1/14/15

An expatriate encountering myself (The Korea Times, 2015-01-14) by Casey Lartigue, Jr.


When people ask me if I have read a certain book that I indeed have read, I often hesitate to confirm. Reading "To Kill a Mockingbird" or a book about dating is a different experience at age 16 compared to 36 or 56.

I first read the late Paul Fussell's provocative collection of essays "Thank God for the Atom Bomb" as a graduate student. When I reread it a few years later, I noticed that I had completely skipped the chapter about traveling.

I am a "digital immigrant" who still prefers printed books, newspapers and articles so I can markup the text. I didn't mark a single thing in that travel chapter the first time around.

The second time around, years later, I wondered how I could have missed Fussell's profundity. In particular, I appreciated his point distinguishing among travelers, tourists and explorers. ("There's No Place Like Home," Feb 12, 2013).

What had changed? Me. I grew up in Texas and Massachusetts, but had not even crossed the U.S. borders nearby in either direction until after graduate school.

Experience is the greatest teacher, as Mark Twain has been attributed with demonstrating: "When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years."

Living abroad, I learned how America-centric I had been. Paraphrasing Alexis De Tocqueville, the late Seymour Martin Lipset said: "The best way to know your own country is to experience another one."

When I first traveled to Korea on a short trip back in the 1990s, I met several Koreans one night when I went dancing. One young Korean man enjoyed hearing my stories about my first time abroad, in Taiwan. Taking me aside, he asked me, in all seriousness: "Can we play?"

Earlier I had just been talking about dominating the basketball courts in Taipei, so I responded, "Sorry, I didn't bring my tennis shoes on this trip."

He was confused, then explained: "I mean you. Me. Play. Special time together." It finally dawned on me that he was coming onto me. He had not traveled to America but had read in the Korean press about many Americans being gay (I wish I had thought to say it was true about Europeans). I gently declined his offer, informing him that I love women, but would bring my tennis shoes the next time I visited Korea.

For a long time, I was surprised, at myself. I had met gay people in the U.S., but based on what I knew then about Korea I didn't expect to encounter a gay person in a country where homosexuality seemed to be strongly discouraged. The beauty I saw: He was willing to be himself, despite Korean society trying to condition him.

Starting a professional career abroad working at a libertarian think tank in Seoul and speaking at international conferences, I encountered a different pleasant shock. Although I had encountered libertarians in America, there was still something different about meeting natives in Malaysia, China and India advocating individual liberty and respect for the rights of others.

I can see the same effect on colleagues of mine as they venture abroad. Last week, I spoke at the Asia Liberty Forum in Kathmandu, Nepal, and was joined by two Korean colleagues. Lee Eun-koo, a progressive, joined me last July to attend her first libertarian conference, the Shanghai Austrian Economics Summit. She said she was shocked as she watched Chinese people speaking out strongly in favor of personal and economic liberty. She was less shocked last week in Nepal.

Another South Korean colleague, Jeong So-dam, also joined me in Nepal last week for the Asia Liberty Forum. It was her second international conference. She's a rising star among Korean libertarians. She mentioned that it was "exotic" to hear the word "freedom" being uttered every 10 seconds in Nepal.

She has started to speak out on issues, setting off rabid netizen attacks in Korea. She's an optimistic lady, but I suppose it can still be encouraging to meet others from around the world also advocating for liberty in authoritarian cultures. Many of them are speaking English as a second or foreign language, pronouncing "freedom" and "liberty" with different accents, but they have found common ground in international settings.

American writer James Baldwin once said: "I met a lot of people in Europe. I even encountered myself." Living abroad, I have encountered myself, learning to look beyond the U.S. context, and encountered others as they are, where they are.

Unfortunately, during my travels, I lost that copy of the Paul Fussell book with the marked up chapter on travel, but I do read a replacement copy from time to time.

The writer is the Director for International Relations at Freedom Factory Co.in Seoul and the Asia Outreach Fellow with the Atlas Network in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at CJL@post.harvard.edu.


Korea Times, Korea News Gazette