Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Island of Fantasy

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” -Cesare Pavese

As I plan for my departure to South Korea (on September 13th), I keep reminding myself that not all can be known before my arrival. There must be that element of discomfort or state of being "off balance" as I experience the unknown. It is in these opportunities that ones limits are truly tested, where one learns and from that knowledge, grows, and that one establishes an appreciation for a new culture. Packing lists and documents are important, but after that, I must set boundaries to prevent myself from being overly prepared.

Meditating just above this so called "boundary," I've recently read a book titled Island of Fantasy: A Memoir of an English Teacher in Korea, by Shawn Matthews.

I was drawn to the story, not necessarily to learn more about Korea, but to learn more about Shawn. During an online Korea browsing session months back, I came across his blog, which is absolutely amazing and has been web archived here and published here. A few clicks around and I soon learned that on May 26, 2006, Shawn took his life via jumping off his friend's apartment building in China. My only connection to Shawn is that I will soon be teaching English in Korea, yet for some reason I felt eerily drawn to his story. Two months after finding his blog, I still couldn't get him out of my head. So, this week I purchased his book and read it in just 3 days.

In his memoir, Shawn is a personable, Radiohead loving, Koje-do English teacher. He deeply loves his cat, Clara, yearns for a loving relationship with a Korean girl, and has a worried mother and grandfather back home in New York. Unfortunately, he also works for an awful hagwon that hardly treats him with the respect he deserves.

As I read Shawn's story, I felt like I was in Korea with him, like I could have easily been sitting at a bar with him and his friend Choi, drinking Cass beer and having a grand ol' time. On the surface, Shawn seems to make light of most situations or, as his recruiter might state, view "the glass half full." But then there are the numerous reference to jumping from high places that, myself as a reader, couldn't help but feel uncomfortable reading and wonder what the implications of these statements were.

P. 21 "Unable to cope, she'll jump off a tall building. Sure, hopeful thinking, but it was me who hurt." -in reference to an ex girlfriend in the states
P. 22 "'I wouldn't care if that damn cat jumps off the balcony and never comes back.'" -his grandfather says, obviously bluffing, about their cat
P. 155 "Forget the exit, I though; I'll just jump out the window." -in reference to escaping an embarrassing doctors exam in Korea

Obviously I do not know Shawn personally, but in reading his book, his words and wonderful writing ability bring his story to life and make it simply impossible to believe that he is no longer with us. His book reinforced my goal in not over thinking/planning for this trip. He left for Korea just one week after securing a job. In Korea, he explored without set plans, made himself available for unique relationships, and added humor wherever needed. I genuinely wish that I could have met Shawn Matthews.

My thoughts and condolences go to his family.

Next I will read Shawn and I, Chapter 1, by friend, Jake Harding.

Koje-do Sunrise III


  1. I knew Shawn. He was an intelligent and personable guy but suffered from bouts of depression. That, combined with alcohol and being isolated in a foreign country thousands of miles away from family and friends back home can prove to be a lethal situation. Glad to see that you read his book and enjoyed it.

  2. I'm sorry for your loss. I was glad you commented because it brought me back to this post. Having been in Korea for almost two years now, I understand his book so much more. Really need to go back and give it a second read.