The sights, sounds, and tastes of Asia take center stage in this memoir about Peace Corps and its subsequent effect on the author's life. He and his first wife were assigned, in the summer of 1975, to be English teachers in South Korea, where they spent a year teaching kids in middle schools, a year teaching teachers in workshops, and a few months training newbie PCVs. They were American 20-somethings looking for relief from the ideological tumult in the US, Baby Boomers searching for practical answers. Exotic travel and service seemed to be the answer.
By then the author was also determined to be a writer. He kept extensive journals in Korea and thus is able to quote liberally to describe traveling by bus, train, boat, and plane around the country and other parts of Asia, adventures in eating seaweed soup for breakfast and octopus for dinner, the numbing rote chants in classrooms, the corporal punishment in the teachers' room, cherubic children on the streets and in the schools, the travesties of industrialization and dictatorship, the great art of social drinking, the trials and beauties of friendship and estrangement.
Against this literary and sensory scenario, throw a country undergoing huge changes from traditional to Westernized lives, and a young man on a journey, although he didn't realize he was on one. In the spirit of the 70s it seemed more like an open-ended trek here or there, East or West, looking for the next fulfillment. He didn't really like Korea all that much, and therefore didn't realize that Korea changed him, or perhaps reinforced his tendencies, until much later.
This book not only concerns the author's journey from the Midwest to his two Easts, to Asia and to the coast of New England. It also concerns the struggle of opposites, how one young man, for 25 years raised strictly and performing traditionally, was suddenly taken out of his safe culture and thrust into a dangerous one, how he had to go around the world to find a home, how he traveled West to find his East, how he learned to adjudicate the dualism of his religious upbringing, how he abandoned his dream of writing fiction and starting writing about the natural world, and glorying in it, and working for its preservation.
Featured here are no German dialectics, Buddhist mysteries, Tantric mantras, Gnostic visions, indeed no mysticism of any kind to soothe the contradictions of life. "Self-help" is a section of the bookstore always to be avoided. There are ways to unify opposites, however, and the book offers a journey through them, and a kind of solution, one that tries to avoid most of the preaching that still infects the author's days. And only now, in retirement, having recently received a smack upside the head regarding mortality, is he returning to the first part of the journey, starting in the East and ending up there too, just in a different one.
Telling this story is not chronological but topical, and alchemical. There may be adventure and insight, wanderings and harbors, perception and self-deception, but in the end it's really about how a loner merges the several kinds of love.