Tea for One

Eating lunch alone or having a quiet beer at home on the couch doesn’t strike most Westerners as out of the ordinary; but in South Korea, a country whose culture is more oriented toward group affiliation, something as simple as having a sandwich at your desk could mark you as anti-social or an object of pity: the dreaded wangtta, or social outcast, doomed to a life of solitary meals and other lonely pursuits.

This stigma on eating and drinking alone however is rapidly changing, as a few recent articles note (here and here). In the past year or so, restaurants have embraced solo diners, and a new word, honbap (a compound derived from the words for “alone” (honja) and “rice” (bap)), has thus entered the Korean lexicon. Likewise, drinking alone no longer marks you as a bum or an alcoholic, but merely a practitioner of honsul (“alone” plus “alcohol” (sul)), which has a decidedly more sympathetic ring.


Cheer up, Bill. It’s cool.

As many observers have pointed out, the changes in dining habits are driven in part by the rise in single households, which now account for over one-quarter of Korean households – a significant social shift that has been playing out over the past few years as property values rise while economic uncertainty and changing personal priorities impels more young people to delay or forgo marriage.

The rise in solo living arrangements may also be having other interesting effects on consumption trends. This recent article traces a recent rise in the number of convenience stores to the same single-living trend, noting that many people who live alone simply find it easier to procure most of their daily needs at a CU Mart than at a larger store, which tend to deal in larger quantities and sizes.

On a personal level, I have noticed a steep drop in the looks of pity I used to receive from Korean students and friends whenever I was sighted sipping a coffee or scarfing down a sandwich by myself. Now it appears that I was just a man ahead of his time. Who knew?

Aaaaand it’s off!

Quick update for long-neglected followers of this blog: I submitted the manuscript of Culture Shock! Korea last week, a couple of weeks ahead of my deadline, so it looks like we’re on target to meet the April/May publication target date. Watch this space for details.

The process was a lot of work but was quite enjoyable, partly because it required me to do a lot of reading and other research, and to look afresh at a country I’ve been living in for about 18 years now. As with all such projects, a lot of the stuff you end up digging up can’t find a place in the finished work, but is interesting enough to share in some other way; while some of the stuff that makes it in can only get a brief mention, when it sometimes merits a longer discussion. I hope to be bringing some of that here in the coming weeks and months.

For now, time to catch up on some discretionary reading, naps, and Civilization VI.


I’m Baa-aack…

How many times has the owner of a neglected blog said that before? More importantly, how many times has the owner of a neglected blog not said that before?  At any rate, I’ve decided to fire up the old blog for a few reasons.

First, a word on what I’ve been up to. Now that the ink is dry, I can say that I’ve recently been contracted to write the new edition of Culture Shock! Korea, a culture guide to my 51S2PF3V45L._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_adopted home geared toward people who are going to be living, working, or studying here (as opposed to just passing through). In other words, I’m writing the book I wish I had in my own hands 17 years ago when I moved here.

Toward that, I’ve been busy boning up on everything from rental agreements, K-Pop, the Choseon Dynasty, and what not to say at business meetings, among many, many other things – some necessarily interesting, and some interestingly necessary – as well as hammering out the first, very messy drafts of what I hope will be a useful, readable book on how to get along in Korea.

Now, the reasons I’m firing up the blog again:

I need an occasional break from rental agreements, K-Pop, the Choseon Dynasty, and what not to say at business meetings. The work and the reading has been fun, and it’s taught me a lot,  while also obliging me to look at the familiar afresh. But I need an occasional short break, and five out of five doctors agree that blogging is better for you than smoking.

Also, as a writer, the blog helps me exercise good writing habits, like forcing me to get stuff out on time, not getting too hung up on perfection, and just jogging the muscles that we use in the creation of text. This of course is in lieu of actually jogging around the block, which is no fun at all.

Another reason is that I’m reading a lot of stuff, and a lot of it is stuff that doesn’t necessarily fit with what I’m doing in the book, but is nonetheless interesting ,and I’d like to share it. That’s just the kind of guy I am.

I also want to try to tap into that other great potential of blogging which is as a sounding board and avenue for thoughtful feedback. Criticism, comments, rants, and praise are all welcome, as all of it, good, bad, and perhaps even ugly, helps the process of refining a piece of writing and getting a sense of what makes readers tick. I invite you – the sensitive, thoughtful, and clearly tasteful regular reader of this blog – to share your thoughts. And thank you!

More to come, just after I wade through today’s to do list, which includes finishing the draft of the chapter in which I condense 5,000 years of history into 5,000 words. That’s one word per year, but trust me, most of those years were not especially noteworthy and will be skipped.

Have a good day, and welcome (back?) to Outside Looking In!


Some place in Korea, at a time when nothing important happened.

Occidental Hero, or, How I Screwed Up and Inspired the Development of a Global City

Here’s my latest piece over at SweetPicklesandCorn.wordpress.com. Sometimes heroes are neither made nor born; they’re fabricated.



By John Bocskay

When Typhoon Sanba slammed into Busan in 2012 I had my face pressed to the window of my 10th floor apartment in typhoon waveHaeundae Marine City, watching as great roiling waves crashed over the sea wall and raced up the street past my building. When the swells came at a certain angle, water surged through the manhole at the intersection and finally blew the cover off, so that subsequent swells pumped thick columns of water into the air. Gusts of wind rattled our windows hard enough to make me wonder if I should be standing near it. The question was settled a minute later when a pane fell from the 50-somethingth floor of the building across the street and smashed on the sidewalk below.

The storm blew all morning, and when it ended in the early afternoon, I went out for a look. The sun was out and the…

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You can choose your family, but you can’t choose your friends


I was thinking recently about the old saying that you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family and how this commonsense idea warps when you’re an expat. Living abroad, I find I often haven’t chosen my friends in the same way I did before, sometimes to the point of having little choice in the matter. This was particularly true when I lived in a smaller city fifteen years ago, at a time when there just weren’t many foreigners around. There were people I befriended then who I still count as friends and keep in touch with, while some others I almost certainly would not have become friends with had the potential friend pool been even ankle deep.

Some of them were people I might even have avoided had we met in our homelands. I think of P. who studied traditional Korean swordsmanship for the express purpose of going back to Canada and telling people that he had studied swordsmanship in Asia – “how fucking cool is that” – even laying out a thousand bucks for a sword that would no doubt do nothing but hang in a prominent spot on his living room wall. I think of T. who never shut up, shouted almost everything he said, and whose idea of jamming was to have you play a repetitive chord pattern while he soloed nonstop for as long as you could put up with it. Both of them were guys I hung out with frequently on Friday and Saturday nights, had laughs with, shared some good times with, and when time came to part ways, said goodbye to forever. There were others who I would have steered clear of had we been in New York, but in Korea, the only foreigners I really avoided were the ones with the profound defects: the dysfunctional alcoholics, the fighters, the criminals, the wackjobs. Everybody else was okay.

When you’re one of a handful of foreigner residents in a small town there’s a tangible sense that you’re in this together, and it prods you to look out for one another. Simple things like taking the right bus, making a long distance phone call, and ordering from a menu are suddenly hard, every day seems to throw some unexpected challenge at you, and going through those experiences with other people who are just as clueless and frustrated as you are can forge friendships that last for years and span great distances. Expat bonding functions on much the same principle as fraternity pledging, which is another thing I did many years ago. It thrusts people together who are united by little more than their decision to be in that particular place lastdays3and time, their shared hardships and voluntary privations. I have fond memories and warm feelings towards the guys who went through pledging with me, as silly and pointless as our pledge tasks may seem now. In normal circumstances, some of them would have been friends anyway, others probably not. Living abroad has been a lot like that.

Now I live in Busan, a much bigger city with a few thousand expats, so I can afford to be a bit pickier with my foreign friends. Busan isn’t so big that you come off as odd if you say hello to unknown foreigners on the street, but it’s big enough that you don’t feel obliged to. In Seoul, one never greets strange foreigners on the street, while in small towns it’s sort of rude not to, but Busan seems to be right on the cusp. I think I’ve been witnessing this shift take place the last few years, and experiencing plenty of awkward moments in which I am approaching some foreigner on the street and am not sure whether or not to say hi, so I hem and haw and finally walk past them having made eye contact and an abortive half-grunt greeting that I hope they take the right way. Perhaps this says more about me than about the city, but there is a vague line there between greeting and not-greeting and we seem to be right on it.

Even so, there seems to be a thing among at least the long-term expats here that you still stick together and tolerate differences the same way you would as with a family member that you lived in close proximity to. In Busan, it’s not uncommon for example to see A. being cordial and chatty at the pub with B. even though I know that A. can’t stand B and thinks he’s a complete tosser.

I have seen this bond most clearly during emergencies. I think of my friend J. a few years ago who suffered a near aneurysm and needed blood for an emergency procedure to patch up the vessel that was about to explode in his head. The call for help rippled through the foreign community by text and phone, and when I heard it I jumped into the first cab to the hospital with my type O girlfriend. When we got there, there were already twenty or thirty people in the waiting room ready to do the same, some of them close friends, others more casual friends like me, and others the merest of acquaintances who rushed there to help – and more kept arriving even after J. was hustled into the operating room. While it was scary until he was safely out of the woods, it was very beautiful and reassuring to know that there was such an instant support network there if we needed it.

lastdays2I’ve also seen this sort of thing with fund-raisers to help foreigners who have been injured or sick and got hit with massive hospital bills they couldn’t afford. Time and again, the “Busan family” has rallied around to help. I don’t think it’s a special quirk of the types of people who come to live in Busan; I suspect that that sort of thing happens to greater or lesser degrees wherever expats belong to a community and find themselves in trouble. Compassion becomes easier to practice perhaps because it’s so easy to imagine the same thing happening to you. One bad move on a motorbike, a drunken tumble down the stairs, or a bout with a strange bug is all that stands between you and a real crisis, and that knowledge acts as a subconscious glue that binds even near-strangers together in remote places.

In recent years I’ve also noticed that I do choose my family to some degree too. I’m not talking about the way we affectionately call friends “brother” and “sister,” or about my wife whom I chose to marry, but about kin. The saying “You can’t choose your family” seems to have been aimed at people from a different time and place from the one I currently occupy, people who were obliged to spend lots of time with their relatives, to live with or near them, and thus needed to periodically remind themselves that its best to look beyond your differences, find common ground, and to get along or else risk constant strife and misery. To be honest, this idea already began to strike me as quaint long before I left America, which increasingly has become a place where people migrate long distances for a job, chase their dreams across state state lines, retire to gentler climates, etc. Modern America forces you to be mobile, to adapt, to be ready, willing, and able to uproot and go where the economy demands your skill set, and this doesn’t appear to leave much room for “choosing family”. I didn’t decide to live abroad to get away from my family, and that’s not something I would ever say I like about living abroad; it just gives me the luxury of being a little bit more choosy, particularly with family further out on the fringes – redefining the relationship with that disagreeable aunt, uncle, or cousin as family in none but a technical sense. For me that’s only one or two people, but it was liberating when I realized I can let go of them, and that it’s OK.

Of course I maintain the bonds with those closest to me, despite our occasional clashes and disagreements, and the cultural gulf that yawns between us as the years pass. We get together when I’m in the States, we call, Skype, exchange e-mails, fart around on facebook. That doesn’t change.

There’s another group too: the relatives I like very much yet slip out of touch with due to nothing more than distance and the march of time. I miss them and regret not having more significant contact with them. So it goes. There’s always some family that you don’t get to choose.


[The photos in this piece were used with the generous permission of Mr. Mike Dixon himself. Check out his work at http://mikedixonphotography.net/. Great stuff.  -JB]