BUSAN, South Korea — Let’s start with a giant disclaimer: This will be the world’s least objective literary review. Chris Tharp was one of the first contributors to Busan Haps. And he’s a dear friend of mine. And I’m even IN his new book, Dispatches from the Peninsula: Six Years in South Korea. So my strongest criticism is likely to be: Why not feature more of this Angry Steve fellow? After all, with my “good taste and piercing intellect” (98), I am “smart and funny” (98), a “reader and a thinker” (281), and “one of the most respected English instructors” (99) around. And I definitely do not remember saying that I would like to “bang every one” of the Lotte Giants cheerleaders (75), though I admit I probably thought this at some point.
Chris Tharp is well known to many of us. It’s hard not to know him, attention-whore that he is. He’s been juggling stand-up comedy, rock and roll, writing and acting gigs pretty much since he landed here in 2004. His well-deserved nickname (acknowledged in the book) is Showbiz. Those who have followed his blog Homely Planet over the years, and more lately, various Facebook posts and even stand-up comedy bits, will recognize many of the vignettes in Dispatches from the Peninsula.
However, while his blog featured a Hunter S. Thompson-esque gonzo approach to reportage – wild, woozy and boozy – here, he tones down the frenzied prose in favor of a calmer, more measured, reflective voice as he looks back on the last six-plus years, and tries to make sense of it all. He delivers a book that succeeds along three fronts: he neatly encapsulates the experiences many of us have had here in Korea, while also detailing a very unique, compelling, personal journey, and also while serving up an exotic travelogue for readers back home.
Tharp’s book is loosely chronological, starting naturally with his arrival as a newbie, riding an airport bus from the airport to Haeundae, marveling at the “churches everywhere, each displaying its own garish cross, reminding you of Christ’s sacrifice with a burning, neon fervor.” He quickly sketches out his pre-Korea background as a struggling actor hitting his 30s with numbingly bleak prospects – a person who “fit the profile for an ESL teacher in many, many ways”:
By 2004 I was back in my hometown of Olympia, staying with my parents—who were just entering into a long slide into ill health—and seriously contemplating borrowing frightening amounts of cash to finance a couple of years of graduate school.
So there I was: a failed actor, over thirty, broke, with no girl, shitty prospects, and even shittier credit. I had taken to spending my days dodging white-belted hipsters on the streets of Olympia, poring over grad school applications, and scouring the pages of Craigslist for a gig to lift me out of my funk.
Tharp unabashedly embraces the expat ESL teacher cliché of the “loser” who can’t get a real job back home. He admits that for many, coming to Korea is like being “handed a magic bag containing a brand new life . . . When you’re over 30 and broke back home, coming to teach in Asia can be a sort of paradise.” And what of the chronic complainers? Tharp concludes that “most of the people who come to Korea and hate it are just people whose lives haven’t sucked enough back at home yet.”
With hardly a chance to catch his breath and get over his jet-lag, Tharp gets thrown into the maw of the hogwon monster, and it’s here that the book produces the first of many high points. His descriptions of super-cute-yet-super-evil Korean demon children are often riotous, especially when they gleefully describe the sadistic ways they plan to kill their respected sonsaengnim, e.g., dropping him into a dynamite-filled volcano, slicing him (and his spirit) into ribbons with swords, feeding him to bears, snakes, lions, or “Aprika” natives who boil him in a pot and eat “Chris-gogi.”
Beyond the visceral joys and terrors of “morning kindy,” Tharp expands his scope to provide sharp insight about the whole Korean English-education system and native ESL teachers’ roles in it. Tharp has taught at many levels, from hogwons to the universities to the junior colleges, and he nails it on the lack of communication between foreign teachers and Korean administrators, the lack of real standards, the profit-first motives of many hogwons, and the whole English-monkey charade that teaching can become, despite one’s best efforts and intentions.
As in any story, Dispatches works best when conflict and emotion peak. In the chapter “Don’t Bite the Hand that Provides the VISA,” he gives a blow-by-blow account of the epic Babopalooza fiasco, in which he and several others (including myself) were arrested and nearly deported for performing a sketch-comedy show. Tharp provides a view of Korea that (thankfully) not many people are afforded – the criminal justice system, the rancidly biased news media, and Koreans’ prickly sensitivity to criticism-from-abroad.
The most affecting moments come when Tharp faces the deaths of both his parents, less than a year apart, while in Korea. It’s in these chapters that the book really comes into its own. He captures with diamond-hard clarity the dread of the emergency phone call, the awful blurring rush back home, and the brutal majesty of witnessing the passing of his father and mother. Tharp deftly sifts through his roiling emotions – guilt, anger, grief, relief – avoiding the minefields of cliché and triteness all the way. These exceptional scenes anchor the book and provide its strongest narrative thread and emotional core.
Fans of (and co-participants in) Tharp’s more hedonistic exploits won’t be disappointed by Dispatches from the Peninsula. There’s plenty of soju-soaked revelry in the country that Tharp dubs “Disneyland for alcoholics”. Tharp describes binges and hangovers like Cormac McCarthy describes sunsets – very colorfully, and no two are ever alike. Whether he’s in Jagalchi market eating grilled eel, down at “The Crown” (i.e., O’Brien’s), or out in the wilds of Jirisan, Tharp can throw it back with the best of them and write about it with rollicking ease.
Actually, I suspect the persona Tharp crafts for himself will present readers with a personal Rorschach test. Some haters inevitably will only see a teetering booze-hound fleeing personal failure back home to live out an endless college sophomore’s fantasy of exotic, willowy Asian beauties, barbecued pork and epic piss-ups. I expect the expat blogosphere to go totally berserk with such accusations. (A little controversy is always good for sales, eh?)
Yet this book is far, far from a Korean version of Off the Rails in Phnom Penh, the ur-text of expat scumbaggery and fuckwittedness. Tharp’s 2004 arrival places him roughly in the second wave of native teachers, just as most of the first wave of freaks and nutters were being weeded out. (He devotes a chapter to one of these, the thuggish “Aussie Mack,” whom I recall with a shudder.) He writes about dating Korean women with care and respect (though not without humor), and any criticism of his adopted home is carefully nuanced, balanced, and considerate of his own biased American perspective. Readers looking for controversy will have to look hard.
I think more readers will see the more complicated Chris Tharp that I and many others here in Busan know and love – an extroverted performer and pure reveler, yes, but also a keenly introspective and analytical thinker. A natural in the classroom (especially with children), and a resolutely open-minded adventurer who throws himself into new experiences with joy and passion – this, I believe is what most readers will, or should, see. As Walt Whitman reminds us, we all contain multitudes within us. Tharp embraces all of his own yammering contradictory selves with breezy self-deprecation and serious reflection in just the right balance. In doing so, he makes Dispatches from the Peninsula a thoroughly engaging, entertaining and illuminating addition to the travel writing canon. Now if I can only get him started on the sure-to-be-brilliant sequel: The Trials of Angry Steve . . .
You can get Tharp's book on Amazon or Whatthebook.com or pick up a copy this coming weekend,October 30th, when Chris will be signing and celebrating his book at HQ in Kyungsung. On Saturday he will be doing the same at the Haps issue 15 Release Party at Blue Monkey, also in Kyungsung.
Distribution of the book in Korea is still being negotiated. You can email Chris about getting copies at firstname.lastname@example.org
Chris Tharp has been a columnist for Haps since Day One. You can read his stuff here.
Chris with The Headaches at All Live's Battle of the Bands.
You can see more of Mike Dixon's work on his website.