Author: Cheryl Pallant
Publisher: Big Table Publishing Co.
ISBN: 978-1-945917-14-1

In 2007 Cheryl Pallant accepted an offer as Visiting Lecturer at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea. She had "no images of its landscape and architecture, no familiarity with its language, people, history, or culture" other than that American soldiers fought against communism there in the 1950s. Pallant, in the middle of a divorce after a 15-year marriage, was moving from Richmond, Virginia, population 223,000 to Daegu, a city of 2.5 million people in south-central Korea. Ginseng Tango is a memoir of her year there.

It joins a tradition of naif Americans who go to a country they know nothing about to teach and write a book to explain the culture, customs, and people to the folks back home. (Learning to Bow: An American Teacher in a Japanese School by Bruce S. Feiler explained Japan.) Because Pallant is such a good writer—she currently teaches writing at the University of Richmond—and because she was a mature woman when she went to Daegu—the book's internal evidence puts her in her late 30s—Ginseng Tango is a superior example of the genre.

That she is in the middle of a divorce, that she comes to Korea with a background of Zen meditation, Buddhist practice, and dance, and that she is open (relatively) about her fears and flaws makes the book more than a simple report of what it's like to spend a year teaching in a Korean university. The title comes from ginseng—"a major ingredient in many a medicinal cocktail. Korean ginseng is known for its potency in treating ailments like high blood pressure, allergies, diabetes, sexual dysfunction, and fatigue"—and her involvement with tango and the people with whom she becomes friendly at tango club.

One of these is a doctor who invites her to his clinic and who tells her "My soul knows yours." He treats her with acupuncture and chiropractics, and says, "Curve spine I straighten." No western doctor "ever offered me a chance of removing the curve, only preventing it from getting worse. Is this the eastward pull I felt from the States, my body somehow clued that the idiopathic conditions contributing to my curvature might be alleviated?" She begins to visit the doctor's clinic regularly and they become friends.

Unfortunately, the doctor is married to a paranoid woman to whom Pallant is an insult and a threat. When the wife calls Pallant's university, the chair of the department, agrees the woman is crazy. However she tells Pallant, "In our culture, regardless of the facts, a woman such as yourself is guilty. You're a foreigner. Rumors and scandals cannot be tolerated at our school. If you don't stop visiting his clinic, we may have to let you go." Pallant's friendship with the doctor, his wife/s attacks run as a thread through the book making it more than a collection of set pieces.

The set pieces include Pallant's initial struggle with a Korean washing machine, a rock-climbing experience, a visit to a public bath, a day with a shaman that includes fascinating background on Korean shamanism, tango lessons, drinking with the ex-pat colleagues from the university, student interactions, Children's Day adventures, and more. She is aware from day one that this is another country. "Already I've sliced up a small orange sphere, thinking it a type of tomato. I added it to my salad sprinkled with soy sauce, not my preferred dressing of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, items which, if available, I have yet to locate. The tomato greatly disappointed, given its true identity as a persimmon, a sweet untomatoey fruit that never passed my lips before."

She comes to realize that she is not, and probably never can be entirely welcome. A colleague who has lived in Korea for seven yers tells her he has yet to make a Korean friend. "Every foreigner I speak with says the same thing. We're treated with civility in the classroom, office, or during mandatory after work drinking parties, but sincere lasting friendship is rare. Koreans welcome us foreigners, but only to a point."

At one point, the doctor introduces her to a group of his (male) friends. A woman schooled in dance, poetry and the arts; able to talk on a wide range of topics; considerate of local etiquette she could almost be a modern gisaeng, Korea's equivalent of geisha. Pallant writes, "A poor fit among my western colleagues and a novelty to the doctor's friends, I don't know where I belong nor what, given the choice, I want. Identities that once held sway in Richmond don't carry the same traction her. Here I exist on the margins, a foreigner in a culture that prizes homogeneity and ancestral purity." At the end of the book, she has returned to the States and is settling into a new home—alone.

Ginseng Tango is an engaging introduction to the culture and society of a country that is in the news regularly but one few of us know much about and Cheryl Pallant is an appealing guide.