13 June 2006

Cultural Identity Theft

I caught myself today driving down the road in my pick-up blasting "Oh Corea," "Reds, Let's Go Together," and that rock version of the Korean National Anthem, all in anxious anticipation of the Korea-Togo game which, as I write, is less than 10 hours away. Before the U.S.-Czech game, however, I did not drive around blasting the "Star Spangled Banner" or "America the Beautiful," or even "We Are the Champions." I was interested in the game (disappointing though it was), but my anxieties were mute compared to the tight feeling in my chest as that Korea-Togo match nears.

Now, as I have made clear before, I am not a Korean. These days, I don't even live there anymore. Yet I was rooting for the Ahn Hyun Soo and Lee Ho Suk at Turin, and picking out the personality faults of Apolo Anton Ohno. My heart was pumping as fast as the short track skaters on the ice. And in 2002 I proudly walked around in my "Be the Reds" T-shirt, getting up at ridiculous hours, squinting through the static on a poorly received Univision and making my brother with cable record the Korea games so I wouldn't miss a kick.

But driving home today, in the Texas heat, it really struck me. I am a thief. I have stolen a cultural identity, absconded with a nationalism that I have no right to claim. OK, that I have no blood-right to claim, but the idea is the same. I have, at certain times, taken on a nationalism that I am not a part of, that is half a world away, and that has nothing to do with my ancestry (though at least my son can claim half Korean ancestry). And it is not just me. I have seen it in others, particularly in the English teachers and other short-term expats who live or lived in Korea for only a few years. While many remain in some way connected to the peninsula, a few, like myself, somehow adopt some of the more extreme nationalist characteristics.

I call it the "East Sea." I know Tokdo is "our land." (I even have three or four versions of the song on MP3). I am incensed by the Japanese Prime Minister's visits to the Yasukuni shrine. I cheered at the launching of the LPX Tokdo and the new 1800-ton 214 class submarine, the Sohn Won Il. I am particularly proud that Korea has beaten Japan to the waters with the coastal helicopter carrier program (LPX). I can understand the logic that the U.S. military alliance, the presence in Yongsan in downtown Seoul, and the CFC structure all feel like occupation rather than alliance. (I may not entirely agree, but I can certainly understand the logic train). When I greet someone older than me, I even touch my sleeve...

So what is it that has driven me to steal someone else's culture, to defend it and root for it, more so than I do of my own?

In part, it is because I am so complacent in America that I don't feel the need or desire to have a raging sense of nationalism at home. I certainly wouldn't turn my back on America, and if called to do so I would readily defend it, but America is pretty much the single power in the world, and as such it is easy to be complacent. There is little to prove (and if anything, we often find ourselves proving we aren't as bad as other people think). We are a supremely confident nation, one with plenty of noisy internal bickering, numerous external conflicts, but no real peer challenger.

PC niceties aside, we are the Champions of the Cold War, of the World. It may not last forever, and other global powers have declined once they have grown too confident and comfortable, but for now, there is nothing on the horizon to threaten America than itself.

Korea is another story altogether. It has a bipolar history of significant domestic achievements (printing presses, celadon pottery, economic booms, technological advances) interspersed with periods of deep decline, usually at the hands of external forces. It is tragedy and triumph, braided with a keen sense of cultural identity, all forming the strand of history that the present hangs from, strangling and supporting, binding and bruising. Korea is the classic American fairy tale. Rising phoenix-like from the ashes, over and over again, boot strapping its way from decimation to innovation, always trying to rely on itself. This is a story not just of South Korea, but of the North as well. Both are more Korean than whatever political ideology they have chosen.

And this is ultimately appealing. Living in Korea in the 1990s, before Kim Dae Jung was even elected, and living in Kwangju of all places, there was a pervasive sense of pride, nationalism and patriotism. And persecution. And determination. And superiority. In short, there was a Korean identity that one sees rising up at various times, triggered by troubles, perceived injustices or new opportunities.

In the midst of the Asian economic crisis, the Koreans pulled together, ate Korean food over McDonalds or other imports, and sold so much gold after a government request that they impacted world prices. After the two schoolgirls were tragically killed by a U.S. military vehicle, Koreans staged rallies, candle-light vigils and even occasionally kidnapped Americans to teach them what they had "done wrong." When the World Cup was in Korea, there was a mass of red everywhere, a burning pride that bordered on hysteria. And it drove the Korean team to exceed all expectations.

This is catching. This is intoxicating. This is irresistible. At least for me. There are others, I know, who find all of this Korean behavior odd at best, detestable at worst. I do not begrudge them. But for me, I have been bitten, been infected, and will never recover. It is more than empathy. At times it is more "Korean" than many Koreans I know (some find it humorous, others exhibit a certain nationalistic jealousy). I know I am not alone, and I bet it is a phenomenon found not only in relation to Korea but to other places as well. But as the clock ticks down and the Togo match nears, my throat constricts, my breathing quickens, and I find myself wanting to shout DaeHan MinGuk! If we win, I will cheer, if we lose, I will slip into that optimism that simply looks to the next match, but deep down I will shed a tear as our national pride takes a hit. And at least I have until June 30 at the earliest before I have to worry about that internal conflict of a USA-Korea match.

No comments: