The Asia Fail

*This piece may have appeared on the web once or twice before, but we’re publishing it again here because we likes it, yes we do.

by Mr. Motgol

In the Old World, people went to the New World to start anew. Once America became settled, folks would head “out West” to shake away their demons, with destinations such as California and Alaska luring folks with promises of riches and rebirth. These were places where no one cared about your history or imperfect past. You were given a clean slate, and only as good as your current effort.

These days, such second chances are harder to come by. Technology and computer data bases have made it much more difficult to shake the specter of previous fuckups. I am told that back home, many shitty, wage-slave jobs now require credit checks, for God’s sake. Big Brother has indeed taken over, which leaves only one choice for the Spectacular Failures of the Western World: Asia.

I was a big fat loser in America. I admit it. There’s really no other way to spin the story. I aimed high and fell lower. Mea culpa.

I came to Korea because pretty much no one else would have me. I was bruised and bleeding–the textbook portrait of a failure–but Korea didn’t seem to care. Her permed hair’d visage looked upon me with kind brown eyes and during my darkest hour, picked me up with her calloused, ajumma hands, and embraced me.

Since arriving on her rocky shores those many years back, I’ve flourished, and despite her many, prickly imperfections, I’m happy to call Asia home. I am grateful every day for the second chance afforded me here, and despite a few major hiccups along the way, I try my best not to screw it up.

However… some of my fellow expats have it the other way around. They come to  Asia, and THEN implode. Whether they blow all their cash, burn their bridges, or just piss the wrong people off, I’ve seen more than my share of expats unravel here. With their tail quivering between their legs they grab what they can, stuff it into their bags, and crawl onto that first plane home. The rest of us shake our heads and wonder how can this happen in Asia, where–at least for us pampered, spoon-fed Westerners–things are just so damned easy.  How is it possible to ASS OUT in a land where Westerners are generally given a berth fit for a cruise ship?

This phenomenon has come to be known as The Asia FailHere’s a list of the main types, in no particular order:



East Asia–with Korea stumbling along at the head of the drunken pack– is a boozehound’s paradise. You can get hammered around the clock for pennies on the dollar. Many countries have NO LAST CALL at the bars. You can booze all night, show up to work bleary-eyed and  reeking of drink, and your boss will congratulate you.

If your friend is already an alcoholic and says he’s moving to Asia, don’t let him. There’s simply just too much product on hand. After all, would you let your cokehead buddy go work in the rebel-held jungles of Colombia?

A friend of mine was such an alkie that he couldn’t even hold down a job in Korea, where a huge drinking habit is almost a hiring requirement. It is so ingrained in the culture that companies often make pissup sessions mandatory for employees. He carried around soju in a water bottle and would puke every time he went up stairs. For the greater part of a year he lived in a bar.  Yes, such a thing is possible in Asia.

When things got bad enough we finally passed the hat, contacted his family, bought his ticket and practically pushed him onto the plane. He’s lucky, because I’ve known of a couple other guys who have died from liver failure here. And they were both kindergarten teachers.

Before attempting a move home from here, writer Ross Gardiner summed it perfectly: “I’m the only person in history who is moving back to Scotland to AVOID being an alcoholic.”


“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” is a pretty good maxim to live by. Add Asian to the equation and this “fury” has the potential to morph into a Category 5 Typhoon.


The warning signs are usually there: Ripped up photos of ex-girlfiends, rivers of threatening text messages, smashed furniture, slaughtered pets…

One friend of mine was smart enough to take his Korean wife–who had serious anger management issues–back to Canada before things got bad here. How do I know? One day I saw him at work, with a seven inch scabby gash on his face.

“What happened?” I asked.

“My wife scratched me,” he replied, as if it was an every day occurrence, like walking the dog or laundry.


“Yeah…. she got drunk and scratched me.”  He continued drinking his coffee and making fantasy football trades on his computer.

“Any particular reason?”

“Nah, not really.”

Another guy I know was deported after his notoriously unbalanced ex-girlfriend ratted him out to immigration for some illegal tutoring he was doing. That’s right, she called the teaching cops him. And sure enough, when he showed up to the lesson, two immigration officials were there, lying in wait. They grabbed him and that was that.  He’s since moved on to greener pastures, but let the lesson be learned.



No country in Asia takes either possession of distribution of any substance deemed illegal lightly. Your arguments for decriminalization may hold sway ears in Canada, America, or Europe, but Asians generally have no time for such things.  All drugs are thought bad and that’s that. Get caught and pay the price. Like the strength of currencies in this region, this “price” varies greatly from country to country. Get busted smuggling hash in Japan or Korea and you WILL do time in a spartan prison, but you’ll likely count the years on one hand and you’re unlikely to be brutalized or raped. Do the same in Thailand or the Philippines and you may just spend a decade or two living in your own shit and fending off knife attacks from transvestites in prisons not fit for animals. Try it in Malaysia or Singapore and you may not even spend too long in prison before you find a rope around your neck.

Every year or so there’s a drug bust among the expats in Korea, which I don’t understand. I mean, do you guys really need your weed THAT much? Go home and move to Seattle or Denver and smoke away, though you may have to go back to work at Walmart or the valet parking lot you toiled away at before moving here.

There are so many books written about Thai prisons that they practically have their own aisle the the few remaining books stores left on earth. Warren Fellow’s “The Damage Done” is particularly horrifying.

For a clear and sympathetic account of serving time in a Korea prison for drugs, try “Brother One Cell”. He’s proven that the Asia Fail can go the other way around: It can sometimes actually provide opportunities for you back at home. I’ve often thought of purposely getting arrested for drugs in Asia, and serving my time solely in hopes of landing a big book deal. Expat prison memoirs are hot hot hot.


This one usually manifests itself as the midnight runner (suddenly leaving without notice).  Many would argue that this doesn’t qualify as an Asia Fail because by leaving the country with no notice, you are taking matters into your own hands. Fair enough, but to get to the point where you are willing to grab your shit and ditch out on your job without so much a phone call implies a basic lack of preparation for the bumps and knocks of life in Asia.

But even more fail-ific are the people who move to Asia, hate it with their very skin, yet insist on sticking around, grinding it out, and making it awful for the rest of us. There’s currently one sad sack on Facebook who teaches up ino Seoul and shrieks about it every day. His entire posting catalog is a road map of ESL misery. He moans and whines and talks about how is life here is a “living hell”; he talks of how the school he works at could be destroyed by a bomb with everyone–staff and children include–killed and how he wouldn’t. even.  care. (sic)  In desperation for a online hug, he splays his painful, bleeding vagina for all to see; he longs to return to the loving womb of America, but refuses to take that one clear step to accomplish the goal: Actually leaving.

Isn’t such perpetuation of easily-cured pain a kind of fail in itself?

Things are different here. There are cultural barriers that sometimes suck, yes, and in an effort to maintain social harmony, many bosses do have a–how do you say–elastic relationship with the truth.  And the men spit in elevators and the old ladies elbow you in the subway and just maybe they all do hate us.


And did I mention how expensive cheese is here? Can you believe it? Oh noes. The horror.


This one occurs when cultural insensitivity meets misinterpretation, and one that I was guilty of in 2006. I was arrested and questioned over my role in Babopalooza, an expat sketch-comedy show I helped write and produce. The show made fun of both Westerners and Koreans and nearly got everyone involved deported. One of the sketched lampooned the Korean Immigration Service, which was an idiotic thing to do, since 1: The ridiculing of authorities is frowned-upon in Confucian Korea, and  2. The people we were skewering were also the people who have all the power over our lives: They interpret and enforce the rules that let us stay in the country. Don’t bite the hand that issues the visa.  We eventually got off with a firm “talking to” by the actual police, but “Wonderful Busan, Beautiful Immigration” continued to make our lives hell for years later, every time any of us switched jobs.

There are other examples aside from Babopalooza, most notably Michael Breen’s Samsung Christmas satire, and the forever-instructive “Fancy a bum?” incident, which whipped up the Korean netizens into such an angry, pitchfork and torch mob, that the offending dude (a Busan resident) was literally run out of the country.


No, this isn’t the west, and some of the governments in Asia are downright nasty. This is especially true for the communist ones, who don’t really bother with such pesky things as free speech, habeus corpus, and a right to a fair trial. They’ve also been known to harass and spy on undesirable foreign elements from time to time.

However, most expats–especially lowly English teachers–are barely on their radar and to think otherwise is to only flatter yourself.  That doesn’t stop some folks from convincing themselves that the Secret Police are out to get ‘em, however. A friend of mine was recently living in a Southeast Asian country and posted a sort of real time Facebook meltdown. He claimed he was being watched and followed every step of the way; he told of having his apartment broken into and his computer hacked and tracked. He ended up bolting the country with no cash and barely getting out, subsequently relying on friends chipping in on PayPal to buy his ticket back home.


Who knows? Maybe he was being followed. Though, having been a dabbler myself years back, I suspect overindulgence in certain substances played a much greater role in pushing him over the precipice than any spooks or security apparatchiks. And is it any coincidence that that this sort of neurosis usually occurs in countries where such substances are widespread and easily obtained? After all, nothing makes gangs of government agents put cameras in your refrigerator like a three-week yabba binge.



Let’s face it: Teaching English in Asia is a piece of piss. Could there be anything easier than just talking to people in your native tongue and getting paid for it? Sure, you need a “four-year degree”, and that does succeed in weeding out some of the mouthbreathers, but knuckleheads still abound. Anyone who thinks that a college education alone somehow equals intelligence hasn’t surveyed the Asian ESL crowd.

But let’s face it: Teaching English isn’t for everyone. To do it well in Asia requires a modicum of charm and basic social skills, or at least the ability to shuck and jive and entertain the troops. And if the troops aren’t entertained, they’ll complain, and your ass will be shown the door.

Some folks just aren’t cut out for this gig, yet bounce around from job to job to job, never quite taking the hint that, somewhere along the way, they’ve made a serious vocational error. But the truth is, if you are over thirty and teaching in Asia, you’ve ALREADY made a serious vocational error.



This is the worst one, because not only is it morally reprehensible: It just makes living and working here all the more difficult for the rest of us.

Thanks, Swirly Faced Man.


    1. Well the above piece is a bit tongue-in-cheek, so I’d take my sweeping claims with a grain or three of salt. However, it is ni secret that many in the ESL profession are folks who have fallen on their faces at home.

      1. Mr. Motgol,

        I did not begin teaching in Korea till I was past 30. I left my nice well paid job in London and became an English teacher at a hogwon in South Korea.

        How did that turn out? After 2 years at the hogwan, I moved to a uni job. Now, I live in a nice apartment five minutes from a sandy beach and work 12 hours a week. Oh and holidays? I get almost 5 months of the year off. Paid!

        I earned four times what I earn here working in the IT industry in England. However, here I have a much easier life.

        I hadn’t fallen. I was bored and I found better way of living in Korea.

        I recommend all people try it. If not Korea, there are many places.

        Break free. Go teach.



        1. Great. Many of us are very happy working here. I am. I hate to be guilty of beating the “English teachers are all losers” drum, because it’s not entirely accurate, nor is it entirely false. But this is a satirical piece, so I am guilty of generalization and hyperbole to drive home a simple point. Thanks for reading!

          1. Sure, but there are so many pieces out there that beat the same drum, which just gives more fodder to the anti English spectrum crowd. . .having been here a good long while, it becomes tedious to see another piece that repeats ‘most waegs in Korea and Asia are freaks who couldn’t make it back home’ mantra. . .guess it’s too boring to write about those who have made it and usually enjoy their life here, despite the occasional bump and hurdles they face. Call it satire if you want, but it’s been done so many times and is ultimately detrimental to those expats trying to actually make their way here.

            1. and therein lies the real challenge actually: how to avoid the low hanging fruit and the soft targets and make your everyday boring life as an expat in Korea interesting to read about

              1. Oh dear, here we go: A commenter who claims that my life is boring, yet feels the need to leave TWO comments on an article I penned. And is there anything more tedious than someone dishing out advice about what I ‘should’ be writing about? You miss the whole point of the article. This piece isn’t about “all English teachers are losers;” it’s about people who come to Asia to teach and end up utterly assing out. And I haven’t seen this particular topic blogged about ad infinitum. And if so, please send me links to those writers who do it so much better than me.

                I’m not at all surprised to learn that you too are a blogger, Waeg. I took the liberty to peruse your site. Thanks for the input, but I’ll pass. After checking out your work, I’m not so sure if you’re in a good position to dishing out blogging advice. Why don’t YOU go ahead and write that uplifting essay you want to read so badly? I’m sure your reader will appreciate it.

                1. I’m so pleased you were able to get a sense of what I’ve written about over the last 4 years from a quick look through my front page. Good on ya.

                  I didn’t say your life was boring btw, merely that writing about successes and the like is deemed boring. . .I understand how my second comment might be interpreted as me saying your life is boring, but in the context of my first comment, it’s mostly about what is seen as interesting to write about as opposed to reflecting the reality of everyday life.

                  I am disappointed that you’ve responded in the way you have, as I was trying to be constructive as opposed to the dismissive response you offer. I suppose I was expecting too much from someone who admits to being a loser back home (despite how you never really challenged yourself?) and merely recycles the same old trope about the typical expat in Asia. But then hey, I’ve done the same.

                  1. Hey, I’m sorry for being a dick. It seemed to me that you missed the big point of the article and I got annoyed and I came at you.

                    I was a loser back home in that I LOST. I tried to do a certain, difficult thing and failed, though during the process I had some successes that others would never see. Where did I say I didn’t challenge myself? I absolutely challenged myself, too much so, and in the end I came up short.

                    Thanks for the comment, though again, I think you focus on one line in the piece and miss the bigger picture. I haven’t seen any other essays address what I call the “Asia Fail.” This piece got a shitload of hits and personal feedback. It’s the third time I’ve run it and people respond. So I don’t think I’m recycling anything here.

                    1. Dont apologize. The curse of having a comment box. The opinion although I support it. The English machine lures like singles from both sides of the bridge. The liberal arts majors from Korea and from overseas. By the way, if I was offended, so be it.

  1. Nice job. The only other category I might add is the situation that lunkhead Beavers on the Marmot’s Hole, who got fired from a posh uni job for defending the Japanese claim to Dokdo. Or so I heard.

  2. Can’t speak for anyone else, but my son earned the right and the scholarships to attend a “rich kid” school “out east” that we could never afford, then proceeded to graduate 3rd in his class of 764 students. He applied for a Fulbright Fellowship to teach English in Korea, and was AWARDED the honor of doing so. He has been teaching now for 3 years. All of his family, all of his teachers, and all of his friends are mighty proud of him, and maybe even a little envious.

    You, on the other hand, make it sound like the people you are talking about are all losers who couldn’t hack it elsewhere. Sorry, but I don’t believe that. I’m sure there are people everywhere who, at some time in their lives, don’t have their shit together. Some are able to overcome it; unfortunately, some do not. The stuff you are spewing, is disheartening to people who would give their eye teeth to be in your shoes. And if I were Korean, I would be deeply insulted that your remarks may give others the impression that my country is a hellhole.

    If you want to joke with your friends who are in the same situation as yourself and want to commiserate about the shared challenges, that’s OK, do it privately; but to put it out on the internet for the whole world to see is poor judgement at the least and really stupid at the worst. So much for cultural exchange and good will! Public relations be damned!

    1. Some of the points I think are good for person considering being a teacher here to read. I will say the writer seems to have no idea what it really means to be a teacher and the effort required, maybe his job doesn’t require him to be an effective teacher so he hasn’t gained any respect for what teachers do here. Who knows….

  3. Just curious Mr. Motgol… how long have you been in Korea and how old are you? I’m also a writer, and I basically wrote this same type of thing on English Spectrum in 2005, about a guy who worked at Walmart and made it big in Itaewon on a Canadian tourist visa… dancing to Great Big Sea every night with fat Canadian girls at the Rocky Mountain Tavern.

    I was 25 back then. By the time I reached 30 I stopped writing about Korea completely. I stopped visiting expat sites and stopped paying attention to other expats. I stopped asking other white people where they were from and how long they had been here. In this case, however, I am curious. You have some talent as a writer and remind me of myself when I was younger and in the third plus year of my time in Korea. Now… I’m married with kids and can’t stomach that former character I created.

  4. @Sameer Khan: You ‘stopped visiting expat sites and stopped paying attention to other expats.’ Really? Then why are you reading an article at an expat blog and THEN leaving a lengthy comment? Isn’t that the very definition of ‘paying attention?’ Aren’t you breaking your own rules?

    For the record I’ve been here a good while and am married. I’m older than you. I write about a myriad subjects, many of them related to Korea, some not, all under my real name save the ones at this here blog. This particular piece is a year and a half old, having been run on a couple of websites before, not that it really matters. I am a published writer and not new to the rodeo. Thanks for the comment, but like a couple of the other folks above, I think you miss the big point of the piece.

  5. I thought it was a fine piece of writing Mr Motgol, and quite funny. Your name also reminds me of the long chats we had in Busan about that station name. We spent many an afternoon pondering as to why ‘Motgol’ comes off the tongue in such an unglamorous, yet endearing way. A friend of mine refused to get off at that station because he thought it would somehow taint his essence. I think it’s because ‘t’ and ‘g’ frequently come together in unsavory combinations, eg. ‘butt gas’, ‘bat gunk’, ‘fat guy’, etc. (We concluded that Rutger is not a recommendable name for a newborn).

    What seems to be the fuss in your comments section I believe to be a case of hypersensitivity to your observational humour. Perhaps it is being misinterpreted as a tongue-in-cheek attack on all expats here, and is eliciting some insecurities in those who prefer a more sparkling representation of the expat community.

    It is true that there have been some expats who have come to Korea and screwed things up. The key word here is ‘some’. Can we make fun of these individuals for hilariously stupid life choices? I believe we are entitled to such an indulgence from time to time. If one wishes to write a blog post about how successful they’ve been in Korea, and how they’ve performed teaching duties here with nothing but honest hard labour and good intentions, by all means, may they have our collective cyber-blessings in doing so. However, it would not be accurate to claim that their example is reflective of the entire expat community.

    I think your disclaimer was appropriate. Here it is, and I quote:

    “However… SOME of my fellow expats have it the other way around.” -(emphasis mine)-

    ‘Some’ is a great word. It can mean 3 or 4, or even hundreds. But it never means ‘all’.

    So the only form of criticism to your post that I believe has any rational basis is pointing out that it didn’t cater to every single reader’s sense of humour. Should you apologise to them for not only having wasted their time in reading it, but impelling them to waste additional time in posting a thoughtful rebuke? I do not think so, because then you’re also apologising for having written something that thoroughly entertained me.

    1. Thanks! Yeah, evidently the article got linked at the Marmot’s Hole, and a lot of hits followed. We also got some of the plunkers as well. Just read Marmot’s comment threads and you’ll see what I mean. Several folks commenting here totally missed the boat; they don’t seem to get that it’s a comedic essay. Fine. Usually I try not to get into it with negative commenters but throw a few beers down my throat and I can’t help myself. And then I get nasty and feel bad for being a jerk rather than just staying above the fray. Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting and getting it.

  6. Very moody and entertaining in the comments Mr Motgol. Thanks for that.

    I had the pleasure of witnessing some of nature’s most astoundingly ass-hatted expats in Korea and Taiwan (not so much in Japan, but I heard they were there lurking).

    Irish English teachers could be found crawling around pubs of Sanbon completely mutated by 48 hr drinking sessions. A weekend never seemed to go by without seeing some pretty soju-puking Korean chick in a gutter by 5am on a Sunday morning.

    A friend I went over with did do a runner, after 3 months he threw in the towel the clincher probably being he couldn’t handle the kids giving him a donshi at every opportunity.
    I don’t know about the shitty teacher fail, I met two Germans teaching who could barely speak English and had no work visa.
    I was in Korea in 2005/6, I guess these kinds of people have been stamped out with tougher Visa requirements such as criminal background check and certified degrees?

  7. All I can say is this article is VERY accurate. Sure you get the exceptions. But the bottom line is I spent 10.5 years in Korea, and I met many ‘freaks’ to say the least. So many socially inept people who would just never make it back home. But here they can be hero’s if they play there cards right.

    As many have pointed out, it does not apply to everyone but it is the common rule.

    (before any of you ask, I spent 3 years teaching and the rest in the I.T. field in Korea)

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