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Brother One Cell

3.73  ·  Rating details ·  369 ratings  ·  51 reviews
Cullen Thomas was just like the thousands of other American kids who travel abroad after college. He was hungry for meaning and excitement beyond a nine-to-five routine, so he set off for Seoul, South Korea, to teach English and look for adventure. What he got was a three-and-a- half-year drug-crime sentence in South Korea's prisons, where the physical toll of life in a ce ...more
Paperback, 368 pages
Published February 26th 2008 by Penguin Books (first published March 15th 2007)
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Average rating 3.73  · 
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 ·  369 ratings  ·  51 reviews

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Apr 23, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Foreign Teachers in Korea, Ex-pats of all breeds, Those considering smuggling drugs abroad
Although I've been in Korea for just about eight months now, it wasn't until reading Brother One Cell that I actually took the time to appreciate where I am. Sure, I've reveled a bit in this unique opportunity, especially to those back home, but I never really do so objectively. What's worse is that as I'm often frustrated with 'work,' I find myself complaining about a number of things totally unrelated. In turn, even though I really have enjoyed Korea, I frequently view it in a negative light, ...more
Rebecca Huston
While I did find this interesting to read, there were several problems with it, most notably the incredibly whiney narrator and the lack of any sort of glossary to explain some of the Korean terms. A selfish, entitled American twit tries to smuggle drugs into South Korea and gets caught. Unluckily for him, Korean justice is far more harsh than American... About three stars and only somewhat recommended.

For the longer review, please go here:
Apr 17, 2007 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: ex-expats
Growing up in Long Island. Graduating college then setting off for Asia to teach English with a girl he loves. Flouting the country's drug laws without enough regard for consequence. At this point the author's and my own story diverge and I am given a window into what my life could've become had I been a shade unluckier.

Truly heart wrenching at times, I read each chapter with wide eyes and deep breaths as the author tells of coping with serving a 3 1/2 year sentence in a prison 7,000 miles from
Brother One Cell is an autobiographical tale of Cullen Thomas, an American who in his early 20s moved to South Korea to teach English. Seven months into his time there, he got caught smuggling drugs into the country and was sentenced to three and half years in prison. As you do.

It's an interesting look into South Korean culture and prison-life, albeit from a slightly two-dimensional and simplistic viewpoint.

Okay I'll level with you. It's an irritating read. Our protagonist is endlessly brash a
Oct 20, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The writing itself is nothing extraordinary, but the story and cultural insight make it very worth it.
May 28, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I don't understand all the negative reviews.

People are complaining that Cullen Thomas kept whining about Korean culture and his situation in prison, and some reviews even had the audacity to judge him and say that he deserved everything he got. About the whining part, he had every right. Koreans living in the USA whine. Canadians living in Colombia whine. People whine. If I wrote a book about Colombia it would be full of whining about all the weird things I hate about it. He was whining because
Mar 16, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Cullen Thomas's memoir, Brother One Cell, is a thriller about an American college graduate, nicknamed the Jolly Marauder, who grew up on Long Island dreaming about pirates, adventure, and becoming a storyteller someday. Armed with an English major and big plans, Cullen took a job teaching English to school children in South Korea, quickly realizing that it was an insufferable grind. So he came up with a new plan: smuggling hashish into the country from Malaysia to finance a proper tour of the wo ...more
Tim Jin
As a first generation Korean American, I could somehow relate to this story. Although I have never been in any prison, the author does well at explaining the Korean culture and give a lot of Korean dialogue in the book. Instead of overacting on the narration with unbearable Asian accents, the narrator using his natural voice, tries to speak the foreign dialogue as best as they can. I've listened to many books over the years where the narration of the story ruins the book because they try to port ...more
James Park
Oct 22, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
There's a Korean proverb that says a true man only cries at 3 moments in his life: when he is born, when his parents die, and when he dies. But this book has dudes straight up bawling in their jail cells from all the suffering that drives some of them even to the point of insanity. Brother One Cell shows you the experience of an American adjusting to Korean society within a prison, and is also a great reminder that prisoners are still people just like everyone else. There are scenes where they s ...more
Abraham Lewik
Feb 12, 2020 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: real, didn-t-finish
My copy was missing the last few pages. If my copy was complete then probably between two stars. The book got better but never really impressed me with the story. Thomas McFadden is the better prison writer, Bangkok Hilton also. Korean prison is not alien enough to impress me, perhaps not. That personal reflections ought to be included in prison literature is logical, yet the reflections on his ancestor were not woven well. The conclusion was engaging and one must ponder what the last pages may ...more
Readable but not particularly enjoyable. Mr. Thomas consistently comes off as a bit of a jerk, and his comments on women are repulsive. His constant references to his ex-girlfriend's body were uncessary and for her I'm sure quite insulting. Interesting insights into Korean culture, but not enough to compensate for how lame Cullen is. ...more
Aug 05, 2017 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Lucky man, luxurious conditions, yet still a whiner.
Jun 22, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
listened to the audiobook. learned a lot about korea. I LOLed when he described teaching english.
Sep 27, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting memoir, though often goes overboard on his childhood, Confucianism and other stuff.
May 28, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone familiar with Korean culture who is interested in outsiders' impressions of it
Recommended to Laura by: Adam Saper
A excellent book to take on a 19 hour plane ride! This book kept me well occupied on my journey from South Korea back to the States. After reading this book I definitely felt more knowledgeable about South Korea. I feel it might have helped to read this book before I traveled there but it did help clarify a lot about South Korean culture and history. Cullen Thomas recounts his experiences in such vivid detail it feels as if you're right there with him in a South Korean jail. This book is compass ...more
T. Coughlin
Apr 29, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Believe it or not, I just read this novel for the second time. It holds up. I liked the author's voice in this memoir. Cullen Thomas takes the reader on an amazing journey as we meet a young man caught for smuggling drugs who believes he's special and entitled because he's an American, who transforms into a gracious, accepting deep thinker. The novel has some gritty descriptions and Thomas tells the story in a logical totally believable way. It also offers a picture of South Korea, a place a kne ...more
Aug 19, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The description for this book says that the author was "forced" to growb up in some tough circumstances. I dispute that basic assertion as the book here details the result of ridiculous choices to try and sell drugs in a culture that is well known for lack of tolerance for such behavior. There are much better ways to grow up than spending time in a foreign jail.

The book itself is at times an interesting read. It is an opportunity to view life behind bars as it were and the author does a good job
May 09, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It's been a few months since I finished this one, but I wanted to give it a positive comment or two. Thomas doesn't pull his punches: he screwed up, he got caught, and he ended up in a foreign prison. This is a harrowing read at times. Thomas doesn't seem to be trying to make things sound worse or better than they were. This is what happened. He suffered. Lessons were learned. The book also gives the reader an unusual insight into Korean culture at a particular moment in the country's history. W ...more
Sep 08, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The author also happens to be my writing teacher, so there is something about reading about your mentor's years in a Korean prison that does sort of give you a new view of things. That aside, this is a book that stayed with me in many ways, as it explores the ways we take for granted our surroundings and privilege, and the unexpected results of chance, luck, and the choices and mistakes we make. It is very much a prison story, of which there are many, but more so it is a coming-of-age story of a ...more
May 06, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: korea, non-fiction
Brother One Cell is more foreigner-in-Korea depravity, albeit in a lower form. Instead of outright murder, it's just smuggling two kilos of hashish into the country from the Philippines. No biggie. Of course, it doesn't help Thomas' story that he is, by all available accounts, a certifiable douche bag. I can't say that he's a bad writer, because he isn't, but his story does come off as something you'd like to know about, so long as someone else tells it. "Locked Up Abroad" movie-fied his story f ...more
Oct 20, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I like this book since it illustrates a bit of how the Korean penal system works (as opposed to the Soviet, French, American, Chinese, and Guantanamo ones do /been researching) but it is concerning since this is where my little sister is going soon, as her boyfriend is doing what the author Cullen Thomas did, teaching English in South Korea.

It's one of those memoirs without an index, so I can't quickly refer to useful pages, as I won't do it manually. Hence I don't like it more than just average
Jedi Kitty
Refreshing read. Unique, restorative, and fast. It is a story about finding bigger meaning from both the little things that must dominate a prisoner's restricted life, and figuring out how to take away meaning from the massive, unexpected shift in your life that comes from being caught and punished for breaking the law. Thomas's voice is the best part of the book. Distills three years of his experience in Korea and in prison to little gems of stories and non-stories, without aggrandizement or ge ...more
Dec 18, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Excellent account of a young american boy (23 yrs old) coming of age in a South Korean prison. Cullen Thomas travels to Korea in the 90's to teach english, tries smuggling a little hash and the rest is history. This is NOT midnight express, rather a deeper look into the Korean Culture, normes, morals etc. and the realization that although Korean prision was not a vacation of any sort, that he was lucky to not be in an American prision. Check out the website:
Oct 15, 2010 rated it liked it
Having lived in Korea for 6 months studying abroad, this book brought back a lot of memories about my AWESOME time there. Of course, there are some dumb people who decide to do stupid things like Thomas and pays the price. At least he was able to make this sour experience into something fruitful. The book is an honest portrayal of a foreigner's experience of Korea and the many societal differences between Korean and the U.S. ...more
Teri Pre
Feb 08, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2014-reads
The author went on and on about how much he learned by being in a South Korean prison for 3 1/2 years but he never acknowledge that what he did was wrong! He kept whining and saying "I didn't hurt anyone!" While his crime wasn't a violent one, he knew that he was breaking the law! Were they just supposed to pat him on the head and say "You're a good boy. We won't punish you this time." That's what he expected! ...more
If for some inexplicable reason you are determined to address any deficits in your knowledge of the Korean people/peninsula by reading the bookified blog of a navel-gazing white boy-turned-man with poor judgement, this is your book.

Another reviewer was understated and accurate: "this is no Peter Hessler doing jail time in Korea."
Courtney Sidsworth
This was a good account of what it would be like to spend time in a Korean prison. The conditions sound unbearable at times however the confuscian levels of respect create an environment that is devoid of aggression and violence. It was interesting to read this book and relate it to the experiences I have had and am having in Korea.
This book is readable but not so enjoyable. It is not the "Peter Hessler doing jail time in Korea" kind of book I was expecting. If you are interested in the mundane life of Asian prisoners, this book is for you. Other than that this book doesn't offer much. It could be that being an Asian myself, I don't find S. Korea that strange, as the author did. ...more
Jun 19, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
pretty fascinating. i hope to take some inspiration from the story and make the whatever situation i'm in tolerable at worst. not everyone has this ability, to adapt and overcome pitfalls both large and small. being a pessimist isn't as fun at 30 as it was at 20. ...more
Mar 19, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is the memoir of a very young (23) man who goes to Korea to teach English, gets arrested for smuggling hashish from the Phillipines to South Korea, and the 3 1/2 years he spends in prison. It's interesting so far, though as some memoirs can be, a little too introspective and navel-gazing. ...more
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“Every day the same things came up; the work was never done, and the tedium of it began to weigh on me. Part of what made English a difficult subject for Korean students was the lack of a more active principle in their learning. They were accustomed to receiving, recording, and memorizing. That's the Confucian mode. As a student, you're not supposed to question a teacher; you should avoid asking for explanations because that might reveal a lack of knowledge, which can be seen as an insult to the teacher's efforts. You don't have an open, free exchange with teachers as we often have here in the West. And further, under this design, a student doesn't do much in the way of improvisation or interpretation.

This approach might work well for some pursuits, may even be preferred--indeed, I was often amazed by the way Koreans learned crafts and skills, everything from basketball to calligraphy, for example, by methodically studying and reproducing a defined set of steps (a BBC report explained how the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il had his minions rigorously study the pizza-making techniques used by Italian chefs so that he could get a good pie at home, even as thousands of his subjects starved)--but foreign-language learning, the actual speaking component most of all, has to be more spontaneous and less rigid.

We all saw this played out before our eyes and quickly discerned the problem. A student cannot hope to sit in a class and have a language handed over to him on sheets of paper.”
“It was easy not to like the other foreigners. I wondered how I'd fallen in with such a band of freaks. There were so many odd, wandering types--a host of bent Australians, warped British, tainted Canadians, tormented runaway Americans. (I considered myself fairly well balanced among this cast, but then look what became of me.) I'd expected it to a certain degree, but I was still surprised. Most of them seemed like misfits. Only a few content. But all of us found teaching work with astounding ease. It didn't matter that, on the whole, we were ragged and suspect because the demand for English in Korea was so great that almost anyone was accepted.” 2 likes
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