Journals from Yonsei University, Korea
Just about the last weekend of October my friend Jah Woon invited me to visit her brother at a nearby army base for his birthday. I met her in Sinchon and we hopped on the bus for Yongsan, which is about 25 minutes away. I didn't really go with any expectations, but the whole experience was just rather culturally strange to me.
When we got to the base (conveniently located just outside of the bus stop) Jah Woon signed in and had her brother called. I went to look for a restroom and couldn't help but notice the crowded room with tables on the top floor facing a wall of vending machines. It reminded me of a jail's visiting room.
Back downstairs I joined Jah Woon and was shortly introduced to more of her family. Her uncle, aunt, grandmother, and cousin had come to visit as well. After about 15 minutes her brother arrived and escorted us to the office where he works at. Since it was his birthday his superiors had allowed him to host his family there instead of the crowded visiting room. To repay the favor, half of the cake brought for him was divvied up for them and any time one of the elders walked into the room the entire family jumped to their feet.
Even though the aunt had prepared a verifiable feast, we ate the sweet potato cake Jah Woon bought first. It shocked me when she used chop sticks instead of a fork, but those utensils are extremely versatile! I was already full, but the grandmother kept telling us to eat more of the fried potatoes, rice, ribs and seaweed soup. It is tradition for Koreans to eat seaweed soup on their birthday since during pregnancy women eat it for the health of the baby.
After the extended family left, Jah Woon, her brother and I talked for a little bit. He obviously wasn't that comfortable speaking in English so soon left to get two his newest friends who both spoke English. They had only been there for two months and were just adjusting to the monotony of Army life. I kept asking them questions about what they would do, when they were able to leave the base, and how their lives had been before. It was just so strange to me that for 2 years they were practically confined to that base, with their only means of communication being to write letters or call on the telephone. The family is allowed to visit on the weekends, but it is surely awkward to have forced conversation in a room full of strangers. Jah Woon's brother told me that when he first came to the Army he wanted to be visited as much as possible, but now the meetings are fewer and further in between.
I understand the necessity for Korea to institute a service commitment, but the reality of its implementation is tough to see. There is no good time for these young men to fulfill their service-either they go after high school and are 2 years behind their peers in school, or they leave school after 2 years and return after their peers have moved on. Either way, the social interruption seems like such a great loss of youth.
When Jah Woon took me to the base she told me that this would be a real glimpse into Korean culture, and it really was. It was obvious that the family was proud of her brother's service, but there was still the forced awkwardness of the situation. I couldn't help but notice the aunt look at times from her nephew in uniform to her young son who kept fidgeting beside her as he played his video game. In the first glance there was pride and I could detect an ambivalence with the second. Perhaps I am projecting my own thoughts, but it seems that she was glimpsing into a time when her only son would be filling the boots his cousin now wore. I felt in that moment that I couldn't be the only one in the room wishing for a future in which that young boy would only wear that uniform out of choice.
Ashley Price, Yonsei Fall 2009