"Intellectual Shock" in Seoul

‘Intellectual shock’ in Seoul
By Casey Lartigue, Jr.

Dearest Casey, You did it. You left America again to return to Korea, where you lived and worked during part of the 1990s.

Because this is your second journey abroad (12 years apart), people often ask you what has changed about Korea. You first mention the obvious things ― the country has developed; Koreans seem more globalized and your fellow expats seem more educated. But there is the less obvious one that is more important: You’re different.

Casey, you enjoyed some moments in the sun as an education researcher in America. As you began to approach the age of 40 you began to tell family and friends that you felt free to do as you pleased because you realized you would never be Martin Luther King Jr. (assassinated at age 39) or president of a country. One of the things you realized that you wanted to do was to live abroad again. And so you have.

You never suffered from culture shock while abroad ― you expected things to be different. You were never interested in a traditional 9 to 5 job. During the 1990s, as an English teacher, you occasionally wrote in the local newspapers ― about America. You weren’t ready to comment on Korea very often.

As you heard another expat say later on: ``When in China for a week, you feel you can write a book about the country. When in China for a few months, you think you might be able to squeeze out an article for your community newspaper. When you are in China for an extended period of time, you put your head down and mutter.”

Now that you are a working professional in Korea, you often find yourself putting your head down and muttering to yourself. It may be ``intellectual” shock. South Korea is rushing to establish a universal welfare state with politicians of both parties trying to one-up each other in ``freesomething” giveaways. Your side for limited government is losing the public policy and political debate in South Korea ― and prospects in the near future don’t look bright.

In the 1990s, when Koreans you talked with wanted to blame America ― and you ― for (fill-in-the-blank), you could honestly say, ``Hey, I don’t care. The president would never accept my calls so you need to find someone else to complain to about this.”

Now, one arm is tied is behind your back because you are an American who doesn’t speak Korean very well trying to engage a populace that fundamentally sees Americans as being imperialistic. You have even been warned by friends that it might be dangerous for you, as an American, to attend rallies against the free trade agreement between America and Korea.

You believe in individual liberty but you are now living in a population with a collectivist mindset ― and they were doing quite fine before you ever showed up. When you talk of individual freedom, people are skeptical, preferring to have someone in charge of the economy and culture.

Welfare redistributionists have the upper hand now but that won’t deter you in your push for individual freedom. Your side may not be winning, but that won’t stop you from doing what you do. Both you and South Korea are different from the last time you were here. Perhaps both will go through positive changes in the future.

The year 2012 has now begun, and it should be a big year for you as well as the country. Korea will have elections for the National Assembly and presidency. Things are sure to get heated. Will you have an impact? Will your voice be heard?

I Remain,

Casey Lartigue, Jr.

Casey Lartigue, Jr., is Director of International Relations at the Center for Free Enterprise in Seoul, South Korea. He may be contacted at cjl@cfe.org or www.cfekorea.com. 

This article was originally published in the Korea Times on January 20, 2012.