If you met him in person, probably the first impression you’d have of Chris would be of a nice man full of youthful energy who laughs easily and often. Here you see his serious side and his attempt to put into words a feeling that is not easily expressed.
We did this interview on Skype while he was at home in Tacoma, Washington and I was in the Philippines. Then I sent him the transcript for editing. Thanks to Chris for the photos.
Contemplating this manuscript has been an absolutely terrifying experience, which is why I’ve balked at editing it for weeks while not acknowledging that it’s a big deal. But it is. It’s a gate into an uncertain future. I struggle to find logical reasons for going back to Korea, while in the meantime the pandemic has my travel on hold.
I remember being close to the 38th parallel where winter seemed to become summer, or summer winter, in thirty days. I feel the air around me, the saturating heat and the dry bone-aching cold. I take in the smells and sounds, the monsoons and the snow, the gorgeous sunsets and pre-dawn grey.
It started one day in late February 1985, when I stepped off the plane at Osan Air Base, South Korea, to brisk air and an aroma I’d never smelled before. I was a twenty-year-old from a suburb outside Columbus, Ohio. I’d graduated from high school, joined the military, gone through basic training and boarded a plane for the longest ride in my life. I’d never been outside the US, never even been around Asian people except for a visit to a Chinese restaurant.
The sun was just coming up. Hundreds of people were packed onto buses and driven through rice paddies. As we moved toward Seoul, I began to see that everything was unfamiliar. The cold itself felt different, and that released a spring inside me, causing my sense of self and my sense of possibilities to expand, so I felt larger than before.
totally alert, taking in an environment that was all surreal. My body behaved appropriately enough, but my mind took off singing on its own: “Cool it now,You got to cool it now. Ooooooh watch out.You’re gonna lose control. Cool it now.You got to slow it down.Slow it down.You’re gonna fall in love.” It was like a huge room opened in my mind and heart, and all my thoughts and beliefs were being wound around and around. Now I had to go into that room and find out what had happened. The impact was spiritual.
I’d loved watching M*A*S*H* and took pride in watching the last episode on broadcast TV. Knowing it was an American sitcom and not a documentary on Korea was part of the appeal, since it led to the realization that Korea definitely was not what I’d seen on TV.
After a short while, I met some Americans who’d decided to stay for an extended length of time past their 365-day tour of duty, and I wondered why. I also met Korean soldiers who’d been augmented to the US military, which I found curious. I knew of conscription from the Vietnam era, but I didn’t know what it looked like or why it was imposed on the KATUSAs. Finally, after a few weeks of peeking over the camp fence, I got a chance to go out and see the local populace.
Since 1950, most American experience in Korea seems to have been shaped around our military involvement, resulting in cultural, social and personal interactions. Decades of American children arriving in Korea brought out the worst and the best of American culture. Every American concept and value taught at the family dinner table manifested in the local community “ville,” the business and entertainment district, was built just outside the military base first for the Japanese occupiers and modified for the US. In the “ville” these values were challenged by a culture that existed before Christ. I think most of the troops didn’t realize what we were experiencing. The “ville” was contained to a small area by agreement between American and Korean authorities in order to control conflict.
In Korea I felt connected to what my parents had taught me about their lives. I met people who were agrarian, who were improvisors, and who’d faced a lot of challenges in the harsh climate, in their harsh history. I began to wonder how they had persevered, especially during the war. At times I felt an uneasy familiarity, although I didn’t know why. The impact of division and an ongoing armistice within the ethnic family was taking its toll. As my ignorance was gradually stripped away, I became conscious of parallels between the oppression Koreans had endured over hundreds of years and the oppression my own African-American family had endured over hundreds of years.
These vague feelings reduced the tourism mindset. At the same time, even though I really tried my best, my ability to embrace what was around me was limited.
Some Americans had become “ville rats,” whose experience of Korea consisted largely of drinking and partying and carousing. Fortunately, I met a young lady, also in the US military, who already had experience traveling abroad. Barbara came from a background somewhat similar to my own, a white descendant of the Southern Confederacy, a dairy farm girl from the Shenandoah valley of Western Virginia. She was all about getting out of the “ville” to see as much of the world as we could. It was also her first time in Korea. We made a point of going to the places where the local people lived and did business, like the local markets and the very large, open-air markets in Seoul where people dealt in all sorts of commodities. We’d take what seemed to be a very old open-air train from Dongducheon to Seongbuk station just south of Uijeungbu and then get on the modern Seoul subway system, currently Seoul Subway Line 1. Her mother loved to sew, and so we bought all sorts of fabrics and mail them to her. Later our own household was full of the stuff we bought in Seoul markets.
I wish I’d had more experiences like those in Namdaemun Market in 1985. Being a black person looking around at an ocean of Koreans, that was fucking cool. Unexplainable, sometimes overwhelming, something you could not come away from as exactly the same person. It was difficult to keep my outsides focused on the shopping while my insides dealt with the cultural displacement.
Of course, with a lot of human interaction, there were bound to be a few overtly negative encounters. Once I was taking photos of an xc-modified bicycle because I was impressed with how it had been done up to carry cargo, and I heard something a short distance from me. I turned around to see an older man approaching me with a knife and saying something in Korean that I didn’t like the tone of.
I thought, “I’m twenty years old and kind of naïve, but I’m not that stupid”.
Quickly I bowed, said “Okay!” while backing up and getting out of there at the same time. Then I made a mental note to ask permission before taking photos. Once we went with a hiking group to a forested recreation area east of Dongducheon. It was a gorgeous summer day but really hot, and the terrain was arduous. The group was primarily Korean but with about ten American service members who had
been out with the group before. At midday, we stopped and cooked a Korean meal on the trailside. I can’t tell you what we ate, but it was one of the most wonderful meals I’d ever had because I realized where I was and how far I’d come.
Barbara and I got married in September of 1985 in Seoul. I think she had wanted to be sent to Europe and was still looking forward to years in Germany, but I really enjoyed Korea and the profound impact it was having on me.
Since I was on a six-day work week, I was only able to explore places in Seoul and occasionally various locations along the DMZ [Demilitarized Zone]. The only other travel opportunity I had was to Cheju Island in the autumn of 1985. The training site was a high bluff overlooking the sea. It was a full day of rappelling from wooden towers and small cliffs followed by rappelling down a 300-foot cliff. It was fun with a gorgeous view! The day before departure, we were given a one-day guided tour around the island, including the Geomunoreum Lava Tubes connected to a section of the volcanic system, close and opened to a beach.
In February of 1986, we were at the end of our year tour and getting ready to leave for our next assignment in Kansas. I’d leave first, Barbara about forty-five days later. During our last week we did tourist sightseeing, including Namsan Tower and 63 Golden Tower.
I had a measure of grief in leaving—for the separation from my wife and from the great kindness of the Korean people. I felt I was only beginning to discover who they were. I think I had actually fallen in love with being there. The Chris who returned to the States was not the same as the one who’d arrived. It was like how do you know where you are if you’ve never been anywhere else? How do you know who you are if you have never met anyone else?
By the second tour I was a different person. In the early 1990s, after almost four years in Germany, the marriage and my life fell apart. With a two-year-old son in my life, I had to find my way to rebuild myself as a person. I had new career training, got assigned to an administrative position in Arizona and requested a transfer. But this time I brought to Korea unwanted emotional baggage. Almost immediately, I felt displaced and lonely and challenged by the culture and language. I had to find people who were actually living in the Republic of Korea, not just doing a short tour on the ROK. This time I wanted to be less focused on the military, so I looked for expats in other occupations— education and business—in order to gain perspective and to Koreans for answers, solution and direction. I had so much coming at me it was like trying to drink out of a fire hose, making me wonder why the second time was so much harder.
My new job was at a military liaison activity embedded at a Korean military headquarters in Yongin-si, about midway between Seoul and Pyeongtaek. The community there wasn’t much impacted by the American military, if at all. It was refreshing to go out and walk down the street and take it all in like a child. I would sometimes buy uniquely Korean items of children’s clothing for my son, Galen, who was living with his mother in Virginia.
My assignment was rewarding and demanding. At work I was forging relationships with Korean soldiers, officers and enlisted, senior and junior. They all definitely had their own views on contemporary domestic and regional issues—not “group think”, as some foreigners say.
Channel V out of Hong Kong was the go-to sic.
substitute for MTV stateside. Their programming was a mix of American, European and Asian artists with a well-represented modern Chinese music line-up. I didn’t know much about modern Korean pop, so I was grateful for the kindness of the KATUSAs I served with, as they gave me glimpses of Korean entertainers and pop music artists. We had sone good conversations despite some awkwardness and translation failures. A week before I left Korea for my next assignment in Washington State, they gave me a tape of a very popular group. I still find it strange that I kept it safe with my photos and personal treasures. I never took it out of the cellophane, so it is still sealed up as I write this. For whatever reason, I felt that they’d given it to me as something to treasure, not to use, almost like I was to be a caretaker of a precious relic. Seo Taiji and Boys’ ’93 Last Festival. It was only last year that I realized the group was the beginning of K-Pop, and the group’s rapper, Yang HyunSuk, was going to be the head of the globally influential YG Entertainment Agency. So, I guess I held on to it for a good reason.
A sad-awful time for KATUSAs came in July of 1995, when the Sampoung Department Store collapsed, killing over five hundred people and injuring almost as many. In the following days, a dark cloud hung over us as they waited for word of missing loved ones, friends or acquaintances. Even those who knew their families were safe gradually received information about people in their home towns who were affected in various ways. Their news of family and friends was kept private, but all of them grieved for the collective loss.
Korea was also affecting me spiritually. An older man I worked with was a Buddhist and liked going to temples. One day I went along to a large temple about an hour from where we lived. Even though the grounds were undergoing construction, the visit gave me a really solid sense of spiritual direction. I was not yet engaged in Buddhism, but I knew something in it would work for me. I really want to thank you, Carol, for directing me to the Lotus Lantern Buddhist Center, although it took me months to find my way there.
On the administration grounds at Yongin, there was a small temple I’d pass on my way to work, but it wasn’t until later, maybe autumn, that I actually went inside. What was holding me back? Maybe the emotional baggage I’d brought with me, the resistance to the possibility that my daily life could be better. Buddhism was in my head, but it took its time coming to the surface.
During my second tour, I enjoyed going back to places I had frequented in my first. South Korea had transformed itself from a brutal military dictatorship into a budding, globalizing democracy which allowed more Koreans to leave the country. It had grown richer and more modern. Except for the occasional student or labor demonstrations, it was calm. I had changed as well. As a thirty-year-old, I saw no charm in the “ville.” It seemed tired. Maybe if I’d hung out there, I would have had a sense of how contentious national politics were. I didn’t know until I overheard a discussion about the ROK government requesting ROK security forces to stay in their garrisons during the local elections of June of that year. I was not aware of Park Chung-hee and his 1961 coup or Chun Doo-hwan’s massacre in 1980 and any number of other events in the country’s past.
On my first tour, most ROK soldiers spoke only broken English, but ten years later, the day after I’d said during an exercise that I was from Ohio, a soldier at a computer made eye contact with me and asked in quiet, clear and perfect English “So I hear you’re from Columbus, Ohio?” As we talked, I realized his English was very familiar. He turned out to be the son of a
Korean businessman based in Ohio, where he’d grown up and attended Ohio State University, He’d returned to Korea for his compulsory military service. Later I realized this had been a lost opportunity for friendship.
There was another one. On a crowded bus following a freakish heavy snowstorm, a crazy, God-awful cold evening, I was making my way from Suwon to Yongin. I was still in uniform and seated toward the back of the bus. It was already quite full when the door opened and someone got on. When the people standing moved a bit, I saw two small, very elderly women. I rose immediately and insisted they take my seat. They were really small, both of them fit neatly in the seat. It was one of those moments when I realized I was showing people how we did it back home, a universal politeness in Korea, like every place else on the planet. You respect the elders. People were showing their approval, which was a bit embarrassing since I didn’t think it was a big deal. One gentleman gave me his card and his phone number. He lived in Yongin. With the help of some of the KATUSAs a few days later, I contacted him and was invited to his home for dinner with his family. That was really cool.
Unfortunately, I later lost his contact information, but I have a photo of him still. I think of him sometimes and wonder how things have been for him and his family.
I had regrets about missed opportunities for friendships and about leaving after only a year. On the one hand, my son was in the US and there were a good many important reasons to go back. On the other, I’d met a number of foreigners who’d been in Korea for some time, and I was thinking about staying on myself. I wanted to learn Korean. But in March of 1996, on my way to my new assignment on the west coast. In Hawaii I met some people who told me about the difficulties of learning the Korean language and becoming comfortable in the culture. Now I really wish I’d had another year.
I have no advice for readers who also regret opportunities not taken. Many times in the following years I was grateful to be where I was at that moment. In the end, my heart and soul may have needed it all before I could return.
My travels also took me to the northeast, southeast and southwest Asia regions—mostly for military duties. My son joined the military and for about eight years was stationed at the WestPac on Guam and in Okinawa. I spent as much time there as I could. They love Okinawa, and so do I.
Since the summer of 2019, something has been pulling me to northeast Asia. I see this interview as part of the process of determining what’s in my heart. In late October of 2019, while my son was deployed to the Middle East, I was scheduled to fly to Okinawa to be with my grandkids and my daughter-in-law, Xian.
The night before was increasingly strange. The weather was unlike anything I’d seen in a very long time, at least not in Tacoma—light rain but with a bright glow in the overcast sky. I was feeling vaguely disquieted and emotional, then increasingly ill. I thought of getting medical attention. Something was definitely wrong. About ten o’clock in the evening, I took a nap, telling myself I’d go to the hospital if I got worse. I fell into a deep sleep.
In my dream I had woken up to surroundings kind of similar to my conscious world—darker, but I could see all around me clearly. From my bed I looked out the window at the dark, overcast night sky. I saw something which made me wonder. I walked out the back door to the street and looked up and thought, “That can’t be what I think it is.” The entire sky was all glowing, ever so slightly, with some kind of writing. At first, I thought it was Arabic, maybe an omen about my son, but it was Hangul, the Korean alphabet.
When I actually woke up, it was around midnight. I texted Xian that I was cancelling my flight and going to the hospital. At the emergency room I was told my blood iron was lower than average but I was fine. I left in predawn darkness, feeling weird. The weather still looked strange. Four days later I flew into Misawa and began my way down to Okinawa.
My dream didn’t make sense. even after I shared it with Xian, who had also spent time in Korea. Why a vision of Hangul in the sky? We all missed Galen and wished he could have been there for Halloween and my grandson’s birthday. As a special treat we went to a café in Naha City that was set up for adults at night but for children during the day— walls painted with bright baby blue and pink, and all these stuffed teddy bear and Barbie doll decorations. The music, which was the important part for me, turned out to be KPop, a group called Twice. The hook was set. Back in Washington State, I became an ardent fan.
A longing to be closer to Galen’s family took over me. I could perhaps spend a year in Okinawa. I sensed a purpose beyond duty to family. But where? Okay, Okinawa, yes. Japan, yes. Korea? I hadn’t thought of going back there until now. Why uproot myself from Tacoma to go back there? Maybe for a new start, a sense of purpose or direction. Or to complete what I’d left unfinished. The strong tugs in that direction, what were they? A need for my family or something in me?
In 2020 I tried to find out if anyone I knew was still living there. I felt a sense of urgency. Then with the pandemic Korea and Japan shut down. In February I was back in Okinawa, then back to Tacoma. Now I have a strong sense that special events are getting ready to happen in northeast Asia and that I need to be there when they do.
Military Linguists–Parts 1-3 (lINK),
KATUSA–A reading discussion based on these interviews and an interview with a fomer can be found at KATUSA (Link)