Beyond Exoticism: the Evolution of “Exotic Scenery”

Once the realm of the exotic and the imagined, remote locations have become central characters in their own right as writers use their personal experience to craft meaningful stories.



With the rise of foreign travel and emigration, life in a foreign country as depicted in Korean literature is no longer just a topic, but a theme of its own. Foreign space has evolved from merely background scenery to a natural living space of everyday life. In the past, works that dealt with travel or emigration painted a somewhat abstract and alienating picture of foreign life. But of late, these depictions have grown more detailed and realistic. Writers have even broadened their geographical scope to include areas such as the Middle East, Africa, and the Himalayas, which are less popular destinations for Korean travelers and expats. These once foreign and abstract places are gradually turning into homes.


Jeon Sungtae, Border Crossing

Some of the most common questions Koreans are asked when abroad are: "Are you Japanese?" or "Are you Chinese?" When they answer, "I'm Korean," they receive a variety of follow-up questions related to K-pop, Korean athletes' performance in the Olympics, and relations between North and South Korea. Whatever the questions may be, the truth remains that non-Koreans still do not know much about Korea.

Jeon addresses the sensitive issue of the foreign perception of Korea through a man's travelogue, "Border Crossing." The protagonist, Park, comes across travelers from many different countries during his journeys through Southeast Asia. A Japanese and a German person ask politically sensitive questions about topics such as the starving children in North Korea and the Japanese colonial rule of the peninsula. Park feels pressure as he becomes an unwitting spokesman for his country by answering these questions.

But when Jeon meets a Japanese woman named Naoko, he has a much more interesting conversation. They discuss their childhoods and the small details of their daily lives; Park feels close enough with Naoko to spend the night with her. But the man Naoko was travelling with was, contrary to Park's assumption, not her father but her boyfriend. Park spends the night with Naoko feeling as though he is experiencing a turning point in his life, a cultural breakthrough of sorts that proves it is possible to transcend the historical and political barriers between Korea and Japan through intimacy. But she refuses to show him her true colors and leaves him in the end. Park learns that the border called nationality is one that is even harder to cross than status or social class, but also learns through his experience with Naoko that the border can also collapse in an instant. However, Park also sees in his inability to ask Naoko to stay with him that, in this age where globalization is taken for granted, the hardest border to cross is actually the one in his heart.


Hae Yisoo, Jellyfish

Hae Yisoo spent a fair stretch of time studying in Australia and is also well-known for his writings based on hiking in the Himalayas. In the title story "Jellyfish," Hae tells the story of a man who becomes a high-end tutor for a charming teenage girl suffering from "a sort of personality disorder or communication disorder that renders her completely insensitive to the needs or situations of other people or things." The girl lays down strict ground rules from the very beginning, such as "no personal questions," and "do as I say" that unnerve the tutor. However, the tutor humors the girl's audacity by taking a simpler, direct way of communicating with her. He uses tactics such as giving her marine life stickers as a prize each time she completes a task. These stickers are a means of connection between the shy tutor and the uninhibited girl.

Hae's other works on foreign travels include "My Kenya Story," which relates anecdotes from his travels through Kenya, and "Intro to Altitude Sickness," his Himalayan travelogue. Another important theme in his stories is the hyper-educated unemployed who must battle loneliness and poverty as they study abroad. Hae Yisoo always keeps a world map in his wallet, thinking about his next journey. He portrays the anxiety and curiosity of people in unfamiliar territories through lighthearted narratives.


Kim Yoon Young, Tarzan

Cambodia is a popular tourist destination for Koreans, but few literary works have dealt with Cambodia in detail. Kim Yoon Young’s "Tarzan" is the story of a Korean tour guide at Angkor Wat. The protagonist, a tour guide who on the side is working towards reaching his dreams, meets a peculiar character named Kim Majang-dong. The tour guide feels very much at home at the mysterious but spooky Ta Prohm where people often lose their way. He encounters Kim at Ta Prohm climbing trees, swinging from branch to branch like Tarzan. Kim used to own a makchang (pig intestine) eatery in Korea, but lost everything in a failed marriage. He married late to a woman whose vanity and extravagance ruined him. As a last resort, Kim traveled to Ta Prohm where he went missing. The protagonist sees Kim—who looks like Tarzan or the Wolf Man—blissfully swinging from trees, and is moved by the sight. At first it seems that Kim has lost the race for survival after working so hard his entire life. But at Ta Prohm, while less than human in appearance, Kim appears to be a happy Tarzan. Kim Yoon Young tells the tale of this 21st century Tarzan through a fast-paced narrative.


Oh Soo-yeon, The Golden Dome

Oh Soo-yeon is known for works based on her own experience as an anti-war activist. Oh traveled to Iraq and Palestine in 2003 as part of a Korea-Iraq Anti-War Peace Group and began to write stories about the two countries upon her return to Korea. She published Don’t Die, Abu Ali: The Record of the Iraqi War in 2004 and Tears of Palestine, a collection of stories by Palestinian writers, in 2006. She is currently a member of The Bridge Between Korea and Palestine.

“The Golden Dome,” the title story that come...