from the Korean Army to being published

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

Posts Tagged ‘korean army

Random #74: News for the New Year

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It’s a new year, and while I don’t like attaching special meaning to the passing of time, I do have some news. Not good news. Just news, plain and simple. The first item is that I’ve decided to abandon the agent search and to self-publish. I realize that I still haven’t reached a level in the quality of my writing that I’m satisfied with and don’t think that I’ll be able to get there by being stubborn and completely re-writing the manuscript for the third time. I’m tired of working on it. In three weeks, it will be the ninth anniversary of my discharge and eleventh anniversary of my induction and almost ten years since I started typing up the earliest notes for this book, and I think that’s enough. The book is what it will be, and I’m fine with that. I really want to focus on my novels, and hopefully focusing on something I actually want to write will help me to grow as a writer.

The second item is related to the first. I will be quitting this blog sometime this year. I won’t shut it down, but once the book is e-published, I will only update it if there are any developments with the publishing, something I’m not really expecting. This blog was started for generating interest in this book, and I feel like it has recently strayed from its original purpose.

My name is not Holden Beck. I chose this ridiculous pseudonym to hint to the readers that I was “holding back” certain things in the book (at least I intended to at the beginning). Not that I was trying to hide any embarrassing stories or to stifle my emotions. Holding back one’s emotions is not conducive to writing and any lack of emotion in the book is only due to a flaw in my own character. I originally meant to withhold information related to my estranged father, primarily because he asked me not to publish this book so as not to damage his reputation. Even using my real name would cause him to lose face because there are people around him who know that his second son was forced into the Korean Army. I do leave out some of the things that happened between me and my father during that period but only because it has no bearing on the story being told. A lot of my experiences have been cut from the latest draft for the sake of readability. There are still times I worry how interesting a read it is because those two years were supremely boring years.

Anyway, the publishing is still a way off. I just finished another round of edits and hope to finish it in the next coming months. I still have to design a cover and figure out exactly how to self-publish. Hopefully, the announcement of the publishing of the book online won’t be too far off, but I’ve broken too many self-imposed deadlines to make any declarations. I will update again once I make some progress.


Written by Young

January 10, 2015 at 9:57 pm

Entry #63: Static

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It’s been nearly a month since my last posting, which means it’s time for another post. Since my last post, I took a trip down to Jeonju to see my mom, started teaching again, sold my old motorcycle on a rainy Sunday morning, entertained a friend from Tokyo for a couple of days full of whisky and throwing around money like a man with thrice the means, flew to Osaka over the Chuseok break to convince a lesbian to give me a chance (forgetting to bring my wallet when I left for the airport), and finally, took out a couple of friends from my past in Seattle and their wives for a strange night of drinking, patbingsu, street games, and long, drawn-out drunken debates over theology. It’s been raining the past few days, but the rains have stopped and I dusted off my bike and am here in the coffee shop once again.

While it was a rare treat to have so many things to do and people to see, I’m happy that things have returned to their “normal,” uneventful state. Being social takes a lot out of me. I don’t have classes on Tuesdays, and I spent the entirety of my day in my apartment. The only time I was outdoors was stepping out onto my balcony for a smoke. I’m sure my neighbors don’t appreciate it, but I smoke in my “at home” attire—a pair of boxer-briefs and nothing else.

My life is so predictable, sometimes I wonder why people bother contacting me when they know exactly how I’m going to answer.

“What’s new?” “Nothing much.”

“What are you doing?” “I’m at the coffee shop, trying to get some writing done.”

“What did you do last weekend?” “Drank with friends,” or “Just stayed at home.”

“Are you seeing anyone?” “Nope.”

“Still working at the university?” “Yeah.”

“Did you publish your book yet?” “Not yet.”

(If I do die early, I could probably find an automated reply program to keep up the appearance that I’m still around.)

Even when there is a development, it’s more of the same. My new (used) motorcycle looks just like my old (used) motorcycle, just a little bigger with less rust damage. My new apartment is a seven minutes’ walk from my previous place. My new coffee shop is also the same distance away. The thing is, this static life of mine, I really enjoy it.

People say that my way is not really living, that life is about its ups and downs. I’ve had my share of ups, but I’m not a very excitable person so they’re mostly wasted on me. The problem is the downs. When I saw my friends from Seattle, I was reminded of my nickname in college—Job, the biblical man of sorrows. My life in college was pretty shitty. Having to serve in the Korean Army was a shock initially, but it seemed a natural culmination of all the rotten luck and tragedy up to that point. While I was in the service, I learned that the best way to stay out of trouble was to stay under the radar.

I’ve reached a degree of zen in my life—want nothing, suffer nothing. Unfortunately, this blog is one of the things that suffer as a result. My friends from Seattle told me that they read this blog—I was surprised, just as I am whenever someone tells me that—and they commented on the infrequency of my updates. It’s been a problem since I first started this blog. My personal aversion for blogging aside, I just have nothing new to share. If a month passes, at least I can summarize what little has happened and maybe some worthwhile thought will occur to me as I’m writing.

The good news for this blog is that I do hope to have something to share by the end of the year. I’ve started my agent search—I sent out one query a couple weeks ago—and I’ve decided that if I can’t (get off my lazy ass to) find an agent by the end of this year, I’m just going to self-publish. Then the question won’t be “When is your book coming out?” but “When is your next book coming out?”

Entry #59: An Elderly Man’s Nightmare

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A short, lazy entry for today. This is just something I saw a few weeks back on the Internet.



A loose translation:

As he was sleeping, an 82-year-old man cried out, “It’s not me! It’s not me!” He woke abruptly, saying, “Geez. I dreamt another dream about going to the Army.” [laughter] At 82…

This is most likely a poorly thought-out attempt at humor. An 82-year-old would have been born in 1932*, assuming that the event happened this year. He would have been 18 when the Korean War broke out and probably joined up/was conscripted during that first year. If he was a Korean War veteran, he would have plenty of other material more traumatic than getting conscripted.

In my previous draft, I started the first chapter by sharing one of my nightmares about the Army. I still have them once in a while although they are becoming less and less frequent. The dreams are not recurring, but the one thing they all share is that they deal with me going back to the Army for a second term.

That first night in the January of 2004, I lay there on the raised floor of the squad room I would be spending the next five weeks, unable to sleep with the confusion and disbelief and frustration roiling inside my head. There was one question I asked myself and I asked myself that same question over and over countless nights that first year. The question was this: “What the fuck am I doing here?” In the nightmares I dream now nine years after that first night, much older but none the wiser, I ask myself, “What the fuck am I doing here… again?”

* Age accounting in Korea is unique in that babies are considered one-year-old when they are born and everybody ages together at the beginning of the year.

Written by Young

July 5, 2013 at 11:28 pm

Entry #58: Being Used

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While editing the final section of the manuscript, I found an article about me that was printed in the Defense Daily, the newspaper of the Korean military. Reading through the article, I couldn’t help but laugh at the blatant lies they printed in order to boost morale. Propaganda at its finest.

I remember first reading the article at the end of 2005. I was shocked because I never gave an interview to a reporter for the Defense Daily. The reporter took information from interviews I gave to the Korea Times and added liberal amounts of bullshit for the military’s agenda. He figuratively shat in my mouth, making up quotes I would never say, even under duress.

I once heard that when a Korean male enters the military, his citizen registration number is put on hold and he is no longer considered a person but a tool of the military. This is only hearsay, but I’ve also heard that physically attacking a conscript is not assault and battery but damaging government property. I guess it’s the role of a tool, to be used. I certainly felt like a tool when I was in uniform.

Here is a rough translation of the article with emphasis added.

Korea Times Translation Award for Literature

SROKA Headquarters, Sergeant Young Jin Chun

A proud ROK Army conscript who entered the military out of a love for his motherland despite having American citizenship submitted a translation to a translation competition held by the Korea Times and was awarded first prize.

Although he was born in Illinois and grew up in Washington, Sergeant Young Jin Chun (27) is currently doing his military duty at the Second ROK Army Headquarters out of a special sense of patriotism.

Sergeant Chun translated Jo Chang-in’s novel The Lighthouse Keeper into English for the 36th Korea Times Translation Awards and his translation was selected for the highest award in the literature category, which will be awarded to him on the 9th of next month.

After hearing about the translation competition in August through the newspaper, Sergeant Beck sent in his submission after a month of translating.

Although there were difficulties in the process in balancing his duties and the translation, he used his sleeping and break times and was able to finish work on the translation.

Sergeant Chun said, “I was only able to win this award because I am serving in the military in Korea.”

Sergeant Chun, an American citizen, returned to Korea two years ago not knowing that he had to serve in the Army when he came to Korea. At the time, he was a dual citizen and could barely speak Korean, but he gladly decided to enter the Army because he believed that it was his natural duty and he wanted to directly experience his fatherland with his body.

Sergeant Chun said, “It was a difficult when I first decided to enter the Army because I wouldn’t be able to see my family for two years and I couldn’t speak Korean.”

Nevertheless, Sergeant Chun received much help from his comrades and was gradually able to adjust to Korea and life in the military. Of course, he worked hard, always carrying around his notebook and taking down memos and asking if there was something he didn’t understand.

Thanks to that effort and the help of his comrades, Sergeant Beck went on a deployment to Afghanistan for six months and was able to go to America to see his family during the resulting award furlough.

With his discharge approaching in the January of next year, Sergeant Chun said, “I have completely adapted to life in the Army,” and “The most valuable thing I have reaped from the Army is how to think positively.”

In addition, Sergeant Chun said, “The Army has had a huge influence on my life,” and “It will be a fond memory I will never be able to forget.”

Sergeant Chun added, “I’ve learned a lot about Korean culture in the Army, and I can now say with confidence that I have served two years in the Korean Army.”

Sergeant Chun will travel and take time to think after his discharge but disclosed that he intends to attend graduate school in Korea in order to understand Korea more.

Lies. All lies. I didn’t decide to serve in the Army at all. I was forced to go on threat of prison and I was blocked from leaving the country. Rather than helping me, the other conscripts constantly mocked me and my poor pronunciation and lack of communicative skills. I had to go to Afghanistan to even be able to see my family once in the two years. A fond memory? My ass.

Here’s the original article in Korean for those who can read Korean and want to read these poisonous lies in their original language. (Again, emphasis added.)

코리아 타임스 번역문학상 수상

육군2군사령부 XXX 병장

미국 시민권을 가졌음에도 모국에 대한 애정으로 군에 입대한 자랑스러운 대한민국 육군 병사가 코리아 타임스가 주최한 번역문학상에 응모, 우수상을 수상해 화제가 되고 있다.

미국 일리노이즈 주에서 태어나 워싱턴에서 주로 자랐지만 남다른 조국애로 현재 육군2군사령부 본부사령실에서 국방의 의무를 다하고 있는 XXX(27·사진) 병장이 그 주인공.

X병장은 제36회 코리아 타임스 번역문학상에서 조창인씨의 소설 ‘등대지기’를 영문으로 번역해 소설 부문 최고상인 우수상에 당선, 내달 9일 수상한다.

X병장은 지난 8월 번역문학상과 관련한 소식을 신문 지상을 통해 접한 뒤 약 한 달에 걸친 번역 작업을 거쳐 응모하게 됐다.

이 과정에서 업무 보랴, 번역 작업하랴 어려움도 많았지만 자는 시간과 휴식 시간을 쪼개 어렵사리 작업을 마무리할 수 있었다고 한다.

X병장은 “이 상을 수상하게 된 것은 절대적으로 한국에서 군 복무를 할 수 있었기 때문”이라고 말했다.

미국 시민권자인 X병장은 2년 전 한국에 오면 군에 입대해야 한다는 사실을 모르고 귀국했다. 당시 이중 국적자였던 그는 한국말을 거의 하지 못했지만 한국인이라면 당연한 의무였고 조국을 몸으로 직접 느끼고 싶다는 생각에 흔쾌히 입대를 결심했다.

X병장은 “처음 입대를 결심했을 때는 2년 동안 가족을 볼 수 없다는 걱정과 한국어를 제대로 구사할 수 없다는 문제 때문에 고민도 많이 했다”고 말했다.

하지만 X병장은 입대 후 부대 동료들로부터 많은 도움을 받으며 차츰 한국, 그것도 어렵다는 군생활에 적응할 수 있었다. 물론 항상 노트를 들고 다니며 모르는 부분이 있으면 메모하고 질문하는 그의 노력도 있었다.

그런 노력과 동료들의 도움 덕분에 군생활에 적응한 X병장은 아프가니스탄에 6개월간 파병되기도 했고 그에 대한 포상으로 휴가 기간중 미국으로 건너가 그리운 가족들을 볼 수 있었다.

내년 1월 전역을 앞둔 X병장은 “이제는 군생활에 적응이 다 됐다”“군에서 긍정적으로 생각하는 법을 배운 것이 가장 큰 수확”이라고 말했다.

또 X병장은 “군대가 내 삶에 많은 영향을 줬다”“내 인생에서 절대 잊을 수 없는 좋은 추억이 될 것 같다”고 말했다.

X병장은 “군대에서 한국 문화에 대해 많이 배웠고 이제는 정말 자신 있게 한국 군대에서 2년을 복무했다고 말할 수 있을 것 같다”고 덧붙였다.

X병장은 전역 후 여행도 하고 생각할 시간을 갖겠지만 한국에 대한 더 많은 이해를 위해 당분간 한국에서 대학원에 다니고 싶다는 뜻을 내비쳤다.

Entry #57: That Time of the Year Again

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This week, you might see more than the usual number of fatigue-clad men (uniform fatigues, that is, and probably a little weariness) wandering the streets of Seoul. It’s not a reaction to anything that the North is doing—nobody really cares here—but a regular occurrence, twice yearly (I think). The young men won’t be wearing the new digital uniforms they issue to conscripts these days, and they’ll be riding scooters, walking around without their battle caps or with their hands in their pockets, their pants bloused low over their boots or not at all. It’s reserve training season.

Reserve training is a farce although I’ve heard that the powers that be are trying to actually fit some actual training into the schedule these days. I’m no longer obligated in any way to the Korean Army so I’ve never had to report for training, but I had to oversee Mobilization Training when I was a private in 2004.

The reserves lumbered in early in the morning and, after getting their room assignments, went straight to bed. The only thing they were somewhat enthusiastic about was smoking and frequenting the PX, but they had to be coerced and prodded and pushed to do everything else. Some of them were so lazy they couldn’t be bothered with aiming when squatting over the old-school toilets. Of course, the burden was on us active duty schmucks to drag them along and clean up after them. As far as I could tell, it was a complete waste of time and manpower with very little benefit to the “battle readiness” of the military.

Check out Fermentation’s account of reserve training here.

Once in a while, I’ll hear that I’m lucky that I don’t have to report to reserve training, but it’s like saying to someone who’s lost his/her parents, “At least you don’t have to buy carnations every year.” (It’s a bad analogy but I’m tired and it’s Parents Day today. Happy Parents Day, Mom.)

As I’ve mentioned before, I was forced to give up one citizenship after my discharge, which is why I don’t have to serve as a reserve. It wasn’t until a few years later that the government began to recognize dual citizenships outside of military duty obligations. I have no desire to apply for dual citizenship, but I wonder if I did, would I have to show up for reserve training?


Image from a friend’s facebook page. Korean combat boots are the worst. They will fuck your feet up like no other. These boots weren’t made for walking.

Entry #56: Reunions

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“Hyeong, we’re having a SROKA reunion next Friday at 7:30. Do you want to come?”

I got this text message from Richard on a Thursday while I was on my way to the office. A SROKA reunion? Shit.

“Ken and Ho-ju are going to be there.”

“Let me think about it,” I said although I was sure that thinking about it wouldn’t make the idea any more appealing.

I don’t have any fond memories of my time in the Second ROK Army and the few people I could stand I meet on occasion. I didn’t go to my 10 year high school reunion and I don’t understand why people do.

Richard was persistent. Hyeong, are you coming? Can you come on Friday? Can you come? In the end, I gave in and agreed to stop by briefly. It had been a couple of years since I saw Richard, a year since I last met Ho-ju, and I’d blown off Ken a couple of times the previous week. Besides, I figured seeing some old faces might be of help in remembering stories for the book.

On Friday, I took the subway out to Seolleung and took the time for a few cigarettes before walking into the izakaya where we had arranged to meet. The woman at the counter led me to a room at the far end of the hall. I took a few breaths, took off my shoes, and walked through the sliding doors.

There are only three people sitting around the table, working on a sushi platter. Two I recognize as sergeants when I was first stationed in Daegu and the other I’ve never seen before. One of the sergeants worked in the same department as I had, Mobilization, but in a different office. What was his name? Gwang-something.

“Hey, you look familiar,” he says to me as I take a seat in the corner. “Oh, you’re the American kid.” He’s talking to me far too familiarly and too condescendingly, the way that you’d speak to a little kid or a sergeant would speak to a private. He has this big, coddling grin on his broad, pimply face.

I grunt my confirmation. If he’s going to be rude, there’s no need for me to bother being civil. I’m already walking into this reunion with a chip on my shoulder.

“Wait, how old are you?” he asks using the same condescending tone. Myeotsalini? instead of Nai eoddeokke dwoeseyo? He doesn’t seem to like that I’m standing my ground. There’s no rank between us now so he’s going to the age card.

“36. You?”

His face immediately runs through a succession of shock, contrition, and toadery. “Oh, we’re the same age. Let’s be friends.”

In the Army, you could only be real friends with other conscripts who had the same serial number as you, defined by the month of your start of service. In Korean society, you’re technically only friends with people of the same age.

“Yeah, whatever you want.”

“Wow, you look really young for your age.”

“Yeah, thanks.”

Looking young for your age isn’t always a good thing in Korea. I’ve been in many situations like this, where some guy will be a complete dick to me until he finds out how old I am. It wasn’t a good thing in the Army, either. Rank always trumps age but at least there’s a little respect afforded to the older conscripts. Instead, I had little kids who were still suckling at their mothers’ teats when I started grade school treat me like a child. I had to put up with their shit during those two years but I’ll be damned if I’m going to put up with it now.

There’s an awkwardness in the room. Where the hell is Richard? I didn’t come here to talk to assholes I don’t know. I didn’t come to hear old men talk about the Army. I order a beer and start fumbling with my phone to see if I can move on to my second engagement any earlier.

Richard shows up and Ken not long after that. They’re getting along fine and the awkwardness is mostly gone, just a small pocket around me. The pimply kid mentions to Richard that he’s kind of scared of me now because he wasn’t too nice to me in the service. Richard says some nice things about me, which makes me feel uncomfortable and a bit perturbed because I don’t feel the need to get to know anyone new.

The table resumes their conversation and I do what I usually do when I’m drinking—I drink and observe. From what I can tell, the range of serial numbers represented at the table is considerable, but Richard is close to them all and Ken is making friends. Even in the Army, social skills go a long way in making life comfortable. If you’re willing to throw away a bit of your pride and can talk a good game, the higher-ranked will take care of you. Either that or be good at something the higher-ranked value, like StarCraft or soccer. Having no redeeming qualities, I kept my mouth shut and took my lumps with the other socially awkward privates.

It hasn’t been an hour and it’s still a good thirty minutes until I’m supposed to meet up with my friends, but I’m itching to go. I drain a couple more glasses of beer, have a cigarette, and tell Richard and Ken I’m going to go. Without bothering to say good-bye, I slip on my shoes and walk out the door.

Why do people bother to go to reunions? Nobody is really friends with everyone in high school and you probably keep in touch with the people you really want to see. I’m not curious about what everyone in the Army is doing these days and have nothing to brag about even if I felt a need to brag to people I’ll never see again. I definitely don’t want to relive or reminisce about my time in the Army. If it weren’t for this damn book that I can’t seem to finish, I wouldn’t think about it at all.

I cross the street and hop in a cab. As we make our way through the dizzying Gangnam streets, I’ve already forgotten about the reunion. While the universe feels the need to make me suffer on occasion, it has at least blessed me with a poor memory.

Entry #53: Jjam-bap

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The task of revision is overwhelming, my first draft requiring major edits. I have the week off this week and I’m hoping to have the majority of the edits taken care of by the end of my vacation. Of course, I’ll probably go through several rounds of revision but I’ll probably start looking for agents after this first round is done.

In the meantime, I read an interesting article today on KoreaBANG about food in the Army.

According to the article,

“A recent National Assembly investigation into food in the military revealed that a South Korean soldier is fed for just ₩2,051 won (1.42EUR/1.85USD) per meal, an amount far lower than that given to American soldiers and even less than most Seoul elementary school pupils receive.”

This figure (₩2,051) seems far higher than it actually is. Or was, perhaps. I don’t know if the condition of chow has improved over the years but it was far worse than the 40-cent lunches at my elementary school cafeteria.

Picture taken from KoreaBANG (I don’t know the original source). This actually looks a lot better than the average meal.

I’ll just add a couple of interesting facts about jjam-bap, chow.

According to sources on Naver, the word jjam-bap originates from jan-ban, which means leftovers. When I was in the Army, I heard a different story. I was told that it was a bastardization of jjin-bap, which means steamed rice/food. While occasionally there are fried items on the menu, the majority of chow is steamed because it’s easier with those industrial-sized steamers. I don’t know which is true but the former seems to be the more popular theory.

Jjam-bap is also slang which means experience (time spent at a certain task) and thus rank. The longer you’re in the Army, the more jjam-bap you have eaten and the higher your rank is. This term is often used in Korean companies and Korean society in general with the same type of implications.

Written by Young

October 21, 2012 at 9:05 pm

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