from the Korean Army to being published

the blog of an "ex-patriot" writer in Korea

Entry #15: Was It Really That Bad?

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The other week I got a call from Evan, my close “Mexican-Korean” friend, to come out to drink. While I rarely respond positively to late-night phone calls for a drink—it means I’ll have to fork over an exorbitant fare to a taxi driver at the end of the night when I’m perfectly fine drinking by myself at home—it had been a long time and I have to maintain the few friendships I have left. Besides, my Tuesday-Thursday classes had ended and I didn’t have to wake up prematurely in an alcoholic haze the next morning.

Because Evan, as a hakwon whore (I’m basically one, too, but with much better working conditions; a high-class prostitute, as it were), ended at 10, I met up with Gary first at Shincheon station. As we were walking the streets full of gaudy neon, scantily clad young women, and persistent, pestilent waiters trying to get us into a club—“Hey, don’t you want to go to a club? No? Right now, the place is packed with only girls. No? No? No?”—Gary asked me what I had been up to.

“Nothing much. Just work and working on my book.”
“Really? What you writing about?”
“I’m just writing about my army experience.” He already knew the barebones of my story. I met many of my friends through my one army friend, Ken.
“Was it really that bad?”
Was it really that bad? I didn’t know how to answer. The experience was awful, but I realized that it would take too much effort to convince someone who hasn’t lived it, especially someone who could ask me that question, of its awful-ness. Imagine the worst situation you have ever been in. Then imagine, over the course of several months, knowing that it will come to pass and you can’t do anything about it. Then imagine living that experience every day for two years. I know it’s a very subjective and abstract and perhaps unwarranted analogy, and I know it’s not a persuasive argument. There’s no simple way to explain it in terms of small talk. “… yeah. It was pretty bad.”

I’m complaining (another utility of blogging) but I’m getting somewhere.

In the summer of 2005, I was reading an opinion article in the Defense Daily a week after a tormented young man in the GOP went postal, killing several squad members and his platoon leader by throwing a grenade into his squad room after lights out and shooting the others. He couldn’t handle the psychological abuse given to him by people who were supposed to be his “comrades.” The opinion article was an exhortation to be strong, put up with the shit, and finish our terms of service safely. While the article was written with good intentions, so is the road to hell paved.

Last year, one of my students mentioned that he saw a picture of me on a Cyworld (Korean social networking site) video. The video was about how the army now is drastically better, far more bearable than the army in the time of our fathers, so quit bitching about it. My picture wasn’t used an example of the whiny little bitch I am (whoever made the video obviously doesn’t know me very well). Strangely, my picture was used as an example of a patriotic young man who gave up his foreign citizenship/residency to serve the country of his forefathers (whoever made the video really doesn’t know me at all).

There was one thing the opinion article and the Cyworld video shared and that commonality is what bothered me about both. The problem was that both were submitted by women. Feminists, keep your pants on. Let me explain.

For most, military service was the worst experience of many young men’s lives. It is almost unimaginable, the things you are subjected to. (Yes, I know I am making a vast over-generalization and I have a talent for exaggeration.) It’s one of those things you have to experience or you’ll never truly know. I think this is the reason Korean men can’t shut up about the army. They are the kings of Ephyra. This is also the reason why I had a problem with that article and video. They were making statements from the perspective of an outsider, as someone who has no fucking idea what they are saying.

I share the same sentiment in my introduction. I don’t want to hear “[s]tatements about another door opening or divine plans for my life.” I go on to say that I prefer material compensation for my story, which is essentially what the book is—an attempt to share my story without having to see the rolling of the eyes or sighs of exasperation. The book is also a manifestation of the Korean in me. I can’t answer the original question—“Was it really that bad?”—simply. It’s a long story.

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  1. […] * Another frequently asked question that will cause me to immediately hate a person I have just met is: “How was it?” It’s similar in nature to the question I address in Entry #15: Was It Really That Bad? […]


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