THE STRANGER

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THE STRANGER

Hong Se-hwa knew that he was not supposed to drink alcohol like soju. Even a few sips would turn the world around him into a maelstrom. But one summer eve in 1982, that feeling was exactly what he craved. He was polishing off a bottle of cheap wine under a petite wooden bridge in Paris. In his left hand, Mr. Hong clasped a certificate of exile issued by the French government.

That paper restricted entry to Korea, leaving Mr. Hong as a Korean who could not go to Korea, neither North nor South. So there he was, washing down vino and feeling deep in his bones that Parisian life was no le picnic -- not anymore.

A high-profile activist and intellectual back in South Korea, Mr. Hong had no means of earning a living in Paris. He was in dire straits despite earning the so-called KS mark, by graduating from the two most elite schools, Kyounggi High School and Seoul National University, a virtual guarantee of success. But by becoming a student activist, he had deserted the comfortable path to success and was branded a subversive by the government.

A small entrepreneurial firm he wormed his way into had dispatched Mr. Hong to its Paris branch. But as he planned his return to Seoul in 1979, the Korean government announced a crackdown against the secretive anti-government movement led by Mr. Hong and his comrades. At this point, returning home meant risking a lengthy prison sentence and possible torture. So with his family beside him, Mr. Lee escaped to Austria, hiding on a night train. Some time later, he sought political exile status with the French government and ended up staying for 23 years.

"I was the stranger," he says during a recent interview in Seoul. "Not the type like Meursault in 'l'Etranger' by Albert Camus. More of the Arabian stranger who was shot by Meursault only because of intense sunlight." A part of his heart was empty, and he felt uneasy in Paris. But Mr. Hong remained true to his identity.

As for whether he came from North or South Korea, he generally answered, Coree tout court. Just Korea.

Last Tuesday afternoon, however, Mr. Hong was not a stranger anymore. Seated at a cafe in downtown Seoul, he is studying his espresso -- French-style.

"This espresso is real," he says with a look of delight and a hint of nostalgia. After spending his 30s, 40s and early 50s in Paris, altogether 23 years, he finally set foot on Korean soil last year. Yesterday marked the first-year anniversary of his homecoming.

"When I saw the peninsula between the clouds from the plane, I got almost got carried away with a flood of emotion," he says. Now an editor at The Hankyoreh, a local newspaper noted for its progressive and leftist stance, Mr. Hong is an authority on how real French espresso tastes.

Paris, to Mr. Hong, was the land of clemency, beauty, and above all, tolerance of differences. He gained insight into French values and philosophy not by poring over books, but in part by driving a taxicab along Paris's cobblestone streets and wide boulevards.

At first, the desire to pursue an academic path burned bright, but with a wife and two children to feed, he gave up. Cooking bindae-tteok, the Korean-style fried pancakes, turned out to be his only marketable skill but he could not find affordable restaurant space. When despair nearly overwhelmed him, Mr. Hong found his driver's license in his wallet and had an idea that would change his fate.

For more than two decades, Mr. Hong navigated a leased Peugeot 505 around the city from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. every day except Mondays. Thus was born the title of his first book of essays, "I'm a Taxi Driver in Paris," published in 1995 while he was still a political refugee in Paris. A perpetual student, Mr. Hong the taxi driver absorbed everything he saw and heard from French society. He resolved to read the newspaper Le Monde every day.

But this enthusiasm did not grant him automatic acceptance in French society. Mr. Hong was not a Parisian nor a Korean, but a stranger everywhere.

In "I'm a Taxi Driver in Paris," Mr. Hong discusses his lessons of tolerance, which he defines as the ability to accept others' characters and ideologies. The text's message caused a buzz when the book came out in Korea. Yoo Hong-joon, a close friend of Mr. Hong's and a professor of art history at Yeungnam University, describes the book as a testimony by a person whose life was hurt by history.

It -- and he -- deserve earnest attention, Mr. Yoo says.

Released last month, Mr. Hong's second book, "The Sadness of the Man Taking the Bad Guy Role," is also expected to be controversial. It discusses intolerance at length, at one point quoting the biblical adage, "an eye for eye, a tooth for a tooth."

And who are the targets of his critique? Needless to say, there are quite a few.

For starters, there are the conservatives and the affluent class who ignore noblesse oblige, thus destroying the social structure, he says. Mr. Hong also takes aim at major newspapers, which he describes as the maids of society's conservative class. Mr. Hong appears willing to rail against the conservatives, as long as it helps demolish what he terms an evil social structure.

The book has already become a bestseller, though not everyone gushes with enthusiasm over it. Back in Korea, he has become something of a celebrated issue-maker from a reforming group. Not many would recognize him by his face, but the mere mention of his name generally elicits an interested response.

In the 1970s, Mr. Hong was anything but a celebrity. Blacklisted and forced into hiding to pursue his ideals against the military dictatorship, he labored for nine years to earn a bachelor's degree in diplomacy. The delay was not a result of slothful behavior. Quite the opposite: There were so many societal issues grabbing his attention in the 1970s.

"Back then, I lived like all the responsibility of the world rested on my shoulders," he says, lighting another cigarette, now in the offices of the Hankyoreh newspaper.

Trying to achieve democracy and a society worth living according to his socialist and liberal attitude had overwhelmed the man during his 20s. A vulnerable and idealistic young man who adored classical music by Schoenberg, he could not unravel himself from the weighty issues of that period.

As a result, he spent more time inhaling tear gas and handing out anti-government fliers than buried in books. There was little laughter and happiness during those years, Mr. Hong recalls. Maybe it was destiny, he says, for Mr. Hong's first name in Chinese characters means World Peace, while his little brother's name, Min-hwa, means Peace of the Nation. His little brother was killed in the Korean War.

"Peace of the Nation had been lost during the war while World Peace was wandering in an alien country," Mr. Hong says with a bitter smile, reaching for another cigarette.

The toughest times were yet to come, however.

"From 1980 to 1983 -- that was the gloomiest time of my life," he says. "For as an exile, I had no hope, no vision, simply nothing." At least that time has yielded two books: the taxi-driving memoir and a 1999 collection of cultural critiques titled "The Seine Divides Left and Right, the Han River Separates North and South." With his latest book, Mr. Hong has etched his name hard in Koreans' minds.

After all these years, Mr. Hong seems comfortable with his lot in life, working at a progressive paper where he can voice his mind as much as he wants. Not everyone is in accord with him, though. He once received an anonymous e-mail saying, "Go back to France, you Commie!"

That sort of comment does not upset him. "While in Paris, I just became an observer. But here in Korea, I can actively intervene in social matters. I'm happy that I can now contribute to the progress of my country, being in the very heart of a whirlpool."

Has he considered being a taxi driver in Seoul?

Mr. Hong says he would never dare. And he thinks it's time to start another chapter. He finds 21st century Korea's living standards higher but its citizens crushed by the pursuit of materialism. "I almost got culture shock when I saw TV commercials saying 'I'm dreaming of being a rich dad' instead of 'good dad' or 'Show your ability' by a credit card company."

He sees the victory of President-elect Roh Moo-hyun a first step toward his ideal society, where an appreciation for the freedom and dignity of mankind reigns. As he puts it, "At least the very first article of the Constitution, defining the country to be a Republic of Korea, should come true. This society, as it is, is not for the public, it's designed only for the private profit of a small affluent class."

Mr. Hong points out that competence these days takes priority over solidarity. What is worse, he says, some 13 million laborers, by his count, are manipulated by false education. He explains: "They are not aware of the fact that they're abused. Education is covering the eyes of people to see things right. For one thing, there are a lot of Seoulites, but they don't deserve the title of 'citizens.' This country at the moment is not a republic and there are no citizens conscious about their identity."

So what can prevent this society from nosediving into a "bestial struggle of everyone against everyone"?

"The only answer," he says, "is to fight."

This lifetime activist plans to brandish his main weapon, his pen, as often as possible to agitate his countrymen. Finishing his espresso and stubbing out an umpteenth cigarette, Mr. Hong says, "Everyone wants to be an official in the army, climbing higher in the hierarchy. I want to remain as a plain soldier, who actually fights in the battlefield."


by Chun Su-jin
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