Young Chun teaches English to students at one of South Korea’s top universities.
The 36-year old Korean-American says when he was a student back home outside of Seattle; he was one of only a few Asians in his school. He says he was sometimes bullied and discriminated against, which made him feel that he didn’t belong there.
“When I was in the states, I thought if I go to Korea I’ll fit in. But once I got to Korea I realized I don’t fit in at all,” he said.
Chun says when he came to South Korea in 2002 it was more of an economic decision than a search for identity. But because he didn’t really speak the language or know the customs, he felt like an outsider more than ever.
But while filling out paperwork at a local government office, Chun discovered that at least on paper, he was as much Korean as he was American.
“And I went up to the counter and the officer said you can’t get a visa, you’re Korean. It was a shock to me; it was news to my mom as well. It was the first time I ever heard that I had Korean citizenship as well.”
Chun was born in the US and he’s still not sure who in his family registered his birth in South Korea.
What he did know, is that South Korean citizenship comes with a price, for men.
Due to North Korea’s ongoing military threat, all South Korean males must put their lives on hold for about two years to serve in the armed forces. At this induction ceremony, a few hundred young men are sworn into service, wave good bye to their parents and march off to their barracks.
This was a fate that Chun was perhaps in denial about until one day in 2004 he received some notices in the mail.
“One paper was the draft paper and the other paper was a notice from the Ministry of Justice saying that I couldn’t leave the country. I was just really confused. Going to the army was never really a possibility in my mind until that point when I saw that paper. I started calling people and they were like, well there’s nothing you can do about it now,” he said.
Chun says the US Embassy in Seoul was no help. He fantasized about sailing to Japan under the cover of darkness. Then a friend gave him some advice- join the American army instead.
So Chun enlisted and was about to get on a planwe back home to start training, when South Korean authorities pulled him out of line at the airport on a US base here.
Uncle Sam couldn’t save him either.
Chun was then dropped off at the South Korean army’s boot camp and later sent to a base in the city of Daegu.
“Life was miserable in Daegu, I was so frustrated. Almost constantly, 24 hours a day. people were picking on me, teasing me, making fun of me, yelling at me,” he said.
Q. What were some of the things they were making fun of you about?
“My pronunciation, my pronunciation was awful, the fact I couldn’t really speak a whole sentence.”
In order to get away from the torment, even though his language skills weren’t so good, he signed up to be a Korean to English interpreter and was sent to what was then one of the most hostile battlefields in the world.
Chun deployed to the American air force’s Bigram Airfield in Afghanistan where South Korean troops fought as a part of the coalition against the Taliban.
Upon arrival, Chun was given a bullet proof vest and an ammo-less rifle. A fellow interpret had recently been killed and alarms signaling incoming fire were an almost daily occurrence.
Chun says he got used to that. But his Korean comrades never got used to him being among their ranks.
He recalls what happened when an officer introduced him to a visiting American soldier.
“He said, oh this is Young, he’s almost American. And the soldier is like what does he mean by almost American. I said well I am American and I am not sure what he means. Later in the deployment, I was working in the office and another officer came up and said oh wow, you’re almost Korean now. I thought that’s really weird, I’m mot American, I’m not Korean, in their eyes I am not sure how they saw me,” Chun recalled.
Chun returned to South Korea after his six month long Afghan deployment.
And in 2006, his conscription finally came to an end.
“First of all, Just stepping outside of that gate was amazing. Just knowing that was the last time that I would never have to go back again. One thing they told me the day I was getting discharged that I would have to give up one of my citizenships, because I finished my military service, I’d have to give up one.”
The choice was a no brainer. So after serving in what is the quintessential experience of being a South Korean man, Chun renounced his South Korean citizenship.
He left Korea to travel and see family back home, but a year later Chun came back to Seoul and enrolled in grad school here. He teaches English to get by while he focuses on his true passion, writing fiction.
He says he doesn’t regret his two-year stint in South Korea’s military. He understands better now what his male students go through and the experience gave him time to think about what identity is all about
“Really I’ve gotten to a point where I just don’t care about identity anymore. Because, I have come to a conclusion that maybe there is no place, and I am fine with that,” Chin said.
While Chun is now at work on writing novels, his non-fiction experience in the South Korean military is retold in the recently self-published book, The Accidental Citizen Soldier.
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