SEOUL — Young Chun is hardly the only U.S. citizen working as an English language teacher in South Korea. But he may the only one who landed the job after being forcibly recruited by the South Korean armed forces — and then shipped off to Afghanistan.
Chun, 36, was born in the United States and grew up in Seattle, Washington. As one of the only Asian-Americans in his school, he remembers being bullied and discriminated against. "When I was in the States, I thought if I go to Korea, I'll fit in," he recalls. "But once I got to Korea, I realized I don't fit in at all."
Chun first came here in 2002 — mostly for economic reasons, but also in search of identity. Because he didn't really speak the language or know the customs, he felt even more of an outsider than he had back in Seattle.
And yet much to his surprise, Chun also discovered — while filling out paperwork at a local government office — that he was as much South Korean, legally speaking, as he was American. "I went up to the counter and the officer said, "You can't get a visa. You're Korean." It was a shock to me. It was news to my mom as well," he says. "It was the first time I ever heard that I had Korean citizenship as well."
"Life was miserable"
Chun still isn't sure who in his family registered his birth in South Korea. What he did find out is that South Korean citizenship comes with a price for men. Due to North Korea's ongoing military threat, all South Korean males must put their lives on hold for about two years to serve in the military.
At first he was in denial about the prospect. But then some ominous notices showed up in the mail. "One was the draft paper and the other was a notice from the Ministry of Justice saying that I couldn't leave the country," he says. "I was just really confused. Going to the army was never really a possibility in my mind until that point when I saw that paper. I started calling people and they were like, "Well there's nothing you can do about it now.""
Chun says the US Embassy in Seoul was no help. He fantasized about sailing to Japan under the cover of darkness. Then a friend gave him some advice — join the U.S. Army instead. Chun enlisted and was about to get on a plane back home to start training. But then South Korean authorities pulled him out of line at the airport on a U.S. base here. Turned out Uncle Sam couldn't save him either.
Chun was then dropped off at the South Korean army's boot camp and later sent to a base in the city of Daegu. "Life was miserable in Daegu, I was so frustrated," he says. "People were picking on me, teasing me, making fun of me, yelling at me." Chun says that what really made him stand out was the difficulty he had speaking Korean. "My pronunciation, my pronunciation was awful," he says. "And I couldn't really speak a whole sentence."
Dropped in a war zone
In order to get away from the torment, even though his language skills weren't very good, he signed up to be a Korean-to-English interpreter and was sent to what was then one of the most hostile battlefields in the world: Afghanistan.
Chun deployed to the U.S. Air Force's Bigram Airfield, where South Korean troops fought as a part of the coalition against the Taliban. Upon arrival, he was given a bulletproof vest and an ammo-less rifle. A fellow interpreter had recently been killed and alarms signaling incoming fire were an almost daily occurrence.
Chun got used to the strange environment. But he says his Korean comrades never got used to him. He remembers once when an Korean soldier introduced him to a visiting U.S. soldier. "This is Young, he's almost American," the Korean said. "And the U.S. soldier was like, "What does he mean by almost American?"" Chun recalls.
"Later in the deployment, I was working in the office and another officer came up and said, "Oh wow. You're almost Korean now." I thought that's really weird: I'm not American, I'm not Korean. In their eyes I am not sure how they saw me," he says.
Free at last, and no regrets
Chun returned to South Korea after his six-month stint in Afghanistan. And in 2006, his conscription finally came to an end. "First of all, just stepping outside of that gate was amazing," he recalls. "Just knowing that was the last time that I would never have to go back again. One thing they told me the day I was getting discharged is that I would have to give up one of my citizenships, because I finished my military service, I'd have to give up one."
The choice was a no brainer. So after going through the quintessential experience of being a South Korean man, Chun renounced his South Korean citizenship. He left Korea to travel and see his family back home.
And yet a year later, Chun came back to Seoul and enrolled in grad school here. He now teaches English at one of the top universities to get by while he focuses on his true passion: fiction writing. He also wrote a non-fiction account of his experiences, a recently self-published book called The Accidental Citizen Soldier.
Looking back he says he doesn't regret his two-year stint in South Korea's military — in part because it helps him better understand what his male students go through, but also because the experience gave him time to ponder the issue of identity.
"Really I've gotten to a point where I just don't care about identity anymore," he says. "I came to the conclusion that maybe there is no one place, and I am fine with that."