[OVERSEAS VIEW]Unsettling shrine visits worth makingIt’s too hot and sultry in Seoul to read this paper or have the energy to get even hotter about the troubling headlines that cry out, enraged: “Koizumi visits the shrine!” Perhaps you may think the summer heat has fried my brain to say this, but I’m glad that Prime Minister Koizumi visited the shrine.
No, I’m not talking about Yasukuni, but Graceland, the home of the spirit of Elvis, undoubtedly the most famous resident of my home town, Memphis, Tennessee.
I doubt that Memphis will ever have another opportunity to host a president and a foreign leader at the home of the King.
Elvis died of a drug overdose on Aug. 16, 1977, at 42, the same age that I have reached this year. No one can imagine an aging Elvis ― his untimely death immortalized him in his youth. I lived one mile from Graceland until the hot summer when he died. My Dad’s “joke” high school band played on the same stage as Elvis at a shopping mall opening in 1954. That was only months before Elvis became ELVIS. But my father “retired” from music and became a doctor in Memphis.
Prior to my experience in Seoul in 1987, or in 2002 for the World Cup, the only time that I saw huge crowds of people out in the streets was to mourn Elvis’ death.
For more than a week, hundreds of thousands of mourners flocked to Memphis to pay respects to a music idol taken too early by a drug overdose. In lieu of reunion tours, Elvis fans invade Memphis each August from as far away as California, Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom for a pilgrimage to Graceland.
I believe the spirit of Elvis was with me when I visited Korea for the first time in 1987. My father told me he thought I was brave to travel to Korea ― so far away from my family ―for a year-long stay, my first overseas travel.
When I arrived in Seoul, almost every Korean I met asked me about my hometown. When I told them I was from Memphis, inevitably the response was: Elvis! Or, my mention of Elvis would satisfy Korean inquiries about my background, as though that was all they needed to know.
The sad part of being from Memphis today is that it is a city that remains divided by racial factionalism in local politics. The city peaked with Elvis in the 1950s and 1960s. The effects of the racial divide ― and changes resulting from globalization ― have been devastating to Memphis’ fate and have hastened its stagnation. When I visit my parents in Memphis today, I can’t help but feel that the city is looking backward to past glories rather than forward to the future.
So what in the world could I, as a Memphian, find in Seoul that would remind me of home? Hot sultry summers aside, American southern culture was skeptical of outsiders but known for its warm hospitality, which I also found in Korea. It took years for Northern outsiders to feel at home in Memphis, but still they were never as fully entitled as the people whose forefathers’ roots had been planted in the Memphis soil. Memphis’ racial factionalism is as bitter and long-lasting as Korea’s regional factionalism or Asia’s historical animosities, costly divisions that stunt the capacity of cities, states, or regions to realize their full potential.
As the dog days of August go by, I reminisce about summer family dinners on the back porch with my father carving large slices of watermelon and fresh, garden-grown strawberries, and think that my career path as an international policy analyst will probably never allow me to be with my family for dinner every night. I know I will never be able to re-create for my family the memories of my days in Memphis; the city where I grew up has already changed beyond recognition.
The impact of globalization carries bittersweet meanings for me. More than I travel to Memphis, I travel to Japan and Korea, the latter a divided country that always seems to be spawning new divisions. I sit on the plane to Seoul with kirogi appa, separated from their children by pressures deriving from globalization. I arrive to witness an Asian region and local Korean politics characterized by regional divisions as virulent as those I left behind.
Graceland was not the only shrine in Memphis that Mr. Koizumi visited last June. He also visited the National Civil Rights Museum established at the site of the political assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King in 1968 ― an event from which Memphis has never truly recovered.
The political and personal costs of division are indeed high, especially to families, but some shrine visits are worthwhile even if they unsettle the spirit because they can catalyze new efforts to overcome longstanding animosities. Now, let’s go back inside where we can cool off.
* The writer is a senior associate with The Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS. The views expressed here are personal views. He can be reached at
by Scott Snyder