Book Review: Seeing South Korea Without Orientalism

Colin Marshall's new book suggests covering South Korea without exoticism.

Book Review: Seeing South Korea Without Orientalism

Credit: AcrossBooks.

Many non-Koreans have written about Seoul and South Korea, but the writing by Colin Marshall, columnist for the Los Angeles Review of Books and other publications, has stood out with a nuanced coverage that does not give into the cheap orientalism.

In his new book Summarizing Korea is Prohibited 한국 요약 금지, Marshall gives a loving exposition of Seoul and Korea that also works as a manual for how not to fall into the temptation of “returning to the same depressing well of low birth rate, high suicide rate, chaebol domination, stressed-out students, threatening neighbor in the north, addiction to plastic surgery.”

Marshall acknowledges those issues, but sees them in context. “Korea is never boring. I don’t want to judge Korea and Koreans so easily. It’s all boring to say good, bad, best, worst. The people who live in Korea are not boring like that. … When friends visit, I take them to the pojangmacha 포장마차 row in front of the old Seoul theater. Then they would get all happy and say, ‘This is real Korea!’ But every corner of Korea - Gangnam, Jongro, COEX, Sewoon Arcade - they are all real Korea. If you write them off like that, you will never understand the country no matter how long you live here.”

Marshall also advises Koreans against seeing themselves through the white gaze. “An American writer posted a video that said ‘I traveled through the most depressed country in the world.’ He meant Korea. I don’t think he knows Korea at all. His opinion is not worth anything. Koreans can stand to ignore what foreigners say.”

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