Imagining America and the “Other”

While imagining the world of the “other,” four novels, Black Flower, Deep Blue Night, “Forest of Promise”and Legends of Earth Heroes take a look at how Koreans in the United States and Mexico navigated their way once they arrived on the other side of the world.

 

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Around the turn of the century, Korean fiction used as fodder the shock and experience of geography and language, the politics of a racially divergent "other," economy, history, and culture, which led to a marked hybridity in literature. To Koreans who had great pride in their "one race, one language" identity, and unwavering desire for a unified nation that could overcome differences, the "other" that crossed geographical, cultural lines, and further, assimilated on this side of the border gave Korean literature the formidable task of representing "otherness." This article follows the experience of Korean immigration and the diaspora in both American continents and investigates the means and routes through which each place has been fictionally reconstructed in Korean literature. This article will trace the Korean perception and imagination of other nations and its components—politics, economy, history, and culture—as geographical places that are distinct from Korea.

 

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As Kim Young-ha shows in his novel Black Flower (2003), the U.S. and Mexico have shaped the lives of Koreans in both direct and indirect ways, considering the cause and effect of Korean's modernization. The U.S. has had an overwhelming influence on Korea and its people in many ways since Japan's colonization of Korea, the country’s liberation and division, to its present. While Mexico's influence over Korea is not as obvious as that of the U.S., the Koreans who fled Korea during the period of Japanese colonization experienced being outsiders as "henequen" in none other than Mexico.

Since the 1960s when Korean students in the U.S. increased in number, the Vietnam War broke out, and American bases in Korea and the camp towns surrounding them began to draw public interest, Korean fiction has been representing the U.S. as a symbol associated with issues of Korean democracy and dictatorship as well as the capitalistic way of life. These depictions, however, were limited in that they were conscious or subconscious images of the U.S. from the perspective of Korea and Koreans. Very few works during this time were based on real life experience in the U.S., not even those based on short visits.

Among these few works was Choi Inho's novella, "Deep Blue Night" (1982). This story is notable as an early impression of the U.S. through the eyes of a Korean writer. "Deep Blue Night" is partly based on Choi's experience traveling to the U.S. as an escape from the shock of Chun Doo-hwan continuing a military dictatorship following the death of dictator Park Chung-hee, and Choi’s personal doubts regarding his life as a writer. A grim portrait of the writer himself, this novella is also a fictional travel story that follows the journey of the protagonist Jeong Jun-hyeok and a Korean singer whose career halted when he was caught smoking marijuana.

As the two travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles by car, Jun-hyeok finds that the "desperate fury and pent-up animosity" that has been hanging over him in Korea has followed him to California, and that the "tongue of fury" continues to travel with him. The trip is an escape and an exile from the protagonist's anger, which translates into aimless soul searching within himself. Jun-hyeok enjoys the instant pleasure he feels as he is speeding down the highway, but the feeling never lasts. The two men pay little attention to the small American towns and natural scenery that they zip past. “What do I care about America's prosperity, freedom, the toy soldiers, beautiful gardens, grand mansions, hot dogs, and ice cream sundaes? Its deserts and snow-capped mountains? His heart had no room for anything other than the fury about to burst within him." The significance of Los Angeles as a destination that is "made up and does not actually exist in the world" is reminiscent of the setting of Waiting for Godot. The story ends with the protagonist climbing down a cliff when the car breaks down, and hoping for a renewal of life as he faces the vast ocean.

In Choi's story, the U.S. cannot materially or mentally replace his emptiness and anger. The U.S. is the "end of the world" in that it is the last place of exile for an emotional refugee, as well as the "beginning of the world" where life begins anew. While Choi Inho's protagonist drives fast along the California coastline, Choi Ihn Suk's protagonist in the novella “Forest of Promise” (Obstacles That Loved Me) walks slowly through the streets of New York City like a flaneur from a third world country symbolically oppressed by the U.S. Choi portrays the U.S. as the "center of the world" that rules the world with the material volume and mass it represents.

"Forest of Promise" is the story of a man named Dae-yeong, a former dedicated revolutionary who travels to New York City to meet his divorced wife and daughter as a necessary procedure in running for a seat in the perennially hopeless Korean National Assembly. As a revolutionary from a third world country, Dae-yeong's first impression of New York is an unsettling "cave of monsters." As New York is "the soul of the world," the U.S. is the "Rome of this era" and "the intersection of the world." "That is to say, America is the world; a world that runs on dollars. All you need here are dollars. Dollars literally make thousands of changes and control politics, society, culture, and science. People should see for themselves what it's like to be converted into dollars."

The protagonist walks through the streets of New York alone and feels the awesome power of America and the unequal relationship it has with Korea. The power of the U.S., for example, is perceived through the protagonist's observation of the curious, relaxed gaze of the New Yorkers sitting in a 52nd Street movie theater watching a film from a third world country that was funded by the U.S. This outsider's perspective, however, is turne...