on June 29, 2000
I purchase this book a week before I left Seoul, in June of 1999, after 5 years living and working, for and with the Korean people. As I read the first chapter on the long flight back to my home in Ireland, I immediately knew this book was going to be everything I had hoped it would be and wished I had access to such a book 5 years earlier before I arrived in Seoul. Mr. Breen, like many other authors starts by giving a brief outline of Korea's troubled history and how this history has effected the Korean people. What separates this book from many other books on Korea is Breen's emphasis ,as the title suggests, on how Koreans behave and why they act that way. Breen explains many aspects of modern Korea(really South Korea) culture, which took me 5 years to understand and appreciate. He discusses areas which most foreigners who visit Korea for a short period of time will probably never notice or if they do not fully ubderstand. An example of such an area is the structure of a Korean office and the importance of desk position, chair size etc. etc. Finally, the book is very well written and an easy read. Breen manages to describe Korea and "The Koreans" in a clear and un-pedantic style accessible to everybody. I would recommend this book to anybody who is planning a trip to Korea for either business or pleasure. For any business traveller, I also recommend Mark Cliffords excellent history of Korean industry "The Troubled Tiger".
on May 13, 2000
Mr. Breen's book is filled with insights about the Korean people. I recommend this book without any reservation to anyone interested in Korea and the Koreans, and I think that the two groups who will particularly appreciate this wonderful book are foreigners living in Korea, and expatriate Koreans living abroad. As a Korean who has spent quite a number of years abroad(England and Japan), I have always been weary of the many, many aspects of the Korean psyche and character which must seem strange to foreigners, but never quite been able to put a finger on it. This book not only achieves just that in flying colours with a mixture of vivid anecdotes and scrupulous research, but it also sheds some bright light on WHY we Koreans do what we do - be it "good" or "bad" in the eyes of foreigners. I should note that another gem about this book is that the author has sprinkled it with an abundant portion of English humour("English" here in the sense of "English weather"), and while reading some pages, I was rolling on the floor laughing with stitches. Highly, highly recommended for anyone with an interest in Korea.
on September 5, 2011
I enjoyed reading this book and it had much interesting information about Korean people. But I couldn't help but feel that it was written by an "ethnocentric" (to be polite) British person who was stuck in the 80s and 90s. Much of the commentary is outdated and irrelevant. The author relies on personal anecdotes most of the time and while this might be entertaining and seem relevant to some (mostly English teachers who have lived in Korea for a couple of years), it just doesn't give a full and complete picture of Koreans. I kept thinking, "Well, let's also hear the Korean side of the story!"
Anyhow, you get a sense of negativity and condescension in the writing, leaving a somewhat bitter taste in the mouth. Much of the writing is full of contempt. It could have been a much better book with just 10% more positivity, research, understanding, and cultural sensitivity. Does the book have useful information about Koreans? Yes. Does it give you an idea of what Koreans are like? Yes. But does it also stereotype and generalize from the sole perspective of a biased Westerner? Yes.
Korea is one of the most rapidly changing societies in the world. A Korean person of the 80s and 90s is not the same Korean you see today. Breen takes an opportunity in the update at the end of the book to say that the modern Korean of the 21st century is a totally different species. It's almost like saying, "Everything I just said I take back! Here are the new Koreans!" Instead he could have benefited from portraying an overall picture of Koreans in changing times rather than fitting them all into one box.
Conclusion: My advice is to read the book, but with a grain of salt that it is dated to the 80s and 90s and over-generalizes.
on December 17, 2000
I have lived in Korea for three years, and never read anything so vivid and insightful into the Korean society, history and culture. The author explains each point with countless examples to prove his point, in such articulate detail I can't imagine any book which explains Korea better. Michael Breen talks about Korea and the foreigner's love / hate relationship with the country, and how Korea tends regardless to captivate and interest foreigners, which I could directly relate to. In addition he explains the history in a fascinating and colorful chronicle, and gives a vivid description of what exactly has shaped the Korean mind and their attitudes towards outsiders. If someone was interested in Korea, this is the first book I would recommend.
on February 18, 2002
The Koreans is a balanced reference work for people with a curiosity about modern Korea. It would probably make a good textbook for college students too. I lived in Pusan for one and a half years and there just aren't too many good books on Korea. The author's points are largely correct, but he sometimes exaggerates, maybe to support his case. Although the author's book jacket bio mentions that he used to write for the Unification Church-owned Washington Times, it makes no mention of his previously published biography of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's early years. I don't know if Breen himself is a member of the Unification Church but the full text of his Moon book is posted on the church's official website under the heading, "Bibliography of Our Publications." Regardless of the author's affiliations, The Koreans is a fair treatment about a country not many people know about.
on March 11, 2004
As a person of Korean background, I found Breen's book pleasantly insightful. I've read many good historical reference books about Korean history, but few that give insight into the national and social character -- and fewer still that actually hold Koreans accountable (at least by degree) for their own 20th century history.
Breen tries very hard to give his reader what feels like an "inside scoop" on very difficult, complex, and beautiful society. As such, it can seem "politically incorrect" for some -- particularly because he is an "outsider" writing about Korea. But his status actually allows him to write with greater objectivity -- at least in my view -- because he has the courage to articulate what Koreans intuitively understand but rarely utter. Breen exposes secrets within the national character and that is always discomforting. 20th century Korean history, however, has been rife with unsustainable secrets and its nice to see some of these exposed. Koreans have been victims and pawns in the 20th century -- but they have also made some important and fateful choices. If we (as a Korean) want our losses and sacrifices acknowledged, then we must also accept and embrace our responsibilities. Breen is very good at showing the necessity of both!
A Korean would probably never write a book like Breen's -- not because they don't know, but because the context is so clear to them. The trouble is that few have bothered to share this context with the rest of us. I thank Breen for taking the risks to do so. The Cold War is not over in Korea. For those of us who hope for a "Velvet Revolution" that might peacefully reunite the split halves of Korea, Breen's book is helpful and insightful. It is a global village and Koreans cannot function as the sole agents of their destiny -- which is something Americans are also learning (albeit slowly).
Few have the courage, candor or skill to do what Breen has done. No book is perfect, but Breen has opened a new door and let the sunshine in!
on September 5, 2006
This book is what it is -- a broad brushstroke of Korean society based on one man's experience. Breen's observations are insightful, entertaining and witty (as are all Englishmen?); however, at times he betrays a paternalistic attitude toward Korean society (as do all Englishmen?). This is not a scholarly book nor a history text (Hallelujah!), yet it provides a clear and concise account of Korean history. If you want a dissertation, go to a university. If you want a brief and readable introduction to Korean people, then start here. Just remember that stereotypes do not define everyone within a group, but often have an origin in truth.
on January 15, 2005
It's interesting to see foreigners' view about Korea.
Many explanations about Korean culture, customs are bery insightful.
Though he wrote that Koreans had many great culture, history,
and stories, Michael Breen did not write or explain why they
were great. It may be related partly to the fact that Koreans,
I think old generations, did not know how to introduce Korean
culture to foreigner as Michael Breen wrote in his book.
Usually he interviewed with over middle aged famous Korean
sociologists, journalists, scholars, intellectuals,
entrepreneurs, psychetherapists, politicians and so on.
That means he met and talked with 'well educated people'
who tend to correct social problem, negative aspects of
the society, and to build new society, 'modernize Korea!'.
But he did not do with ordinary young generations,
Korean historians who devoted themselves to study long history,
Korean folklorists who may have given him the different view
and aspects about Korean culture, Korean Neo-Confucianists,
Korean Buddhist monks, even Korean Sharmans!
He have many chances to talk with them as a foreign journalist
but he missed and lost the opportunities.
Even he wrote that he enjoyed Kimchi and other Korean cuisine
now but he did not interivew with any Korean cook!
It is true that he made great effort to explain the relationship
between the Korean modern turmoil and Korean culture which he
and other foreigners could hardly understand. But it is also
true that his approach is very limited to his personal experience
and his living boundary.
on December 23, 1999
Michael Breen does an outstanding job at both understanding and observing the Koreans. As a Korean myself, it was very interesting to read the perspectives of a foreigner. He also points out some of our cultural and social aspects that , as Koreans, we never think about. Breen overall shows a large repertoire of Korean knowledge, and I would recommend this book to anyone trying to get an insight on Koreans or Korean culture.
on November 29, 2007
In a few brief words: Mr. Breen "gets it."
I bought three books about Korean culture before I came to live here. This was the last of the three, because, frankly, I was a little put off by the pompous title. But right from the start I could see that he knew his stuff. And now, it's easily my favorite of the three.
What makes this book different is its courage. Other books on Korea are too apologetic for some of the less savory aspects of Korean culture. For example, in the other books I read there was far too much "Yes, Koreans do X and X, but you have to understand that it's just differences in culture." Mr. Breen's observations, on the other hand, eschew all of these niceties and cut through to the whys and hows. It's not that he has a negative view of the culture, far from it. It's simply that he tells it like it is.
It's also a funny read (for example, the observation that when Koreans have no one to talk to they have a tendency to fall asleep).
If there's one criticism, it's that the book is a little to Seoul-centric. There are other places beyond the capital city that are not very well represented. There were times when I was reading when I said "that's not how it is in Busan."
Aside from that, it's a keen look into Korean culture. It doesn't necessarily paint a rosy picture, but "The Koreans" is honest and it's a fun read. You will definitely learn a lot about Korea reading this book.