Every expatriate in Asia has known this guy. He is the one that cultivates a patch of marijuana in the hills near Lake Biwa. He smuggles condom-wrapped ecstasy tablets up his ass from Ko Samui. He buys magic mushrooms in a Cambodian bar for resale in Singapore, or horse-trades cheap methamphetamine in a Seoul nightclub. And now and then you hear of these guys getting busted, and later you wonder what ever happened to them.

While teaching English in Seoul in 1994, Cullen Thomas made a plan to visit a remote mountain village in Luzon, buy bricks of hash on the cheap, mail them to himself in Seoul, and to sell them to the expat crowd. The first brick arrived safely, and he was a 23-year-old cosmopolitan outlaw: “Like many of the other foreigners, I fooled myself into thinking that I could operate alongside Korean society and yet not have to answer to it.”  He signed for the second brick poste restante, and was quickly surrounded by drug agents. 

Brother One Cell: An American Coming of Age in South Korea’s Prisons (Viking) is his memoir of prison life and his journey from youth into manhood. The early chapters are a cautionary tale for any foreigner sucked into the South Korean criminal justice system. In a Kafkaesque scenario, he deals with a con artist Korean lawyer, bratty and bungling translators, and a prosecutor that uses him to practice his English.

South Korean police work often depends on forced confessions rather than investigative work to make a case. He recalls a “short, fat man who still has the grease of lunch on his face and the smell of liquor on his breath” approaching him with a cattle prod-like device:  “All I can think is What the hell? before he casually presses it against my upper right thigh and triggers it again with a smile. A painful blast of electric current shoots through me, shoots me right out of my chair into the middle of the room.”

Thomas was sentenced for three and a half years with no appeal. During that period he served his time in three different prisons, and his compatriots were Pakistani killers, Peruvian thieves, an American child murderer, smugglers, and Korean draft dodgers. Inside his cell and inside his head, he rages at his shame and predicament, he worries for a girl he left behind, and he gains wisdom into his own nature and human nature.

He adapts with a monk-like acceptance and finds work in the prison’s shoe factory to pass the time. In the prison yard, he becomes a basketball hero and earns some respect in no-rules dirt court games organized by gangsters. Back in his cell, he bides his time by keeping a surreptitious diary with a stolen pen. He learns of friends that are denied visits and of confiscated care packages from family members. He is not allowed to write about the prison, so he learns to write letters in a roundabout narrative to avoid the censors.

Some of his observations of Korean society are so accurate they could be equally applied to life in Korea outside the prison walls: He describes an unappetizing diet that is not much different than what most Korean day laborers eat everyday. The drab, cold cement walls in unheated buildings could be any rural Korean elementary school. The petty prison bureaucrats are equally contemptible as those at city hall, and throughout his story, Thomas describes the inane pissing contests of Confucian hierarchies.

It is important to note that Thomas harbors no animosity for Korea from his hardening prison experience. Back home in New York, he eats bibimbap and is asked by Korean acquaintances if he will ever return. He writes, “I had a lot of love and appreciation left in me for Korea. She had taken me to the edge and let me look over, but she never let me go and didn’t leave me there too long. She didn’t feel the same about me. I don’t know if I can ever go back.”

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