Books: Q&A with Daniel Tudor, author of A Geek in Korea

Tudor is the co-author of the forthcoming book, North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 March, 2014, 9:43am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 April, 2015, 4:44pm

Ten years ago, Oxford University graduate Daniel Tudor moved to Seoul, preferring the warmth of Korean society to "cold" Britain. The 31-year-old has since written two books on his adopted home and has several other volumes in the pipeline. He speaks to Charmaine Chan about Korea The Impossible Country , which accounts for South Korea's transformation into an economic juggernaut, and his latest title, A Geek in Korea , due out in June.

How is different from your first book?

It's a bit like Korea The Impossible Country in that it's telling about South Korea now, but it's aimed at a younger audience. Consider it a gateway to Korea for those people who maybe like K-pop or TV shows from Korea, but don't know anything about the country.

Tell us about your way into Korea. You moved there a couple of years after your first visit - why?

My first visit was when I was 19 and it was for the World Cup, in 2002. My best friend at university was Korean. I didn't know anything about Korea; I'd never been to Asia; I'd never left the West. [The event] was the best thing ever: there was a carnival atmosphere, drunkenness, a sense of anything goes but nobody's doing anyone any harm. There's something in Korean culture that's about sharing and kindness and I felt that at the World Cup, so I thought I'd like to go back and see that.

You started, like so many other Westerners in Korea, teaching English. When did you begin writing about Korea and why?

When I joined The Economist [2010-2013]. I thought, "Eventually I'd like to write a book about Korea because nobody else is really doing it."

Why weren't they?

Korea is a bit off the radar for most people in Western countries. In the 1980s Japan was the big story and people pay attention to China now because of its huge population and market. Korea has fallen in between these two countries.

In both books you write about , the invisible hug. Is that something exclusive to Korea?

A lot of Koreans say jeong - the warmth between people and mutual sacrifice - is uniquely Korean, as is han [burden, oppression, or an injustice you can't correct]. It's nonsense, but Korea has words to describe these things, which shows they are important. And Korea has felt victimised by other countries, particularly Japan and to some extent America and China. These are bigger, more powerful countries and there's a sense among Koreans that somehow we've survived all of this; we're different; we have to show the world our difference.

What is the attitude of young Koreans towards Japan?

Young [Koreans] may like Japanese culture … but politically and historically they hate Japan. Also there is a sense of competition: we've been humiliated by this country, we have to get past them.

A few chapters in are about K-pop. Are you into K-pop?

No. It's superficial. It's just entertainment. Generally [K-pop] is for teenagers. I'm not saying it's wrong. It's a good business. But I like music played by people who mean what they're writing. Some people think all Korean music is K-pop, but there's really good music in Korea that's not on radio or on TV and doesn't go outside of Korea. One of my favourite bands is 3rd Line Butterfly: these guys are not rich and famous; they're ordinary guys you can be friends with. I am friends with them. There's an interview with [ Gangnam Style singer] Psy [in Geek]. He's funny and … cheeky, in a Robbie Williams kind of way, and making fun of Gangnam [an affluent district of Seoul], which is superficial and flashy.

How about Korean soaps?

I don't like the drama stuff. They're trying to play with your emotions with Cinderella stories: beautiful girl from poor family marries rich guy. Korea's probably not the best country in which to be a woman. If you're a young woman in Korea, what's the best way to become wealthy or to achieve status? Sadly, it's to marry somebody.

In you write about how Koreans are obsessed with success and education. Have you met lots of Korean tiger mothers?

You find these mothers in Gangnam and they're scary. When I taught English I'd meet kids who, materially, led awesome lives and they'd show up in these big Mercedes with bags as big as they were. But if they didn't get an A grade in something, their parents would get mad and the next time you saw them they'd be crying. Wealthy families are obsessed with education. It's a status thing: preserve your status and show the rest of the world that you're preserving your status and your kids are doing well.

Why do you continue to live in Korea?

This jeong stuff - that's the thing that keeps me in Korea. Korea made me a better friend to my friends. England's a cold society and, growing up, I suppose I always wanted this feeling of being connected to people. I thought English people were a bit too cynical and cold. Korea is a place where you say, "I like you. I love you. This is great." I really like that.