When he failed as a professional comedian and musician after a decade performing across the western US, Chris Tharp had to work as an English teacher in Busan. He made the best of it, part-timing at his old professions and traveling around Korea on weekends. He wrote Dispatches from the Peninsula about his teaching and motorcycling experiences, and his new book, The Worst Motorcycle in Laos, was recently released through Signal 8 Press.
What first brought you to Korea? Did you want to come or did circumstances force you?
It was really a combination. I had spent years as a theater artist and improv comedian, working semi-professionally but never graduating to that coveted full-time, quit-your-day-job status. It was a lot of fun, but after a decade I was determined to do something new and ended up back in my hometown of Olympia, looking at going to grad school and dreaming of seeing the world. When I ran across an ad on Craigslist for jobs teaching in Korea, I answered it, and within three weeks I was on a plane across the Pacific.
It all happened very suddenly, and yes, I wanted to come. Once the opportunity presented itself, I was quite excited to grab onto it. I was also desperately broke and dealing with the reality of a failed dream, so circumstances gave me the huge nudge I needed to cross that ocean and start my life anew. Though of course, at the time, I only thought I’d be here for a year, maybe two. Things worked out much differently.
What do you think of the idea that expats are just people who can’t make it in their native countries? How does it affect your ability to adapt to Korea and Asia?
This trope of the expat as the failed schmuck who couldn’t hack it back home is a tired one, despite the fact that it holds some truth as far I am concerned. I did fail at home, but it wasn’t due to lack of effort or ambition. And that’s true for a lot of us—expats or ‘civilians.’ People make mistakes. They fail. The fact that some of us choose to make a new start in another country doesn’t make us any bigger losers than anyone else who didn’t make it to the very top of their game. This idea of being a winner or a loser is so ingrained in American society that it works against us in many ways. You’re either one or the other, which ignores the fact that failure can be a wonderful gift. It’s part of the human experience, and expats are no different.
There are also a number of people who choose expat life not because they ‘couldn’t make it,’ but because they are attracted to the idea of travel and living abroad, of getting out of the cubicle/rush hour commute/suburban cul-de-sac rat race that is the reality for so many who are ‘making it.’ At some point a certain segment of us just says ‘no thanks.’ English teaching and expat life offer an alternative to that. It’s also a great way to subsidize your art. Most university jobs over here require 9-12 teaching hours a week, with months of time off each year. What better way to support yourself while also writing, painting, playing music or developing your comedy act? I’ve met some talented folks abroad, and it’s no wonder. I’m surprised there aren’t more. I just don’t think word has gotten out yet.
What was your main objective in writing your first travel book, Dispatches from the Peninsula (2011)? What were you trying to tell people back home about Korea?
I was essentially commissioned to write Dispatches by Marshall Moore, the man behind Signal 8 Press, who published both it and my current book. He had enjoyed my blog, and approached me to turn it into a book. My objective was simple: I just wanted tell my story as accurately and colorfully as I could, while filling the reader in on the details of life in Korea. That includes day-to-day stuff, overall cultural mores, as well as a bit of history. I knew little of the country (save the basics of the Korean War) before coming here, so writing the book was a crash course in all things Korean for me. Just because I knew my way around a menu didn’t mean I understood this place on a fundamental level.
Is your objective in your latest book, The Worst Motorcycle in Laos, any different? Or are you just applying the same perspective to Southeast Asia?
This latest book is a collection of travelogues from the past ten years. I simply wanted to share my stories. I make no claim to explain Asian culture or really illuminate the deep reality of life in the countries covered by the essays. I just hope that I honestly and humorously write about my experiences and impressions. I had a lot of fun writing this book, and I hope that comes across.
What travel writers of the past, if any, are your models?
I didn’t really start reading travel writing in earnest until just before departing for Korea in 2004 but soon found myself devouring the works of Paul Theroux, Graham Greene, Tim Cahill, Pico Iyer, Jeff Greenwald and, of course, Mark Twain, who in some ways invented the modern form. I’m also a huge fan of Hunter S. Thompson, who was often a travel writer, as far as I’m concerned. Paul Bowles figures in, as well.
In some ways, fantasy is the best travel writing out there: strip away the dragons and wizards, and the stories nearly always feature an epic journey—a “massive camping trip,” as a fantasy writer friend once remarked. In that sense, Tolkien can never be topped.
Both of your books contain funny stories, often about grim topics. What role does humor play in them?
My background is in comedy, so I’d like to think that colors all of my writing. I confess to having a very dark sense of humor, so that will always make its presence felt.
What are your future publication plans, if any? Do you plan to eventually stop teaching English and do something else, like writing full-time? And will you stay here with your Korean wife, Minhee, or will you move back to the States?
I am currently co-writing a sports memoir with legendary mixed martial arts fighter Jeff ‘The Snowman’ Monson, which will be published in 2016. This is a departure for me, but exciting nonetheless. I would love to focus on writing full-time, and I am working to make that happen, though I must say I enjoy teaching at the small college I’ve called home for the last eight years. I miss the States a lot, especially the nature and wide open spaces, but don’t have any plans to move back. I’m pretty happy to remain in Busan for the time being. It’s been good to me so far.
Interview by Hal Swindall