This article originally appeared in Groove Magazine. — John
When Robert Koehler reads the news from his home country these days, he is often left aghast. The longtime expat, magazine editor and author of one of Korea’s most popular English-language blogs sees the U.S. as in the process of “going in the toilet.”
“Our economy is in trouble, our politics — on both left and right — are a national disgrace, our pop culture more or less speaks for itself and our national discourse is, well, it just doesn’t seem serious,” the self-proclaimed “poli-sci guy” says.
In fact, he has returned to the U.S. mainland just once in nearly two decades. Koehler acknowledges that he is probably one of those rare expatriate breeds: a “lifer.”
“I have been here 17 years. This is my new normal now,” says the candid Long Island native. “Now I look at the United States, I look at an American newspaper and I’m like, ‘That’s really fucked up! I mean, how does anyone live there?’”
It wasn’t always so. In 1997, Koehler had little interest in Asia, let alone Korea. A yearlong stint with the Peace Corps in Tanzania had gotten him hooked on Africa. The corps, however, had other ideas. Rejecting his request to stay in Africa, the program instead offered him a chance to volunteer in Southeast Asia. Reasoning that being paid as a teacher somewhere that didn’t excite him was better than working for free, Koehler signed up to spend a year Korea before he’d presumably return to Africa. Nearly two decades later, the executive editor of SEOUL Magazine and man behind the Marmot’s Hole is still here, speaks Korean fluently, wears hanbok every day and has become one of the most influential voices in expat media. And he can’t imagine being anywhere else.
“I do feel like a lot of trends that are going to be shaping the future will be happening in this part of the world, whether it is not necessarily Korea, but it is Korea, Japan, China, somewhere,” he says, speaking in quick yet deliberate bursts. “In a way, this is where the future is, and it is an exciting place to be.”
Since 2003, Koehler’s outlet, the Marmot’s Hole (www.rjkoehler.com), has been an oasis of Korea-related news, polemics and gossip for foreigners whose information sources involve a toss up between the limited English-language media and impenetrable local press. His fluency in Korean allows him to translate stories from the local media that might otherwise pass by English speakers. The blog has also been the source of news tips for international journalists and a platform for other people with a public profile to respond to queries and controversies.
Photography is one of the major tools in his professional arsenal. It’s also a personal passion, a way for him to channel his fascination with his adopted home. Through his lens, Koehler often seeks out charm where obvious beauty is lacking, such as in a gritty, overlooked Seoul neighborhood or an aging bridge spanning the Han River.
“I love looking at the world. And Korea is a fascinating subject to photograph. The deeper you get into photography, the more you realize the world is a remarkably beautiful place. It’s easy to forget that sometimes, but picking up a camera helps me remember. It also helps me focus and it gives me a bit of discipline in life. And it’s not like I don’t need the discipline.”
Koehler is humble about the Marmot Hole’s influence. While his website may be a staple of many expats’ daily routine, this particularly irreverent expat finds the suggestion that they might rely on it for news “disconcerting” — especially when he usually prioritizes stories by whatever makes him “laugh most.”
In particular, he hopes his coverage of the Korean media’s stories about foreigner crime and other alleged deviancies doesn’t cause some foreigners to harbor skewed views about Korean society.
“But because I post a lot about that, some can come away with the assumption that the only time foreigners are talked about in the news is when they do something negative, which is not true,” he says. “There is plenty of positive news about foreigners out there. I just don’t find it amusing, so I don’t post it.”
The perception among some foreigners that Korea is far from welcoming is apparent in the site’s lively, often caustic, comments section — a highlight or hazard of the Marmot’s Hole experience, depending upon your preferences. Searing complaints from foreigners about their host country are rife, often matched by the defensive reactions of ethnic Koreans overseas. Ad hominem and withering scorn are routine.
Koehler, though, scoffs at “they gave me a fork” racism. In fact, he insists he has had no more than a handful of negative experiences as a foreigner in Korea. “We are dealing with a people who are proud of their identity, who are proud of their culture, who want to protect that and, yeah, sometimes they are not used to dealing with the ‘other.’ But there is also, ‘This is where you are, deal with it,’” he says. “I have been here 17 years and I can count the number of really, really unpleasant experiences on one hand. But for some people, it seems to happen all the time.”
He also argues that a lot of negativity about the country from foreign residents is inflated on the Internet. “How much of it is true, how much of it is true but they kind of deserved it, how much of it is literally, actually horror stories of woe befalling perfectly innocent individuals, I don’t know,” he says. “I am just saying, I have had a good experience here. Most of the people I know who are socially well adjusted here made an effort to, if not fully assimilate, then certainly find a niche and kind of go with the flow.”
In over a decade at the coalface of expatriate chatter online, Koehler’s views about Korean society, and the place of foreigners in it, have evolved considerably. A look back at the Marmot’s Hole circa 2003 gives the impression of an entirely different author at the keyboard. Posts from the era — many of them attacking the newly inaugurated Roh Moo-hyun administration from a conservative slant — were angrier, cutting and more opinionated.
“When I started the blog, I thought I knew everything. Everybody’s like that, right? I was younger, you know. I knew enough about Korean politics to be dangerous, but not enough. So I thought I knew everything, and I would just be posting and posting and ranting and ranting,” he says.
But his interactions in those early years with a fellow blogger, Peter Schroepfer (a.k.a. Orankay), pushed him to change his mindset. Schroepfer, a Korean literature major who now works as a journalist for a Korean-language newspaper in the U.S., was fluent in Korean. “Not in an arrogant way, or saying, ‘you’ve got you believe this, you’ve got to believe this,’ but he’d help me out and point out that things may not necessarily be what I thought they were. Between that, and just doing it over a long time, and learning and learning and learning — and, you know how it is: The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know shit. I am actually kind of embarrassed about some of the stuff I wrote earlier, these long right-wing screeds.”
Now, Koehler is a lot more sympathetic toward Korean attitudes that he might have previously lambasted. “I have become a lot more understanding, if you will, or sympathetic, to what some people would consider nationalist Korean ideology. Partly because I sympathize with those line(s) of thinking back at home. Some of the stuff I previously thought was kind of stupid or irrational, I am now … (of the opinion that) maybe it is not so irrational.”
Despite being an immigrant himself, Koehler is skeptical about Korea’s move toward multiculturalism, which has been embraced enthusiastically by officialdom if not necessarily the overall public. He points to recent ethnic tensions in Singapore and periodic race riots in France as examples of what can go wrong when experimenting with mass immigration.
“The multiculturalism (in Korea), for instance, is very regional. The big cities, ironically enough, are largely Korean. The countryside is where you see a lot of the mixed marriages. That concerns me because the gulf between the urban and the rural in Korea is already large enough; now you are adding a friggin’ ethnic component to it,” he says.
“The nature of the multiculturalism worries me. It is a lot of imported brides. I don’t want to say it is all mail order brides, I don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes, but at the same time, I don’t see that as a healthy phenomenon. I don’t see the phenomenon that made that necessary as healthy, and I don’t see the phenomenon as healthy.”
But Koehler believes that, if approached carefully, immigration could bring about great changes to Korea. “I am a foreigner living here. My wife is a foreigner living here. I just think countries need to be careful about how they do these things,” he says. “I think immigration can help countries. It has helped the United States, for the most part. It brings in talent and whatnot, it brings in fresh blood and it can be an invigorating and productive phenomenon.”
Koehler himself seems to come closer to being assimilated than most Westerners here. As well as speaking Korean, he wears the traditional hanbok daily, both because he likes the way it looks and feels, and because he wants to support local traditional industries. While writing about travel and culture for Seoul Selection, he often seeks out less-traveled parts of the country and more traditional ways of living.
Despite more than 17 years of continuously living in the country, Koehler, whose wife is from Mongolia, still doesn’t have permanent residency, instead having to renew his visa every two years. To rectify this, he is currently undertaking the government-run Korean Immigration and Integration Program, which significantly eases the process of getting a permanent residency visa. It’s an arduous process that’s taken years for him to finally get around to, but he appreciates the premium that Korea places on citizenship.
“Korea is not like Canada. Canada gives out citizenship like it is fucking candy because, for them, it doesn’t really mean anything,” he says. “But Korea is different: Not only does citizenship mean something, (but) the culture, the society means something. So if you want to be accepted, you’ve got to work for it. They are not going to just give it out like candy — you’ve got to work.”
But can a non-Korean ever truly integrate into such a historically homogenous country? Can a foreigner ever really be Korean?
“Is it possible? I don’t really know. I know people (who) if they haven’t done it completely, they’ve definitely come close,” he says.
Whatever the answer, one thing is certain: the peninsula is changing.
“Korean society is changing. They are becoming more open to that sort of thing. Now you actually have a lot of people in the Korean press debating, ‘What does that mean to be Korean?’”