I lived in South Korea for twelve years and traveled around much of Asia, so much of my fiction concerns the allure and alienation of living in a foreign country. In my earlier works, I felt comfortable writing about Americans visiting or living in countries like Thailand, South Korea, and Myanmar. But when I started writing my most recent novel, Into This World, I was approaching new territory. The novel takes place in modern democratic South Korea, but it also examines life there thirty years earlier, during a much more repressive and poorer time. Although I was drawn to the material and characters, I worried about rendering them accurately and with sensitivity. While I was not writing in the historical fiction genre, I still felt a responsibility to represent a country and people with as much verisimilitude as possible within the world of the novel.
Working through the drafts, I developed a few guidelines to help me portray a foreign culture and history in a responsible way.
First, to avoid the research time suck trap, write as much of the first draft from your own imagination, then be open to revising and incorporating information in subsequent drafts. When I visited Korea in 2010 to work on my novel, I had a very rough draft and an outline already written. While I was there, the Korean submarine crisis was dominating headlines and the thirtieth anniversary of the Gwangju Uprising was approaching, although most of the more recent expats knew nothing of the event. I decided to incorporate both events into my novel. Back in the States, I interviewed my neighbor, who was a GI in Korea in the late 1970s. His stories were so memorable that I decided to expand those sections of the novel by linking them with the Gwangju Uprising.
Don't patronize the culture you are setting your story in by making the characters "simple" or "beautiful" or "ignorant" or "backward" or by pretending to be an expert on that culture. You are writing about human emotions and experiences in the context of, but not completely defined by, culture and history. Create multidimensional characters and you are less likely to fall into the traps of unintentional stereotyping.
I try to keep Charles Baxter's essay "On Defamiliarization" from Burning Down the House in mind when writing about my own culture and other cultures. In other words, I try to write about a foreign culture or place in a way that makes it understandable or familiar to the reader instead of depicting it as strange or "exotic." In the same sense, I sometimes make the familiar culture (in my case American) become defamiliar to the characters.
Remember that while your experience traveling to China's Great Wall or Peru's Machu Picchu might have been transforming to you that does not mean it will be to the reader. The basics of telling a story apply—create rounded complex characters with competing wants and goals. The setting and culture can contribute to the conflict, but these things should not overtake the story. It helps to read other writers who have successfully negotiated this terrain and then analyze what they did. For example, one of my favorite authors is Paul Bowles, who wrote without sentiment of expats and locals in Morocco and other North African countries.
As you approach a final draft, make sure you have your "experts" read your piece for any oversights or blunders. I've often asked friends and family who live in the place I'm writing about to look over the draft for any dialogue, descriptions, or interactions that don't sound authentic.
By using the above guidelines, I feel like I am able to portray my characters and the context of their world more realistically and with more depth. I think as writers, it's important to write outside our own comfort zones, but to do so with awareness of the world we are trying to depict.