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.”
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.
Carol Dussere was a professor of English from 1984-86 in Xiamen University, Fujian, China and from 1989-2006 at Dongguk University in Seoul. The interviews and photos on this page were collected as a result of her experience abroad. She currently lives in the beautiful town of Tagaytay, Philippines, where she is working on two book manuscripts. ("Dussere" rhymes with "blue hair," which she doesn't have yet.)