Dear America, a dispatch from abroad

I am a foreigner. And I was with Her. Many of us are – we’re just one of 8 million American expatriate citizens dotted across the globe. We have a strange relationship with America. It is our homeland, where we vote, where we visit family, and, sometimes, even where we vacation.

But my true home is on this small peninsula in the Far East, a place where the streets smell like kimchi and opportunity. Where the alphabet looks like hieroglyphics (at least, in the beginning) and the highrises cast long shadows from the sky.

When I moved here nearly a decade ago, a white face was as rare as wheat bread. Brave children would greet me excitedly with shouts of “Helloooo” and “Wow, foreigner!!!” A wrinkled and weathered old man once softly touched Whit’s arm hair in a bustling train station, just to feel something so foreign, yet present.

A lot has changed in the last decade. Modernization is fast in Korea, but their conservative social mores and fear of foreigners in a very homogenous land is still real.

We now have two children who were born and raised here. They are both completely immersed in the local culture, attending Korean schools and daycares and living in a small university neighborhood where even the baker knows their name (and spoils them rotten).

Most of our neighbors and community members have completely accepted us. They smile at us every time they see us, the “tomato lady” continues her sales pitch and unending words of advice on rearing our children, and my Korean mom friends have welcomed me into their tight-knit circles.

Recently, Finn and his best friend Abby – also a foreigner here – have been heckled by a small group of older kids in the park for being foreigners. “No foreigners allowed to play this game!!!” they shouted.

Whit and I were shocked at the rhetoric, words we always feared for our children who live as foreigners every day in this world. We wanted to jump in, to defend Finn, now 5 and completely fluent in Korean.

“I’m not a foreigner,” Finn shouted back. “I’m Korean. I  live here and I speak Korean, just like you do!”

His Korean buddy quickly interjected. “Yaaaaahhh! They aren’t foreign! They’re Finn and Abby!!”

My heart melted as I heard this 5-year-old girl shout at the older boys, completely barraging them for attacking her friends. My heart melted further as I thought about the last four years, and how this same girl’s mother was the slowest neighbor to accept us into the community.

We never had to interject for our son, who can certainly handle his own situations and with much more grace.

Whit and I are quickly offended any time the word  foreigner is hurled our way. It sounds so dirty, so mean, so exclusive.

But to my dear 5-year old? He was born and raised here. This is his world, and he’s damn sure going to own it.

I later asked him what was going on with the older boys, and he shrugged it off. He couldn’t have been more nonplussed. But I wanted him to understand the labels that people so often use to define a person.

You are not Korean, I told him. You are also not American, I explained.

You, my son, are a citizen of this world. And with that comes a great responsibility to do your best to understand everyone different than you.

Walk in their shoes. Learn their language. See how they live. Respect their Gods. And always keep your mind open.

One day – unfortunately, not today – the world will thank you for it.

Finn playing at the park in Korea today from Nash Photos on Vimeo.

The Billionaire Without a Face

By Whit Altizer

It is not like our blog to comment on individuals outside of Korean pop culture, but I have been unable to avert my eyes from the story of Yoo Byung-un. The more I dig the crazier it becomes. Here is a brief look with lots of links where you can learn more.

The billionaire, religious leader and all-around sketch-ball was allegedly found dead in an apricot orchard near his vacation home in the southern city of Suncheon on June 12th. But many aren’t buying that the body is Yoo. Even in death, Yoo remains as mysterious and controversial as ever.

Yoo is known as “the billionaire without a face” in Korea

Yoo had been on the run since shortly after the sinking of the Sewol ferry ship that was en route to Jeju Island this past April that killed nearly everyone on-board. It was a screw-up of epic proportions that included a ship exceeding weight capacity and a captain abandoning ship while instructing all passengers to stay put. A high school near Seoul lost nearly all of its juniors in the sinking of the ship. Yoo was once the primary owner of the company that ran the Sewol ship, but authorities suspected he still called the shots. 

The aftermath has been one horrific event after another. It started when the vice principal of the high school hung himself from a tree near rescue headquarters, then last week a rescue helicopter went down in the middle a major city killing everyone on-board after leaving the sunken boat site and most recently the discovery of, what is believed to be, Yoo’s body.

The months after the Sewol tragedy have been unreal, but even the prologue of the story is something out of gothic fiction. Yoo’s dark story begins in 1962 when he and his father-in-law started the Evangelical Baptist Church of Korea,  also known as the Salvation Sect or Gunwonpa (구원파). They’ve been classified as a cult because of their disregard for the repentance of sins. They believe that once you are saved, then all sins, past and future, are automatically washed away. 

In 1987, Yoo made headlines when linked to the 
Odaeyang mass suicide. This was a splinter religious group from Yoo’s denomination. The “benevolent mother” of this group, Park Soon Ja, started a “company” that fronted for her religious organization called Odaeyang. She came under investigation for swindling her followers out of $8.7 million and wrecklessly borrowing money. So instead of facing the heat, she and 32 of her followers were found dead by strangulation and poison with no signs of resistance. A story unto itself.

Mr. Yoo was suspected of being involved somehow but was never charged. In 1991, the case was reopened after they found a money trail from
Odaeyang and some of it’s members to Yoo’s company, Semo Corp. He was then arrested in 1992 and convicted of ” habitual fraud under the mask of religion” mainly because he had colluded with one of his employees to collect nearly $1.15 million in donations from church members. He served four years in prison for fraud.   

Yoo’s Wanted poster offering nearly 500,000USD for him.

So smash-cut to 2014. Yoo’s out of prison, living a relatively reclusive life taking pictures by the millions from his window and posting them under his pseudonym AHAE. Sewol goes down in April and the investigation uncovered massive corruption in the boat’s parent company. Not so surprisingly, authorities claim to have found the long tenticles of Yoo attached to his former company Chonghaejin Marine, the company that owned the Sewol ship. Just days after the Sewol went down, Yoo’s people sent out a press release expressing their sadness and reminding people he had not shares in the company and had focused all of his energy into his photography. Even still, when authorities called him in for questioning, he never showed up By the end of May, they began searching for him hoping to indict him on charges of breach of trust, tax evasion and embezzlement

On June 12th, police stormed his church to search for clues, and they were met by a human barricade of Yoo’s church members. The government offered a reward of nearly $500,000 for Yoo but no one was forthcoming with information. Then finally, this week a body found the very day the church was raided, came back as a DNA match for Yoo. Case closed?

Graphic from the Dong-a Ilbo describing the contents on Yoo.

So here are the facts surrounding the corpse. A farmer found the body 2.5 kms from Yoo’s compound. The corpse was wearing an expensive Italian jacket and next to it was a copy of Yoo’s memoir(an eerie and bizarre detail), some alcohol, shark liver oil and a magnifying glass. Police concluded (and seemingly never seriously considered anything else) that this was a homeless man’s body. Working under this conclusion they did not impress upon the lab they sent the corpse to that this could possibly be Yoo. It took the lab 40 days to conclude that it might be Yoo! What?!?! Suncheon’s police chief admitted that the investigation of the corpse “wasn’t perfect” an understatement beyond words. The police chief was fired for not using his brain.

Once Yoo became a fugitive he apparently hid under his staircase in Suncheon with roughly $1 million in suitcases. A detail, that in my mind, puts him in the same category as a comic book villain. Then for some reason he left his house, walked 2.5 km with his memoir, and laid down in a field and died. By the time police found him his body was 80% decomposed.
What will happen next in this sad and baffling story is beyond my imagination, but there is bound to be something else both shocking and tragic. I have a feeling we haven’t heard the last from Yoo, or that we have felt the last repercussions of the Sewol tragedy.

An amazing piece done by the New York TImes on Saturday. Click here

Victory Korea!

Korea has made it to the round of 16 after some interesting games in the first round.  Korea is abuzz with excitement, everyone is wearing red and occasionally cars honk the tune “Dae Han Min Gook” (대한민국, Korean for Korea)! I even set my alarm for 3:30AM to watch the Korea v. Nigeria game and I had no trouble staying awake through the 2-2 draw. Then there is the popular music showing support to the team. See Super Junior’s video below.

Go Korea!

Three-Lung Park scores big goal!

Park Ji Seong(박지성)or “Three-Lung Park” as he is known in South Korea for his ability to never stop running hard on the field is a national hero in South Korea. He has been a famous person in my 20 questions game I have been playing with my students. It usually takes them about 3 questions to figure it out.

“Is it a man?” “Yes”
“Is he Korean?” “Yes”
“Is he an athlete? “Yes”
“Park Ji Seong!”
Sunday he became a hero to Manchester United fans for his goal that put Man U over their rivals Liverpool to put them back on top of the Champions League.

Not bad for a boy who grew up eating frog soup. “They said it was good for my health to become stronger and I ate anything that would improve my health,” Ji Seong said of his parents.

Ji Seong is an interesting Korean with humble beginnings. Read more about him here.

Personal Preference on March 31st

In less than two weeks, Korea will probably become re-obsessed with “Boys over Flowers” star Lee Min Ho when his new TV drama comes out on Wednesday March 31, “Personal Preference.”

Min Ho was all the rage for at least year after the last episode of “Boys over Flowers” and I guess we’ll see his smiling face in every business window when his new show comes out and the thrill of Kim Yu-na’s figure skating medal wears off.  In case you haven’t heard here is a little synopsis of what the show is all about courtesy of AsianMediaWiki.com:

Jin-ho Jeon (Lee Min Ho) is a very stylish young man with the perfect looks. Jin-ho has also some faults which include being self-centered and obsession with cleanliness. Jin-ho Jeon then comes across Gae-in Park (Son Ye-Jin), a woman hurt by love and is now looking for a gay roommate/friend. Jin-ho wanting to live with the woman, then pretends to be a gay male.

Homosexuality isn’t a topic that gets discussed in Korea. To have it as a prominent part of a Korean TV drama is going to be very interesting. I am not sure if they will completely lampoon homosexuality or if it will usher in an era of Koreans become more comfortable with homosexuality. Or perhaps neither. My hope is that it won’t be ridiculous. We’ll see.

For us, we can hardly wait to polish our Korean and be in the know of the latest crazes in pop culture through this new drama.  We’ll be watching “Personal Preference” on mysoju.com.

Check out the teaser.

Park Chan Ho Misses BP and missing his beard!

Oh the shorn face of a new Yankee!  This is almost on par with Johnny Damon when he went from cool Beantown sage to a doofus Yank in pinstripes.  I will try my best to be supportive of Korea’s son, Park Chan Ho, but it was just so much easier with that cool beard he was rocking with the Phillies.

The Chosun Ilbo reported that Park missed live BP due to tightness in his ” gluteus maximus muscles” after jogging and had to sit it out. Park says this shouldn’t affect his preparation for the season.

Best of luck Park! We’ll keep your seat warm in the bearded brotherhood.

Oh yes, Ohno!

Congratulations to Korea’s Lee Jung-su for winning South Korea’s first gold meal in the Vancouver Olympics, and even sweeter for Koreans–against Apolo Ohno.

Credit is due where credit is deserved, and Lee bested Ohno, his own two senior Korean competitors who went down in a crash, and another American for the gold medal. Ohno finished with a silver medal, and is now just one medal away from passing Bonnie Blair for the most won in the Winter Games by an American.

I’m sorry Korea. I know you hate Apolo Ohno with all your heart. But I just love him.

Ever since he competed and won on my once-favorite-show Dancing With the Stars, I’ve been an adoring fan of Ohno. He’s smart, athletic as all hell, and probably one of the most determined and disciplined athletes in the sport today.

He is not, as The Korea Times unintelligibly reported today, “ungentlemanly.” You don’t have to be a Brian in Jeollanamdo reader to know that The Korea Times hurts pretty deeply in the art of fair and balanced reporting. But this was too far. Rather than reporting the actual news, they posted an unsigned opinion that works against Olympics values of sportsmanship, fairness and global unity.

Come on, Korea Times. We all know the history of the 2002 games. But your country just moved past it, or at least your athlete did. Celebrate your country’s gold medal and fairly shake hands with the other opponents.

"Oh," "Gee!"

The nine member girls group Girls Generation is back with their second album, “Oh,” to be released January 28.  G.G.’s last took Korea by storm with their catchy tune “Gee, Gee, Gee, Gee, Bay, Buh, Bay, Buh, Baby!” Check out their shows at Olympic Fencing Arena February 27 or 28th.

According to their management company, the new album has “pop and electronic sounds with cheerful and energetic beats” and added their new single is a song  “about the sincere confessions to a lover.”

The Korean military opens it door a little wider

Something very interesting is going on in Korea these days. There is more news now about the government tearing down walls that keep Koreans in and everything else out.  The most recent is the passage of a law that will open up the Korean military to “western mixed-race men” with Korean nationality and other pertinent qualifications.  Up until now these “Asian mixed race men” were exempt from service because the military feared for their safety in the barracks.

The Korea Times quoted a military official as saying, “There will be no problem with skin color in joining the Korean military. Once a mixed-race man has Korean nationality and related qualifications, he will be able to serve in the military.”

In typical Korean fashion, these men will be given the choice to do their 5-week pre-service training with each other to help avoid racially-motivated hazing and to seemingly prolong the “mixing” of the races.

I imagine the Korean military will clumsily stumble through this, but I applaud the government’s effort to change a long-standing racially-motivated law. We’ll see how it goes.

Korea sends aid to Haiti

Today, Korea sent 25 volunteers plus a medical team to Haiti to help aid the Caribbean nation through the aftermath of the disastorous earthquake this week. They will be in Haiti for about 10 days helping where they can along with their 2 K-9 dogs: Mani and Baekdu. Seoul city sent along about $100,000 of aid along with the 1 million the national government sent. The head of the team, Kang Cheol Soo, said before departing from Incheon, “Our primary task is to save people’s lives and help Haiti recover from this disaster.”