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 Line That Divides Us

By Whit Altizer

On Tuesday, the Koreas held a meeting at a infamous resort in North Korea for families separated by the Korean war. For some, this meant seeing faces and hugging people they haven’t seen in 65 years. Brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, sons and daughters laying eyes on each other for the first time in an absurd amount of time.

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Credit: Yonhap

I don’t even know how to fully process this kind of separation. The piece by Choe Sang Hun (who, might I add, is an alumni at the school I teach at and just an overall amazing journalist that perfectly captures Korea and its culture for New York Times readers) is sad, emotional, sweet and even captures the hard-shells the older Korean generation sometimes wears; no doubt formed by the tough lives they’ve led.

In a culture that puts family first (they even write their family name first) this must be absolutely gut-wrenching for the parties involved. I could feel their pain by reading Choe’s excellent piece and watching the videos with it.. Even still, I sit millions of miles from that experience. The pain I feel certainly doesn’t touch what these people have carried for years.

Oddly, the more time I spend in South Korea the more I forget about the DMZ. Fighter jets whoosh over my office and apartment all the time and the news is filled with stories about North Korea and the fear that surrounds it. But, admittedly I’ve become desensitized to living in a country still technically at war. When I first arrived here I nearly ran for cover the first time a jet flew low overhead. Now if I am in class I pause, let it fly over and continue where I left off.

Then this piece comes out. The tears, the heartbreak, the forced separations brings the reality back. It reminds me how innocent people are victims of power and corruption. Many of these people were living quiet lives one day and then thrown into a mess not of their making the next. It also reminds me that even with these very real sad stories as cautionary tales, more will be written. That this will not be the last time something like this happens, I believe, is a real tragedy.

Who Wrote Your History Book?

By Whit Altizer

I’m finally putting my master’s degree to work this year teaching American history to international university students in Korea. I love it. I have Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Mongolian, and even an American student. They are active, engaged and ask interesting questions. This class has made teaching in Korea even more of a joy.

Homework for this group can be a bit of a challenge because, even though my students are exceptionally bright, asking them to read the same amount from the same texts an American college student might read for history class is unrealistic. So, instead I draw from primary sources through data-based questions, and keep the readings from secondary sources to a minimum.

I think I am finding what works best for them. They love looking at the documents I bring to class and analyzing what they mean for the event or person we are discussing. One of the most interesting classes we’ve had so far was looking at documents and photos from the Spanish-American war. They loved looking at the dawning days of modern American imperialism expansion diplomacy.

Interestingly, Korean government has caught flak this month because of their decision to take on the task of writing history books for the public schools in the nation. The current conservative government under President Park Geun Hye has found the current choices (about 8 in total from private publishers) to be too left-leaning. Their goal is to make one government issued textbook that is “balanced.” Is that even possible?

historytextbooksTo further complicate the story, Park’s father was Korea’s longest serving president. Her father, Park Chung Hee, took control in 1961 by military coup and turned Korea from one of the poorest counties in the world to one of the biggest financial powers. Growth that is fondly referred to as “the Miracle on the Han.” Truly a miracle for a country the size of Korea that was left in absolute despair after World War II.

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The elder Park remains a complicated figure in Korean history. While on the one hand he improved the lives and filled the stomachs of most Koreans, he didn’t exactly do so in the most democratic of ways. Koreans speak of him with tones of both admiration and fear.

Hence, a source of contention is about one of the current textbooks is that the term “dictator” is used 28 times when referring to the South Korean government during military rule(the bulk of which was under Park) to only 2 times when talking about the North Korean government in the same period.

So how will the new government textbook speak of Park Chung Hee? Will it admit that his legacy is complicated? Can the Korean public trust a panel of historians overseen by Park’s daughter to write a fair and balanced book on Korean history? We’ll see.

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“Our music, art and literature have been the lush plants that our flaws as a country have fertilized.”

This got me thinking about how we learn history, how much stock we put into what we read and how I teach my international students about my country. I think what many critics of history books forget is that thoughtful individuals learn and teach from these books. As teachers we may be charged with molding the minds of our students, but we are also charged with teaching them to think and question the sources from which they learn.

City of Seoul Korea

City of Seoul Korea (above 1945 and 2015)

I remember reading a book from the 1950s on Robert E. Lee that read almost like a love letter to his legacy. In its own way this book served as a learning tool. Could a white author in the 1950s feel a little too nostalgic about what Lee stood for? Perhaps. These are the kind of sources worth cross-referencing. A reminder that every source you read should be thought about in the context in which it was written. When was it written? Who published it?

Korean history teachers, I hope, have taught from the current left-leaning textbooks with the understanding that they are biased. I also hope that whatever gets issued by the government also gets taught with a similar understanding. While good history books do exist, (and maybe Park’s will be a good one) there is inevitably going to be some personal bias in them and it is up to the reader to sniff it out. It is also up to the teacher to offer some balance to those biases. There are multiple ways to discuss a historical event and in those discussions some learning takes place.

So while I was a little stunned by Park’s decision to create one government-issued textbook, something that hasn’t been done since her father was in power, it has reminded me that history class is as much about teaching students to think for themselves as it is learning facts from a book. That one must understand who the source is and the flaws that it inevitably possesses. Knowing that nothing (or nobody) is perfect might help us grapple with our own country’s history a little more thoughtfully.

I find myself both proud and frustrated by American history when I teach it. It’s complicated and I kind of love that about it. What we are supposed to do with our history it is to learn from it and be better people. Hiding our flaws might make us repeat them. Additionally, I think our flaws have made us a more interesting country. Our music, art and literature have been the lush plants that our flaws as a country have fertilized. That’s something worth remembering. And in my opinion that is why we should embrace these flaws, write about them, learn from them and never forget they are there.

Korea changes its postal codes

New Korea zip code

For all you online shoppers out there in Korea, this is an important announcement! The Korean postal service adopted a 5-digit postal code for all Korean addresses, effective since August 1, 2015.

If you like to shop on Amazon or iHerb like I do, you’ll need to know your code to continue receiving packages at your address.

It’s quick and easy to find your new zip code in Korea. Click on the image above or go to the Korean postal service website. You can then search for your address in English and find your new postal code.

Learn yours today, and keep those packages coming in. ^^

Road fatalities in Korea

By Whit Altizer

The Korea Herald runs some pretty fantastic graphic news photos. This one not so fantastic.

Getting on the roads in Korea as a cyclist, pedestrian or driver is a bit of a leap of faith as people seem to be always pressed for time, and not taking into account they are essentially driving a ground missile. 
To be fair, I never felt too safe on American roads either, especially as a cyclist (e.g. beer can thrown out of a moving truck at me). Now I see why, as America is just one fatality per 1 million people behind South Korea. 
The takeaway? Get off your phone. Slow down. Your life would be ruined by adding to this statistic and only mildly affected by being late to whatever you are rushing to.