Military Linguists, Part 1
Bruce is a gentle man, soft-spoken and low-key. He’s often in the company of his very cute four-year-old son, Nathan. Bruce speaks with particular warmth of the love he has received from the Korean people.
It’s been my experience that in Korea there’s a special camaraderie unmatched in other U.S. military bases in the world. You find this especially in units of two or three hundred, up to six hundred people. I’ve been out on the town with people in the unit here—maybe seventy to eighty people from the commander down to the lowest airman, all together, just having a grand old time. I think it’s a matter of being mutually supportive in a difficult situation. A lot of people miss their wives and kids. Talking about this with their comrades is good therapy for them. When people are going through tough times, they often change. For example, this morning I talked to someone on the phone who didn’t want to come to our unit because of his Stateside experience with someone in our office. This guy was very obnoxious in the States, but being away from his wife and children has been a big struggle for him, and he has opened up to us. We’ve found out that deep down he’s a really great guy.
I said, “You can’t imagine how well he fits in.”
I think when people decide to come here, do what they can to make the year tolerable. So they get rid of personality conflicts and excess emotional baggage. There’s a lot of honesty and a lot of camaraderie. The airmen at the base in Osan hang out with each other and also live together. They’re absolutely inseparable. When they’re stationed together in the States, they may become strangers, pass each other in the hall and not even say hi. When I first heard about that, I couldn’t understand the closeness not going with them. But sometimes it does. For example, there’s a softball team in the States named after a unit at Osan.
In Korea the chain of command is not as strict as it is in the States about things like wearing the uniform and haircuts. Here everyone is more concerned about the mission and can clearly see the enemy up in the North. That’s a really strong part of the environment. For instance, at the fighter wings down at Osan, mechanics are preparing aircraft for eminent combat. They have something you don’t find with the mechanics stationed in Utah, who’re not preparing for possible attacks by California.
The story of how I got here starts when I was about twelve and working illegally at a Chinese restaurant washing dishes. That’s when I became very interested in Asia. Later, when I joined the military and went to language school, they gave me choice of languages—Czech, Polish, a bunch of other European languages, and Korean. I decided on Korean because of my earlier interest and because there’s no surf in Europe—although it turns out that even though Korea is in the Pacific there isn’t much surf here, either.
It wasn’t until about six or eight weeks into the course that I looked Korea up on the map. I had no idea where it was. The Korean War and the Vietnam War were one in my head. You can blame that on my high school history, but when I was in stationed in the Midwest I found out a lot of Americans have the two countries confused, even veterans.
Within the course of my year of studies, I found out a lot about Korea and tried kimchi. I was very excited about coming here. Forty-five minutes after arriving in Songtan [the location of Osan Air Force Base], I had found my friends and was down in a bar being initiated into the group. Some of my linguist friends started speaking what seemed to me was fluent Korean to Koreans. That blew me away. I decided, “I am going to be just like them. I am going to do this. This is wonderful. This is the neatest thing I’ve ever seen—ever.” In language school I’d been a B+ student at best, but I went back over my course work and relearned all the Korean that I could, and I picked up more on the street.
At first I felt like the only one with a flashlight in a dark room. I thought that being a GI in a foreign country was a good excuse for a lot of stupid behavior—being drunk in public, being nasty to prostitutes. I made the mistake of thinking people would say, “Poor guy, he’s missing home,” and understand. Also, back in the 1980s, when Koreans had so little money in comparison with us, they were more tolerant of inexcusable behavior. I was rich by their standards. Despite my low rank and pay, I could rent two apartments, drink as much as I wanted to and still put two hundred dollars in the bank every month. But after about nine lonely months, I woke up to fact that I was behaving like an ugly American and that my behavior was really digging into me. So I became a nice guy and hung out with nice guys. I found out then that we could fit in, and the Korean people loved us if we tried a little bit.
I do get along with Korean people, and I’ve found that they’re not as group-think as a lot of Westerners assume. The Koreans are free to think for themselves, and they do. The attitude of service members toward Koreans seems to depend on how much they get off the base. In a unit at Yongsan [the main U.S. Army post in Seoul] where a lot of people live off-post on the economy, there is a lot more acceptance and a lot more awareness. But in a unit where everybody’s in the barracks, people are easily prejudiced by what they hear.
“Hey, Joe’s been here for nine months. He knows everything.”
If Joe’s got a bad attitude—which he probably does because he’s in the barracks and he’s only been here for nine months, the others are going to pick up Joe’s bad attitude. The barracks rats don’t have much personal exposure to the local population.
When I first got here, there was a two-day cultural awareness training session for everyone on their first duty assignment. It was good, because I’d already had a year of this training in language school, but I learned some new stuff. I’d also been downtown as much as I could for three weeks prior to the course, so I had something of a feel for it. The problem is that people still believe Joe in the barracks. They sit through those classes and they think, “This is a bunch of bullshit. This is what they want me to think, but I’m going to think what Joe tells me because he knows more.”
It seems most American GI males have a hard time getting along with Korean males in general, unless they’re brothers-in-law or the Korean is a KATUSA [a service member who’s a Korean Augmentee to the U.S. Army] or there is some other relationship. I think they have a fear of us. But for the most part, Korean women are very easy for American men to connect with. They don’t put up a defensive barrier like the men do. Toward Western women, Korean men seem to react with the attitude of, “I don’t want my woman to turn out like you.” But the stronger, larger American female is very much a part of their health books and fantasy books—in a bikini, not in nude shots or anything pornographic—so I guess a lot of Korean men fantasize about foreign women.
The main thing that’s going through my head is that most of the bad things are changing towards the good. Unfortunately, I think that our role here is coming to an end. It’s too bad that we had to wait so long to come around to the good side, like in learning the language and in recognizing the Korean people for who they are.
You don’t see the friendliness in Seoul as much as you do down in Songtan. My wife is an orphan, and she has a foster family. The two of us have been through some difficult times, but her family never gave up hope for us or stopped loving us. And today when I show up at the door, whether I show up empty-handed or with oxtails in my hands, they’re just absolutely thrilled to have me. We sit down and talk about the things that have happened in all of our lives since we talked last.
These people are Buddhists. And I think that would have really scared me away ten years ago because of my religious upbringing. I was taught that Christianity was the only way and the people who believe anything else all going to hell. But today I have different ideas, and I’m very comfortable with people of other religions.
I met my wife in a club. Back then everybody did. It was only women from the lower classes who would marry a foreigner. But we seem to be the only ones who have stuck with our story. In the meantime, the former go-go dancer has become a former piano teacher, and the one-time sweater shop girls seem to be everywhere today. I was very fortunate to find a woman who was bright enough to see beyond the social mores. She knew that she wouldn’t be worse than anybody else if she married a foreigner, anymore than she was worse than anybody else because she was an orphan or because she worked in a club.
Mi-kyoung had terrible things happen to her in the orphanage. In those days there was a program for “American uncles,” servicemen who would volunteer to work with the orphans on a regular basis. It doesn’t exist today, maybe because of the news broadcasts of things happening in the States, cases of Americans sexually abusing children. But in those days the orphans all had an American uncle, a mi-ajǒssi, who would come and visit. Her mi-ajǒssi took her out and bought her a pair of beautiful, brand-new shoes. In her whole life she’d never had new shoes before. And sometimes she didn’t have shoes any shoes at all. He bought her some candy too. It was the happiest moment of her life.
A lot of the children at the orphanage still had parents who for some reason were unable to keep them. They might be alcoholics or parents who were physically or sexually abusing their kids. And these parents would come and give their children money and candy. Mi-kyoung didn’t have parents who visited her, so it was difficult for her because she never got anything. Well, one of the parents looked down at Mi-kyoung’s new shoes and said, “I like those shoes. Give them to my daughter,” and gave a wad of money to one of the women who worked there. The next day they weren’t Mi-kyoung’s shoes. They were on somebody else’s feet. It wrecked her.
Almost all of the people in orphanages in Korea are completely ethnic Korean. The orphanages with Amerasians are extremely small. In the orphanage at Tǒngduchun there are a hundred at the most, and there are some in Munsan, and a few down in Songtan. The orphanage at Tǒngduchun may still have tight connections with the Second ID—the U.S. Army—up there, but the one I saw down in Songtan was just the private house of a lady who took care of five kids. She was supported by the Buddhists.
I don’t think the attitude about adoption has changed while I’ve been here. I was told once—I think this notion would be inconceivable to us in the States—that it’s only okay for a woman to adopt if she’s already had a child, because then she can transfer the love that she has found for her natural child onto the adopted child. Of course, the major issue is lineage. Why is this person in an orphanage anyway? Because its parents weren’t good enough to raise it themselves, and the parents’ faults will be passed down to the child. There’s fear. A friend of mine was in charge of KATUSAs. They were on a hike, and they were told to go down the hill near an orphanage to get some water. Some of them were so afraid to walk past an orphanage that they wouldn’t obey a direct order. So I think some of the legal discrimination, like the fact that male orphans are not admitted into the military, might be for their own protection. As an underclass, they are expected to be pickpockets or hard-core criminals.
However, under pressure from outside Korea, the treatment of orphans has improved. There is a strong desire to become a sǒnjinkuk, an advanced country, and the criteria for that status include a country’s record on human rights. The un-Koreans, they call them—the orphans, the handicapped—are all finally coming out of the closet and setting up support groups. My father is handicapped, and some very rude things happened to him when he was here. But once we were in Minsukchǒn, and a guy with a cane who walked just like my dad came up to him and shook my dad’s cane. And he said, “Yeah, yeah, number one, number one” [we’re the best].
To this day Mi-kyoung keeps in touch with the people from her orphanage. When we went back to the States we were buying presents for the kids—for the children of the people she grew up with. And we’ve been back to the orphanage and brought presents and stuff. The people who grew up in the orphanages for Amerasians also have support groups. Some of the orphans have become very famous, like In Sun-i, the singer whose parents were Korean and African American. You see her on TV sometimes. She and another famous entertainer provide the financial support behind this movement, but there are others who have become popular singers. The Amerasians blend into the society pretty well, although they’re still considered foreigners. I don’t see it as a severe problem.
Really, there’s only one thing about being here that I don’t like. In Korea the Air Force has to play war games with the whole chemical ensemble—a mask, a steel helmet and a shirt and pair of pants made of fabric with charcoal woven into it to filter out any chemical weapons. The Air Force people who are here for one year don’t mind doing Army stuff. But those people who extend their tour of duty here, having to play these games once every six weeks, year after year, it gets very old. In order to do your job, you have to relearn how to move your body wearing that stuff. It cuts down on your eyesight, your hearing, your dexterity, and it’s extremely hot. You may have to carry it around for a week, and if you hear the sirens you have to put it on until there’s an all-clear. The guys on the flight line really have it rough. It’s ridiculous, but comparatively easy sitting in an air-conditioned office, peering through a gas mask and typing with thick rubber gloves on.