Here we go again…
These were the words that rang in my skull when I recently read mad cow disease had once more reared its nutty head, this time in Central California. I was here in 2008 when the whole nation of South Korea suffered a mega-kiniption over the perceived “health risks” of American beef. I saw the million-student marches on TV and witnessed a couple here in Busan, firsthand. It was a heady paranoid time. Rumors were mongered and the tactics of fear were hurled around like baseballs. What was to be believed? Were Koreans really more genetically prone to the disease, as a major television news program purported? Did the bony parts that Koreans like to eat (spine, tail) contain MORE of the virus? Or was this some nefarious plot by the American government to POISON the Korean people, as my girlfriend at the time (now ex) fervently believed? After all, she had read it on the internet.
What quickly became apparent to me was that, beneath all the panic and hyperventilating babble about safety concerns, this whole thing was political. It was a calculated push by Korea’s left to cripple the newly-elected government of conservative Lee Myung-bak. They hated the guy (still do) and went after him with a full court press. Even more than that, this beef about beef boiled down to one thing: Good ol’ fashioned anti-Americanism. I attended a couple of the rallies and saw all that I needed to see: Huge placards of scary, evil looking cows, on which was painted the garish Stars and Stripes. The whole debate may have been cloaked in “public safety”, but the subtext was clear:
Big bad America is going to overwhelm and pollute small, pure Korea. They are the enemy.
I’m no a rah-rah American. I’m the last guy to wrap myself in the flag. Anybody who knows me or has read anything I’ve written can attest to that (drunken Facebook screeds against capitalism, anyone?). But there is something about living in a foreign country, something about expat life that can turn even the biggest Chomskyite into a pro-US firebrand, at times.
Part of it is the constant barrage of anti-Americanism that we gotta deal with–not just from the locals–but from other expats as well. I came here under the the reign of the uber-despised GW Bush and after a while, I got sick of AGREEING with these guys. And more than that, I came to realize that many people who bag on America possess half-baked ideas and utilize even more undercooked arguments. You know the type: they start in on politics and come after America, and then go on to pin 100 percent of the world’s ills on the USA, while giving every other nation and government–no matter how odious–a pass. Meeting this douchestain one too many times tempered my liberalism, at least while out of the country.
It’s funny, because most of my American expat friends here are raving lefties such as myself, but despite this, we are forced to put on some armor, at times, in the face of blind anti-Americanism. Are we just being pussies? Are we too sensitive to take the heat that comes with holding the navy blue passport? Perhaps… but it also forces us to look after our own interests. We like a bit of love and when we find it, we don’t forget it. Case in point: Most of us Americans in Korea tacitly support the conservative party (former 한나라 당, now 세누리 or some shit) while loathing the GOP back at home. Why? Well, not only is the Korean conservative party the most pro-American party, they are the most pro-foreigner. Their policies are likely to be the most friendly to us, and they’re also the LEAST likely group to stir-up anti-American sentiment for political gain. This has been done by the left (Noh Moo-hyun in 2002) before, and we don’t forget such things.
The Korean left is different than any left I’ve known, in that it’s absolutely, rabidly nationalistic. The European left, the North American left, and even the Latin American left, while all hating on “Yankee Imperialism,” tend to be much more international in their outlook. After all, isn’t the “Internationale” the anthem for the workers of the world? Not in Korea. That would be “Fucking USA!” The Korean left is absolutely hostile to the USA, and as an extension, foreigners in general, at least Westerners, who represent America in their eyes. I wasn’t here in 2002 (during the American tank incident in which two middle school girls were killed), but Western friends who were complain of being harassed on the street, whatever their nationality. Word is that the local lefties weren’t checking passports at the time.
Anti-Americanism is the driving engine behind a lot of supposed issues in Korea. Another example is the US-Korea FTA, which recently passed. There have been innumerable protests and big to dos over the agreement, all in the name of “protecting South Korea from unfair practices.” Violent protests have raged for years. Fair enough, look after your own, I get it. But… at the same time, an EU-Korea FTA was being negotiated, and it too eventually passed. In my seven and a half years here, I have yet to see ONE demonstration against Korea’s deal with Europe. Was that agreement intrinsically fairer than the one signed with the USA? Or are there other dynamics at work here?
I know, I know… anti-American springs up here sometimes: get used to it. It’s the legacy of colonialism and the result of a people with a wounded national self-esteem. After all, how would you feel if foreign troops were on the ground in YOUR country? It may irritate a tad. Some have compared the bursts of “Yankee Go Home!” in Korea to a geyser: It builds up pressure, suddenly sprays out in a violent hot froth, and abates just as quickly as it came. It’s a necessary release-mechanism; a function of a healthy society.
I’m not bitching. I’m just trying to understand and explain my own political schizophrenia. Is is possible to be liberal in your own country and conservative in another? Or, like most human beings, am I only looking after my own ass, and as a result choose the political point-of-view that’s most expedient, wherever I am?
Hmmm… I touch on some of the above themes in my book, “Dispatches from the Peninsula: Six Years in South Korea.” Buy it if you haven’t already, por favor.