Monday, March 30, 2015

The Accidental Citizen-Soldier: An English teacher's worst nightmare?

In 2002, Young Chun - born and raised in the U.S. by parents who had emigrated from Korea - came to Korea to teach English and pay off university debts. When he applied for an F-4 visa at the immigration office, he was informed by a confused immigration officer that he couldn't get one because he was, in fact, a Korean citizen; someone had put his name on the family register when he was born. Through a string of bad luck, he eventually found himself with an immigration exit ban and orders to report for military service - even though he didn't speak Korean. Given no assistance by the country of his birth, and unable to evade this order without going to prison, he reported for basic training in January, 2004, and began a two-year experience which would even involve deployment to Afghanistan.

This story is told in Young Chun's recently-released memoir "The Accidental Citizen-Soldier: The Story of an American in the Korean Army." He was kind enough to send me a pdf to review, and within a few pages I was hooked. In addition to having fascinating subject matter, it's well-written, well-paced, and sprinkled with enough humour to lighten an otherwise somber story. Military service is an experience almost all Korean men have to suffer through, and "The Accidental Citizen-Soldier" provides a first-hand look at what it entails, detailing all of the humiliations, power struggles and occasional kindnesses. It's gratifying to see him proceed through what is often an inhumane system and come to understand it and use it to his benefit, even finding time to translate a Korean novel for a translation contest.

More about Young's story can be found in this interview he gave to a Seattle newspaper in 2004 (which didn't go over well when his superiors found out), as well as at his blog, where you can listen to a recent interview given for TBS radio.

The book is well worth reading and can be found at Amazon.com for what should be $2.99 for a Kindle edition (a way to get around a tacked-on $2.00 'international charge' is detailed on his blog). A softcover version is also available and there are currently a handful of copies at the Gwanghwamun branch of Kyobo Bookstore.

I asked Young a few questions about his experience, beginning with the differences between how the ROK and US militaries treat their soldiers:
I think the biggest difference is each army's attitude towards its soldiers. The US Army treats its soldiers as human beings with civil rights to be respected and needs to be fulfilled. At the time, I felt like the Korean Army saw its conscripts as nothing more than tools, no different than a shovel or a toilet. Prior to my induction, I had heard that the pay was atrocious; I hadn't heard that I would be worked almost constantly with very little sleep, sometimes having to skip meals because the officers wouldn't let me take a break from work (even though they made sure to go themselves). There was never a guarantee of free time, and there were no counseling services even though I was depressed and frustrated for most of my first year.

When I was in Afghanistan, I was amazed at all the welfare facilities available on base. They had almost everything I could think of and a lot I couldn't have even imagined. On the other hand, on my base in Daegu, the only real welfare facility for conscripts was the PX, which was dwarfed by the one in Afghanistan. The BX on Bagram Air Base was a Wal-mart. The PX on my base in Daegu was a 7-11. At least, that's how it felt. My company in Daegu had a small trailer with some gym equipment and a single basketball hoop. I've heard that other units had a noraebang and a computer for conscripts to use; my company had neither. I couldn't even check my e-mail on base.

In Bagram, I was also amazed by how civilly American soldiers treated each other. In Daegu, it was only ridicule and bullying between soldiers. Aside from your donggi (soldiers who started the same month as you), everyone was someone to be feared or someone to order around. It is the ROK Army culture that forces people to act in such an unnatural way. While on deployment, there was no such protocol in the 2nd Construction Company, and it was much more bearable.

I have heard that the ROK Army has been working on treating conscripts marginally better. I've heard that privates now make something like 130,000 won a month and the general atmosphere among conscripts is better, but I don't know for certain. It's kind of a general understanding that it gets a little better and more comfortable every year, and people who did their service earlier are keen to point out that things were more difficult for them.
While the Korean soldiers in Afghanistan are depicted in the book as getting along well enough with the American soldiers there, some incidents - such as one which ends with an high-ranking American officer storming out after muttering, "God damn Koreans" - made me wonder if the ROK military presence there might have done more harm than good:
To be honest, I don't think the Korean Army's presence in Afghanistan made a difference one way or the other. Sure, we were a nuisance, but most of the truly outrageous things were suffered by those in command--the base command and the command of the 109th Engineers--rather than the average soldier. That being said, I don't think anyone thought we really contributed to the war efforts, and I don't think much was expected of us. The Dasan Engineering Unit poured concrete around the base and the Dongeui Medical Unit treated local nationals, and for the most part, the Korean soldiers kept to the Korean compounds when they weren't busy shopping.
I also asked him about the effect his experience had upon his attitude toward Korea in general.
I get asked this question often because people are surprised that I decided to stay in Korea and they usually expect me to be very bitter. Of course, I don't look back at the experience fondly, but the Korean Army is the Korean Army and Korean society is Korean society. There are things that I greatly enjoy about Korea and things that frustrate me to no end, but I don't let my experience in the service color my judgment of Korea.

With regard to the people, wherever you go in the world, there are good, kindly, decent people, and there are cruel, selfish, arrogant assholes. The US is no different, Korea is no different, the Korean Army is no different. Granted, the culture in the Army brought out the worst in people, which is one of the reasons why I prefer not to see people I met in the Army. I try to surround myself with the former.

I do deeply sympathize when I hear my friends talking about their experiences in corporate Korea because it often reminds me of my time in the Army, and I've determined never to put myself in such a hellish and poisonous environment again.
Lastly, I asked him about how he went about learning Korean:
For the first three or four weeks, I simply parroted whatever I was taught without knowing what the words meant. Once I got my Korean-English pocket dictionary, I was constantly looking up words that I heard throughout the day and tried to piece things together. When I was a private, I once got verbally abused for looking at my dictionary while I was walking. I had only wanted to look up a word before I forgot it. "Privates don't get to read and walk," the sergeant said, after he had given me a good shoulder to the back.

Once I was in Daegu, I had access to a small library in the squad room. I would choose a novel and go through it, looking up every word I didn't know until I could piece together what was being said. It was very slow-going; I remember spending a couple of days on a single paragraph. The book that I translated for The Korea Times Literature Awards was maybe the first Korean novel I was able to read from cover to cover. I also bought a book on Korean grammar when I was on furlough prior to pre-deployment training. I think I copied most of the entries in my journal. Needless to say, I wrote pages upon pages of vocabulary words and grammar points.

That was one aspect of my learning Korean. The other was the hostile environment. If I said something grammatically incorrect or even mispronounced any little word, I was ridiculed and shamed mercilessly. Some people would respond by working harder until their ability was recognized; I basically just shut my mouth and kept to myself. I never yelled at anyone when I was a sergeant, partially because I knew better than anyone how it felt but mostly because I couldn't yell in Korean. I still can't.

It's a little embarrassing, but I couldn't speak Korean decently until after I got discharged. Everything I had studied didn't get processed until I finally had the time to process it. Needless to say, I don't recommend going to the Korean Army if you're interested in learning Korean.

Thanks to Young for answering my questions.

8 comments:

rl said...

Thing is now that he went through the army experience, he has a full claim as a Korean male in that society. While he may not have wanted it, it is now his, and for all intents and purposes he has earned his citizenship there. Might as well make some lemonade out the lemons he was dealt and take ownership of his earned birthright.

I myself am a Korean-American male, but having not gone through the army, I recognize my lesser claim in that society.

Young said...

rl, you're completely right. Unfortunately, that full claim doesn't go very far, maybe a little if you work at a conservative Korean company or are subject to media scrutiny. (It's also marginally useful in dealing with socially aggressive alpha males.) Otherwise, your claim is not diminished by much and can be easily compensated in many other ways.

Another unfortunate aspect is that when I was discharged, I was forced to cancel one of my citizenships because dual citizenship wasn't allowed at the time. It's now allowed, but I don't really see the point in getting it back.

I'm okay with not making lemonade out of the lemons. I can use them as a garnish for the beer I can buy from my meager book sales.

Ben said...

The book looks excellent. Amazing story. Thanks for telling it.

youngjinchun said...

Thanks, Ben. I hope you enjoy reading it.

chuck said...

read your interview in the Seattle paper and your blog Young. Going to download your book ASAP Really sad how you got Shanghaied into ROK army. One question, in one of your interviews, you said you found out about getting drafted from the Consulate in Seattle while back for a visit. Why then did you return to Korea knowing you could very well be drafted? just wondering

youngjinchun said...

It's a good question, Chuck. So good, in fact, that I don't have an answer that doesn't make me sound like an idiot. To be honest, I was a stupid, young kid and I didn't really think such a thing was possible. I went to the consulate because my mom dragged me there (I was still a big baby at the age of 24) and I just remember thinking that there was no way Korea was going to be able to force an American into its army. (Even after finding out that I had Korean citizenship, I had never thought of myself as Korean Korean.) All of my assumptions at the time were faulty and truly and thoroughly American. Turns out I wasn't so untouchable just because I had a blue passport.

chuck said...

well youngjinchun glad you learned something from that it's a hard lesson you also see with esl teachers who will see "don't teach at x or y school" or don't believe the advice the US Embassy says believing "that can't happen to me" and it does. Think the US Embassy also says the same in your situation about being subject to the draft. Lets hope somebody will learn from what happened to you.

youngjinchun said...

Chuck, I do hope that nobody makes the same mistakes I have. The particular section of the embassy page was much smaller when I came in 2002 (and I had never imagined that I might have possibly had Korean citizenship). I've often wondered if the expansion of that section was because of my case. I'm sure I was somewhat of a headache for the embassy at the time.