Straddling cultures without falling down

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Straddling cultures without falling down

The students in this summer’s crop of interns at the JoongAng Daily have explored a range of subjects in their articles. They have produced solid reporting in their explorations, which cover break-dancing to summer camp. One area in which they have shown a particular willingness for discovery is addressing the questions of identity. For those people who have become a little less benighted with age, the following discussion might be that small piece that finally completes the puzzle they had given up trying to solve. Lowering the sights a bit, the panelists, by treading ground that is in no way short of wear, certainly show that new signposts can be found in the most familiar territory.
All seven of the panelists are Korean nationals. Three are dual citizens of Korea and the United States. One is a dual citizen of Korea and Germany. The rest are Korean citizens preparing to study abroad.
The students offer insight on the security of being grounded in one culture and how living between several can be unsettling.
The discussion starts with the topic of Yu Seung-jun, a Korean-American pop singer who was denied a long-term visa by Korean immigration authorities. Korean officials accuse Yu of obtaining an American passport to dodge Korea’s compulsory military service. Polls show Koreans consider Yu disloyal, perhaps even unpatriotic, since he was an idol to Korean youth. The editor


Jin-kyu: I have had a few close friends who chose American citizenship simply because they did not want to go to the army. I can understand their point. I think it is very possible for a Korean man to want to give up his Korean citizenship for such a reason.
Sarah: I think Koreans were being too harsh and narrow-minded. If one has the opportunity to have dual citizenship, they should take it; it is considered an advantage for your future education, where you choose to live and job prospects, especially if you have U.S. citizenship. However, this does not mean you are ashamed of being Korean. Some of my friends actually want to give up their American citizenship to go into the army. It all depends on what you want to do with your future.
There are disadvantages whichever road you choose, especially because it is hard to be recognized in Korean society if you did not serve in the army. In Yu Seung-jun’s case, I think the media paid too much attention to a minor problem. Anyway, at the very least they ruined his career. He paid the price for picking U.S. citizenship. I think it is hypocritical of the media to pay so much attention to him, like they did during his recent, brief visit to Korea.
Sylvia: I think you should serve your term in the army if you are a Korean man. It is disappointing to see some Korean men use all kinds of tricks to avoid serving in the army. Maybe the penalty was a little bit harsh for someone like Yu Seung-jun, who lived half of his life in the United States, but that does not justify his decision to choose American citizenship as an easy way out of his duty.
San: The thing with Yu was that he lied to his fans, telling them he would not give up his Korean citizenship. I was born in Germany. I am a dual citizen myself, and I deal with this problem all the time. This year I finally decided I will give up my Korean citizenship. I also hope to be admitted to a U.S. university. In the long run I want to come back to Korea after I finish my education. I want to work and live in Korea. Besides, a minority is a minority. There is a large Korean community in the United States, but they are still considered a minority.
Sylvia: I have not thought about citizenship very deeply. There is a high possibility that I might choose American citizenship and keep it until I come back to Korea later to work. But I must admit there are so many benefits to having dual citizenship. Living abroad has changed my lifestyle. My value system has been influenced. School is important, but there are other things in life.
Sarah: It is true that American citizenship serves more as a merit than a barrier at the moment. Those of us who have it realize that we are privileged. I am thankful I was given an opportunity to live the life I do under the care of a stable family. Many people have no options.
Jae-rim: I understand Yu Seung-jun was seen as an opportunist among the majority of Koreans. But I think his decision to choose American citizenship is a subject that simply does not deserve any public criticism. I think a decision like that is no one else’s business. There is also a popular belief, which I do not agree with, that men who did not serve in the army cannot adjust to our society or fit into its organizations and institutions.
Woo-jung: There is a common sentiment that those who chose to become citizens of foreign countries are disloyal to Korea. It is simply a contradiction. We show television documentaries about Korean-Americans who succeeded in their lives and how great that is for the pride of Korean nationals. But we still tend to treat these Korean-Americans with some suspicion.
Sarah: I think feeling too patriotic about something is kind of a joke. For example, in the United States, there are Korean-Americans who have spent their entire life bragging about their “Korean pride.” Yet, they know little about Korean culture, history or about their ancestors. Ignorance and naivete are not sins. But suddenly feeling a strong bond to your country because someone insulted it by choosing American citizenship over Korean is not exactly true loyalty to your blood either. People should be able to accept without going to extremes in their judgments.
Sylvia: I agree with Sarah. Many gyopos, overseas Koreans, I know in the United States know practically nothing about Korean culture but use the phrase “Korean pride” as some kind of an embellishment.
Jin-kyu: I do not feel patriotism when I am in Korea, but I do when I go abroad. When I talk to my Korean friends about controversial issues I try to explain the American side of the story. But when I talk to American kids I am obliged to take the Korean side. I find it almost disturbing when I see some Koreans bragging about their patriotism during sporting events in which Koreans participate. There are so many elements other than sports that attract me to Korea.
Sarah: Last winter, I was asked by a college interviewer, “Is the anti-American sentiment in Korea as strong as they make it out in the media?” This left me dismayed because it was not true at all, and I could see what a contorted message the media conveys about Korea to people in the United States. I always feel compelled to defend Korea in such situations, because I do not want people to have misconceptions about my country.
Ji-yeon: It is a difference of individual character. There are some Koreans who are not patriotic at all, whereas there are some Korean nationals who hang their flag in their bedroom. I think that is not a matter of cultural differences or a person’s status of citizenship, but rather a difference in perception.
Jae-rim: Our high school focuses heavily on nationalist values and ethnic heritage. We dress in hanbok, traditional costumes, modeled on those worn by ancient Korean scholars. We sing the national anthem every morning and are encouraged to follow traditional etiquette. We follow the rules, but in reality, it does not mean that much to us. Yet students who have gone abroad say it really does make a difference when we go abroad to study. They say cultural identity does matter.
Sylvia: I cannot think of a notable moment that I felt very patriotic living in Korea. I do feel quite proud about how advanced this country has become whenever I go to underdeveloped countries. But it is true that we feel more pride about who we are whenever we go outside Korea than when we are here.
Sarah: I think Korean people like to stick with the majority view because it makes them feel safe and secure; they try to go with the flow. Therefore, patriotism in Korea can be overwhelmingly strong, like during the economic crisis several years ago and again during the World Cup, yet at the same time, it is transitory, very temporary.

by Park Su-mee
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