From One South To Another

I have gone out into the world again. A new stage of life has come, an old one wrapped up, though not neatly. It rarely ever is. And what a time to be doing it at.

I am getting married, at long last. But to do it, I have had to go to the other side of the world. Back to South Korea, where I once was.

 My new house. (Not really.)

My new house. (Not really.)

The last time I was in Korea, I said to myself that I had to leave and then come back. That was the only way I could improve the experience; there were too many roadblocks ahead of me from where I stood that time. So I left and went home to the U.S., where I have spent the last three years. And now, in a great paradox, in order to move ahead in my own country, with my Korean bride beside me, I have to leave the U.S. for a while in order to return.

This is beginning to feel like a recurring theme in my life, running away to return again. Yet it is the fact of this age we live in. It is a reflection of the absurdities of modern civilization and the very unsustainability of it for the average person who has not resources nor connections to smooth over or bypass the obstacles put between them and their living.

Consider marriage between people of two nationalities. This has, for most of human history, for almost every tribe, people, or nation, been the most direct way of accepting and assimilating someone of a different background into the community and culture of a given place. The formal bond and its reciprocal duties ameliorate differences between the two different cultures, doing what can never be done by the cheap rhetoric of tolerance and equality. However, it cannot rightly be termed immigration, which is itself a modern term, often projected anachronistically onto other ages. For immigration implies a program, a policy, a utilitarian outlook which looks to the benefits of taking one people, their faces unknown, and injecting them wholesale, in small bits or large swaths, into the midst of another. In this manner, people are judged as categories and thus their place in their new society reflects not their humanity but the status under which they immigrated. This prevents the host people from accepting them wholly, not only because there is no personal bond, but also because the newcomer cannot seeing himself as anything other than a tool for those in charge of the policy.

That policy has, for the most part, existed to serve economic and political elites. Call them capitalist, call them socialist, it does not matter, they have the same objectives: the elimination of the autonomy of their own common people and the centralization of control. This often begins by increasing the labor supply through immigration, which consequently lowers wages; this predictably sparks reaction from natives and a sharp division between parts of society in favor of and against immigration; then the politicians may step forward and offer to protect one group or the other, native or immigrant, and the common people become beholden with their votes to this artificial divide, which, despite the promises, will not actually be bridged or eliminated. For the statist politicians and the needs of capital will ultimately determine the policy, and that always is cheap labor, cheap votes. In that regard, there is no difference between the Democrats and Donald Trump.

So I find myself in an absurd position. I am an American. A citizen, yes, but also one entirely in background: at the Founding, parts of my family had been in America for over 120 years. It is in my blood and my past, and all the privileges and burdens that entails. Yet I must leave my own country in order to marry my future wife and obtain a visa for her, unless I wish to make it a seemingly interminable process. I must go abroad because the U.S. government does not regard me nor her nor the bond between us as worthy of trust. This is indicative of the absurdities of our age. Consider that if our names were Gutierrez and Lopez, the legitimacy of our presence on American shores would never be questioned. We would be given the benefit of every doubt, we would be deferred to by politicians on both sides of the aisle, and people would go out of their way to assure us of the righteousness of our "act of love" so we never had to question ourselves. Yet our names are Brenegar and Kim -- the names themselves are not clear and easy signifiers to the powers that be as to our allegiances. They cannot expect our votes nor our compliance in labor. Thus it is safer for them to make us run the gauntlet of bureaucracy and all its subjective decisions in the hope that something will deter us in the end. Even as I write this, I question whether or not it is wise to publish it on this blog, as it may be used against us in the final measure.

Social justice warriors would berate me to the ends of the earth for such views and would undoubtedly launch into their own diatribe about how it reflects the fundamental racism of America ad nauseam. Yet the same phenomenon, of putting obstacles before ordinary people while importing the means to power and so-called "progress," is occurring here in South Korea too.

I landed at Incheon Airport last Tuesday night and, speeding down the highway leading to the mainland, I noticed off on the right an enormous lighted billboard. In both Mandarin and English, it said: "Invest in the Sky City! Get an immigration visa!" The Sky City is a massive development intended as an International Free Economic Zone (IFEZ) on Yeongjong Island, which houses the airport and is across the harbor from Songdo, a similar, larger development. The aspirations of the Sky City is to be a "[m]ultinational city of global exchange that keeps up with the global lifestyle of the 21st century." Invest and live in caelo civitate! One will note that the sign on the highway is not in Korean, but two foreign languages, the language of the new superpower and the lingua franca of global trade. The target is the Chinese, Indian, Arab, and perhaps Malaysian or Indonesian bourgeois. The message is, bring money and you can live here in a highly developed, orderly country, with every convenience and safeguard. Even though they have zero connection with Korea and can contribute little more meaningful than their beaucoup bucks, these bourgeois are touted as the key to Korea's vibrancy in the future. There are those who speak of wishing to make Korea into a multicultural country, and perhaps part of their vision are these foreign elites who, wanting to escape their own countries strained by capitalism's tendency to disparity in hierarchical societies, will inject their money (and perhaps also their authoritarian attitudes) in exchange for what amounts to a safe house.

The Korean government, for its part, seems eager to facilitate this, regardless of the consequences which will follow. Part of the government's enthusiasm may come from the desire to build connections and encourage trade, which is certainly not a bad thing in and of itself. But the real reason they must court foreign capital as heavily as they do is that there is not enough in their own country to go around. Ordinary people don't have their own capital to invest in such projects themselves, for they spend it all simply to survive and give the next generation a chance. The scholar Park No-Ja remarks on this in a column for the Hankyoreh:

[T]he dazzling lights of South Korea’s “economic power” status fail to illuminate struggling workers supporting the country’s production pyramid, independent business owners, and the impoverished class. In standard neoliberal economies, it’s usually adults who are immersed limitless competition, but in South Korea’s cemented social class built on a system of academic privilege, children are thrown into a blood-thirsty competition for academic capital from the moment they step into preschool. Children are essentially robbed of their childhood, while adults spend an average of 240,000 won per child (about US$206, for elementary, middle, and high school) on private education, paying what‘s essentially a private-education tax, even if that means going into debt or working oneself sick through two jobs. South Korea’s average monthly expenditure per child on private education significantly surpasses that of its wealthier neighbor Japan (150,000 won). Isn‘t such a system, where the winners are basically born, where those guilty of being born into the “losing class” drive themselves into debt and sickness in endless competition - isn’t this basically a living hell?

Indeed -- the term "Hell Joseon" (헬조선), coined by youngsters to describe this difficult situation, demonstrates the how the Korean government has not looked to the prosperity of its own people first. Prosperity? What is that, anyway? we might ask in these cynical times. After all, in contemporary parlance, it has become synonymous with only money and having lots of it. Dr. Clyde Wilson, professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina and the editor of the Papers of John C. Calhoun, offers a different definition which seems almost an exact inversion of Park's description of contemporary Korea:

Prosperity is when the great bulk of families have some property and a secure source of living, large or small. When nearly everybody has an abundance of necessities and access to some small luxuries and leisure. Naturally, debt, the ancient nemesis of prosperity, is minimal and temporary in a prosperous society for both government and people—it is a device for emergencies or starting up promising ventures. A prosperous society is made up mostly of people of middling economic status, with relatively few very rich and very poor. Government apparatus is small, unobtrusive, and mainly local. Religion, charity, education, and the arts flourish, especially where there is cultural cohesion, through private patronage. (Cultural cohesion would seem to be typical of societies with widely shared prosperity.)

If such a definition does not describe South Korea today, neither does it describe the United States of America. That is a direct implication of the governments of both countries in how they have used and exploited their people for the enrichment of the few -- the global bourgeois and those of the upper echelons who can sop off of them. Had these governments promoted low debt, low taxes, and broad property ownership, the average American or Korean would have money to invest in their own country and would experience both the immediate benefit of return on investment as well as the general societal uplift that wealth circulating naturally within society provides. That is manifestly not the case, but these governments, which operate in the same paradigm that all modern governments do now, continue to pursue their misguided policies because they must continue to extract some measure of growth to produce the "progress" they promised.  Ironically, this promise was made to the very people at the top whose livelihood is secure from the failure to achieve it. Thus the Korean government, having sacrificed the prosperity of its own people, will continue to rely on the riches of outsiders, perpetuating the cycle of inequality and destroying the cultural cohesion of Korea which makes it a country for its own people as well as economically dynamic. Similarly, the American government, having also sacrificed the prosperity of its people, will continue to suppress it by ensuring that both Americans and immigrants never make enough to invest in themselves and their future, thereby denying them the very independence necessary to keep them from being slaves to the divisive demagogues running in this presidential election.

This is not sustainable. I have had to come to other side of the world, to a place not my home, so that I may return once again to live in it. It feels as if I am living "at His Majesty's pleasure," like a peon dependent upon monarchical whims. Park No-Ja notes a similar feeling here in Korea: "Those upset with Hell Joseon usually discuss emigrating elsewhere or simply sigh at their doomed 'fate'; there are no dreams of leading a modern Donghak Revolution, a peasant revolt that ended the Joseon Dynasty." The problem is that everyone everywhere cannot leave somewhere to go elsewhere so that things might work out. Right now it is a fact for many, one of this very moment in time, and it is what I and my now wife must go through, like so many others -- but it cannot be forever. One day the roadblocks are going to be too many, too high, and in every direction -- it will not matter which country you go to, what passport you hold, what language you speak. Something big will happen, and who knows what that will be. But nothing as we know it will be spared.

But that is not now, and not for a while, indeed. We have to continue on in this circular manner, going away, coming back, going away again, in the hope of coming back again. Yet it is not all bad. It gives those of us who do a different perspective. It shows us how different cultures are and yet how similar people are. The former is the expression on a moral, metaphysical plane of what we think is right and best, and yet it is only a very particular outgrowth of our basic humanity. Some of the former is right, some is wrong, to greater and lesser extents with different peoples, but that cannot abolish the facts of being human and living. It is the interplay of heaven and earth, which is symbolized in the Korean taegeuk:


What goes away comes back again. Prosperity will follow hard times one day, and people will return whence they came. We know this, but we here on earth do not know the mystery, which when it will happen or how. That is for heaven to know and to hold in the balance.

With such a sense, I go forward into this next year in Korea with a sense of adventure and exploration -- not with blind and naive hopes but with the difficult and exciting knowledge of where we've all come from and where we're going. This is how we all must live, for as G.K. Chesterton wrote, "Man is a misshapen monster, with his feet set forward and his face turned back. He can make the future luxuriant and gigantic, so long as he is thinking about the past."