Beyond Exoticism: the Evolution of “Exotic Scenery”

  • onNovember 1, 2014
  • Vol.18 Winter 2012
  • byJung Mikyung


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 comes from the term for Islamic martyrs’ tombs, is a story set in a refugee town. The golden domes that were once worshipped by Muslims as the ideal are now considered wretched graves of souls who perished in acts of revenge and terrorism. A few anti-war foreigners take up lodging in a neighborhood in Palestine targeted for destruction by Israel because Israel is less likely to bomb a house or slaughter its occupants when there are foreigners. But when the Israelis seem on the verge of attacking the house, the foreigner protagonist becomes terrified. The image of the six family members kissing each other on the cheek, exchanging their last goodbyes as the tanks are standing by is particularly harrowing. The brother of the boy suicide bomber who strapped explosives to himself and attacked a restaurant, taking six people with him, attempts to explain his younger brother’s motives. “My brother’s death is a stop sign. Stop. Please stop. How could my brother dream of what he’d be in 10 or 20 years when he didn’t even know if he’d be able to go to school the next day, or whether or not he’d be able to see his friends again? Nothing was for him to decide. Everything was up to the occupying Israeli troops. He was only 18, but he had no hope.”

The Palestinians want nothing more than this: a world in which they can decide their own future and experience the small, ordinary joys of life. What they want is no different from what the rest of us want.


Park Hyoung-su, Nana at Dawn

Nana at Dawn is based on Park Hyoung-su’s experience in Thailand. Park is known for his unique sense of humor as well as his intelligent narrative style. The main character, Leo, meets a woman named Ploy during a layover in Thailand on his way to Africa. Drawn to her charms, Leo never makes it to Africa and instead stays as an outsider on the streets of Thailand. Leo’s place of travel, in other words, becomes his place of dwelling. The setting of the novel is Soi 16, the red light district that developed around Nana Station. In addition to the enchanting Nana, a prostitute, Nana at Dawn portrays many other interesting characters making their living on the streets of Soi 16.

Park Hyoung-su taught Korean at a university in Zhuhai, a Chinese city located between Macau and Hong Kong, some years ago. Every month, he took a plane down to Bangkok to mingle with the locals, wear what they wear, and eat what they eat. His experience from those days comes to life in Nana at Dawn.


Jung Mikyung, Star of Africa

In Star of Africa, one of the main characters, Seung, travels to Morocco with his daughter, Bora, to find a man named K, who stole his money and wife. Seung works as a tour guide for Koreans in Morocco by day and devotes all his free time to hunting down K. He does not have time to raise Bora, who is leading a secret life as a henna tattoo artist in Jemaa el Fna, the Place of the Dead. A Moroccan boy named Baba has a crush on Bora, who shows no interest in him. Even though Seung uprooted their lives and suddenly relocated them to Morocco, Bora does not ask her father a single question—not about her mother’s whereabouts, or even the truth behind this man named “K” whom Seung is desperately seeking. On the days when Seung goes into the desert, Bora stays at home alone eating roasted laver.

Baba makes a living selling fruit during the day in Jemaa el Fna and performing globe-swallowing magic tricks at dusk. Baba is willing to buy Bora anything to win her over, but Bora does not give him the time of day. Designer Laurant asks Baba to look after one of his belongings for a moment, and Baba wants permission to show Bora around Laurant’s beautiful garden in return. But when Laurant unexpectedly dies, Baba steals the object and disappears into the desert. Laurant is a French designer rumored to be the owner of the most beautiful secret garden north of the Sahara. He is an indiscriminate collector of all things beautiful, who abhors all things that are not. Addicted to beauty, he is not above engaging in unconscionable acts to possess something he deems beautiful. A fortuneteller warns him that beauty will one day be his ruin, and the prophesy comes true in the end. Mustafa, Baba’s father, teaches Seung Moroccan and helps him settle down, but sells the object Seung entrusted him with to Laurant. When Laurant suddenly dies, Mustafa sets out in search of Baba who took off with the object. And so, this story is a tale of people who constantly wander in search of something.



Settings for Korean stories set abroad have diversified in recent years. These stories go beyond a simple abstract and fictionalized globalism, presenting readers with vivid accounts of the hardships of life abroad and the life-changing experience of finally laying roots in foreign soil. No longer just tales of longing and nostalgia for foreign lands, or of beauty and riches, recent fiction set in foreign locales portrays lively locals who live as we do and sometimes live in even greater poverty, suffering, and oppression. Through these stories, we learn that cosmopolitanism is not just about empty cries for world peace but meeting, conversing, and sympathizing with others all over the world.



1. Star of Africa
Jung Mikyung, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2010, 285p, ISBN 9788954611558
2. The Golden Dome
Oh Soo-yeon, Silcheon-munhak Publishing Co., Ltd.
2007, 334p, ISBN 9788939205826
3. Nana at Dawn
Park Hyoung-su, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2010, 406p, ISBN 9788932020587
4. Border Crossing
Jeon Sungtae, Changbi Publishers, Inc.
2005, 236p, ISBN 8936436848
5. Tarzan
Kim Yoon Young, Silcheon-munhak Publishing Co., Ltd.
2006, 319p, ISBN 8939205405
6. Jellyfish
Hae Yisoo, Jaeum & Moeum Publishing Co., Ltd.
2009, 352p, ISBN 9788957074626