Thursday, May 21, 2009

American GI's in Korea: Why Are Some Teachers So Hateful?

Here's the question:
I'm an American who currently lives in Taean. This is only my second month in Korea, so me and a few Canadian friends visited Itaewon last weekend for a night of drinking and I was so embarrassed by the American military. They were all so disrespectful and are making it worse for the rest of us. What's the deal with those dudes?

I'd like to start this one out with a grammar correction. "A few Canadian friends and I visited Itaewon..."

This is big question and one of the more specific opinion questions that I have gotten. Fair enough.

English teachers on the peninsula have an interesting and evolving relationship with American GIs. A lot of people come to Korea holding some sort of opinion of military personal. Depending on their nationality, those opinions might be positive or negative. Typically, American opinion runs the gamut. Some have nothing but respect for them and others have nothing but contempt for them. Unfortunately, the last few decades have been very politicizing for the men in uniform. They have been demonized by the actions of their leaders, so they sometime bear the brunt of the anti-war/military onslaught. For non-Americans, the soldiers serve as an icon of American meddling which of course doesn't bode well.

I believe that teachers in Korea go through several phases on this issue. For many, the first reaction is negative like yours was. There are bases all over the peninsula, but the boys at Yongsan garrison in particular seem to generate the most anger among teachers and are the target for anti-American Koreans. This might be because of its proximity to Itaewon, a major Seoul nightspot, where the most interaction between teachers and soldiers takes place. In Itaewon there are teacher bars and GI bars. Of course, many of them overlap and it is not all that uncommon to see teachers and GIs socializing. However, it is not all that uncommon to see scuffles between the two groups either.

In most cases, the average teacher is going to encounter GIs drinking, dancing, playing pool and chasing girls. Sounds just like an evening with English teachers. Sure, the GIs might be drinking faster than the average teacher (mostly because of their early curfew), acting a little more immature and maybe even pursuing women more aggressively (and more successfully?), but many teachers forget that a lot of these GIs are young(er) men. Some of them are barely twenty years old. The tendency is forgot this fact (and that we were all that age at one point) and blame them for acting in such a way. I did the same thing when I first arrived. I saw them acting like drunk idiots and yelling and fighting and blamed them because of my former opinion of them. Of course, later that very same night, I was probably doing the same thing minus the fighting. That's the first impression that many new teachers get and the first phase that they go through.

The second phase will start after a few months of being in Korea. Slowly, teachers will start to hear more stories from other seasoned teachers and Koreans about how much trouble GIs cause in Korea. You'll hear more about fighting, a few stories about crime or rape and, of course, the tragic Armored Tank Incident. The stories only confirm your previously held opinions and the knee-jerk reaction is to try to separate yourselves from them. Some teachers avoid GI areas while others willfully badmouth them to other teachers and Korean students thus perpetuating a nasty stereotype.

It boils down to this: many English teachers believe that American soldiers are unintelligent, come from low-income families and had to join the military because they were losers back in America. They believe that GIs give expats and all teachers a bad name, but trust me, there's plenty of blame to go around.

If you have clicked on any of the links by now, you would have noticed that I am linking one site: ROK Drop. ROK Drop is a military blog run mainly by GI Korea. I discovered this blog two years ago and not a day has gone by since that I have not dropped by and taken a look. Even though I might not agree with his politics, he is a very smart, fair and dedicated blogger that always treats all issues with respect (except for global warming). If you are new to Korea, I would suggest you add his site to your list of daily reads. He has taken many of these issues head on and I would recommend that all expats tune in.

Finally, the final phase sets in and teachers start to realize that the GIs are just part of the experience and slowly they'll start to drop the superiority act and just let it go.

So, my advice: If you don't want to try and get to know the GIs, that's fine. Avoid them. Go to their off-limits areas and enjoy yourself, but don't do what so many people do and badmouth them. Both teachers and American GIs should be helping improve public opinion of the other because no matter how much you want to deny it, their reputation gets tied in with ours and vice versa.

Remember, you chose to come to Korea and even though they chose to join the military, they didn't necessarily choose to come to Korea. Let's be respectful. Like us, they're just trying their best.

If anybody has any questions, just send me an email at or leave a comment


aelfreda said...

Hi there!
I lived in Korea for eight years and I totally agree with you. I'm sure that there are some dodgy GIs but the vast majority were really respectful and well behaved. As for Itaewon, well, what happens in Itaewon STAYS in Itaewon and, in my memories, the GIs definitely weren't the only (or even the majority of) the drunk obnoxious people.
Can I take this farther? I have been kind of shocked at how my fellow Canadians feel they can say any nasty thing they want about Americans, not realizing that there may be some "incognito" Americans in the crowd. I had a Korean-American friend once who was really hurt by some of the Canadian commentary.
"I always thought Canadians were really nice" she said, "I was shocked and sad to find that you all hate us." That was a real wake-up call for me!

The Expat said...

Some Canadians have an enormous chip on their shoulder and while most of them vent their frustrations to each other, many of them will do so to their (young) students and Korean friends. I've subbed a class before for a Canadian and was shocked at the vile that he had taught his students about Americans. It's sad and pretty pathetic.

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