Review: Pens available on Thursday (David Tz)

“Pens available on Thursday, Paper available next Tuesday – Adventures in the Korean Justice System” 

From July 2012 to April 2013, David Tz was, shall we say, unavailable. That is to say, the Korean corrections system made him mostly unavailable for comment. Now that he’s out, there’s a book release of the experience – and it should serve as a warning on a number of levels. The long-time blog reader would note I’m now in Thailand – the subject of several expat-written titles penned by folks that spent time in the Thai correctional system. David’s time behind bars has nothing to do with violations of teaching visas – his marriage fell apart, which caused him to drink more, which caused a few ‘incidents’, which caused a craptucular spiral into the depths of the legal system. Like most systems, the Korean system allows certain people to choose the jail time or paying his large (~$8,000) fine. Unable to pay the fine, he got stuck with the jail time.

The book reads like a blog (which it was before it became a book), complete with reports on jail food (“rice and kimchi and soup, but today, the variation of kimchi was more akin to grass with pepper paste”) and learning Korean (“It’s ironic that three months in jail will probably teach me more Korean than 10 years living and teaching and married to a Korean in Korea.”). If this begins to sound like a cynical person’s outlook on Korean life and culture, good – it sets the stage for the rest of the book. Some sections have less to do with Korean culture and more to do with the prison scene:

It turns out I can buy a comb, but only on Tuesday. Actually, I can buy a lot of things, but only on certain days of the week. For example, if I want a pen, I have to wait until Thursday. On Monday, I can buy a watch. No one knows why it’s like that, just that it’s the way things are done here.

In other cases, his tale is a microcosm of Korean culture:

One of the things that bothers me the most about Korea and Koreans are their “rules” and how close they don’t follow them unless it’s personally convenient. The only time the rules matter to a Korean is when they don’t want to do something, and then they have the “rules” to conveniently back them up.

One reason I’ll send you to this book is because David says what you’ve been thinking in your head (if you’re an expat in Korea). Exhibit A:

The funny thing is quite often, I’m the older person these days in my social interactions with Koreans and they still treat me like shit is because I’m not Korean and don’t deserve their respect— yet they expect me to treat them according to their rules and customs. It’s a hypocritical double standard and a game I’m not willing to play. That’s why I feel and act the way I do when it comes to Koreans. I’m sick of being nice only to get treated like shit in return.

In any case, the ‘prison’ part of the story ends and the ‘deportation’ part begins. Regardless of where he is, the logic doesn’t change much:

After a few weeks, it’s actually more cost effective for the Korean government aid for the deportation than to keep them locked up here. I wonder how many have been here for a month or longer. Three months locked up would pay for a plane ticket around the world. 20 days locked up cost the same as one plane tickets to almost anywhere in the world. Either way, it’s the taxpayers who ultimately pay the price. As a taxpayer, I’d want the government save as much of my money as they could. Not waste it because of inane rules, principles and policies.

Eventually, there’s some progress in his appeal, and a guy drives down from Suwon to talk to him:

Typical. They only want to follow the rules when it’s convenient for them. As soon as it’s inconvenient, they try to get you to change your mind. When that happens, you know you’re on the right track.

Between some commentary on the Bible and other classic literature he got his hands on, you really got the sense of dulling dreariness. At the same time, he maintains his sense of humor about the whole situation:

Go find a native in any country you’re in, punch him out and don’t pay the fine. They’ll throw you in jail for 40 days (in Korea), feed you a vegetarian diet, you won’t be able to smoke and or drink and you have nothing better to do, but sit-ups and push-ups all day. I guarantee you’ll come out healthier. It’s really a health club for poor people. The $150 is for the guide and luxuries, like an English language newspaper, a comb, a watch, maybe a pen and some paper. Other than this illustrated guide and the optional luxuries mentioned above, your entire program– all food clothing and accommodation, is provided for free courtesy of the Korean government.

The stories of plenty of other characters comes into the mix – although their nationalities are used instead of their names. The given reason is that their names are either never offered, or are never understand – at any given time, English is a language that’s the minority behind bars. To be clear, this is a raw look at life beyond Korean bars. It’s not one of violence or overly dramatic tales of prisoner personalities – more one of monotony, bad food, and Korea’s often-questionable choice of TV and movies. The details change, but the overarching story doesn’t – and the sobering reality of his stay-in-prison-until-your-fine-is-paid tale is one most Western waygookins will never see. Unless you go out of your way, you’ll almost never come into the lives of a 3D worker, who may be in prison because it was payday and his boss refused to pay, or because the Chinese fisherman’s company hadn’t bothered to pay the fine to get him out of prison.

You already know the end of the story before you start – he does get released, after all – and after the euphoria of landing in Vancouver passes, he seems to have a tinge of regret for time lost… As a way of passing the time, David’s words were accompanied by his various sketches. The dozens of sketches interspersed throughout the book break up the text and add a bit more gravity to the book. Few are what you might call brilliant, but let’s see you keep your head together while in prison.

Be thankful this is a side of Korea you haven’t – and most likely won’t – see during your time in the country.

Recommended.

Buy the e-book on Lulu (EPUB format), on Amazon, or the paper book (also on Lulu,)

About The Author

Chris Backe is the main writer here at One Weird Globe. He's written over a dozen books and itineraries, and is working on a book about unusual destinations in Thailand and running a self-publishing business. Chris lives in Thailand with his wife, Laura.