“White Cloud Mountain” by Grace Chia

Grace Chia Grace Chia

Unmarried, thirty-something Audrey is stuck in a dead-end office job in Singapore. Her friend and coworker Laura has found joy outside the office as a novelist and suggests Audrey attend a retreat to concentrate on her own writing. Audrey doesn’t consider herself a writer, yet feels she could use a break from the monotony of her desk job.

If that’s all there were to it, Grace Chia’s new novel, White Cloud Mountain, might fit neatly into either of the not uncommon sub-genres of (would-be) writers pursuing the craft or foreigners sojourning in Asia. “Same same” as the protagonist might say. But this retreat is in Korea, a remote area near the eponymous White Cloud Mountain, a couple hours from Seoul. Few at the retreat speak English and Audrey is the only attendee from outside Korea.


Toji Cultural Centre was set up in 1999 by Pak Kyong-ni, a famed Korean author whose epic novel, Toji (Land), written over twenty-five years, had inspired the name of this place. These had been the grounds of her home until she passed away at eighty-one and where she had written many of her works. Pak had wanted to create a space that would nurture other writers, and in such a rustic environment, she wanted her guests to focus on writing, not worry about what to eat, so she personally prepared their meals.


White Cloud Mountain, Grace Chia (Epigram, September 2021)
White Cloud Mountain, Grace Chia (Epigram, September 2021)

And the sojourn this time is not the Westerner in Asia or Asian in the West, but intra-Asian. Her Korean retreat attendees, some of whom interpret for her, consider Singapore as too clean and have Audrey eat things like unwashed mountain berries, snails and silkworm pupa. They also take her to a midnight rice planting festival, even though staying up so late is against Audrey’s Singaporean practice. Even language can be treacherous: what she calls “mochi” is chapssaltteok in Korea.


I nod gravely, committing this to memory. For while the items look the same, the names, according to different cultures, are not synonymous. Mochi, to my understanding, are basically muah chee with fillings, like ang ku kueh—sweet snacks made of glutinous rice flour. But with the backdrop of Japanese colonisation in South Korea, I need to exercise more prudence in my cultural sensitivity. Like la mian is to ramen is to ramyeon. Same same but different.


She also learns about how Korean and Chinese written languages interacted, and how in 2005 the Korean government changed the Chinese characters for Seoul from han cheng (漢城) to shou er (首尔). The former, Audrey is given to understand, implies “City of Han” (ie Chinese); the latter is closer to the actual pronunciation Seo-ul.

Some of the cultural crossovers are less politically fraught: She learns about a Korean folktale involving nine dragons and compares that with Chinese folktales of her childhood:


Coming from Singapore, I was familiar with Chinese mythologies, and this is one of those stories that used to fascinate me when I was a child. Haw Par Villa, an amusement park that’s hardly amusing with its depiction of macabre and impossible tortures, once haunted me with cautionary tales against bad morals and behaviour. But as an adult, the over-the-top retelling of demons and spirits running amok in eighteen levels of hell—manifested in the most garish and kitsch sculptures—is plain ridiculous.


There is, Audrey learns, more to writing than just writing. Eating together with the other attendees, followed by some form of exercise, make for a productive afternoon of writing in solitude. This routine is not just to prepare the mind, but also the body.  Both, it seems, need some preparation: Audrey has a past she needs to come to terms with. Well before her four weeks are up, she worries she’ll miss the peace and quiet of Korea once she returns to Singapore.


This is not just a holiday, or even a retreat. This is a total immersive experience that is slowly but surely transforming me. Sad part is, I know I’m going to miss this person I have just come to know.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.