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Seoul Sister

It was three months which stretched into a lifetime for Jennifer Barclay. Nick Ryan interviews the author of the first travel biography to tackle South Korea in over 20 years.

She began her journey as a rootless thirty-something: one of the highest paid, high-flying literary agents in Canada. Yet Jennifer Barclay felt alienated from the success around her. As friends began to settle and have families, Barclay instead found herself in the arms of a sexy drummer almost 10 years her junior, and followed him and his band out to Seoul, capital of the Republic of Korea. A snap decision to quit her job and follow her gut instincts led to a whole new world – and life.

The story of that journey is told in her remarkable book, Meeting Mr Kim: Or How I Went to Korea and Learned to Love Kimchi (Summersdale). It also cemented a lifelong love, and connection, to the Korean peninsula which continues for her to this day.

Barclay’s roots are in a small village on the borders between the ancient rival kingdoms of Lancashire and Yorkshire in the north of England. Her grandfather was a novelist, whilst her father is the famous British sports journalist and soccer commentator Patrick Barclay. His daughter trudged her way to Oxford university, where her studies included ancient “Middle English”, before deciding on a year off to teach English in Greece. It was there that the first of what seemed to be a series of doomed relationships took off: relationships which in each case seemed to draw her forwards to another country.

"I met a man sunning himself by the Med[iterranean Sea]," says Barclay, back now in her native England. "We had a bit of a whirlwind romance. The next thing we were in Guayana, then Canada, and married … the marriage lasted all of five minutes." She sighs. "So much went wrong in that marriage. But it took me to Canada and it's there I found myself in the world of publishing, and working my way up to become the youngest ever literary agent in the country."

At one stage she was representing the likes bestselling authors such as Rohinton Mistry, Naomi Klein and Yan Martel: but she was burning out too. "I had that itch I just had to scratch," she says with a little smile. "I needed to get away. Travel is really important to me and I wanted to take a year out."

It was about this time she met a rock-band drummer named 'Gav' (Gavin). "His band got a three-month gig as the house band for the Grand Hyatt [hotel] in Seoul."

Arriving and living near Itaewon, in Seoul, her bodyclock was forced into the insular rhythms of band life: "It was a weird world of big hotels, high-ranking American military officers, big business chiefs like Bill Gates dropping by, diplomats and probably a few shady deals going off in the corners."

"It wasn't my world," Barclay admits. "It was fascinating to see, of course: how this tiny 'covers band' from Canada suddenly had rock-star status. They were like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers or something. But there's only so long you can feed off that; there was nothing there for me." What was worse was that other band members would blame her, as the only girlfriend, for dragging Gav away from their nights out. When they did all escape, it was to the nearby western bars and Hard Rock cafes, drinking until 4am in a kind of twilight existence that those who have seen the film Lost in Translation might recognise.

Instead, as Gav was building up to his drum solos in the Hyatt, Barclay took to midnight walks around the city, trying to escape the cloying atmosphere of Iteawon and its bars and prostitutes. It wasn't easy however. "In Athens I'd found you could always meet people in the street, at restaurants but Seoul was nothing like that. If you met anyone they just seemed to ignore you. Or worse, burst out giggling and refuse to serve you." She smiles ruefully.

In her book, Barclay wonders if Korea's history of constant invasion and turmoil – including the Korean war and periods of dictatorship – had driven its culture and people into isolation. Intermarriage with outsiders was uncommon, she notes. "Apart from the [US] military, they'd hadn't had a lot of visitors."

"I would get asked to leave from restaurants," she says, still incredulous. "They would say 'no, no this is Korean food!' and you'd have to explain to them why you wanted to stay. Waitresses were so embarrassed to deal with a Western person. They would just laugh and then run away."

"It was genuinely hard to meet people. I would stand over most of them, a sea of slicked black hair, but they weren't curious about me, not even interested. That's what pushed me to get out of town, to try and find the real Korea."

An American friend who had adopted a Korean-Buddhist name always told his friends to leave Seoul and get into the countryside. Following his lead, each weekend Barclay would take herself off into a very different Korea that existed outside the cities: a place of forests and temples, fellow walkers and friendly travellers. As she explored, Barclay began to slowly understand the Korean character.

One thing that struck her during this journey – and still strikes her today, as she prepares to return to the country – is the incredibly long hours people work; how industrious they are. "They go from job to home to job. They tend to have a huge amount of commitments; they work particularly hard at their education too." A funny scene in her book tells of her surprise as she starts to fully explore Seoul and wanders into one of its many parks: businessmen are laying flat out, asleep in their cars (sometimes with their chauffeurs asleep too) as they try and catch a nap between meetings. "Everywhere you seem to go, people are sleeping! They'll just fall asleep by the side of the road sometimes."

Much of her book is a classic journey of self-discovery, tinged with Buddhist leanings. Barclays states: "I wasn't trying to learn about Buddhism intentionally. On the first weekend I left Seoul two amazing things happened: I was invited by this engineer inside an ancient king's tomb. The guy saw me standing around, hovering around the entrance and let me inside. Just standing inside this 7th century tomb made me fascinated to find out more about this ancient culture. These kings had exported their architecture to Japan.

"Then the very next day I ended up being given a lift by this monk in his car and we stayed in a Buddhist monastery: it was a powerful experience. Almost like magic. It was pouring with rain and I was taken into a hall to my little room, where I slept on the floor overlooking this giant bronze bell. I later climbed the 108 steps [representing sins or defilement] above the monastery to a Buddhist statue and only later realised that there was a connection there to Enlightenment."

From that moment she tried to visit other monasteries across the country: "The monks were always very kind," she recalls. She laughs when she remembers what they did all day. "They meditate!"

Another major theme from her journeys is cuisine. As she writes, many Westerners think Korean food must be similar to Thai, Chinese or Japanese, but it is not. Getting to like kimchi, a national side dish made with brine-rinsed sour cabbage, was just one of the challenges. "It's not really like anything else. There weren't colourful little packages like Japanese sushi, rather you'd have these large fish tanks in front of you, like a pet shop." To her initial horror, she realised she was supposed to eat the creatures crawling within them, including sea cucumbers. "You'd get purple molluscs, crab, sea cucumber, you point to what you want and they don't even kill it – it's dumped on your plate, like skinned eels which are still moving."

But the vegetarian food is created with the most extraordinary flavours and textures, full of pickles and spices never seen in the West. "It's even in the way they cook rice," she says, "with barley for example. It's very healthy food. Of course, there's still dog too on the menu in some places …"

Today Barclay is editorial director of a publishing house back in the UK ("I have a need to write and be connected to books"). She still writes for the London Korean community and has become something of an unofficial ambassador for the nation. In just a few weeks she'll be travelling back to Korea, too, to be reunited with the people, and places, she brings to life so strongly in her writing.

As she has changed – more settled, and confident – so too has the Korean Republic, she thinks. There is a new era of rapprochement: with the North, possibly, but certainly to outside visitors.

"The President has since issued a message saying the country should welcome us foreigners," Barclay smiles. "If I contrast the situation now to back then, it's become a lot more confident, the Koreans more outgoing. What most people don't know is that the people are very good fun, there's great food, there's beautiful mountains and beaches to explore: Korea is a fun place. It's time to like it again."

Meeting Mr Kim: Or How I Went to Korea and Learned to Love Kimchi by Jennifer Barclay (Summersdale) www.summersdale.com

This story first appeared in The Sunday Morning Post ©2009

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