How Korea's influence on American GIs changed contemporary Western culture

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How Korea's influence on American GIs changed contemporary Western culture

Koreans are often astonished by the oddness of Western culture, even as they embrace it. Yet in a sense, it all comes from Korea; especially the things that seem to Koreans most odd.

Western culture began about 1950. There was Western culture earlier, but it was very different. American visitors to Joseon, circa 1890, praised Korean women for acting and dressing modestly, "just like Western women." Then, being Western meant greater formality: others were, to Kipling, "lesser breeds without the law."

Today the West means informality, sex, rejecting tradition. From whence did this come?

From the 1960s "counterculture." The 60s changed everything. But from whence did the 1960s come?

From San Francisco, of course. San Francisco, home of the Beat Generation or beatniks, writers who emerged in the early 1950s. Read Jack Kerouac from 1955 and you are already in the counterculture. The 1960s was the move of Beat ideals from high culture to low culture, from literature to popular music. They have since, in natural progression, become conventional wisdom. But from whence did the Beats come?

From the Korean War, when young Americans learned of Asia. Kerouac was born in 1922, older than most. He names as mentors Gary Snyder, born in 1930, and Neal Cassady, born 1926. Allen Ginsberg also was born in 1926.

They came of age in the Korean War.

Despite your rearview mirror, the Korean War was larger than it may appear. It is not memorable, like World War II or Vietnam, for it ended in neither tragedy nor triumph. But it was the biggest war since World War II. More Yanks served in Korea than served in all of World War I.

New thought comes from the meeting of cultures: conventional wisdom is challenged. World War I bred the Lost Generation in Paris, when impressionable young Americans discovered Europe. Korea, in turn, was America's introduction to Asia. It exposed the 1950s soldiers to Oriental culture. Besides Korea, occupied Japan served for rest and recreation. There was no comparable Asian base in WWII.

Almost everything that formed the Beats, then the hippies, then America, was picked up here.

Kerouac named his second major novel, "The Dharma Bums," a search for Beat Zen enlightenment. Gary Snyder read Chinese. A biographical Web site notes: "Many works focus on alternatives to city living and show a reverence for nature and a deep interest in the philosophies of the East. An almost ubiquitous attribute possessed by Beat writers." (

The reverence for nature is found in Oriental tea culture. From it springs the entire ecological movement. The interest in casualness and spontaneity is Oriental poetics. From it springs the ideal of informality. Most Beats saw themselves as Buddhists. Even nonbeats, like J.D. Salinger, show a fascination with Oriental philosophy. The Beats thought Buddhism a religion without a moral code; they especially liked the sexual imagery of Tibet. From this springs the idea of free love. In "The Dharma Bums," Kerouac's protagonist calls sex "playing yab-yum" (in Korean, yang-eum, the positive and negative principles that order the universe).

Odd, but no surprise, that the result is so un-Korean: Exposed to a new culture, many see what they want to see, or expect to see, not what is there.

At least two creative lights of that generation settled in Korea: James and Lee Wade. James was a composer and edited literary journals. He came as a soldier, and returned to stay. Lee published Korea's great English-language cookbook, "Lee Wade's Korean Cookery," still in print.

Both Wades are buried in Yanghwajin Cemetery. Take the green or brown lines (line Nos. 2 or 6) to Hapjeong station and walk south toward the Han River. Yanghwajin is to the right, under the subway bridge. The Wades are toward the riverside.

Forget Jim Morrison's grave in Paris. This is where it all was at.

Stephen Roney is now at University College of the Cariboo, Canada. Visit on the web at

by Stephen K. Roney

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