Five Questions for the Marmot
American writer and photographer Robert Koehler first set his eye on the peninsula in 1997. Thirteen years later, he calls Seoul “home,” runs a magazine with the same city’s name, has published books and he looks very comfortable in a Hanbok.
What made you start The Marmots Hole?
Good question. I got into blogging in 2003, when blogging was really starting to come into its own as a medium. At first, I got into it just to record thoughts — if there’s something blogging is good for, it’s to archive thoughts — and sometimes post a photo or two. Then, I started posting the occasional political rant, or piece of commentary, and these proved somewhat popular so I did them more and more, and the blog sort of took on a life of its own.
You follow the Korean language media on a regular basis. What are some similarities and dissimilarities with media back in the States?
Hmm... this is a good question, and not one I’m sure I can answer as properly as I should. If I had to list some of the major ones, I’d say that Korean print media is more influential in terms of influencing public opinion than the US print media, that Korean media — and print media in particular — is much more centralized in the hands of a few big nationwide companies, and that the media — and again, this is particularly the case with the print media, and less so with broadcast media — is a great deal more conservative than that of the United States. I would say Korea’s three big conservative dailies are associated with and seen as part of “the establishment” to a far greater degree than, say, the NYT, WaPo or even the WSJ.
A lot of bloggers who, like yourself, are fluent in Korean, sometimes gripe about a bias in media coverage of the expat community. What’s your take on that? Has it gotten better? Worse?
Complicated issue. Of course, the media can be rather sensationalist in its coverage of foreigner crime. And do I think certain voices probably have more influence with the mainstream press than they should? Sure.
I think with stories about English teachers in particular, some of the criticism comes from motivations other than a pure desire to improve English language education in Korea, and that few of these stories deal with the actual root problems of the English learning industry, let alone propose workable solutions. Still, some perspective is required, I think.
Judging from some of the commentary I’ve read from English teachers, you’d think there was a pogrom going on against whitey, and that’s just not the case. The media runs its fair share of positive stories about foreigners, too, and the media is usually much too busy frying bigger fish to concentrate on the wayward English teacher. I, too, was an English teacher for a while, and I live in Itaewon, so it’s not like I haven’t seen more than my fair share of questionable and/or boorish behavior from foreigners. It’s not good to generalize, obviously, but at the same time, I’m not surprised the resentment exists. I guess if I saw a flood of young foreigners earning gainful employment in my country based on only a degree (in anything) and their mother tongue, I might resent it, too, especially if said young foreigners seemed to be having too good a time.
You have put together a great book with the Seoul Selection Guide. Can you give us a ‘must see’ spot and some that might surprise people?
Must see spot, eh? Well, in Seoul, my two “must sees” would probably be Changdeokgung Palace and Bukchon. The former is the epitome of Korean traditional architecture and must not be missed, while Bukchon is just a great place to get lost in, wandering the alleys while taking in the views.
As for spots that might surprise people, I’m not sure if I’d classify the Jeong-dong neighborhood as a “surprise” — it gets its fair share of visitors, too — but I just love its exotic colonial-style architecture, its tree-lined streets and its fascinating history.
Two other areas that really get a short shrift, I think, are the Buam-dong and Seongbuk-dong areas north of downtown. Buam-dong feels almost like a mountain resort, and is full of great cafes and galleries. Seongbuk-dong’s got a lot of culture, too, and will be even more worth the visit when they finish restoring the Seongnagwon Garden. The galleries of Pyeongchang-dong, too, are worth checking out — it’s a wonderful hillside neighborhood with great scenery (in addition to great art, of course).
The thing to remember about Seoul, though, is that every neighborhood has its history and culture, even if a lot of it is hidden and/or not well promoted. It’s a city that grows on you the longer you stay.
It looks like you’ve pretty much laid your roots here in the ROK. Where and what do you see yourself doing in five years?
Hopefully, the same thing I’m doing now. I get paid to visit cool places, take photos and write about it — I think I’m quite lucky to be employed doing something I love.
You can read The Marmot’s Hole, which features several writers all coming together on one site at: www.rjkoehler.com
You can also purchase his Book Seoul Selection Guides here.
Questions prepared by Bobby McGill and Jeff Liebsch
Painting for Busan Haps done by Kelsey L. Smith
Check out the Haps interview with Curtis Jung.
Read more from Bobby McGill