Archive for April, 2010

A Skeptic’s View of the Korean Student Movement

by on Sunday, April 25th, 2010

Student protest has a long tradition in Korea, in keeping with the Confucian idea of students as the conscience of society. In 1960 the student movement was a major factor in the overthrow of Pres. Syngman Rhee. After 1960, the student movement moved considerably to the left of its earlier liberal-democratic position. With much righteous indignation, the students  claimed that the system was corrupt beyond reform, and they pointed to the military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee and Park’s Yushin Constitution, in which he proclaimed himself “president for life,” the slaughter of hundreds of citizens in the 1980 Kwangju Uprising and the illegitimacy of Chun Doo-hwan’s seizure of power. There was no truly viable opposition inside government. The United States was suspected of having condoned the massacre at Kwangju and of having supported the illegitimate and corrupt regime of Chung Doo-hwan. (These suspicions are well-founded, as is clear from the recommended readings at the top of this website.) Western neo-Marxist literature seeped into the country and into the minds of the students. The students came to see the government as the puppet of the “neo-colonialist” United States. In 1986 and 1987, as labor unrest and opposition to Chun Doo-hwan was growing, the student movement gained a great deal of popular support. White-collar company employees joined in the demonstration, and church people and housewives cheered from the sidelines. Eventually Chun was forced to step down.

The Korean student movement existed in an environment without democratic traditions and almost entirely without a history of successful reform movements. Korea had no tradition of democracy, no understanding of a loyal opposition or polite though heated debate, no notion of officials being held accountable by the public, no experience of the grassroots’ participating by voicing demands which could eventually become public policy. Student leaders believed themselves to be more “moral” than the rulers of the country. They hoped that throwing the bums out and breaking the shackles of American oppression would lead to democratic reform and reunification with North Korea.

The Kwangju Massacre began when the Special Forces, which had fought with the U.S. in Vietnam, attacked a peaceful student demonstration at Chonnam University with bayonets, clubs and gunfire. Students and towspeople responded, and the demonstrations grew. The troops were called off only to return with true military might and the support of the U.S. military command. After Kwangju, two events exceptional for their violence were the 1986 siege of Kongguk University in Seoul, when special troops with helicopters and tanks held a student rally captive inside the university for several days, and the death of six policemen who were held captive inside a burning building at Dongeui University. In 1991 a student was beaten to death by the police. Also that spring there was a series of protest suicides by young undergraduates who set themselves on fire. It was clear that the self-immolations led to a decline in public support for the student movement. People felt things were just going too far. 

In late 1991 I asked a philosophy student at Seoul National University to give me his view of the student movement. Carl came to Korea as a soldier in the U.S. Army, developed an interest in Korea, became a Buddhist monk and then left his order. He entered the university in 1988 and completed all his requirements for a degree in November, 1991. At that time Carl was a very laid-back, likeable fellow in his late twenties whose Korean proficiency was near-native. He expressed a disappointment with the student movement, a disappointment which had led him to reconsider liberation movements in general. The skepticism he had found in Korea became part of his overall view of the human condition and the prospects for change. Here are his words.

Carl’s Story

I’ve been observing the student movement for the last four years—never from the inside, but I’ve had friends who were involved. I’ve also been reading position papers for four years. At Seoul National there’s an open area with position papers taped up on the sides of the buildings. The papers I’ve seen have always been vehemently anti-U.S., even to the point of being ridiculous. They’d sound pretty funny in English. For example, after the U.S. bombed Libya, some student organizations claimed that Incheon was going to be next. For the life of me, I still can’t figure that one out. [According to Western news reports, massive labor unrest was erupting in Incheon, a city outside Seoul, at that time. The students might have felt that the “colonial” power had a vested interest in putting an end to it—or that it made a good story.]

It’s really difficult for a Westerner to understand the motivations behind all this because of the difference in the way Korean history is interpreted. Korean students tend to see their own country as always having been the victim and the U.S. as always being extremely imperialist and only looking out for its own interests.

The Marxist view of society is very much embedded in the way people think here. For example, the professors lecture a lot about social class, class conflict and the progression of history. The term minjung crops up all the time, meaning “the people,” particularly the workers, who make up a kind of sacred group. Until recently there was a big black market in communist books put out by small underground presses which also ran off leaflets to be handed out at the universities. Now you can go into any of the bookstores around the universities and find them chocked full of communist literature. I don’t know whether this is still the case, but there used to be a lot of Marxist study groups. The typical attitude was not what you’d expect for a person in a field of study like physics, but the attitude of Christians studying the Bible—either people believe it or they don’t. For believers it’s a matter of figuring out exactly what Marx said in order to follow it, not a matter of determining whether some particular point is right or applicable. Since the students have very little experience with anything other than studying, their talk tends to be very heady and intellectual and extremely unrealistic. I’ve never heard of any students trying to apply Marxist principles on a smaller level, for example, living together and trying to combine labor and finances or buying a farm and getting a commune together—the sort of thing that was done all over the West in the sixties and seventies.

The students use the term “democracy” a lot, but nobody ever really advocates democracy. Nobody speaks about trying to get basic information on current affairs out to the general public or taking steps to assure that the election will be fair. There is a deep cynicism among the students about whether their goals can be achieved democratically. Most of the students won’t even get behind the left-wing politicians. Their efforts are directed entirely at overthrowing the government so the whole system can be changed from the top down.

My impression is that the student movement has a top-down structure, very totalitarian, with no democracy, and that the leaders, the people who do most of the planning, try to fan up as much anger as they can on as many issues as possible. I think they’ll lie and invent things and do anything they can to get the students riled up. Once in a while an issue will appear—a student gets killed or something—and they succeed. The more moderate students will look at the issue and decide they have to do something about it. So they take to the streets in protest.

I think stories are invented because I often read in their position papers about U.S. intentions and secret agreements with this country or that country. There’s never a source cited. I know this thing didn’t come out in the mainstream American papers or magazines. When they say the Americans met with so-and-so and were secretly plotting with them to do this or that, where could this information possibly have come from? I doubt that Korean students have access to foreign news sources that I don’t have, given the fact that the government controls its citizens’ access to information.

There are other things that are obviously not true. One of the student reporters went around to places outside the U.S. bases interviewing prostitutes. He finished his article by staying that all the women he had interviewed said, “We can’t wait until Korea gets reunited so we won’t have to work here anymore.” This was obviously something just off the top of the reporter’s head. Many Korean men are furious that Korean prostitutes are sleeping with Americans, but I know from my own experience that getting rid of their American customers is the last thing on the minds of the women who work there.

A lot of foreigners arrive here with a very liberal outlook and a lot of sympathy for the movement, but I’ve never met a Westerner who actually lived here who has been able to maintain any sympathy for the people who run the student movement—maybe with their objectives, but not with the student leaders. Certainly there’s a lot to be angry about regarding America’s role in their history. I sympathize with their objectives myself.

Korean Americans go to the rallies despite the risk of getting thrown out of the country. The ones I’ve talked with were very disappointed because they thought people were insincere. Maybe the speaker was talking and a lot of the audience was just clowning around instead of listening.

And the movement is extremely racist. People use the terms Miguk-nom [American bastard] and Ilbon-nom [Japanese bastard]. Nom is not used for any nationality except Japanese and American. This attitude must affect the Japanese students here too, because a lot of them come here eager to learn all about Korea and then leave after a year or two very disillusioned. I imagine it’s because there’s so much resentment against the Japanese.

I’ve heard that, during the sixties in the U.S. and Europe, the student movement intimidated professors and others it thought were unsympathetic to the cause. In Korea this has been going on for a long time. The student movement uses intimidation just like any other totalitarian system does. Once I was sitting in a classroom trying to listen to a lecture and not being able to hear a word because almost directly outside, in a little room off the hall, a student was banging on a drum—practicing for something. I didn’t understand a word of the lecture in the entire hour and a half, and I don’t think anyone else did either. It would have been unthinkable for the professor to go out and say, “Please stop banging on that drum.” I’ve seen a few of the older professors go out to a demonstration and say, “Please be quiet, we’re having class in here.” The students razzed them and made them look like idiots. Students used to protest political developments by boycotting tests. Marshalls stood outside the classroom doors and didn’t allow anyone to go in. A student couldn’t just say, “Well, I’m going to take the test, you guys do what you want.”

The movement has a strict hierarchy. At the bottom are student groups called “circles,” or clubs. With a few exceptions, like the Buddhist club and the yoga club, they have either a Christian or a communist orientation and are opposed to the government. They use their resources to support the movement. The photo club has exhibitions in which all of the photos show workers and factories and maybe demonstrations. A student trying to show pictures of flowers would be ridiculed.

Someone has to do all the hand-lettering and drawing on the posters, which are up all over the place. On any given day, they tape up probably a hundred and fifty freshly-written pages on big paper. It’s a tremendous amount of work. Someone has to organize the ideology and make sure that it’s consistent. There may be minor differences between schools, but you never see two papers side by side presenting different views.

Each academic department has a student council, each college within the university has a student council, and there is also a general student council for the university, which has a loose affiliation with organizations connecting the various universities. So the philosophy department student council might have a demonstration outside, with twenty or thirty people turning up in bandannas and maybe matching shirts, and that demonstration will be followed by one from another department. After classes you often get a little speech followed by an announcement of a shindig somewhere, which everyone is expected to attend. At the beginning of the year there’s something called “MT,” or “membership training,” which is a three-day drunk and indoctrination session. This is especially important for the freshmen, who are just learning the ropes.

Before a big demonstration, the departments will each chant and march and dance around the campus, and then there will be a big rally in the plaza, with each department seated in its own section. They may have people coming in from outside to talk, people in business suits who may be alumni or aspiring politicians. All of the speakers must sound extremely angry. There’s a lot of chanting and screaming. Then the male students tear off some lengths of pipe from the fence, and the female students crush rock in the road and collect the rocks on garbage can lids and carry them down to the gate. People will bring out the boxes of Molotov cocktails they have been preparing all day. There’s more chanting and fist-waving at the gate. The chants come from books of songs and chants which students are required to learn and practice. They may be fairly simple, like “Bring down the Roh regime” or “Americans go home.”

There’s a great deal of machismo in the whole thing. When the students go out to battle the riot police, they get all their stuff together and then put themselves in as much danger as they can get away with. It’s a primitive fighting ritual in which initiation and other rites of passage are very important. The students laugh and show off their weapons and try to get in the front line—maybe steal a policeman’s helmet or something and bring it back. I think the police were also into a macho thing, and the tough guys have a contest going about who can be the toughest. Last spring a student was beaten to death by the riot police during a demonstration.

The reason why a lot of people support the student movement, whether they like the leadership or not, is because it applies a constant pressure on the government. The government always has to keep one eye on the student movement. You may notice that the government passes its strong measures when school’s out of session, especially right at the beginning of vacation when the students are out in the countryside. [Winter vacation is from about the second week in December to the end of February, and summer vacation is from about the middle of June to the third week in August.] Then as soon as school starts and the students are just getting organized, the government will try to dampen their ire with a conciliatory gesture like releasing some political prisoners. Sometimes the government messes it up, and the protest can’t be contained. It accelerates, goes out of control, and someone is pushed out of power. There was a big demonstration in Masan when the police opened fire on the students. Then there was an uprising everywhere. You used to see tanks and military actually on the campus.

From time to time there have been suggestions that students should use nonviolence, but I don’t think that appeals to very many students. At one time I got very interested in Gandhi and studied a lot of his books. From him I got the idea that nonviolence takes a lot of discipline and careful focus on very clear issues. Gandhi’s position wasn’t to insist that the British were ipso facto bad, but merely to point out the inconsistencies and to target the very clear faults in the system. For instance, there was a law that prohibited Indians from making their own salt. Obviously the thing to do was to walk down to the beach and make a little bag of salt for your own use from saltwater—in order to show that something was really wrong if a person couldn’t do such a simple thing. To make an issue that clear requires a lot of clear thinking. The students don’t do that. My impression is that if the government happened to take some action the students had once agreed with, the students would change their position in order to be on the opposite side.

There’s very little focus on small things. I remember once the students came out and danced around and did their thing on the second floor of the student building. They wrote up all their signs and then just threw everything on the floor. It was a huge place, and it was such a mess you could hardly walk through it. There were chairs knocked over and paint spilled all over. The campaign was for a protest movement to unite with the workers, a student-worker union. When they went outside, I watched them dance around the plaza as an old custodian came in and started cleaning up their mess. I’m sure it never occurred to the students that the custodian was a worker too.

Small things are difficult. Another example comes from a Marxism class I took last semester. The class was offered by a professor of social philosophy who was very interested in Marxism and had studied it in the United States and Germany. This was a special class offered in response to requests from students in the movement. It was a three-hour course, but it met only for two hours in the professor’s office. There were no tests and no reports. You just had to read the book and translate from German when it was your turn. But despite the fact that it was very easy, most of the students who were into demonstrating often didn’t show up for class. When they did come, they’d have some excuse about having had to do something for the movement—somebody was trying to get elected, or they had to go over to another university for something. The teacher made cracks about having to give them an F, but at the end he just said, “Well, turn in a report.” I was amazed that the students would behave that way. They were just being lazy.

Actually, watching this sort of thing has made me much more cynical about mass movements in other countries as well. It sounds good that people are out to save the poor, but maybe that’s not all that’s happening. My cynicism comes from observing that very few people really want to do anything to change life—their own life, their family and their community. The small things take a lot of work. The students talk a lot about trying to clean up the government, but people give bribes to officials when they need government paperwork done. They even bribe their sons’ elementary school teachers. The corruption that people are criticizing is deeply embedded into the whole society. So why not try to change things closer to home? Because that kind of change has a tremendous cost. If you don’t bribe your kid’s teacher, he won’t get special treatment. That’s why people do it.

It’s certainly true, as Krishnamurti [an Indian spiritual leader] said, that wars are not just fought on the battlefield, they’re also fought with your secretary in the morning. What happens on a big level also happens on a small, individual level in people’s lives. Myself, I’m very skeptical that any change that happens only in the social structure will have any lasting effect. I think society changes when people change, when consciousness changes. Historians talk about this king and that war. It’s hard to trace changes in individual lives over a period of time. People do do good things, they do have compassion. Most people aren’t violent. I think this is what we need to focus on. Why does a mother look out for her child instead of doing what she wants to do? I think there’s a reason for that. If we start with the mother’s compassion for her child and learn to develop that in ourselves, use that as a starting point, I think there is some hope.


Military Linguists, Part 3

by on Sunday, April 11th, 2010


A U.S. serviceman and three KATUSAs at work on the news A U.S. serviceman and three KATUSAs at work on the news

Like many expatriates, Steve has been in Korea more than once. He first came as a U.S. solider, and then he returned as a civilian teacher of English. The text below is an interview done in the late 1990s. I’ve added a response by one of my students, a Korean who was assigned to the American military. (See KATUSAs link on the right.)


 Steve’s story

When I got on the plane for Seoul, I was excited because I figured I’d studied Korean for an entire year so I’d be able to speak with Koreans. I got off the airplane at Kimpo, and someone started speaking rapidly to me, and it was completely incomprehensible. That was possibly one of my most down days—in my life. I discovered later that nothing worked like total immersion in the language.

I find myself being really embarrassed when I see a group of guys on their way to Itaewǒn, acting as if each of them had a chip on his shoulder about being American. Keep in mind that most of the boys and girls that come over here to Korea, the young enlisted people, have hardly been out of their small town in North Carolina or Minnesota or Iowa—wherever. Here they’re exposed to a totally different way of life in one of the largest cities in the world. I don’t think they can deal with it. When I came here I felt a sort of siege mentality on post. A lot of people are afraid to go out and experience things, partly because of the language, partly because the people and culture seem so different. Not all of the U.S. is culturally diverse. Where I grew up, Minnesota, is also fairly homogeneous—the land of the white Scandinavian.

I remember some years ago walking by a demonstration outside one of the gates at Yongsan. The students were yelling at the soldiers, “Yankee, go home,” and the soldiers on the other side of the gate were yelling back, “Send me, send me!”

I had to adjust. When I came over the first time I had to get used to being a racial minority. I was working primarily with Koreans, not with the rest of the U.S. military. However, I was living in the barracks with Americans. So I was going through kind of a culture shock every day. I was a 29-year-old P.F.C. [Private First Class] at the time, which is a fairly low rank. I had to behave a certain way with the Koreans, being deferential both to age and seniority, but when I got back to the post, I had to defer to 23 and 24-year-old sergeants. On the U.S. side there was no deference to age, just position.

Then there was a sort of silent politeness among Koreans in the working environment, but the American environment was much more casual. My posture would be different. My gestures would be different. There’s not such obvious deference in everything you do. I would work with Korean military officers during the day, and at night I’d come back and live in the barracks. It was kind of confusing at times. I didn’t know what was right and what was wrong anymore, you know?

There were times when I thought the Koreans had the right idea, and there were times when I thought they were complete idiots. I’ve learned a lot since then. The hardest thing about living in Korea for me has to do with individuality. When I was growing up, my parents always said, “Be who you are, be free, we love you for who you are.”  On the U.S. army post—as long as I did my job, kept my hair short and my uniform pressed—what I did on my own time was okay. But Korean society is different. Here I am part of the group, and I always have to remember that.

There were times when the cultures were complete opposites. My Korean military buddies would take me out to a nightclub, and they would want to dance with me. The Korean idea is that you go out to become close to the people you came with. You are not there to meet anyone else. But an American man goes to a nightclub to have a good time and to meet a woman. The other guys are just part of the hunting party. Anyway, my Korean buddies could not understand my behavior. I would be dancing with about four or five of them, and some sweet young thing on the other side of the dance floor would look at me and smile. As I would move toward her, I would find five sets of hands pulling me back.

I would try to explain, “Guys, you don’t get it, do you?  Look at her.”  They would say, “You don’t get it, Steve, do you?”

In the barracks, the Americans would come home from a club, maybe with a buddy or two. Through an open doorway, they would see ten or fifteen KATUSAs [Korean Augmentee of the U.S. Army] sitting around in a circle, drunk, with their arms around each other. They would get the wrong idea, and there would be kind of an uneasy feeling. They would think, “I don’t understand these people.” The Koreans would not understand why the Americans would not be part of a group.

The drinking culture is totally different. Koreans drink to become a group, to feel comfortable with each other, to foster togetherness. Your friend pours you a drink, and you are obliged to pour him a drink, and that way everybody is involved. Some of you know that I no longer drink or smoke for health reasons. In the West this is much easier. Here you have to accept a drink, although you don’t have to drink it, you just have to offer a toast. I’ve also been told that even though I don’t smoke anymore, if I’m offered a cigarette and everyone else is smoking, I have to take the cigarette.

One of the things that was the hardest for me to understand was seeing the young KATUSA, the private who has just come out of basic training, basically become the slave of the sergeant, who’s happy to have his turn to tyrannize someone. We would stick up for the young KATUSAs. I’d tell the Korean sergeants, “Don’t steal Private Kim’s ramyon. Why are you making Private Kim shine your boots?”  And the response I got was, “Mind your own business. This is the way we do things.”

Bang-ho’s story

After basic training, I went through special training for KATUSA soldiers at Camp Humphreys. I had never talked with Americans before, and I didn’t know if I would be able to make myself understood. The training was done by both Korean and American soldiers. They taught us everything from how to do ceremonies to how to eat steak with a knife and fork. I discovered that I could get along with Americans. I really didn’t have any conflict with them. The Americans in my workplace were always very kind. As soon as I arrived at the unit, I needed a few days off because my father had died. That was no problem. They always took good care of me.

The interrogation unit had its own Korean school with teachers from Yonsei University. Some soldiers even spent more than a year studying Korean at Yonsei. While I was in the unit, there was a competition, a Korean speech contest for American soldiers. A lot of soldiers participated, and I was very surprised at their proficiency. I thought their Korean was perfect.

There’s a stereotype of KATUSA soldiers as not very smart. This is based on their poor English. People think all KATUSAs are alike. But actually, in the past there was a difference between those who applied to be KATUSAs—like myself—and those who were drafted, who often didn’t even understand why they were there. Now the government is selecting all KATUSA soldiers from those that apply and take the test. The competition is actually quite stiff. The test covers English, ethics, and Korean history. But they’ve changed it now. You have to take the TOIEC which I think is very funny.

After I had been working there for a while, my supervisor told me that he had changed his thinking about KATUSAs because of me. He could see that I worked very hard and always tried my best. He had thought we were all lazy and had no motivation.

Everyone has something against the KATUSAs. The Korean military people are jealous because we live like American soldiers. At the end of the work day, we just put civilian clothes, and we can do what we want. On the other hand, we still only make a little over 10,000 won [$13] a month, like all the other Korean soldiers. Then the Americans are jealous because the KATUSAs get both Korean and American holidays off. It shouldn’t be a problem. We only have fifteen days off a year. I think the Americans need to understand that the KATUSAs didn’t want to be in the military. They’re in the military against their will. It’s very different in the American all-volunteer army.

In my barracks, there were some soldiers who were very interested and wanted to experience as much as possible. Sometimes I took them out and  showed them around, and we ate in a Korean restaurant. But most of the American soldiers never went out. All they did on the weekends was sit in the barracks, listen to music, and drink. They might go to a bar, but they had little contact with ordinary Korean life. I thought they were missing a valuable opportunity to learn about another culture. There were lots of Koreans on the base, so they could have gotten to know people if they wanted to.

Steve is right that Korean soldiers are treated badly, but it’s more common among the sergeants than among the officers. It’s partly the fault of the system. If I were a sergeant in the U.S. military and had a couple of people under me, I don’t think I’d have any trouble being in charge, but in the Korean military, sergeants don’t have much authority.

A strict hierarchy exists in both the Korean and the American military, but I think it works quite differently. In the U.S. armed forces, an officer is like a father. He takes charge, and he really takes care of his subordinates. But in the Korean military, it is impossible for one officer to take care of all his people because there are too many of them. Particularly nowadays, lot of young soldiers don’t show respect for the officers. I understand that the young officers might have a hard time controlling their men. It’s a serious problem. Also, although most American soldiers seem to be of average intelligence, the senior non-commissioned officers and the officers—who run things—are very smart.

I think for me being a KATUSA was worthwhile. That kind of experience can broaden a student’s view about foreign people and the outside world. I strongly suggest that Korean students apply. I worked with very good people, and I have a very good opinion of the U.S. military. I think it operates very efficiently in some ways. If a war broke out in Korea, some Korean soldiers could die because of very poor equipment. They don’t have enough gas masks, for example. But in the U.S. military a lot of emphasis is placed on personal survival, like in the case of biological warfare.

Military Linguists, Part 2

by on Monday, April 5th, 2010

Gabriel is quick, witty, and always full of good stories. Aside from his connection with  the military environment, his experience of culture shock is similar to those civilians have. This interview took place around 1995.

Gabriel’s Story

 When I first joined the army, the recruiters told me that if I qualified for the Army linguists’ program I would be offered a selection of languages. I did very well on the Defense Language Aptitude Battery, which tests your ability to learn a foreign language. They told me, “When you get to the language school, you just tell them what language you want.”  I filled out some paper work and selected Thai, Tagalog, and Laotian.

When I got my orders, one of my drill sergeants said, “You know as part of the code, it tells you what language you’re going to have.”

“No, no, they said you could pick what language you want to do.”

“Yeah, right.”

It said KP. I couldn’t figure out what that meant. At the Defense Language Institute I was directed me to the Korean school. I wasn’t very happy about it, actually. Korean is one of the biggest schools at the DLI, but it’s unpopular. A lot of the people who join the Army and become linguists want to learn a language that can help them gain civilian employment, and Korean is not considered especially good for that. People would much rather learn Japanese or Arabic or Chinese—the other three in the difficult languages category. According to the Army and the Department of Defense, Korean is the hardest language for English speakers to learn. Other authorities on language learning put Finnish first and Korean second.

The Korean school at the DLI turns out a lot of people who don’t speak Korean very well, but it’s really tough. The schools of Spanish and French graduates about 60% of the Army people who start there, but less than half of the people who start with Korean get through the course. Army schools have a predetermined attrition rate, so from the beginning the instructors are looking for the 60% to 70% of the class that they’re going to get rid of. It’s really cutthroat. People decide they don’t want to do it, and probably 95% of the people who do get through the course are burned out by that time. Of those that graduate, only half meet the Army standards for linguists, although actually the standards are probably not that high. All the instructors are native Koreans, no Korean-Americans, and they put a tremendous amount of pressure on the students to get good scores.

I was the only person in my section that they expected to meet the standards, and so my teacher was constantly hounding me to study more. Americans are not used to having that kind of pressure in school. By the time I was done with the DLI I hated the Korean language, I hated Koreans, and I certainly didn’t want to come to Korea. Except that if there was a war I wanted to interrogate them—torture them. When I finished my interrogation training, I was put in the Special Forces unit for a couple of years. When I reenlisted I decided I did want to come to Korea. I figured that as long as I had invested several years of my life in learning about Korea and learning to fight a war here, I ought to at least come here and find out what it was all about. So I submitted a request for a transfer.

When I was a kid I was fascinated with “the mysteries of the Orient.”  My mom’s an avid reader, and she had lots of books around. My mom and dad had both been in Laos during the Vietnam War, and they had lived in Japan. Even while I was at the DLI, I had made the mistake of assuming that Korean culture was very similar to Japanese culture, and my instructors at the DLI were obsessed with presenting Korea as a wonderful place to be. Also, before I came here to live I’d been here a couple of times on exercises working with Korean Special Forces guys. I thought I knew what to expect.

The culture shock was a lot more severe than I expected. I’d moved around a lot my whole life—I’d been to Mexico and Canada and spent time in Thailand. I always considered myself to be  someone who could go anywhere and become reasonably comfortable fairly quickly. I was surprised that it took me at least six months.

First of all, my language skills might not have been great when I graduated from school, but they had deteriorated. Also, having been somewhat brainwashed by my teachers, I expected people to act Japanese, at least to be formal and polite. Second, I felt very out of place. In some places in Asia, like Thailand, I think almost anyone could go there and feel comfortable. People are pretty mellow. But in Seoul, a huge city in country where there’s been an American presence for over fifty years, people act like they’ve never seen Westerners before. They just stop and stare. Teenage girls make weird comments.

It continues to annoy me when people compliment me on my Korean before I’ve said anything. I mean, you walk into a store and you say, “Annyǒng haseo [hello], how much does that cost?”

“Oh, your Korean’s great.”

I find it really annoying. They assume foreigners are too stupid to speak Korean. The compliments are really patronizing and condescending. Friends of mine say that they were told foreigners don’t really learn Korean, it’s much too difficult for them. Of course, nowadays there are foreigners speaking Korean on television.

I was fortunate enough to find some old classmates who had lived here for fairly extensive periods of time. They took me around to interesting places. So I started getting out of town and seeing things, and I gradually learned to ignore the fact that everyone was staring at me. Then my Korean got a lot better and I made some Korean friends.

After my first year there was a drastic change. Now I can ride on the subway all the time and never notice people staring at me. I can speak Korean every day, and people don’t act as surprised. I think a lot of it is an energy that I put off. I mean, people sometimes come up and speak Korean to me on the street, and that certainly doesn’t happen to everyone. On something other than a conscious level, people are picking up on the fact that I’m comfortable in their country. I have found it extremely beneficial to speak Korean—people definitely treat you differently. All in all, my experience has been fairly positive.

I’ve grown accustomed to the behavior I found really aggravating when I first got here–like being slammed into in the subway station—so it doesn’t bother me that much anymore. It took me a while to realize it, but the Koreans don’t have the same concept of space we do. They know there’s a million people in the subway station all trying to get somewhere else. They know they’re going to run into people, it’s just a fact of life. I mean, as long as you don’t knock people down or run into them hard enough to hurt them, it’s not considered rude. Part of this is that Koreans are just not as uptight as Americans are about body contact. They don’t mind bumping into each other because they don’t mind touching. They don’t notice. At about the same time, I found out that I didn’t get run into as much. I was slowing down, I walked in crowds differently, and then I didn’t get run into nearly as much. Which leads me to think I was probably me running into them a lot more than they were running into me.

I’ve found that if you have any capacity for introspection, you can find out a lot about yourself when you live in a foreign situation. I certainly have learned a lot about myself—like the fact that it had never occurred to me to question my ideas about my body and my space until I was forced to ask myself, “Why are the Koreans okay with this, and why am I not okay with it?”

I’ve always thought that the way I responded to things was the human, natural way to respond to them, and the longer I’ve been in Korea the more I’ve realized those things are culturally conditioned. Mine wasn’t so much a human response as a white, middle-class American response. The more I saw about myself the more surprised I was. But I think there are probably a number of foreign cultures which could have taught me, maybe not exactly the same lessons, but something similar.

I think, one of our greatest faults as Americans is that we’re incredibly self-righteous. There’s this cultural egotism that leads us to believe that we’re so culturally superior that we should be able to point out the faults of everyone else and expect them to correct them. For example, we look down on Koreans for the way they treat women. Now, I feel fairly liberated, and I try to have open, liberated relationships. I had been conditioned to believe this was the right way to do things. I assumed that, if I found an intelligent, well-educated Korean girl and I behaved in a sensitive manner, she’d be grateful and say, “Wow, American men certainly are more considerate than Korean men.”

And to be honest, my girlfriend doesn’t like it. It frustrates her because it’s so foreign to her experience. It took me a while to realize that she often sees me as unmanly because my behavior is very American. When we go out I ask, “What movie do you think we should see?  What do you think we should do?”  Generally, I’m proud of having developed that.

After we had been going out for like a year, Ji-seon said, “You know, it really bothers me when you do that all the time. Men are supposed to decide what we’re going to do. If I don’t like it, I’ll whine about it, and then we can negotiate from there. But you’re supposed to be more forceful.”

It hurt my feelings because I felt I was being so considerate, and I was disappointed that she wasn’t impressed. It happens all the time. We have learned to communicate pretty well, so we actually talk about those things sometimes. I’m always surprised.

A Korean woman may test her boyfriend’s devotion by asking for permission to do something which will be denied if he cares about her. She may expect her man to act possessive and tell her she can’t do things. It’s a demonstration of affection. A parallel from our culture might be the games high school students sometimes play to provoke jealousy in a girlfriend or a boyfriend. When the other person does demonstrate jealousy, it proves that he or she is loved.

Ji-seon would come and ask me, “What do you think—how about if I cut my hair?”

She expected a response like, “No, if you cut your hair, I’ll kill you.”  Korean men like long hair, and they’re expected to tell their girlfriends how to wear it.

I said, “Well, I like your hair long, but if you want to cut it go ahead.”

That really bothered her. She told her friends, “Gabe doesn’t care how I wear my hair.” They were all shocked.

She asked me two or three weeks in a row, and I started getting irritated. “If you want to cut your hair, go ahead. The reasons I like you don’t have that much to do with your hair style. If you want to wear it short, it’s okay, honestly.”  I do like long hair, so once again I was proud of myself for not trying to control her.        

Now it’s really short. I think it looks great, and she does too. But she told me later, “The reason I cut my hair was I was angry that you wouldn’t tell me how to wear it.”

Americans expect people who are being rigidly controlled to rebel. It’s such a natural American reaction, it seems like instinct. When we first meet a Korean girl and we find out she’s forced to come home every night at ten o’clock, we’re shocked. We assume that she must be rebelling inside. But I think that probably the majority of Koreans find comfort and security in the fact that their lives are so ordered and disciplined. Ji-seon does. I mean, some people get out of jail—or the military—and have a hard time making decisions. It doesn’t bother Ji-seon to have to be home early all the time. It does sometimes bother her that her younger brother is allowed to stay out later because he’s male.

In Korea people adhere to the roles society assigns them. In the States, you sometimes see people who don’t have a lot of money or a high-status job go to great lengths to dress and act like someone who does. You see the reverse too, people with a lot of money and great jobs who dress like slobs. To Koreans it is unthinkable that you would act beneath yourself or that you would presume to act that much above yourself.

Here most of my friends are fairly upper-class. I’ll have with my spoon and my chopsticks in the same hand and while I’m eating I’ll switch back and forth. Probably the majority of Koreans do that occasionally. My friends will say, “You know, a yangban [nobleman] would never eat like that.”

“Well, you know, I’m not a yangban.”

They quickly become embarrassed.

“No really. A sergeant in the Korean Army, is he a yangban?  Is he upper-class, is he expected to act like a gentleman?”

My girlfriend gets frustrated that I won’t act “polite” sometimes. It’s not a matter of me scratching myself and burping, but of not trying to appear more high-class—not just in front of her parents, even among her peers and her friends. “Your dad’s a doctor, right?”

“No, he’s not.”  He manages an injury recovery unit.

Koreans will always lie about how much they paid for something, but I refuse to play those games. Ji-seon expects me to talk about my brother who’s doing great and wonderful things and not about my siblings who are in jail. I talk about both rather freely, and it bothers her that I don’t capitalize on my strengths and try to hide my weaknesses.

Ji-seon never had a boyfriend until she met me—never held hands, never kissed anyone, nothing. Once we were going out and the relationship seemed to be sort of serious, she started asking questions, like, “Did you ever have girlfriends before you met me?”  She was uncomfortable asking, and I was uncomfortable telling her. It’s so difficult for the average respectable, conservative Korean to relate to the realities of our culture. There’s been an on-going series of negotiations over two years about my past.   

Now it’s neat. I can say “Yeah, I used to have girlfriends, and I used to do this and that.”  She doesn’t get uptight about it.

We get into arguments all the time, and I find it really interesting. For instance, a lot of times when she comes over she picks up a snack on the way—some crackers, some fruit, or some microwave popcorn. I bought some microwave popcorn at the PX, and I popped it up.

She said, “You know, Korean popcorn is much better than this.”

They don’t even grow popcorn in Korea. It’s all grown in the States. The Koreans purchase it from Orville Reddenbacher, and they wrap it up and put Korean writing on it, and suddenly it’s Korean popcorn.

I said, “It doesn’t taste a Goddamn bit different.”

“Yeah, it does, it’s much better.”

“You know, it isn’t even Korean popcorn.”

We’re always getting into arguments about Korean vs. American culture. She’ll say, “Americans, they’re all decadent. American women all smoke cigarettes and dress sleazy and they have sex and stuff. And now young Korean women are imitating them.”  The changes in Korean society really bother her.

And I’ll say, “Yeah, well, we don’t have huge, shopping-mall-sized whorehouses all over our major cities.”

“Well, we don’t have any here, either.”

“Oh yeah, would you like to go look at some?”

“No, never mind.”

It surprises me that the arguments don’t escalate more than they do, because I’m prone to going to great lengths to win arguments. But I think the exchange helps us look at our respective cultures differently.

We’d like to get married eventually. She’s works treating mentally and emotionally disturbed children. She’s going to do a year of graduate school here and then go to the States to finish her graduate studies. I refuse to get married until I get out of the Army. I’ve seen a lot of unhappy people who are still in the military because they got married and then suddenly had a lot of  financial responsibilities. So before I leave Korea I’ll meet with her parents—I’ve met them before—and tell them, “I’d really like to marry your daughter, but I need to wait until I get out of the military and finish college.”

Hopefully their reaction won’t be extremely negative. And then I’ll go back to the States, do my last year in the Army, then get out and finish my degree. We would probably get married and come back to Korea.

I have to say that I don’t feel very American, and I never really have. Like a friend of ours says, “There are a number of people who are citizens of the world and don’t feel closely associated with their native land.” I certainly consider myself one of them. I also don’t really feel very Army. I mean, superficially I am. I’m young, white, and male, and I tend to be politically conservative and somewhat aggressive. A lot of people might think of me as a typical sergeant. But I don’t feel any connections with the Army or any sense of belonging. I do the best job that I can because I took the oath and I get a paycheck and the army’s been reasonably decent to me, all things considered.

I know I’m going to miss this place when I leave. I’ve been here for a couple of years, I know people, and I’m comfortable here. I always suffer horribly from reverse culture shock. When I’m in the States I’m offended by how loud Americans are and how oddly they dress. Koreans are all about the same size and shape and hair color and everything else. Especially at airports in the U.S., there are so many people, and they’re all so different. At first I find it shocking, and it puts me off.