In a struggle for Korea’s youth, the pull of the West is strong

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In a struggle for Korea’s youth, the pull of the West is strong

There I sat, above a busy subway stop in Bundang, Gyeonggi province, in the Western Posse Bar. My companion was a 20-year-old Korean woman who wore a Nike sweatshirt. Our conversation began like thousands of others that Westerners living in Asia have had:
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“I’m from the United States.”
“I hate Americans,” she replied. I was a little taken aback by her response. But rather than become nasty, she smiled at me and chattily asked all kinds of questions about where I worked and if I liked teaching English. The only thing odd about the conversation was her periodically saying, “I hate Americans.”
But if she really hates Americans, I thought, she wouldn’t be talking to me. Why was she treating me like this?
After talking with her for awhile I came to realize why she was saying these things. My being a symbol of the West pulled us together, but my being an American pushed us apart. For the better part of a decade she had been caught in a struggle between Western, specifically American, and Korean culture. It was a struggle for her identity. Although she had never visited the United States, she keenly felt America’s pull on her ― and she resented it. Thus, the “I hate Americans” mantra. I have to wonder how our conversation might have gone had I said I was Canadian.
I compared her reaction to the one I got from Koreans who did not speak English. For example, visiting the woman I called the “bibimbap lady” is one of my fondest memories of my stay in Korea. She was around 60 years old, served nothing but home-style Korean food and always went out of her way to help me. For her, our relationship was simple: She was Korean and I was a foreigner, which meant she should try to make me feel welcome. No hypocrisy, no complications.
Often the blatant hypocrisy of the younger generation seems like a decent compromise. The young woman in the Nike sweatshirt had grown up in Korea’s hagwon culture surrounded by Western advertising, music and cinema. She had been conditioned to dress like an American and learn to speak our language, all the while maintaining a Korean sense of values. Like most of Korea’s youth, she was taught to be like an American, but also to beat America. How was she supposed to do that without having a little contempt for America?
On a flight to Europe a few months ago, I sat next to a German man who ended our conversation about the recent presidential election in South Korea by saying, “Well, South Korea is the United States.” While certainly an oversimplification, it does underscore how the line between Korean and American culture has been blurred. Caught in this hazy no-man’s land between cultures is Korea’s youth, a generation that has been told that modernization means Westernization.

by Amanda Lahikainen

The writer worked in Korea from 2002 to 2003. She lives in Boston.
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