Reading “No Couches in Korea” on a Couch in Korea

I received a copy of “No Couches in Korea” from the author himself Kevin Maher who sent it all the way from Macau. As soon as I received the book, I immediately opened it and read the first few parts of the book. The premise of the book is all about the journey of an English teacher in Korea in the year 1996 when English language was still new to Koreans and white foreigners were being stared at like a star in a circus. I was excited to read the book because I know as a migrant worker in Korea, I can maybe relate to it. While I find myself ironically reading the book in the comfort of a couch in Korea, I read some parts of the book during a subway ride, and everytime I read something about Koreans, of how the characters described them in the bad light, I felt like reading them aloud in the public just so Koreans know how foreigners generally think of them.

However, as the setting of the story was in the mid 1990s, I didn’t put a high expectation on the book because I know for sure that in the past two decades, Korea has changed a lot. Although there are some parts of the book that made me think I experienced the same thing, I found most of the details in this book about living in South Korea in the 90s interesting but not applicable in the modern age. I guess Maher has intended market for this book, and although I am a foreign worker here in South Korea, I just think I am not a market of this book. If I remove all the dramas and love story, picking only the parts that detail the character’s journey in South Korea, I guess English teachers in South Korea would find this helpful. This will give the overview to the first timers of what they will about to experience as soon as they arrive in South Korea. But then again, this was in the 90s, I don’t know how much has changed since that time.

The book only features two major places in South Korea, the Busan and Seoul. Other places like Seoraksan and Gyeongju were mentioned but not really detailed. If there are other places mentioned, then I may have missed it, which means this book is not for the wanderlusts. I’ve been to Busan twice and I’ve been to some of the places Kevin mentioned like Haeundae Beach and the Nampodong Street. I must say that while he did not really talk that much of the must visit places in Busan, his story makes me want to go to Busan again and check out the places and bars he mentioned especially the Blue Note. Next time I go to Busan, No Couches In Korea will surely comes first to my mind which means the book did  a great job introducing Busan to me and maybe to the other readers. However, it would be good if instead of the work dramas and ordeals with roommates and the little western community, the author could have allotted more pages about his experience in other places aside from Busan.

As I’ve said, the setting of the story was in the mid 90s, so I considered this book a history book rather than a guide book because some nuances in the Korean culture have changed already in the past two decades. For example, they don’t call it Pusan anymore but Busan, the travel time from Busan to Seoul is no longer 6 hours, Koreans are no longer staring at the foreigners and so much more. But I must say I’m glad I read the book because Kevin’s account about the 1990s Busan could probably not be seen in any Korean History books. It was an actual event, actual people and actual places narrated in the perspective of a foreigner. While you can’t use this book as a guide for living in Korea in this era, it’s a perfect manual for somebody who wants to know the event that took place in the city in the earlier years.

Overall, I think it’s an interesting read. Although it’s not 100 percent all about Korea, I still find it interesting because reading the book brought me to the time no one in this era would have known.  It’s like making a pathway to an unknown street. I rate this book 7/10 for an effort to illustrate Korea before the kpop, k dramas and hallyu wave entered the scene.

If you are interested about this book, check KEVIN MAHER's homepage