LIFE

IN LOVE WITH KOREA The Adventures of Barry Welsh in Seoul

Since he came to Korea to teach English at a middle school, Barry Welsh has become acquainted with Seoul, difficult and unfamiliar at first, mostly through books and movies. These days, when he invites a famous author to his monthly “book talk concert,” the 200-seat hall is filled to capacity.

Barry Welsh of the Seoul Book and Culture Club speaks to the audience at a “talk concert” featuring novelist Jo Jung-rae, seated at left, as guest speaker. Welsh is currently an assistant professor of English speaking and writing at Dongguk University.

One day in early January, foreign residents of Seoul arrived one by one to fill the 200-seat hall of the Seoul Global Cultural Center in Myeong-dong, downtown Seoul. They had come for the Seoul Book and Culture Club event hosted by Barry Welsh, a Brit living in Seoul. The guest writer that day was Jo Jungrae, author of “Taebaek Mountain Range,” “The Han River,” and “The Great Jungle.” “Taebaek Mountain Range,” his masterpiece, is a saga consisting of 10 volumes. Selling more than 10 million copies so far, the novel is regarded as an iconic work of Korean literature that delves into the unresolved problems of national division and ideological conflict in modern Korean history. It is among the most sought-after books at university libraries. Long-cherished Hobbies The event lasted two hours. During the first part, Jo and Welsh talked with the help of an interpreter. Characteristically, the veteran writer covered a wide range of topics from the high-handedness of world powers to nationalism and the immorality of politicians. Despite the weightiness of the subjects, the audience was engrossed in the dialogue. The second part was a question and answer session. Hands shot up here and there. A young woman from New York asked a question.

Welsh looked a little embarrassed and grinned awkwardly when Jo spoke accusingly of Britain’s colonial domination around the world over two centuries.
The event came to a close, and Welsh presented Jo with a bottle of single malt whisky he had brought from his hometown in Scotland.
“I’m a Brit. Not English, but Scottish,” Welsh said. “You know ‘Braveheart’ [1995 film depicting the Scottish War of Independence], don’t you? The lead character was in the same position as Admiral Yi Sun-sin portrayed in ‘Roaring Currents’ [2014 Korean war film, aka ‘Myeongnyang’]. So I can fully understand the grudge people have against invaders.”
Welsh’s book club is well-known to foreigners in Seoul. Since it was launched in 2011, the club has hosted an event once a month. Many of the regular participants have come to know each other and naturally linger afterwards to say hello. It appears the membership of the book club overlaps with that of the Seoul Film Society Welsh launched in 2013.
“We’re lucky to have Mr. Jo at our event today. He uses neither a home phone nor a mobile phone, but can be reached only by fax. And he rarely attends outside gatherings,” Welsh said.
In October last year, Welsh wrote an article for a local newspaper in which he expressed the hope that more works by Jo — which deal with Korean history and culture and can help people from other countries understand what historical influences have shaped Koreans — would be translated into foreign languages. Jo, who had read the article, gladly accepted the invitation to speak at the book club. Moreover, Jo declined the honorarium, which made Welsh happy because the proceeds from admission fees (5,000 won per person) were just enough to pay the interpreter's fee and other expenses. Any money that is left is spent on the film society screenings for which admission is free.
Welsh currently teaches English speaking and writing as an assistant professor at Dongguk University. “The book club and the film screenings are my long-time hobbies,” he said. “I plan, implement, and promote each and every event by myself. Of course, my wife helps me. I’m fortunate in being able to rent such a good hall from the Seoul Metropolitan Government for free. And it’s very rewarding to meet good people.”

Setting Out on his Journey
Welsh majored in English literature at the University of Liverpool and obtained an M.A. in film studies at the University of Edinburgh. In 2008, when he was working for an investment company on the Isle of Man, the global financial crisis left his career unstable. He decided to teach English in Asia for a year or two and save some money before traveling around the world and returning home. He stumbled upon a job opening for a native English speaker in Korea with attractive terms and conditions. He applied and landed the job at a middle school in Seoul. The school provided him with airfare and housing. He arrived in Korea for the first time in August 2009.
“I was under enormous pressure when I was working for the investment firm. I had no days off and the work was hard. Here at the school, I got off work at 4:30 p.m. sharp every day. And I liked teaching. Besides, the transport was convenient, stores were open till late at night, and it was fun to hike up the mountains in the surrounding area on weekends,” Welsh said.
Having lived on his own since he was 18, adapting to a foreign country when he was over 30 was not too difficult. But he needed some time to get familiar with a new city.
“As I was intimidated by the scale of Seoul and its modern chic was beyond imagination, I didn’t go out much for a while,” Welsh said. “My life consisted of working at the school, reading at a café near my home after work, and then going home to sleep. Then I plucked up courage and started to explore the city little by little.”

The audience listens to Barry Welsh during his book club meeting held at the Seoul Global Cultural Center in downtown Seoul. This event is posted on Welsh’s Facebook.

After his contract with the middle school expired, Welsh worked as a visiting professor at Lingua Express, the language education institute at Sookmyung Women’s University. In January 2013, he fell in love with a woman named Roh Hyun-ui to whom he was introduced by one of his colleagues. She was working for a trading company after graduating from the university’s English Literature Department. Like him, she loved literature and films and playing with her cat at home. They could trust each other and felt they were meant for each other. But he suffered for a while because her parents did not agree with their daughter’s choice of husband.
Welsh said, “I said nothing to try to win them over, like how I would buy a house, what my goals for the future were, or that they wouldn’t regret their decision to let their daughter marry me. Instead, I just asked them to respect our decision. This made her parents a little uneasy. That was just due to cultural differences. We are all happy and respect one another now, of course.”
They married in 2015. An English-speaking docent at the ICT Exhibition Hall of Digital Pavilion in northwestern Seoul, Roh Hyunui also helps him run the book and film clubs. Earlier, Welsh did everything by himself, including posting announcements about club events in English because he did not know Hangeul. But, with his wife's help, he started making announcements in Korean, too. This attracted Koreans to the club events and their participation has enriched the dialogue between invited authors and the audience.

“I didn’t know foreigners in Seoul had such great interest in Korean literature. I also realized that an event with an invited author is a very effective way of helping them understand the author's works and literary world.”

Roh Hyun-ui is an important contributor to the operation of Welsh’s book and film clubs.

Talks with Authors
The first Korean literary work Welsh read was “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself,” a novel by Kim Young-ha. He was attracted by the title, and enchanted by its hypermodern style and theme. He gathered a few friends to start a reading club, believing that they would also like the novel. At first, he chose prominent novels and hosted debates on the works, never thinking of inviting their authors. Then one day, he invited Krys Lee, a Korean-American author and professor at Yonsei University whom he had come to know through Facebook, to a small-scale event at the Seoul Global Cultural Center. The topic was “Drifting House,” Lee’s first collection of short stories. Welsh was astonished to see as many as 200 people turn up for the event. His next guest was Shin Dong-hyuk, a former North Korean writer who defected to South Korea.
“I didn’t know foreigners in Seoul had such great interest in Korean literature. I also realized that an event with an invited author is a very effective way of helping them understand the author's works and literary world,” Welsh said.
Subsequently, a galaxy of star authors has been invited to the events. Once he had succeeded in inviting Kim Young-ha, the rest came naturally. “When I mentioned that Kim Young-ha had participated in one of my events, everything became very easy all of a sudden,” Welsh said with a smile.
Renowned authors featured so far include poet Ko Un, novelists Gong Ji-young, Hwang Sok-yong, Han Kang, Lee Changrae, and Shin Kyung-sook, and children’s story writer Hwang Sun-mi. Welsh was elated when Han Kang won the Man Booker International Prize for “The Vegetarian” soon after her book club appearance in 2016. Hwang Sok-yong kept the audience laughing to the end and Ko Un mesmerized the audience with his passionate poetry recitations.
Welsh said he was impressed by such Korean novels as “On the Road to Sampo” by Hwang Sok-yong, short stories by Pyun Hye-young and Park Min-gyu, “The Vegetarian” by Han Kang, and “Modern Family” by Cheon Myeong-kwan. He not only likes the novel “On the Road to Sampo,” but also counts its film adaptation as one of his top five favorite movies.

Though immersed in Korean literature and films, he still depends largely on translations for literary works and on subtitles for films. To improve his Korean, he keeps taking lessons. “I don’t know what other adventures I’ll have while living here with my wife,” Welsh said. “Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans, as John Lennon once said in a 2 song.”

Kim Hyun-sook CEO, K-MovieLove
Ahn Hong-beom Photographer

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