how the world sees america

A Lonely American Christmas in Korea

122507-still1.jpg
Hanging out at Friends Bar.

SEOUL, South Korea - As the holiday season approached, a U.S. army commander here in South Korea warned his men and women not to be stupid -- not to commit suicide. For the young soldiers under his command, mostly in their early twenties, this is their first holiday season abroad in a cold, distant place. It's a tough combination for anyone, military or not.

"The best present I could ask for is just to be in America," a 24-year-old-U.S. army man tells me at Friends Bar. He holds his head in one hand, and a Corona beer in the other. After five months of training in the Midwest, he spent only 30 hours at home before flying to Seoul to join over 30,000 other U.S. military personnel here who, for the past five decades, have helped deter North Korean aggression.

This non-commissioned officer, with four others under his command, hasn't seen his family for eight months. But he did get their Christmas present, and loves his Play Station III.

Friends Bar does its best to make him, me, and countless other Americans feel at home. It’s one of many Americana establishments in Itaewon, a district of Seoul that butts up against the large U.S. Yongsan Garrison. In Friends, a huge American flag drapes one wall. Stacked-up Amstel Light boxes engulf another. And beer streamers crisscross the ceiling.

The clientèle here is almost entirely American, save for a few Korean women scattered about in the corners. The Americans sport Red Sox baseball caps, Bronx hoodies, and cowboy hats. They throw darts at boards, play pool, and bet on American football matches while a medley of heavy metal and Kanye West blares from the speakers above.

For one blonde twenty-year-old girl, it's not enough. Feeling homesick she says, "Let's go to the southern bar!"

We agree, and leave for a dim-lit bar that plays exclusively U.S. country classics. The walls boast life-size cardboard cutouts of crooning beauties. There's a confederate flag chopped in half hanging rather curiously behind country band album covers. Beer paraphernalia covers everything else.

I turn to my American companions and say half-jokingly, "You've got everything from America here.”

"No, man," comes the response, drunkenly serious. "You’ve got what we all want: freedom." A young soldier grasps my shoulder for emphasis, and support, chugging beer from a cowboy-hat-shaped mug and spluttering, “You can go home anytime you want. You can be in American anytime you want…We’re stuck here."

Throughout the night, I hear this refrain again and again. I am free. They are not. Part of it is a fact of military life. They have to trim their hair and report for duty. I don’t. But part of their complaint is larger. It’s about their responsibility to act as U.S. representatives here in South Korea -- a country with a complex relationship with America. They're never as free as I am.

122507-still4.jpg
Pool at Polly's Kettle House.

Over here, they tell me, they are never anonymous. A terrible driving accident inflamed anti-U.S. sentiment here in 2002, leading to large rallies and scattered fire-bombings against U.S. bases. But less dramatic, everyday encounters help fuel or subdue anti-American flames. Army Courtesy Patrols make sure Americans and Koreans don't fight in Itaewon. And U.S. commanders tell their soldiers not to get agitated if shoved on the streets, “because Korea is crowded.”

Freedom for these soldiers is both the desire to grow their hair and to rid themselves, just for a while, of the responsibility of having to represent the U.S. around the clock. It's only one of many strains. Some will head to Iraq soon, others Afghanistan. There it will be different; it will be war.

It’s 3am here. I make my way back to my grey, windowless room for the night, pushing through a throng of South Koreans in muted winter clothing. The dozen or so revelers eye me curiously for a moment, and then return to laughing and smoking. I know I stick out, just enough to feel it. But this crowd won’t invite this lone American to join them, like it might have in the Philippines or Pakistan.

I’m not an object of curiosity here, like I was in these other places. Maybe five-decades of a large U.S. military presence makes Americans a bit less fascinating. Or maybe it’s the relative prosperity of the place. Whatever it is, being American here makes you stick out just enough to know it, but not much more.

Add to this the responsibility military personnel face, when missteps make national news. Even when we feel alone over the holidays, we can never lose ourselves as another anonymous member of the Korean crowds. We’re always a bit American here; and we’re always a bit lonely.

Join Monthly Mailing List | Del.icio.us | Digg | Facebook

Comments (110)

kris:

(US) Soldiers are generally enlistees who come from lower social economic levels - poor and uneducated - segments of America. Korea or any other non-Western country is the only place that they can FEEL superior and and behave in an arrogant manner. You know they ain't gettin' away with that BS in the US, Germany, Sweden ...

U.M:

I think people need to consider
if these are subjective or objective
because it was different from my view

Mercedes:

I'm American and have lived in Korea for the last three Christmases. I am not a soldier, but it is not as if I have the "freedom" to go home whenever I want. I don't just have 2,000 dollars lying around and I only get three days off work for Christmas.

On Christmas Eve, I went to a KOREAN style bar and restaurant with my friends (half Koreans, half Westerners)and had a great time. The next day we woke up, got a train to City Hall and went ice skating and to see the lights set up around the city. There were so many people on the street that you could get trampled just walking around and enjoying the festivities. The last thing I would describe it as is "lonely".

All my friends and nearly everyone I talk to about it, never wants to drink in Itaewon for the sole purpose of avoiding being around soldiers. This may sound mean, and certainly doesn't apply to everyone, but the soldiers embarrass me as an American, and I try to dissociate myself with them. The air of ignorance is palpable around the bars in Itaewon. I'm really glad that they don't leave the base.

Pete:

Got tired of reading most of the same thing so I thought I would add to the sameness. Stop complaining and get out there. I am in Korea and on New Years eve, yes at a bar in Iteawon. I made several new millitary friends who were making the best of things. Go out and see Korea. Open your eyes. Eat some food. See some sights. Try and Speak the language.

Stationed in Area III:

"Being a current company commander, with four tours in Korea under my belt, (plus one in Iraq), I can say that the way these "soldiers" in Korea represented themselves is very typical of the new generation of Soldiers who have enlisted since 2004. Since the Iraqi war turned bad, the Army has had difficulty recruiting, and began issuing moral and physical "waivers" to recruits. The immediate result of this is that the average IQ, physical fitness, and moral character of our recruits have hit the rock bottom. Media doesn't knwo, because we are covering it up so well, and the government is turning a blind eye... Our newest Soldiers are the fattest, stupidest, and the most criminal I have seen in my 15 years in service. Drug uses are rampant, and the Army no longer allows us to remove overweight soldiers who cannot pass their APFT (Army Physical Fitness Test) to retain its "end strength". And these same losers who got passed over by their village McDonald's in Kentucky are now complaining in Korea about "lack of freedom", while their counterparts are getting shot at in Iraq without any alcohol privileges.. I am so sick and tired of these low lives bringing us older soldiers bad name. We need to institute the draft, or up the pay chart, so we can enlist a better quality of young boys."

I am so glad to have you as one of our Commissioned Officers in the United States Army. You are a Shining Example of what a commissioned officer is not supposed to be. This is very unprofessional of you...to be slandering us "Junior Enlisted" of whom you have to rely on for your missions to get accomplished, your performance as a company and therefore your promotion ticket, and must rely on should you ever be stuck in a hard spot. I am a crew chief in a Avaition Unit and Damned glad to be, cause there are a lot of Officers, and Warrant Officers, of which are all better and more proffessional than it sounds you are. A majority of us are not what you portray, and the Majority of officers I have met and have had the pleasure working with are not as closed minded and stuck up as you are. And as your statement about instituting the draft, I assure you, that will not bring a better crop of Americans into the army than currently in. If the army is so bad then why dont you try to do something to improve it instead of slamming us all and showing the World on the World Wide Web how unprofessional our Commissioned Officers Can be. Take Care and look forwards to the day we meet if it should come.
PFC Stationed in Area III

curahee:

boo hoo! Looks like you spoke with the wrong soldiers. You should have crossed the river up north and talked to the ones living within sight of the big North Korean flag. When I was stationed in Korea, we go to Seoul for R&R. Actually, that was the farthest south I've been and I never complained. We're happy enough not to be out in the field on Christmas. Those little kids should learn how to just suck it up! There are worst places in the world where they can end up spending Christmas. While they are in that bar drinking their beer there are thousands of other soldiers standing guard in the cold.

James Bowden:

I am living in Jeonju, South Korea working as an English teacher. Although I have seen a hint of racism I also understand that in such a closed country, and being far from the giant tourist trap that Seoul is, I am more of a curiousity than a bother to the Koreans. I have been greatly welcomed by my co-workers, their friends, and family. It really is good to stay away from the bars and the other foriengers because you become tainted by their attitudes and feelings of loneliness and isolation, which is caused by their self-imposed exile to the bars. Also, yes, learning the language and wanting to submerge yourself in their culture opens more doors to being with Koreans than you can imagine. I'll always be American in my heart, and America is my first love. But, while I'm here I will practice what I have for so long preached when I saw some one foriegn in America. I thought, "If only they'd be more American and less caught up and isolated in their own culture then they would find it much easier in the country". Again you will never be wholly accepted, at least not for a long period, but as with everything, to get-you must first give.
James Bowden, native Texan-living in Korea.

James Bowden:

I am living in Jeonju, South Korea working as an English teacher. Although I have seen a hint of racism I also understand that in such a closed country, and being far from the giant tourist trap that Seoul is, I am more of a curiousity than a bother to the Koreans. I have been greatly welcomed by my co-workers, their friends, and family. It really is good to stay away from the bars and the other foriengers because you become tainted by their attitudes and feelings of loneliness and isolation, which is caused by their self-imposed exile to the bars. Also, yes, learning the language and wanting to submerge yourself in their culture opens more doors to being with Koreans than you can imagine. I'll always be American in my heart, and America is my first love. But, while I'm here I will practice what I have for so long preached when I saw some one foriegn in America. I thought, "If only they'd be more American and less caught up and isolated in their own culture then they would find it much easier in the country". Again you will never be wholly accepted, at least not for a long period, but as with everything, to get-you must first give.
James Bowden, native Texan-living in Korea.

Joe:

Many years ago, I was in the Korean army stationed in the DMZ. I saw one black US soldier stationed some distance away from me and he waved at me.

I wondered why he was there.
I wondered if it was his choice to be standing there.
Why is he defending a country that is not even his own?

Today, I still remember his face and the way he waved.
His sacrifice and many others like him has made my country what it is today. Land of democracy and market economy - a guiding light in the continental Asia where dictatorship and communism still thrives.

To the unknown soldier that I saw many years ago, I thank you.

Jiyoen:

And about inviting things, most of koreans(expecially young people 20's and 30's) can't invite their friends to their home if their not living with their family.

it's not because their friends are foreigner but it's just same to their best friends if their koreans or not.

I have many friends but I haven't invited their homes for 6 years(when I was teenager I could go to their home more freely) and I haven't invite my friends too.

But if your korean friend is male and living alone, it's possible to invite their friends to their home.
--I think it's cultural thing:)

Jiyoen:

I don't think Koreans hate Americans. But the most of Koreans having difficulty to say hi to foreigners even they are our neibohrs or teachers.

And many people feel scary to soldiers because they are much stronger than them, and some of drunken soldiers attacked citizens in the public place without any reason.

After they done that, there is no punishment from their country that people feel afraid when they meet american militaries.(if they have done same thing in European countries, I think it would be different..)

I don't think the most of soldiers would do the same things and I think most of Americans are very nice people and feel thank to helping Korea.

But because of shyness and fears to soldiers made both country's people misunderstood about each other.:)

Jiyoen:

I don't think Koreans hate Americans. But the most of Koreans having difficulty to say hi to foreigners even they are our neibohrs or teachers.

And many people feel scary to soldiers because they are much stronger than them, and some of drunken soldiers attacked citizens in the public place without any reason.

After they done that, there is no punishment from their country that people feel afraid when they meet american militaries.(if they have done same thing in European countries, I think it would be different..)

I don't think the most of soldiers would do the same things and I think most of Americans are very nice people and feel thank to helping Korea.

But because of shyness and fears to soldiers made both country's people misunderstood about each other.:)

I think I did many miskates when I wrting this, but thanks for reading plz don't misunderstand about koreans and me;)!

Alex:

I've been living in South Korea for two years and I'm usually so inundated with invitations to do things with Koreans that I can't get any personal projects finished. As long as you don't act like an arrogant b-----d, Koreans are EXTREMELY hospitable and generous and just dying to get to know foreigners. The country is full of amazing things to see and do. Unfortunately, I see other Westerners where I live doing the same thing these military folks are doing--isolating themselves and wasting their time hanging out in bars. Can you be any more boring and less original than that?? Get out!! See the country!! Meet the people! Don't ever go to Itaewon. It's a foreigner slum and viewed very negatively by the locals, mainly because a lot of the people in Itaewon act like idiotic, dumb jocks.

matt:

personally, i find korea a wonderful country to live. i'm a linguist who's been living there for two years, and if you just make a small amount of effort to meet people and learn the language to a minimal degree, people will accept you warmly. i think most americans experience loneliness in korea because they don't make that sort of effort.

Stationed in Area III:

This is my 3rd winter here now and my 3rd Christmas. I found it easier to be here by getting involved in activities and in my church. One of my best friends is an old Korean cook who I used to live with in a remote area near the DMZ. I've seen a lot of soldiers come here and hate it because all they do is go out to the bars and drink themselves stupid instead of going out to places and making friends with Koreans. Koreans are some of the nicest people in the world, second to probably Filippinos.

Stationed in Area III:

The South Koreans are actually really nice people. I first came to Korea and hated it. Was away from my family and my horses, but I made friends with 2 Katusas (Korean Augmentees to the United States). They taught me the basics of their cultures and invited me to their families and introduced me to some of their friends. All of them have been the friendliest people that I have met, even in the states. At first I was counting the months and days untill I PCS. Now...I wish I tried to extend and stay here within the time frame. Ill remember this for the rest of my life!!

Stationed in Area III:

The South Koreans are actually really nice people. I first came to Korea and hated it. Was away from my family and my horses, but I made friends with 2 Katusas (Korean Augmentees to the United States). They taught me the basics of their cultures and invited me to their families and introduced me to some of their friends. All of them have been the friendlest people that I have met, even in the states. At first I was counting the months and days untill I PCS. Now...I wish I tried to extend and stay here within the time frame. Ill remember this for the rest of my life!!

Robb (Pullman WA):


These articles are extremely well written and thought inducing. Thank you for working so hard and getting stories from people all over the world. It was nice to meet you in Seoul as well. Take care.

mark:

im currently living in south korea, and i visit seoul reguarly and this lad needs to get his ass out and enjoy the experince of a fantastic city... its not like they dont have the opertunity, they have the same time off they do in the states and the base has everything they could need... maybe he should think about the other american, british and other UN soldiers who have to spend their xmas and new years in iraq and afganistan!

mark:

im currently living in south korea, and i visit seoul reguarly and this lad needs to get his ass out and enjoy the experince of a fantastic city... its not like they dont have the opertunity, they have the same time off they do in the states and the base has everything they could need... maybe he should think about the other american, british and other UN soldiers who have to spend their xmas and new years in iraq and afganistan!

mark:

im currently living in south korea, and i visit seoul reguarly and this lad needs to get his ass out and enjoy the experince of a fantastic city... its not like they dont have the opertunity, they have the same time off they do in the states and the base has everything they could need... maybe he should think about the other american, british and other UN soldiers who have to spend their xmas and new years in iraq and afganistan!

jeica:

i 'm a korean and i do not mind americans living in my country..however..they need to (especially army ppl) learn to appreciate other culture and accept it...

i see them laughing at koreans because we do
a few things differently here and mock us..
and maybe learning the most simplest korean words will be great.

lot of korean ppl speak or at least understand english these days but i saw american ppl in itaewon getting mad because they couldn't communicate fluently in english in korea.


i wouldn't have any problems with americans or any other foreigners if they appreciate our culture, language and behave like they would do in their countries instead of hitting or rape us because they think they are better than us

John:

That a dumbest thing I've ever read! Talking as if Korea was a far far away land.
Oh right! Sorry, it is a far far way land, because 70% of Americas can't find it on a map of the World!

In someway I feel sorry for you, but it isn't because you guys are in Korea.

-John "Japan"

appalled:

"Being a current company commander, with four tours in Korea under my belt, (plus one in Iraq), I can say that the way these "soldiers" in Korea represented themselves is very typical of the new generation of Soldiers who have enlisted since 2004. Since the Iraqi war turned bad, the Army has had difficulty recruiting, and began issuing moral and physical "waivers" to recruits. The immediate result of this is that the average IQ, physical fitness, and moral character of our recruits have hit the rock bottom. Media doesn't knwo, because we are covering it up so well, and the government is turning a blind eye... Our newest Soldiers are the fattest, stupidest, and the most criminal I have seen in my 15 years in service. Drug uses are rampant, and the Army no longer allows us to remove overweight soldiers who cannot pass their APFT (Army Physical Fitness Test) to retain its "end strength". And these same losers who got passed over by their village McDonald's in Kentucky are now complaining in Korea about "lack of freedom", while their counterparts are getting shot at in Iraq without any alcohol privileges.. I am so sick and tired of these low lives bringing us older soldiers bad name. We need to institute the draft, or up the pay chart, so we can enlist a better quality of young boys."

I'm glad you have faith in your Soldiers...maybe what's giving you older Soldiers a bad name is leadership who trash talk their own on the internet.
Soldiers are supposed to look up to you...maybe your Soldiers know your opinon of them (it doesnt seem like you're very quiet about it)...How are they supposed to respect someone who says that about them?
Lead from the front, right?

Wanted: Battlebuddy:

Actually the SOFA has been amended. If I as an American soldier go off post and commit a crime, I can be handed over to So. Korean authorites for trial. There are already American service members serving time in So. Korean prisons, under So. Korean law.

korea - the tributary of u.s:

u.s.a!
stop taking advantage in south korea as the tributary of u.s.
u.s must upgrade s.korea as its 51th state as soon as possible.
weep out the tears of s.koreans.
s.koreans want to obtain u.s citizenship not the stigma of the tributary.

A Korean local:

I myself live under the protection of the ROK-US military alliance. Without doubt, I can say that the freedom that Koreans enjoy today not only came at the cost of Korean blood but that of many around the world, including that of Americans. There are many Koreans appreciating the sacrifice that the UN troops made during the Korean War. However, this does not make space for American soldiers in Korea to conduct themeselves in naughty behaviors, which they have. American military crimes have inflicted serious damamges to the Korean society and have infuriated the civil society here. The worse part is that American military criminals are often pardoned by the US military justice. As a result, I myself oppose to hosting American military bases in my country. Unless the Status of Forces Agreement(SOFA) is amended to levy grave sanctions on violent crimes committed by US military personnel, this alliance holds no promise but only conflicts.

This is most likely why there is a growing anti-American sentiment in South Korea. American servicemen and women are no longer respected as freedom's shield but criminals. This is not to generalize such accusations on every US soldiers. However, besides breaking the law, some American soldiers(particularly in NCM ranks) cope with the locals in contemptuous manners. You will be able to find them, for example, around clubs in Hongik Univ. area in Seoul, intimidating people, making racist remarks, harrassing local women and much more. The US military authority MUST GET A GRIP ON THEIR SOLDIERS. OTHERWISE I WANT THEM OUT OF MY LAND.

Wanted: Battlebuddy:

I wasn't going to post but, sitting here going through my photos of Korea all of which were taken against orders I am just getting more and more Furious. As orderd I cannot go off post without a battlebuddy (another soldier) coming with me. I wasn't thrilled to be posted here, but I decided to make the best of it and see as much of the country as I could. I got excited about my new posting. Cities, Palaces, Buddhist temples; all waiting for me to explore!

Upon arrival I was told I couldn't off post for a month. Whats doin on post? Bowling, video games, dvds, and of course drinking.

After that first month is over and I have been briefed to death on why I shouldn't drunkenly beat eldery Koreans, I started asking people to go off post with me. But all they wanted to do was go drinking and play video games.

Soyosan Mt.? "No." Pusan for the 4day weekend? "No." How about we go to Seoul for the day and explore? "No. I'm about to get to level 40 with my World of Warcraft character!"

Why can't I go off post by myself? Because the Army is afraid of what I will do when I inevitibly go off post and get wasted. Juding by the behavior I have witnessed of my fellow "soldiers" they shoud be.

So I everytime I go off post to see something I have to go against orders.

To be honest I wish I had been deployed to Afganistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa so that I could do the job i was trained for instead of coming to thiiis!


John Foster:

I am an American teaching in Jeju Do, South Korea. These soldiers embarrass me. They are missing out on a tremendous opportunity to experience Korean culture and the wonderful people of South Korea. You should do another article on the expats who teach in South Korea. I think you'd find a far more interesting group of people and certainly better representatives of the United States.

A message to all US soldiers in South Korea: Go drink soju with some Korean. You'll find you have a lot in common that transcends nationality. The wall that you have erected between you and the people you are defending is one that you have created by not being willing to learn about the culture of the country you live in. Life in Korea is not all about Western bars. Look on the bright side. Your friends back home are stuck in their boring hometowns. You are getting a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the world.

donny:

Im a korean living right next to a u.s. military camp in chuncheon. but its pretty hard to see the guys there. i hope the guys could have more opportunity to get out and socialize with the koreans or something, once in a while. koreans like americans, you know, the only problems between them are these stereotypes about americans that korean people make up and the language they need to learn

Peter:

It is an interesting report you have written that is rather one-sided. I can think of no place to go than Itaewon to discover negativity surrounding American military in Korea.

Itaewon is strange and opinion just isn't diverse enough. What you have is a love hate relationship with the American Military and Korea.

To the editors, I say this...how trying to dig a bit deeper? There are numerous Americans who have married and become resident in Korea and will give you a VERY different opinion.

Did you know that multiple Americans in Korea are entrepreneurial? Are also involved in the Arts? There is an area worth exploring. Not to mention Gyopo's - people of Korean blood who were born overseas. e.g. Daniel Henny - A local star, but not 100% Korean, more American in his upbringing I hear.

Itaewon and the military scene is a small piece of America in Korea. Anti-Americanism...if you sit next to any military base you will find a negative answer. Actually there is a lot of positive stuff going on...

Check out our site for the modern expatriate in the arts. www.expat-arts.com

Anonymous:

I am an English teacher who lives in Seoul and don't feel sympathy for the army here. I was friends with several of them and they loved their lives. Yeah, Christmas might be a bit sad but they loved the fact that they go to another country to work basically regular desk jobs and have the weekends to drink and do whatever they want for the most part. You get all the comforts of home with the life on base that has everything you'd get at home, for a lot cheaper!

And whether or not you wanted to be in Seoul, you did want to be in the army so quit drowning your sorrows in a beer (which only causes greater feelings of depression) and get out there and do something original for a change and don't whine about how depressing your life is when it's not THAT much different from life in the States.

Adrasteia:

I spent a short tour at Kunsan AB ROK. No big city like Seoul nearby. No Itewan. A year or two is not the end of the world. Now days there is the Internet and huge Exhanges. Mail is fast, there's access to VOIP, and AFK Network provides American TV. Think about 20 or 30 years ago when none of that existed.

If these young people are going to spend their time in bars it's no wonder they are miserable. I found Korea to be a fascinating and beautiful country and Koreans to be decent, hard working people.

Let me remind these soldiers and airmen that they volunteered. Did they think they would stay at home forever? Get out and enjoy the country. See things, meet people. It goes by quickly and if you hang around drinking and feeling sorry for yourself that's all you'll ever find.

I also spent four years in the most beautiful part of Italy imaginable and heard the same whines from airmen there. For heaven'a sake! People pay a fortune to go to Italy! It's cheaper to tour Europe when you have a home base.

I can assure you I did not want to go to Korea and cried the entire 24 hour trip over. But as soon as I saw how beautiful the country was I was hooked. It's just a matter of attitude. When airmen inprocess someone always tells them that every assignment is what you make of it. I say, grow up. I'm so happy I got to see the world!

ceflynline@msn.com:

The author sure found a buzz saw on this one. For those of you who say "Bring them home" not so. Iraq excluded, when we send troops over seas we benefit because, to the larger extent those troops become better, more open people. The real sadness is that it has been appropriate to close so many overseas bases that provided wonderful opportunities for Americans to meet the world, and bring home a part of it. Troops at all of the Northern bases, (and really all of Korea) have access to some great skiing, but back when there was a base at Chitose, Japan, (on Hokkaido) THOSE troops had the wonders of Sapporro in their front yard.

On Taiwan there was once some great duty, and wonderful beaches for those lucky enough to draw that assignment. Baguio, in the Mountains north of Manila was legendary.

Seeing the world was once the real reason to give up a few years of your life to the Army or Air Force, because for one or more years you got to be a resident tourist, and only the limits of your imagination, curiosity, and stamina restricted you from enriching your life, and your character.

The great contribution the Cold War made to the nation was that it provided so many vets with their war stories about extraordinary places and exotic peoples who could be seen as commonplace and everyday life.

The Second Division thinks of itself as the speed bump on the road to Seoul for any Northern Invasion, but it functions about as much as a damper that keeps any hot head on either side from picking a brief and bloody war. For fifty three years the Indian Head division, the Tenth Corps, and the Eighth Army have kept the damper on extremism, and Korea is a more peaceful place for it, even if you discount the Korean peoples tendency to over dramatize just about everything. (My experience was to note that two Koreans nose to nose yelling might just be having, for them, a normal conversation.)

I have time all over the far East, and am a better human because of it.

With in reason, we should never bring the troops home to fester at Columbus, GA, Columbia, SC, Fayetteville, NC. Great bases and (maybe) good duty, all, but learning to talk a slow Georgian or slower Carolinian can't hold a candle to learning a language with 73 letters in its alphabet, or 40,000 ideographs.

Please, World, don't send us home. We'll behave!!

jecadebu:

hmmm --- sounds to me like globe-trotting Amar was feeling the homesick blues himself on Christmas -- and was attracted to the other lost souls who fit his mood -- so maybe we should lighten up a bit on the guy -- and say Merry Christmas and thank you for giving up your holiday at home to give us all a little perspective on the wider world.

Wedge:

Mr. Bakshi: What's up with the link to the tragic Philippine prostitute story when clicking "save for a few Korean women scattered about in the corners?" Did you ask those women if they were professionals? If they befriend a GI will their fate end up being as brutal as the protagonist in your PI story?

As someone who actually lives in Seoul and knows the owner of Friend (sic; it's actually singular, not plural), I'll guarantee you those girls were either there with friends or curious about how foreigners live; i.e. not looking for a quick won.

Benny:

I spent my first two Christmas holidays away from home in Germany in 1966. The next two were spent in Vietnam. All were very tough on a kid from the Midwest who valued his family time above all else. The next Christmas at home was interesting because my family wanted to know how the holiday was celebrated overseas...but I could not answer them. Getting drunk and crying in your rack all night is not what they wanted to hear. But that is what most of us did. Even today, hearing Silent Night still brings tears.

Being away from home is always toughest when the traditional holidays come around that focus exclusively on family time. What tears you apart is the realization that you are an armed occupier of another country and the message of Christmas...peace on earth, good will towards men...is stretched to the limit. For a commander to hope that suicides drop during the holiday season really speaks volumes on the stress that comes with a supposedly joyful time. When that occurs, pulling into yourself instead of reaching out, is just...normal.

The loss of my family during Christmas caused mourning, not joy, and trying to hide that feeling by subsitituting another family or USO show just didn't seem right. Best solution! Bring them home!

Pete in Seoul:

Of course there have been a few demos against American soldiers - have you been to San Fran or Berkeley any time lately? For the most, Koreans have proved some of the most welcoming, curious, kind people I've ever met.

The language barrier, yes, can be difficult and frustrating. But it's a two-way street: we're guests in their country, and should be doing our best to learn the local language and customs. The military is doing an excellent job to at least encourage its members to immerse themselves in the culture. I was surprised how many doors my brutal mangling of the language opened for me. It's the effort that counts, and it's appreciated.

What one sees far too often in bars and clubs is the "Ugly American" - far too often soldiers. Loud, obnoxious, rude, and drunk. From my own experiences here, I'd say Americans in general are thought of, at the worst, neutrally: let's see how they behave and go from there - no better than any other group of foreigners. But when a group of cocky, loud-mouthed, swaggering 20 year-olds comes crashing into a place, drunk on cheap beer and thinking they own the place, they're about as welcome as they would be at any party. It's not just the Koreans looking at them, it's all the rest of the foreigners scared they're going to be tarred by the same brush.

Am A Korean:

I see so many heartwarming comments posted here by AMERICAN CITIZENS. While reading the main article I did not expect much affirmative opinions coming from them. My preconception is wide of the mark!

The majority of the comments are like a Santa's Ho, Ho, Ho to me and I feel so relieved to know that vast majority of U.S. citizens were not negatively influenced by some unbalanced, agitative reports on Korean scene these days. A gentlemen, Korean War Vet, by the id of 'coolsmaj@comcast.net' warned of alcohol and bar culture, suggesting for better ways to use their time while stationed here. That touched me. He, I think, knows olny the war-ravaged Korea and then-meek-and-timid people seized with fear. But he is so objective.

Of course, there have been a few rallies against unfavorable incidents by some U.S. servicemen here, but how many took part in those protests? A few hundred activists? A few thousands out of 50 million population? Born and lived here all my life I know the sentiment of silent majority, who think Americans are always THE Friend, Semper Fidelis. I am 100% sure of it.

I hope U.S. servicemen would understand that young Koreans are eager to show their friendship toward them but for that darn language barrier.

Timmy:

As a local city officer who has been dealing with Amercan soldiers stationed in ROK, I have met a lot of young solders fresh out of the town they were born. The only problem these kids have is that their fraustration toward foreign culture, many of them try to isolate and activate
"invisible shield" when they encounter with local people.

The problem solves when these soldiers find out local people are just ordinarary people just as same as their neighbors in the State.

Well, actually, we are the neighbors who have been living next you for 50 years, but actually never had chance to say hello.

So my advice to the young soldiers stationed in ROK is that just have a litte gut to knock the doors and say hello, because we are ready to welcome you home and willing to share the fun time with you people.

ANONYMOUS:

Being a Korean American and living in both countries for my whole life, I understand how the troops feel living in a Korean country. First of all Itaewon is one of the most notorious and ghetto part of Seoul. As a korean, many will not visit this area just because it's ghetto and full of phonies. Like how everyone virtually stated above, get out of the slums of Itaewon. And most importantly why is a south asian writer writing about Korea and the troops? Get a life. Write better articles. Considering everyone posting a comment is rooting against the Bakshi, I think it is quite inevitable for Bakshi to know that his article is extremely vague, untrue and blatently sad. Learn more about certain aspects before writing an article. Honestly speaking I think the comment sections should not be censored, as long as the comments are appropriate and under control.

I was in fury after reading the article because this guy has no idea what he's talking about. Like everywhere in the world there are people who cannot adapt to their changing environment. Unfortunately Bakshi only talks of these people and does not talk about the many other soldiers that are probably having a great time in Korea during Christmas. Cabs and some local transportation run 24/7. Most if not all restaurants and bars (the real nice ones around Kangnam, not the ghetto ones in Itaewon) are all open till perhaps 5am. You can go to a real club for only 20 dollars US near Kangnam. You can go have christmas dinner with a few locals. What's the problem? The people that are interviewed in this article seem like they will have problems socializing in the States anyways. What's the big deal. Enjoy the opportunity, as I believe there are plenty of other Americans who wish to go the Eastern Asia (Japan, China, Korea) but don't have a chance because of the huge airfare. Use the opportunity and cherish it.

To to writer, Please look at all aspects and views of certain factors before writing an article.

tim:

Whoever wrote this piece should really learn to balance. It reads as if the context was already decided for the article even well before the first word was written. The interviews of the soldiers who are homesick and estranged should have been counter-balanced with the soldiers having different but rewarding cultural experiences in a foreign country.

No doubt unfamiliar places can make you feel alienated, but to make it as if it's the only experience one gets is dishonest, and far from being objective.

I live in Korea now, been 2 years, and I learned that the people here are very open to the idea of speaking with Americans in english (and, believe me, they do want to talk to you in english.) You don't really have to know Korean, but the fact that you try will make the Koreans you meet, almost anywhere outside the bar, break out in smile. Trust me, they like Americans and none of this anti-American baloney will matter to you if you, American or not, don't behave like a jerk.

Paul:

The Itaewon district is about the worst place to go to to experience the real Korea. It is almost exclusively oriented towards American servicemen and women, and only the incorrigibly unadaptable stay there. Reporting solely from there is (not is like, but IS) going to a ghetto and saying the whole country is like the ghetto and all of the people in the country are like the ghetto dwellers. This article is a complete disservice to all of us -- ordinary Americans, ordinary Koreans, and the vast majority of Americans serving in Korea. Besides which, freedom in the south is about as complete as can be compared to the north, a Stalinist totalitarian state complete with psychopathic dictator, cult of personality, worldwide crystal meth distribution via the diplomatic service, and undeclared nuclear weapons program.

Alex:

I spent all of 1997 in South Korea, and thought it was the coolest, most sublime year of my time in the Army. Getting along with the Koreans was easy: Smile, be polite, and learn some of the language. The Koreans who I had the pleasure to meet and hang out with were very appreciative of my attempts to speak their language, no matter how clumsy.

If you have a KATUSA in your platoon, that individual can become both a friend and a gateway to a fascinating East Asian culture.

Above all, get away from the bars and club districts where generations of drunken 18-year olds have made idiots of themselves in public. Instead, go and see those parts of Seoul and the countryside where you will be a welcome novelty.

Alex:

I spent all of 1997 in South Korea, and thought it was the coolest, most sublime year of my time in the Army. Getting along with the Koreans was easy: Smile, be polite, and learn some of the language. The Koreans who I had the pleasure to meet and hang out with were very appreciative of my attempts to speak their language, no matter how clumsy.

If you have a KATUSA in your platoon, that individual can become both a friend and a gateway to a fascinating East Asian culture.

Above all, get away from the bars and club districts where generations of drunken 18-year olds have made idiots of themselves in public. Instead, go and see those parts of Seoul and the countryside where you will be a welcome novelty.

Yoonho:

It seems to me that you and the people you interviewed are just depressed. There are many other fun things to do in Korea other than football, pool, cowboy hats, etc... don't close yourself in

Sean:

"US soldiers should get out of the barracks and learn about Korea and Korean people."

That's what many of them do. It's not rare to see a member of the USFK win one of the Korean language speech contests held every year and many USFK personnel do volunteer work.

visitor:

There are a number of incorrect and misleading statements in this piece. The number of troops stationed in Korea has declined significantly over the past 50 years in general and over the past five years in particular. The Yongsan base mentioned here is in fact slated for closure in coming years. So to the extent that North Korean "aggression," as Bakshi puts it, has been deterred, this is more likely to have been caused by these very reductions. The US has recently granted the South Korean government greater autonomous access to its advanced weapons systems (e.g., the Aegis system), which implies that Korean self-sufficiency is an important part of this equation too. The South Korean army is nearly the same size as the North Korean army, and it is far better trained and equipped. In my experience as a frequent visitor to Seoul, the only reason why Koreans tolerate--and indeed contribute huge sums of money for--the US presence is collective cultural gratitude for saving Seoul during the Korean War. Korean people are admirably loyal to those nations that have historically protected them (a trait, I might add, absent in Francophobic Americans who forget France's key role in our independence). This explains why they typically feel closer to China than to Japan.

Perhaps the best way to ensure Korean security and allow the whiny troops quoted in the piece to return home is to pull all US troops out of Korea. The fact that they will in all likelihood remain there indefinitely lends credence to the notion that the US is intent on maintaining its worldwide economic empire by force of arms.

Timothy Tay:

Oh c'mon, as an Asian living in Asia, I wish you Americans could be a bit more open-minded a little more?

What's wrong with speaking with us, hanging out with us and eating out with us from time to time? Surely you wanna try some ramen noodles instead of just the burgers?

I mean, when I was in America for 2-3 months in 2004, I also ate American food and hanged out with Americans time to time, on a regular basis. A little of the same from you guys when you're here wouldn't hurt and as other veterans have said, it will help ease your loneliness.

Vietnam Vet:

The true saddness of this report is that there appears to be no ending for these deployments. Cuba since 1898 as an example. Also, Japan, German, Italy, Korea, Guam, Italy, etc. Now Diego Garcia, Iraq, Aghanistan, etc. Almost 700 US foreign installations overseas. The Hawaiians did not place a call to be taken over by the US. Warships did that. Take a young GI from the city or farm, give them a gun, place them overseas with money and liquour.That is not a good formula. Our presidents have occupied more countries since 1898 than any other nation. More American bombs, bullets, and BS have descended on foreign nationals than from any other nation since 1898. When is enough enough? Kill, kill, kill. All for US votes. Check your history. US presidents need to top sending soldiers to kill citizens of other nations.

Tai R.:

I have never served in the army, but my parents worked for the UN so I have spent more than half my life in places outside the US. Its bad to expect everything to be exactly the same as it is in the US. You need to be willing to try new things, not make the country into a copy of the US. My advice, learn some of the local language, and go try to sing some popular local song karaoke style. Don't be so uptight, you have to be willing to look foolish sometimes. My personal choice is to go play video games, but to each generation their own ya?

GI Korea:

I have been stationed in Korea on multiple tours over the years and the young kids in the bar complaining about Korea is nothing new. It not because of new recruits as "company commander" claims because there has always been a cross section of young soldiers on their first tour of duty away from home that complain.

The author could have added some balance to the article by interviewing the hundreds of soldiers on Yongsan that volunteered to go help the Koreans clean the oil spill off the coast of Taean instead of hanging out in the Itaewon ville:

http://rokdrop.com/2007/12/20/usfk-soldiers-aid-with-oil-spill-clean-up/

Hundreds of more soldiers have volunteered at Korean orphanages, helped build homes for Habitat for Humanity, American fire fighters have helped Korean firefighters with local blazes, US helicopters have aided in the search for lost Korean fishermen, soldiers have rescued numerous Korean accident victims, and even captured criminals. The list goes on and on:

http://rokdrop.com/category/good-neighbors/

The relationship with Korea and the US military is a very complex one and is not as simple or as bad as the author of this posting makes it out to be.

Mike, Retired Military:

I must disagree with some of the things said by company commander. I started in the military 45 years ago, served tours in 6 different countries, and still work closely with the troopies. The bar scene overseas is not much different than it's always been. The biggest difference, thank goodness, is that the military's active encouragement of alcohol abuse has sharply receded. Still, bars - at home and abroad - will always be attractive to those who don't know what to do with themselves. I don't know what the "social scene" is these days in Korea, but in the past many of the troops would go to bars, maybe find a "yobo" to shack up with for the duration of their tours, and possibly even get married (which as often as not did not work out.) All this because they were bored, unhappy, young kids in a job they didn't like, in an organization they despised, in a place far away. That sounds very much like the description of the young troops interviewed for the article.

Charlie:

I am a Korean living in the U.S.
S. Korea has had the first real "left" government for last several years since the country got out of its dictatorship. So, the expressions and discussions about the imperial United States just started to happen and got circulated through the internet. This is healthy and necessary for a 3rd world (or former) country to grow. The Korean history has been painted with military, economic, and cultural invasion of many strong countries. It is a matter of survival for Koreans to have dignity and authenticity of their own thing. US GIs have created deeply embedded prostitution subculture in S. Korea for a long time. Since 1953, that is. It is time to think about these things. Be careful, GIs, what you do and how you do it. But there are so many things over there that are "westernized" now so if you want to have a real friendship, I believe you will find it.

Tom W:

I agree. There isn't anything sacred about home or American soil. Feel free to enjoy the world around you. It is a bit sad to spend that time living in Korea and only find out what your fellow soldiers think about the world.

Current Company Commander:

Being a current company commander, with four tours in Korea under my belt, (plus one in Iraq), I can say that the way these "soldiers" in Korea represented themselves is very typical of the new generation of Soldiers who have enlisted since 2004. Since the Iraqi war turned bad, the Army has had difficulty recruiting, and began issuing moral and physical "waivers" to recruits. The immediate result of this is that the average IQ, physical fitness, and moral character of our recruits have hit the rock bottom. Media doesn't knwo, because we are covering it up so well, and the government is turning a blind eye... Our newest Soldiers are the fattest, stupidest, and the most criminal I have seen in my 15 years in service. Drug uses are rampant, and the Army no longer allows us to remove overweight soldiers who cannot pass their APFT (Army Physical Fitness Test) to retain its "end strength". And these same losers who got passed over by their village McDonald's in Kentucky are now complaining in Korea about "lack of freedom", while their counterparts are getting shot at in Iraq without any alcohol privileges.. I am so sick and tired of these low lives bringing us older soldiers bad name. We need to institute the draft, or up the pay chart, so we can enlist a better quality of young boys.

Current Company Commander:

Being a current company commander, with four tours in Korea under my belt, (plus one in Iraq), I can say that the way these "soldiers" in Korea represented themselves is very typical of the new generation of Soldiers who have enlisted since 2004. Since the Iraqi war turned bad, the Army has had difficulty recruiting, and began issuing moral and physical "waivers" to recruits. The immediate result of this is that the average IQ, physical fitness, and moral character of our recruits have hit the rock bottom. Media doesn't knwo, because we are covering it up so well, and the government is turning a blind eye... Our newest Soldiers are the fattest, stupidest, and the most criminal I have seen in my 15 years in service. Drug uses are rampant, and the Army no longer allows us to remove overweight soldiers who cannot pass their APFT (Army Physical Fitness Test) to retain its "end strength". And these same losers who got passed over by their village McDonald's in Kentucky are now complaining in Korea about "lack of freedom", while their counterparts are getting shot at in Iraq without any alcohol privileges.. I am so sick and tired of these low lives bringing us older soldiers bad name. We need to institute the draft, or up the pay chart, so we can enlist a better quality of young boys.

Mike, Retired Military:

Military life in the barracks is boring - always was, always will be. Sorry that you soldiers bought a pig in a poke when you enlisted. Remember, though, it could be worse; you could be in Irag or, heaven forbid, Junction City, Kansas or Lawton, Oklahoma! Count your blessings.

Anonymous:

I'm Korean American and I lived in Korea from 1997-2000, and I had a few acquaintances in the US military. This was before 9/11 but quite a few of the individuals I met were a sorry lot who had enlisted in the military for all the wrong reasons. They made the same complaints that Mr. Bakshi reports above.

I'm among the many who argue that these people should know better, that they should have known what they were signing up for but it's also shocking how many of the enlisted personnel were kids. The majority of them had never stepped foot outside of North America (or their home state) so being stationed in a country as vastly different as Korea was a shock to their system.

To be fair, there were quite a few English teachers from the US, UK, Canada, Australia, etc., who behaved similarly i.e. go only to ex-pat bars and hangouts, not bothering to learn about Korea. And I saw the same pattern in many Asian cities (Shanghai, Hong Kong, etc).

So I raise a glass to those kids stationed in Korea (and to the others in Iraq), and hope they figure out soon the sensible approach to living abroad, for their own sakes.

As a postscript, I must add that I wasn't expecting to see so many responses that rightly point out the US military personnel interviewed were not doing their best acclimatize themselves to their host country. If that seems like I had assumed the worst about the US military, I apologize, but it did warm my heart a bit.

John Howser:

I spent five months in Kunsan at the AFB there in the summer/fall of 1969....and it WAS primitive down there. However, I met local Koreans in town, learned their alphabet so I could read their signs and learned enough to converse with the Koreans.....barely enough. It was an incredible five months....invitations accepted into their homes for tea/meals, spoke to several school classes who were studying English, took weekend trains up to Seoul to see the sights, visited the local temples......it was wonderful. The people were tremendous, friendly, and very welcoming. My advice: get out of the bars, learn about their long, long history, their culture, and enjoy a great country and people!

tyron:

Thanks Amir for telling the truth. A confederate flag hanging behind country band album covers tells you volumes about the current state of the military leadership which appears to be actively supporting racism, as do most of the country singers. Why would a young black man like me join such a vile organization?

Brendon Carr (Korea Law Blog):

Except for that last part, good advice from Defense Contractor. But Lotte World, the indoor amusement park, is Hell on Earth -- "Korea is crowded" is a heck of an understatement for that place. It's like trying to visit your state fair in a 100,000-man rugby scrum.

Ken Sulowe, U.S. Army (RET):

What a totally stupid article. My heart bleeds for these dysfunctional people.

Why doesn't the author spend time with some of the young soldiers who have found value in discovering a new culture away from the camptown bars found outside any U.S. Army post throughout the world? Or perhaps he would like to spend 24 hours with the young patriots of 4/7 Cavalry at Camp Garry Owen http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/facility/camp-owen.htm

or 1/506 Infantry at Camp Greaves? http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/facility/camp-greaves.htm

I'm certain any one of them would welcome a few days in Seoul.

Defense Contractor:

Are you kidding? Amar, get out and smell the odor. Yongsan is in the middle of Seoul - kind of like having a military base inside New York City. The city itself is 24x7 fun.. try shopping in the fashion district like Dong Dae Moon at 2 AM, yes thier operating hours are 10 AM to 4:30 AM, where "shop 'til your feet drop" brings new meaning. How about the electronics market where you feel like you are in the middle of a hundred Radio Shacks, Circuit Cities, Best Buys, Frys, etc. Nothing wrong with bars either - clubbing the Hong University and Ap Gu Jung district is no different than any of the trendy clubs in NY, San Fran, LA, etc., just more Asian people. You get the point.

I was a defense contractor in Yongsan for three years and it always hurt me to see kids who thought Itaewon was downtown Seoul. Worst part is that the mass transporation system is so great that you can go anywhere, at any time, cheap if you take the subway or bus.

Having said that, anyone would feel lonely at first in any new city. It takes time and effort to build relationships, even with cities. So, how about starting with a visit to the Lotte World, an indoor Amusement Park, for an exciting cultural ride.


M:

"Sounds like your average toby keith music loving white trash retards who volunteer for the military because they're good for nothing else. The smart ones are in college studying for a future who would later visit Korea as peace corp volunteers during their final semester trying to undo the damage wrought by these low IQ imbeciles."

I'm glad great people like yourself are taking such an admirable, classy stand against these "retards". You sound like you have Freshman-In-College-Save-The-World Syndrome. You'll look back on comments like this in a few years and feel bad about them - trust me, I used to sound like this too for the first six months of my time in the fake-real world of college too.

M:

"Sounds like your average toby keith music loving white trash retards who volunteer for the military because they're good for nothing else. The smart ones are in college studying for a future who would later visit Korea as peace corp volunteers during their final semester trying to undo the damage wrought by these low IQ imbeciles."

I'm glad great people like yourself are taking such an admirable, classy stand against these "retards".

M:

"Sounds like your average toby keith music loving white trash retards who volunteer for the military because they're good for nothing else. The smart ones are in college studying for a future who would later visit Korea as peace corp volunteers during their final semester trying to undo the damage wrought by these low IQ imbeciles."

Classy.

M:

I'm not in the military and I've never been to Korea, but I spent a good deal of time conducting interviews and on-the-ground research in a certain country abroad. For all I know, Mr. Bakshi could have spoken to every man and woman based in ROK, but I'm going to assume he didn't. To me, this story sounds like an anecdote spun out to much broader conclusions than are justified. I've had many a discussion with several people in a single setting (of notably bad vibes - bars, pubs and other drinking establishments) that have given me a completely unrepresentative image of "how everyone feels". Many of the servicemen and women reflecting on this article seem to show that this is hardly a universal view.

That said, people are being overly harsh. I'm going to assume that these men and women are indeed actively happy not to be in Iraq for Christmas - this doesn't mean six months, a year, eighteen months away from family and friends isn't a hardship. Cut them some slack.

Paul:

Sounds like your average toby keith music loving white trash retards who volunteer for the military because they're good for nothing else. The smart ones are in college studying for a future who would later visit Korea as peace corp volunteers during their final semester trying to undo the damage wrought by these low IQ imbeciles.

Sp4 Marcus Boyle:

Why don't you feel someone else's pain for a change? I'm tired of people who have never served a day in uniform telling the world just how it is.

You know nothing.

larry jackson:

Living in China and retired from the USAF I have visited Korea several times and the only complaint I had was the tremendous crowding.

People were friendly with many speaking English (I speak no Korean) and often gave me free transportation even though it's often quicker to walk.

The subways are cheap, clean and bi-lingual.It can be cold, but so is Minneapolis.

Seytom:

They could even try a trip outside of Seoul....a small adventure and people there are generally thrilled to see Americans. I never felt any anti-american sentiment on a personal level in three years living there. I did, however, meet soldiers who were off the base (and outside Itaewon) for the first time after a year in the country.

Suck it up:

As someone who spent some time stationed in Korea and has returned again and again as a student and a tourist I have no sympathy for the whinging barracks rats depicted in this article. We used to joke that USMC stood for "U Signed the Motherf*****g Contract", and though I realize we are talking about soldiers here, I hope they realize that they volunteered for this duty and that while they are "suffering" in Korea at least they aren't dying in Iraqistan.

JRLR:

"U.S. soldiers stationed in South Korea want one thing for Christmas: freedom, American-style."

Hi, Amar. Don't those soldiers already have what they say they want? Is not being "stationed in South Korea" also "freedom, American-style"?

Korean GI:

Seoul is much more anonyomous than other parts of Korea. I have found Koreans to be extremely welcoming people but 3am in the "Ville" is not the best time for an inter-cultural encounter.

Miguel Rodriguez:

I was a GI in S Korea, I respect and love Korea, their people are nice, polite, intelligent and hardworking!

If you travel overseas don t be arrogant person or a US nationalist!

Jim:

Everything is relative. I spent the winter of '51 on the MLR at The "Punchbowl" in N. Korea with the First Marines. Drinking beer and shooting pool (instead of communists) would have been a dream then.

Being away from home at Christmas is rough anytime. If I were there now as a young GI,I think I would try to learn the Korean language and customs; and I'd keep a daily journal. Igor had the right idea.

Proud Wahoo:

I agree with everyone who said that the soldiers should go out and mingle with the Koreans. I grew up in Korea as a native Korean during the late 1990's, and it was a fad back then among young people to have American friends and speak English with them... By large, Korea is still a very pro-American country, the soldiers shouldn't be too worried about anti-American sentiments. My advice would be go to any Korean bar and get a couple bottles of Soju and just relax, Koreans will probably approach you first wanting to hang out.

ceflynline@msn.com:

In the Late 70's, having served eight years in the Army, I joined the Navy and got Stationed as a ship rider out of Yokosuka. Korea was home turf for us. There was always the local liberty group that never got out of the Green Street, or Itaewan, or other such U. S. Bar districts, and they always complained about how bad the local scene was. I stayed at least two blocks away from those bar districts and was regularly dragged into Korean celebrations, made welcome in Korean Businesses etc. When My son went on active duty and drew Korea I told him that secret. He and his friends developed the flip a coin method of touring Korea: Got ou the gate, flip a coin, heads go right, tails go left. after a few such arbitrary choices see what you can find to do. Within two years he had seen so much of Korea that for his twenty first birthday, the NCO's he served with couldn't find anywhere in Korea to take him and drop him off and he wouldn't have been able to get back.

Yes, being away from home is a drag at Christmas, and Thanksgiving especially. For that reason any First Sergeant, Sergeant major, or Command Sergeant Major worth his stripes goes out of his way to provide things for new soldiers to do to keep them busy, and up beat. There is always something to do if you are willing to get up and do them, and still there will be the depressed soldier that commits suicide. I got a call from my son only about two weeks ago after he had to deal with exactly that problem, a scout who succeeded in hanging himself. I had to be the sounding board for my son for about two hours. And HE was the Suicide Prevention NCO for his battalion!!. Still, far and away it happens that the men who take the time to learn the country don't just live in the Army (or Navy, etc. bar districts) Some U. S. personnel managed to spend a twenty year stint in country, so it IS possible to have fun in the Land of the Early morning Calm. Or in almost any one of the very many countries we have troops in.

Your correspondent should have done a better job of learning about what it means to serve OCONUS.

I Heartily recommend it.

(Formerly) SP5/SGT 05H2O/36C40 U. S. Army.

Wayne:

The worst place to go for comfort is a bar. I know, I was stationed at an air strip in Korea in 1952 and we would go to Japan for R&R. That usually meant going to bars and drinking and getting into fights with other members of the Armed Forces and feeling sorry for ourselves. When we returned to the job that we had to do, all that went away. The Japaneese were extremely friendly toward us even though they all remembered the devistation that they suffered from the bombing of Heroshima and Nagisaki. My interaction with the Koreans was also very friendly as we fought along side them. They were glad that we came to their aid and I don't question for a minute that we did the right thing there.

Wake Up:

To the article's author: Do you really think in the US you'd be invited to join a group of strangers at 3 IN THE MORNING?

Anonymous:

While I agree that these young people need to broaden their experiences more and get out of the bars, I also have seen foreign workers and students here in the U.S acting the same way. I don't think it's just an American way of thinking/acting, as much as it is a human thing. It always amazes me that some of the most xenophobic and prejudiced people are leaving their countries to travel and mix with people in other lands, whether for work or pleasure. Want to come to the U.S. to work or travel? Respect our laws and traditions. Americans want to work or travel in Korea, or Italy, or Saudi Arabia, etc.? Respect their culture and try to understand their point of view. Simple in theory...obviously hard in practice.

Mike T.:

I was stationed in S. Korea for more than 4 years. I don't know about other people, but I loved Korea. Of course, it was difficult in the beginning and I too was holding beer and cried for home. But once I got to know the country, it was so much fun. People were friendly, food was great, riding buses and metro and just walking around the city was so much fun. It was something that you can never get from the States. If you really go out and try to make friends, they are going to open up to you like you are their family. Enjoy your time while you are there.

stewart:

Why do we still have troops in Korea?

It's a waste of my tax money.

World Traveler:

I think the (military) people portrayed in this article who spend their time drinking in bars whining about their circumstances, whine about their lives, whether they are overseas or in their backyard. I have seen the same behavior in Americans overseas whether they were studying abroad in industrialized Western Europe or in the Peace Corps in less developed Africa

Chaz:

After reading the comments before and after my initial post, I agree that Amar should've balanced his piece with a larger cross section of young American military members in Korea. The most vocal of any group tend to be those who complain, often because of their own lack of knowledge or character. How about talking to the one's who are quietly doing their duty, and also reaching out to their hosts to learn about and show respect for the country they are in? These goobers Amar spoke with would sit in a stateside Hooters and complain about being bored and under-appreciated at home and work. And I echo the postings about the Korean people. They are warm and generous when given the chance and treated with respect. They also have one of the most ancient civilizations in Asia, having large parts of their culture appropriated by the Chinese, Japanese and others (though often denied). Let's give them some respect, kids.

DAMIEN:

Bars and alcohol. And that's supposed to offer solace for loneliness, homesickness, cultural isolation?

Skip the bar. Read some good books. Watch some good movies. Use the internet to expand your mind. There's a whole big world out there: arts, literature, science, culture.

You will never find the solution to anything staring into a beer mug.

Igor:

I spent a a year and a half in Korea. I was stationed both in Yong Dongo and Camp Humphries near Osan.

I found the Korean people to be friendly, hard working, and great friends. I often took Korean trains and buses. I had one Korean friend who invited me to his home. Before I left Korea, he took me to a photographer to have our picture taken together.

While I did spend some time in bars, I did volunteer work for one the the Seoul area orphanges which I found very rewarding. I also played on softball and flag footbal to kill time.

mikey30919:

I spent Christmas 1975 on patrol on the DMZ, we spent an hour in a snowball fight with a North Korean patrol. We weren't in a bar feeling sorry for ourselves. Korea was an exciting place to be stationed in the 70s. Better than Vietnam, I imagine Korea is better than being in Iraq now too.

Get out of the bars, meet the Korean people, they are as nice a bunch of people you will ever meet. Go to Walker Hill, the Tower Club, get out of the GI dives and you will learn what a great place it is. You can be as happy or unhappy as you want to be, it's up to you. SSG Bailey 1/31st Infantry Pro Patria

Westerner:

It sounds like a lot of the soldiers who ended up in Korea are fairly new to be complaining about being alienated. I think they just have to be accustomed to being based in a foreign country and know what to do with themselves when they aren't actually conducting a war. If there is a lot of resentment from the south koreans about american soldiers being there, I've never understood why we keep staying there. South Korea is rich enough and has enough manpower to maintain their own army to secure their borders and fight against the north koreans. We should remove our troop presence from South Korea and bring them to real troublespots.

Rob:

Mr. Bakshi, too bad you failed to report on the many thousands of American service men and women who embrace the culture and history of their surroundings rather than focus on the handful who resent everything non-American. I was a US Marine in the Far East during the late 80s. I knew hundreds of people like those you interviewed. Some spend a year or more drinking and complaining how they just want to go home. Those people will regret everything about their military experience rather than learn and enjoy cultures they'll never took the time to embrace. I spent over four years in Japan as well as Korea. I did my best to represent Americans as well as enjoy myself. When I finally had to return home, it was one of the saddest days of my life. I'll always remember the good times and great people I would have never met had I not been stationed there.

John:

Hang out in bars till closing and you're surounded by depressed drunks. Where's the suprise. It's the same in Kansas. I spent 3 tours in Korea and it's always the same. Go to the local church, school, market, village and meet regular Korean's and find it's a much friendler place.

Gaye:

I spent 22 years in the AF. I was stationed at many wonderful and some not so wonderful places, but one thing was true at every duty station; my fellow troops whining and complaining about where ever we were. Even while stationed at the beautiful Presidio of Monterrey, I had to listen to complaints from people who didn't like it there. Kids, get out of the bar, learn a little of the language and culture. Make the most of the experience.

Joe:

Koreans are one of the most hospitable people anyway. US soldiers should get out of the barracks and learn about Korea and Korean people. Hoping for the Koreans to open up unilaterally will not happen now days as too many negative news make the media from Iraq, Afghanistan, to a drunken US soldier beating up an old Korean grandma. As seen in the recent election, overwhelming number of Koreans support US and Korea's relationship with the US.

US soldiers are US ambassadors to Korea and their behaviors are closely watched. Get out of Itaewon beer halls and travel the countryside. Learn about Korean history and culture and come back to the US with more experiences to share with friends back home.

Alan:

You gotta be kidding me...these soldiers are not learning anything about their host country and literally crying in their beers?

Mr. Bakshi, maybe you should ask the soldiers next time what they have done to gain some cultural competence in their host country. This post smacks of under-reporting and a "woe is the American soldier in S. Korea" bias.

A Grownup:

The bash-Bush crowd is finally heard from. Can you people not stay focused for more than 2 seconds on the discussion at hand without reverting to your ad hoc arguements about why EVERYTHING is Bushie's fault? As bad as the Clinton-haters during the 90's. Grow up.

almaden:

Just think -- these fine young people are defending America in the bars and bordellos of foreign lands while Bush takes away our freedom at home by "unitary executive" doctrine, erasure of checks and balances, claims for absolute power, elimination of habeas corpus and posse comitatus, rigging votes, legalization of torture and abuse of prisoners, high-handed signing statements that amount to a personal dictatorship, and repeated and even admitted violation of international treaties, Federal laws and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. These fine young people have no clue about "freedom". They evince no awareness of how their service to Bush at America's 173 foreign military bases in the service of crude, unabashed imperialism betrays it.

Anonymous:

I have been stations in S.Korea for 4 years in the early 2000. After reading the article and some comments, I agree with one of the readers' comments. Who in the world would openly and warmly invite someone off the street at 3 a.m.
The writer assumes that the locals would just open up and start taking care of him. It just seems to be unreasonable reasoning to accept. He compares to the Phillipines and Pakistanis and how they would openly invite him. His name seems to be decendents of such countries and perhaps it is easier to be accepted because he "understands" them and their culture. And that is the point. As many pointed out in the previous comments, it is really about opening up to the locals and trying to get to know them, not sitting out in some bars and listening to the socially inexperienced individuals and write an article based on biased judgements.

mike:

Get out of the Bar!
Is this what we want to show other nations? That we only have enough sense to find the local drinking holes? At least find one that's not so "American".
When these same folks are back home, they can't stop yelling, "Speak English or Get out!" but when the shoe is on the other foot? They go hide in a corner of a bar.
Very typical American attitude...You look like cowards and sound even worse.
Grow up.

Farwood:

I was stationed in the ROK for 6 mos and for the first 3 mos, I too sat and cried in my beer at bars. I decided to see the counrty at the local level and all of the sudden, the nation opened up and became endeared to me. I learned Korean, rudimentary at best but those last 3 mos flew by with me regreting nothing. I took that approach to all my deployments (when possible), which has eased the rigors of being away from home infinitely. It is all what you make of it guys and gals.

Anonymous:

Freedom is indeed relative. You have nicely captured the loneliness of even the noncombatant young men and women.

Chaz:

As a vet, I really hate listening to the young service men and women whine about conditions when they are away from home on hardship duty in war zones, or even in a foreign country posting amongst our "allies." These kids volunteered for military duty, warts and all. Especially since 9/11, they should've realized they would be sent to places AWAY from the U.S., which would include holidays and bad weather. I understand the loneliness that can happen, and the problems that can occur with the clash of cultures, but as was pointed out by previous posters...stop being the ugly and insular American. Get out of the bars and get involved with the locals. Respect their history, culture, and especially their differences. Look at your overseas tour of duty as the experience it should be. Expand your mind, learn new things and grow. If you wanted to stay in America amongst nothing but American culture, why in the world did you join the military in the first place?

Farook Ahmed:

I lived in South Korea from 2004-2006 and that sort of anti-ROK sentiment is as familiar as it is annoying. Why is it that people expect Koreans to warm up to them when they don't bother to learn the language, culture and history?
I knew Westerners who would spend years in Korea, refusing to take the time to learn the language beyond "beer" "how much?" and "one more" and all the while complaining about how much they hated living there.

In my many experiences with Koreans, I found them extremely generous and welcoming if you were willing to take the first step. The writer whines that the people don't go out of their way to invite him to join them (on the street at 3am? would people do that anywhere?), but he doesn't make any efforts to speak with the locals. When in Korea - or any other foreign country - you have to remember that it is THEIR country, not YOURS. The onus to adapt is on you, not on them.

Pete:

Oh my goodness. I spent 1970 on the Korean DMZ. No bars, no civilians, no nothing but patrolling and isolation. Rarely saw Seoul, let alone a bar. I guess everything is relative.

olsmaj@comcast.net:

First reaction was Poor Baby, but I recognize the feelings. Had two tours in ROK, much farther north and spartan than Yongsan or Seoul: Munsan-ni 1953, and 7th Inf Div Tongduchong, 1965-66 14 months. Alcohol is seductive, but it is a central nervous system depressant, and the bar culture can get you in trouble.
Herschel Atkinson SGM USA Ret

Another Perspective:

Looks like you interviewed many young, lonely kids. I was stationed in Korea (USAF), and was frequently invited over to Korean homes for dinner, or even over for a bowl of noodles by agricultural workers. If you behave with dignity, and respect the local cultural norms (don't act like a dork), just like most places, you will be pretty much welcomed by most civilized local nations. So I say, get out of the bars, take some of the terrific USO tours, and get to know someone outside Itaewon, which I avoided. Then you can enjoy yourselves. There are a billion interesting things to do in Korea, so stop whinning like two year olds!

BETTER THAN BEING IN IRAQ:

Nobody should be complaining when other war fighters are actually fighting a war in Iraq. Drinking a beer at a bar is much more freedom than them.

Kevin K.:

I never felt that way when I was stationed there over Christmas. Maybe you were hanging out with the wrong people?

Smllarms:

I spent a winter in South Korea in 1968 and it was very lonely then too. It was my friends that made it all work, but keeping busy helped a lot as well. I know we had better relations with the Koreans then but I never heard of anyone being invited to their homes. Being involved in religious activities also helped. Mainly, knowing how worse it was in Nam at that time made our stay a lot easier. When youre in the service, you go where they tell you, and you go to protect our country.

MCPO J. Martin Retired:

I have spent several tours over seas in foreign countries, one thing I discovered, spending all of my times in Bars, as the picture above shows, did not endear me to the local population. Getting out and working with the locals, yes somethings it has a negative effect, but usually that is because of some social assumption of being an American and not being aware of local customs. But showing the desire to learn those social customs did open a door, a lot more than sitting in some bar crying in your beer.

Post a comment

We encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge washingtonpost.com's articles, blogs, reviews and multimedia features.

User reviews and comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions.

PostGlobal is an interactive conversation on global issues moderated by Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria and David Ignatius of The Washington Post. It is produced jointly by Newsweek and washingtonpost.com, as is On Faith, a conversation on religion. Please send your comments, questions and suggestions for PostGlobal to Lauren Keane, its editor and producer.