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Tharp On: Money

Let’s start with the obvious: being poor sucks. There’s nothing fun about it. A certain amount of poverty may be slightly romantic for say, six months in your early 20s, but it wears thin quickly. Any bohemian charm it once had transforms into a parasitic drain, and you quickly realize how essential money is to do pretty much anything you want in this world.

I know all this from experience, though you wouldn’t know it from my childhood. I grew up in solidly middle class USA. We had it all—a big house, a driveway full of (used) cars, a kitchen bursting with pork chops, blueberry muffins, and boxes of Captain Crunch cereal, a John Deere riding lawn mower, and even a ColecoVision (cutting edge in ’83). Up until my late teens, I took the largess of Cold War America for granted: Such was our birthright, we were taught. You can imagine my horror as I then watched my parents lose it all and slide into the inescapable morass of the working poor.

It’s not a trailer! I’d later say, correcting my friends, mid-sentence. It’s a mobile home—a double-wide at that.

My first brush with real rich people came straight after high school, when cash was especially scarce. With the help of generous scholarships, grants, and an avalanche of student loans, I attended a very snooty and expensive arts college. Some of my fellow students hailed from the true upper crust and deigned to mix with us hoi polloi in the name of self-expression. They drove convertibles, wore clothes without holes, and were usually among the most talentless students in the school, but as they paid their tuition in full, the administration didn’t seem to mind. It goes without saying that I despised them.

Granted, we’re not all living in an egalitarian utopia here. I’ve met engineers and shoe designers who fart more money than I make in a year.

These rich kids invariably dined on overpriced sandwiches from the school’s expensive little café, while I glared and grumbled, spooning cold refried beans into my mouth straight from the can and plotting their deaths. I came to know hunger well during those years. Often, instead of eating, I smoked my lunch in the form of a hand-rolled cigarette. It may have been pretentious, but at least it kept me skinny; as I was in art school, both were required.

I continued this life of the starving artist for an embarrassingly long time after college, until I found myself over 30 and still broke, with a credit rating that would make Greece blush. So I upped and moved to Korea, where, for the first time in my life, I could pay my bills, see the doctor, travel and still have enough left over to eat and drink my way into a daily Bacchanal stupor. Is it a wonder that, after eight years, I haven’t even thought about leaving?

Korea is an interesting place, in that almost all of us Western expats have more than enough money. This is especially true for the ESL crowd, where we all have similar jobs and earn roughly the same amount. It’s like living in some kind of socialist utopia. We’re all taken care of. When I call my friends and ask them to join me for grilled meat or sushi, at no time do I ever question whether or not they can afford it. Of course they can. We ALL can.

Ah, Korea: The Great Expat Equalizer.

Granted, we’re not all living in an egalitarian utopia here. I’ve met engineers and shoe designers who fart more money than I make in a year. Same goes for some of the military guys. And not all ESL folks keep their heads above the current, either. Some of us ass-out and are sent packing, penniless (see: The Asia Fail)  while a few others blow through their cash at the casinos and juicy bars and are constantly borrowing from flush friends. Is there anything more pathetic than a perpetually broke English teacher?

During my tenure on the peninsula, I’ve lived it up mightily and, sadly, my bank account reflects it. But others are more careful with their cash and manage to save tens of millions won a year. Some people leave Korea with serious stacks of dough and go home to buy houses, start businesses, and develop serious coke habits. Real saving can be done, but at what cost to basic fun and decency?

This brings to mind my Canadian brothers and sisters, who seem to have frugality hardwired into their DNA. Working a post-dinner check with a group of Canucks is like pouring over a test problem with advanced calculus students. Calculators are brandished, who-ate-and-drank-how much-of-what is argued and changed is produced to the 10-won coin. Some may take umbrage with me pointing this out, but perhaps our northern neighbors’ financial acumen is the reason their economy thrives while that of the USA continues to burn and collapse like a barn fire.

But there is a limit, no matter what the nationality. I’ve met some cheap-ass expats here, but none so much as the people who believe that they are entitled to money for every one of their possessions when they move or leave Korea for home. We’ve all seen these guys sell their worthless wares on Koreabridge, trying to get cash for used slacks, old tennis shoes, plastic hangers, wrinkled magazines, half-dead house plants, out-of-date guidebooks, and even those free wooden chopsticks that come with every order from Kimbap Cheongook.

Note to such folks: Go ahead and give some stuff away. People will appreciate it. Besides, no one wants to travel across town to Hadan to pay 5,000 won for your nasty old dish towel, tightwad.

You can get Chris Tharp’s book Dispatches from the Peninsula: Six Years in South Korea on Amazon or

Tharp’s Blog: Homely Planet

Illustration by Michael Roy. See more of his work at:



About Chris Tharp

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