Imagining America and the “Other”

  • onNovember 2, 2014
  • Vol.18 Winter 2012
  • byKim Young-ha


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.



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 turned on its head when Dae-yeong meets his daughter, Yun-kyeong, who is a single mother raising the child of an African-American man. While the reference to Hansel and Gretel in the novella hints that the dark magical forest that the two fairytale children wander through is akin to Dae-yeong in New York, the "cave of monsters," to his daughter, on the other hand, the city is a forest of hope where she may search for a new life and nurture her dreams. The fact that people continue to live and hope in this cave of monsters is just as important as the critical perspective of a third-world intellectual.

Park Min-gyu's Legends of Earth Heroes, a more fantastical representation of the U.S., is a satire of the American cultural imperialism that has been internalized by a generation of Koreans who grew up watching animated TV shows starring American superheroes such as Superman and Batman. Legends of Earth Heroes follows the rise and fall of a poor anti-hero called Bananaman, a Korean man who tried to become a "policeman of the world" and work for the U.S. but was turned down. The protagonist, whose suicide attempt is thwarted by Superman, reinvents himself as Bananaman at the Hall of Justice, a training facility for superheroes. Unfortunately, Bananaman is a derogatory term for an Asian who worships the culture and life of a white person: "yellow on the outside, white on the inside." With Bananaman's efforts to be inducted to "the center of the world" dashed, he returns to the "margins of the world," Korea, and makes a living as an English teacher.

Reflected in this tragic biography of Bananaman is the ridiculous yet sad portrait of a generation of Koreans who grew up admiring American culture. A message in this novel that deserves attention is not the justice that the police of the world—America—imposes, but that the very people oppressed by this justice are the ones who show unconditional enthusiasm for all things American.

In the novel, Bananaman is swept away in a tsunami on his way to Havana, Cuba for a vacation with Aqua Man, ruler of the seas. He is rescued by and taken care of by the Mexican Zapatista guerrilla army, the very same army that staged an armed uprising in January 1994 against NAFTA. Bananaman asks one of the villains who doesn't know the meaning of justice but who rescued and looked after him, "Why did you join the guerrilla army instead of farming?" Marco, the assistant commander of the guerrilla army replies, "We picked up our guns because we wanted to farm." Zapatista, incidentally is an echo of Zapata, as in Emiliano Zapata, the farmers' hero who rebelled against the labor exploitation of the hacienda henequen farms about a century ago.

Kim Yi-jeong, the protagonist of Kim Young-ha's Black Flower, is the only Asian soldier in the Mexican northern army led by Pancho Villa, who was a revolutionary comrade of none other than Emilio Zapata. How did a former subject of the collapsing Korean dynasty end up participating in the Mexican Revolution? In 1905, 1,033 Koreans boarded the Ilford, a British ship headed for Mexico in search of a new life. For these Koreans, Mexico was far away at the end of the world, but it was also the beginning of the world, and a hope for a new beginning. But the 1,033 Koreans were scattered among various henequen farms and suffered under brutal labor exploitation. Some managed to survive, their fallen country increasingly a distant memory, while others perished.

The representation of Mexico in this novel is, according to the great Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes in The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World, one that is fighting a revolution against the exploitation of the hacienda. The subjects of a country that disappeared "like a drop of ink in water" have no choice but to join the revolution. But an important question for the nation-less Koreans who are thrown into one of the bloodiest moments in the history of Mexico is: "Can a country disappear forever?" Other questions necessitated by the revolution that generated hundreds of thousands of casualties were: "Did this happen because they did have a country or because they did not have a country?" Or “Was this fate unavoidable either way? We all die as a citizen of one country or other." But Black Flower points out the irony in this sobriety. Toward the end of the novel, the Korean survivors agree to build a New Korea at Tikal, Guatemala, a heritage site of the once great Mayan civilization that has long since perished. Tikal represents the surviving Koreans' futile impulse to build a country. New Korea disappears almost as soon as it is established, and the Koreans disperse. Thus, in Black Flower, Mexico is presented as a historical backdrop where the ironic tragicomedy repeats itself between the end of the world and the beginning of the world.



Through this article, I have sought to reconstruct the fictional representation of countries, such as the U.S. and Mexico, that had a close relationship with Korean since its modernization. This examination inspires the speculation that an identity is not a result of avoiding hybridity, but the result of hybridity. We live in an age where globalization is forced on us in the absence of a global understanding. A literary sensibility that embraces and rises to the challenges of the imagined worlds of otherness is perhaps the truest act of fostering global understanding.



1. Black Flower
Kim Young-ha
Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2003, 356p, ISBN 898281714X
2. Legends of Earth Heroes
Park Min-gyu, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
2003, 187p, ISBN 9788982816796
3. Obstacles That Loved Me
Choi Ihn Suk, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp.
1998, 270p, ISBN 898281146X
4. Deep Blue Night
Choi Inho, Jisikdumi
2007, 213p, ISBN 9788971240830