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.
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.”
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.