For many of us expats, a trip to the immigration office can be stressful. Apart from the hassle of paperwork, there’s always the possibility of some nasty little surprise – a new regulation, a bureaucratic screw-up, an obscure regulation unknowingly violated – which results in you rushing off to get new passport photos or perhaps even flying out and then back into the country. But I don’t think many of us can match Young Chun’s visit to an immigration office in Seoul. A Korean-American born and raised in the States, Chun got a nasty big surprise.
His arts degree having failed him on the employment front, he had left his job at a photo-developing store in Seattle, and gone to Seoul to teach English. After a year, he went to the immigration office to apply for a residency visa. An immigration officer looked at the paperwork, checked his computer and then dropped a bombshell:
“You can’t get a visa,” he said. “You’re a Korean citizen.” I was dumbfounded. Not only had I been born and raised in the States, even my parents didn’t have Korean citizenship.
Young Chun’s name was on a family register, with the birthplace incorrectly labelled as being near Seoul. His parents didn’t know anything about it; perhaps a grandparent had registered him. Regardless of where the birth was, however, he learned he was considered a Korean citizen by virtue of having been born to a Korean father. And, as a male Korean citizen, Chun was eligible for the country’s two-year military service requirement.
Chun later went to the American embassy expecting they would help him set things straight:
Instead, I was tossed a phonebook and told to sort it out on my own. I’ll be honest; it hurt. It felt as if I was being sold into slavery by my own parents.
Chun asked about revoking his Korean citizenship, but was told he was too old to do so (eighteen is the cut-off point), and before long he received draft papers. He was desperate to escape conscription, and thought he had found an escape path: joining the U.S. Army. A recruiter promised him a flight out of the country on a military transport if he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He agreed.
I knew very little about the Korean Army, but what I had heard was awful. Twenty dollars a month pay, frequent beatings, inhumane living conditions. Enlisting as a GI stood out in stark contrast – a living wage, job training, respect. There was a strong possibility I’d be shipped out to war zone after I was done with training, but I figured it was worth it. At least I’d be able to communicate and eat food I could actually stomach.
Young Chun did all the paperwork, signed up for four years, was sworn in and issued military ID, and headed to Osan Air Base to fly to Fort Jackson for training. A Korean immigration officer stopped him at the airport, and he had to hand back his new ID – he had been an American soldier for just one day. He was inducted into the Korean Army two days later, on a freezing January 29, 2004.
It was the start of six weeks of boot camp hell. The training was bad enough for the other conscripts who could understand what was being shouted at them, but for Young Chun it was a nightmare. And in a homogenous society like South Korea, being different made it especially difficult; not only was he the strange Korean-looking guy who couldn’t speak Korean, but at 26 years of age, he was older than the others.
Sometimes the training was dangerous. Being exposed to CS gas doesn’t sound like much fun when you can’t understand what’s happening. And fears of injury or even death were justified. On Chun’s seventh day at the camp, a drill instructor and recruit were killed in an accident during grenade practice. During the author’s two-year stint, there was a case of a conscript snapping and – in revenge for alleged abuse – killing eight of his comrades in a grenade and shooting rampage.
In The Accidental Citizen-Soldier Young Chun describes his experiences with great honesty and humor, and with tremendous writing skill. He gives us a real sense of being there. Some of the more memorable episodes involve the psychotic Squad Leader Lin:
I look up from my notebook to see Lee strolling into the squad room with a grin on his face. I freeze in fear. We’ve quickly learned that Squad Leader Lee’s smiles are the candy offered by the kidnapper before he rapes you and buries your violated, dismembered corpse in the basement.
A remarkable bullying session ensues. It’s not all darkness though. After attending Sunday service, each of the conscripts receive a Chocopie. It’s one of several funny passages featuring this iconic Korean snack.
My cousin Jay went to the Army an atheist and came out a Christian.
“What Happened” I asked.
“Chocopie,” he said.
After boot camp, Young was sent to army headquarters at Daegu, where he was assigned office and translation work. Translation work? Yes, not an ideal posting for someone functionally illiterate. Predictably, his struggles continued. He volunteered for service in Afghanistan and did a six-month deployment at Bagram Air Base.
A surprise from the book was that Chun’s language immersion course from hell was less effective than you would have expected. The author struggled to communicate in Korean up until almost the very end of his two years.
Another interesting facet was how the competing Confucian values of rank and age played out. Hierarchy overruled age, so Chun found himself in the rather odd situation of having to be subservient to conscripts many years his junior because they had been in the army a few months longer than him. So entrenched was this hierarchy of seniority, that Chun himself sometimes felt the urge to berate those with more recent enlistment dates to show more respect.
The Accidental Citizen-Soldier is an engrossing, fast-paced read. Conscription memoirs have a tendency to start well with the drama of boot camp and then flag in the latter stages when less is happening; after all, the reality of army life is dullness and routine, especially for conscripts. Chun’s account avoids this by having the foreign deployment to break up the story and also by covering the latter stages of his service more briefly. And although there’s no overly sappy feel-good ending to his tale, there is a satisfying progression as Chun learns – if not to enjoy his time in the military – at least to accept things, get along with his comrades, and work the system better. As well as offering great insights into Korean culture, this is a very human story about dealing with the crap that fate hands you.
My only minor complaint with the book is that the afterword is rather brief. There’s not that much reflection on his experience, nor much info on what he has done since 2006. Chun returned to the United States after getting out of the military but couldn’t settle back into life there. And, with apparently few hard feelings at the country that had owned him for two years, he went back there to live.
One of the benefits of running this review site, is that I get to be nosey and chase up books. To learn more about Young Chun, have a look at the Author Interview with him (coming soon).
The Accidental Citizen-Soldier is available from Amazon.com and other online retailers.
For more information on Young Chun, you can visit his website.