Her comics have been a mainstay of the expat webtoon world for years, but now Jen Lee will be putting “Dear Korea” to paper in a new book.
The cartoons are gently humorous depictions of life in Korea as an expat. The book will feature the first 50 webtoons from the series, plus various extras, bound up in a landscape format, a la “Garfield.”
“It’s very reminiscent. It’s almost a very belated anniversary to how long I’ve been here, how I’ve learned and how I’ve grown and how I’d like to keep going with the comic,” said Lee.
She said the comic started as a fun way of expressing her situation as a newcomer to Korea, inspired by conversations with her friends when they were blowing off steam.
“I’ve always liked doing comics. I’ve never been super great at expressing myself with words and I’ve always done better at expressing myself through comics,” she said, adding that later she realized other people might appreciate them, too.
“Other people out there might not have this group that I have, or people to talk to like I have. This might help them to see that someone else out there gets it. I think it might help people feel a little less stressed out by the situation.”
The situations depict expats dealing with aspects of Korea unfamiliar to them.
“One (strip) I am particularly fond of, because I think it’s something a lot of people can relate to and I still find myself struggling with, is (about) where you are looking for a building that is right next to the church with the red cross but you look up, especially at night time, and you see (the crosses) are kind of everywhere,” she said.
Going through the old comics was a little like going through a diary for Lee. She said she creates works that she will not regret later, avoiding insensitive ideas and shock comedy.
“It’s harder to do when you are not insulting someone or not insulting a group of people,” said Lee.
“Like the joke about Koreans eating dog, everybody knows it, everybody’s heard it. It’s been done. And it’s an easy gag, and I would rather not resort to that if I can help it,” said Lee.
Now having been in Korea for five years, she says it’s more difficult to capture that newbie worldview.
“It’s harder to see Korea as an outsider because I have been here so long and I have established a life here. So things that I might have found interesting or unique when I first got here, they’re part of my life now and it’s just hard to see those things as an expat, at least without the five years of context I already have,” she said.
“For example, I didn’t understand why people keep the windows open during winter, but as I’ve lived here and I’ve spoken with the locals I have a better understanding of that now.”
Lee said that sometimes she tries to empathize with people still completely new to Korea -- like many of her readers -- but at other times she draws on more understanding.
“Some comics I do actually describe my experiences as a Korean-American living in Korea because I grew up with Korean culture and I speak some of the language, so my experiences will really vary from an expat who, let us say, has never even heard of Korea until they came here,” she said.
Lee works in animation in her day job, including on the “Larva” series, but hopes one day to be a full-time comic artist.
“I still feel like I have a lot of growth to do as a comedy writer,” she said. “I would like eventually to just put out comics and make a living out of that.”
The book will be available through Lee’s website dearkoreacomic.com, though she is exploring other distribution options.
A book launch will be held in Salt Art Gallery in Gwangju on March 26.
By Paul Kerry (firstname.lastname@example.org)