“when I was home in England for christmas a few years ago, I started telling my parents’ friend about soju (a type of Korean liquor) and how cheap it is at around £1 (rM5.50).
“the friend quickly answered – ‘But it’s probably a lot of money for them, isn’t it?’
“what he didn’t realise is that Korea is now the 13th biggest economy in the world.”
other common questions he tackles in the book include “Do all Koreans really eat dogs?” and “Is North Korea going to nuke Seoul soon?”
Even in this region, where the spread of Hallyu (Korean wave) has raised South Korea’s profile somewhat, there are a lot of (often romantic) misconceptions about the country, he says.
“there seems to be more coverage of Korea in the media with the explosion of K-pop and Korean dramas, but people still don’t know much about the country, much less understand the ‘ Korean-ness’.”
Intent on correcting these misconceptions, tudor’s Impossible Country tries to give the big picture by linking today’s South Korea with its industrial, political and cultural successes to the history, traditions and beliefs that form the country’s foundations and character.
Admirably, tudor leaves no stone unturned in his examination of South Korea’s complex quirks and idiosyncrasies, probing everything from Buddhist ethos to the people’s legendary hard-drinking ways, suicidal tendencies and infatuation with everything American.
He also does not shy away from the tough subjects including chaebol (conglomerate) abuses, dictato- rial leaders, specifically Father of Modern Korea (and father of current president Park Guen-hye) former president Park chung-hee, and the prevailing xenophobic pure-blood ideology in Korean society.
“I was worried of offending the Koreans at first but I hope they understand that I’m looking at Korea from the point of someone who loves the country,” he says.
He stresses that the book is based on research and interviews, not only his own opinions and analysis, “I did not want to be another westerner telling Asians about Asia.”
there are many things that had to be seen from the South Korean perspective, such as the country’s tension with Japan – you first have to understand its painful past of being bullied by its neighbour. or that, despite their noisy threats, North Korea is not likely to attack its southern relative yet.
Still there are preconceived notions about South Korea that remain true: for one, its society is still generally sexist despite electing its first woman president recently.
“the fact that the first female president of Korea is the daughter of a revered former president, to me, only reinforces patriarchy,” he adds.
Does he think the country’s miracle bubble will burst soon?
“I don’t think so. Korea is not as big as china but for its size, it can punch above its weight.
“Someone said this to me the other day: traditionally Korea considers itself like a shrimp caught between two whales, a small country caught between two superpowers trying to survive.
“But now, Korea is like a dolphin. It may not be as big as china or the US, but it is quick, agile and smart. And people like dolphins,” he says with a grin.
these are interesting times for South Korea, says tudor. “Mainly because South Korea changes very fast; something that is an issue now – for example, its negative stance towards multiculturalism – will be different in two, three years. Korea is never static.”
He believes now that it has gone past its manic economic and social development stage, South Korea can afford to focus on its culture and arts.
“You see more people carrying guitars on the streets now, which to me is always a good sign.”
the only thing he wishes, he says, is for the people there to savour their success and be happy.
“If I had a magic wand to change anything about Korea, I’d make Koreans more confident about their country and be happy with their achievements. they deserve it.”
Korea: The Impossible Country is available at major bookstores.
Open-air concerts are common in Hongdae, Seoul’s heartland of youth culture. — Korea Tourism Organisation