a recurring theme in the book, as the author is willing to try almost anything. She learns to love the national dish, Kimchi, which involves cabbage, chilli, garlic, ginger, spring onions and a Korean fish sauce – there is even a Kimchi recipe, including glossary and Korea reading resource, at the back of the book. When I first visited Korea in 1996 and was presented with an array of Korean buffet at Hilton, I couldn’t eat many of them because they are somewhat of a strange taste and smell and ended up scrambling for my ethnic food at the city. Now, I learnt to love Kimchi and I eat Korean food occasionally but yet I do admit defeat on the many unfamiliar names of Korean dishes that I haven’t heard of.

I love reading travel books but my pet peeves about travel books are these:

  1. Traveller who complains about everything they eat, see or experience in foreign lands, somewhat like Paul Theroux in his Grand Railway Bazaar , OR
  2. Traveller who is totally infatuated with everything they eat, see or experience in a foreign country.

Barclay strikes me as someone who belongs to the second category. I seek a balanced view, I look out for the bad and the good about a country when I read someone’s travelogues. Am I enamoured by the author to think that South Korea is all rosey and nice? Maybe so but I agreed with what Barclay said:

When I quit my job and went toSouth Korea, people said, ‘You’re so brave, I wish I could do that.’ Well, why not? It simply means giving up some creature comforts for a while. If we can’t learn to sleep on the floor and go without the things we depend on in everyday life, if we can’t leave certain events to chance, what possibility is there for enlightenment, for real happiness? When caught in routine, we are seldom learning new ways to make the most of life. From time to time we must take a break to discover a new path and to open up the possibility of being surprised. – page 267

It’s better to embrace the new experience than to be a grouchy traveller, and not being able to enjoy what a foreign country could offer.

A rare resource about travelling in Koreaand about Korea, a good read for those who are interested.


I’m reading this for the non-memoir non-fiction challenge.

Paperback. Publisher: Summersdale 2008; Length: 283 pages; Setting: South Korea. Source: Westminster Library copy. Finished reading at: 7th April 2012.

About the writer:

Jen Barclay has written on Korea for The Korea Herald, Canada’s Globe and MailLonely Planet: Korea and the Travelers Tales (US) anthology A Woman’s Asia. She is co-editor of AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds(Vintage Canada, 2003), listed by the Globe and Mail as one of its Great Summer Travel Reads. Born in Manchester, Jen has lived in several countries, and is now based in West Sussex.


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


15 thoughts on “Meeting Mr Kim: Korea Travelogue

  1. This sounds very interesting and I love the cover. I read in 2010 that there was a shortage of Kimchi that had South Koreans freaking out because of crop problems with the oblong-shaped cabbage used but I don’t know if it is still the case.

    Posted by rhapsodyinbooks | April 16, 2012, 4:35 pm
    • Jill,
      I googled it up, sure enough there were reports about kimchi shortage. If I depend on it as my staple, I would be panic too! but wouldn’t fuss if it comes with any other shapes. lol

      Posted by JoV | April 17, 2012, 8:56 am
  2. A nice cover, indeed. I have never considered Korea as a place to go to. I haven’t been to Asia full stop so I don’t think I’d start there. But I’m glad the book was interesting for you and you discovered a lot of new places that you want to visit next time. I hope there is a next time!

    Posted by Leeswammes | April 16, 2012, 4:44 pm
    • Judith,
      I hope you have a chance to visit. There is always a lot of travel ideas for Japan or China, but not on Korea. Yes hopefully there is a next time, so many places I have yet to visit!

      Posted by JoV | April 17, 2012, 8:57 am
  3. I went travelling in Korea a few years ago and have to agree about how helpful they are. We went when my son was a year old and were treated like celebrities. They don’t see many Western babies and they all loved my son – wanting to pose with photos of him and passing him around. It was fantastic and everywhere we went we had instant baby sitters (although we did object when they ran off down the road with him! They just wanted to show their neighbours). I didn’t find many books about Korea at the time and this sounds like something I’d have loved to read in advance. I’m not sure I’d want to read it now as I don’t want to taint my own memories of travelling in Korea, but I highly recommend exploring the country and getting out of the capital.

    Posted by Jackie Bailey (@farmlanebooks) | April 16, 2012, 4:47 pm
    • Jackie,
      Thanks for sharing your experience. That’s quite an interesting experience. Asians do love babies, especially one that isn’t with black hair! I don’t think this will taint your memories because there are many happy memories that can be found within the pages, which would only serve to enhance your happy memories!

      I want to get out of the capital next time, if I ever have the chance. 🙂

      Posted by JoV | April 17, 2012, 8:59 am
  4. This sounds great! I like the quote you included about breaking from routine, it’s striking a chord with me at the moment. I’m very much in a settled routine that I’ve been in for a few years and a part of me would love to quit everything and go travelling alone.

    Posted by Sam (Tiny Library) | April 16, 2012, 6:51 pm
  5. You forgot Hyundai cars…not that I’m biased because my uncle works for them 😉

    Posted by jessicabookworm | April 17, 2012, 2:04 pm
  6. Does grouchy traveler exist?! Why travel at all?

    Posted by mee | April 18, 2012, 1:31 pm


  1. Pingback: It’s a wrap! April 2012 « JoV's Book Pyramid - May 1, 2012

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5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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