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WRITERS' NOTES

Korean Gay Sex Is Superior

  • onDecember 13, 2018
  • Vol.42 Winter 2018
  • byAlexander Chee

Around the time I started writing stories, the year 1987, I went on a family visit to South Korea. I was taken by my grandfather to the Army Officer’s Club in Seoul to lunch, and when I went to the restroom, I found, in the bathroom stall, some graffiti written on the wall. It said, “Korean Gay Sex Is Superior.”

Korean Gay Sex Is Superior. I laughed to see it. I was twenty, Korean American and gay, and it was something I wanted to be true. On that visit, my family there had been saying to me over and over, how everything Korean was just better—the Korean Alphabet was superior, the Korean education system was superior, etc. This felt like a joke on them written just for me. But now I think of what it took to write that in the stall. To think it, live it, to be a Korean gay man and to bring a pen to the club, write it in the stall in the summer of 1987, the summer of the June Democracy Movement. I remember the tear gas in the streets, the protests my grandfather didn’t want to tell me about.

There was no phone number. This man just wanted us all to know this, and in English.

On this same trip I had learned that Koreans tended to act as if gayness was something that originated with Americans. If you asked, it was common to hear Korean people say back then, “There are no gay Koreans.” This confused me especially then because so many people seemed to be gay by American standards of performative affection—men and women walked arm and arm with other members of their gender in the street, or embraced, or lay on top of each other in casual contact. In America, they would have been attacked for being gay. Affection between men and women was forbidden here, I was told, but this other affection was apparently fine. I spent the rest of my trip imagining myself in South Korea hiding what I was feeling in that embrace in public.

I’ve spent so much of my life calculating, in America, if I can hold a man’s hand in the street, but in South Korea, men just walked down the street, holding each other’s hand. Even yesterday, as my husband and I swam in a pond, I wanted to kiss him, and he said, “Please don’t kiss me here.” He didn’t feel safe in front of the people on the beach.

The result of all of this is that from the beginning of my education as a writer I have felt myself to be writing my self into existence. This is because every story I wanted to tell had to both insist that I existed—gay, Korean American, biracial—and insist that I could tell a story. I tried to write things that were not about those experiences per se, as if the difficulty could be avoided, but even so, they came from that person, that sensibility, that self that was seemingly so hard for other Americans to imagine. Even as the stories knew I was there, and I had to be myself with them, whether they were about my experiences or not. I remember finding the work of James Baldwin, and how rich it was, how it shocked me with the intense heart and intelligence in it. And then finding him in an interview, being asked if he felt he were handicapped for being born poor, black, and gay. And he said, with such humor in his voice, “Oh no. I thought I’d hit the jackpot.” Baldwin felt that coming from these identities, it just meant you had to know more than people who didn’t—and that this went into the work. In 2001, when my first novel, Edinburgh, came out, about a Korean American gay man surviving childhood sexual abuse, it felt like a victory that came from this idea, but it was only the first one.

In 2008, I learned from scholars in Asian American literature that I’m the first Korean American gay male novelist. And as far as I know, with my essay collection, at the age of fifty, I became the first Korean American gay male essayist. It’s a loneliness I’m used to, but still so extreme that it shocks me sometimes, to my core. People sometimes don’t believe me when I tell them this, as if I’m lying to them and there are secretly many of us. I’ve been joined by Eugene Lim and Jim Mattson, and the late Samuel Park, who died last year, all novelists, but I am living in the hope for more of us soon. I’ve had a wonderful year, being told about what my work means to younger writers, especially younger Asian American queer writers, and in their books I write that I’m waiting for them to publish, and I am.

I have felt for so long as if I was proving to both Korea and America that I can exist, do exist, showing up in spite of these different erasures. Thirty-one years after that trip, it’s a different world, but one with a passageway back to the one I know. I can see the Instagram and Twitter feeds of Korean LGBTQ activists. I can thrill to the story of the K-pop star Holland coming out, something I can share with my niece, who is one of his biggest fans. And I count the days (I’m going back in December) to when I can return to Seoul and find in person what I’ve only seen on social media. But I’m also still very aware of being that same young man, writing my way into existence. My books are now set to be translated into Korean by Purun Communication. I hope to do a reading in Seoul soon. If I can, I want to go back to the Army Officers Club, and while I know that graffiti is painted over by now, I’ll write this there myself—Korean Gay Sex Is Superior—in honor of whoever wrote it all those years ago.

 

by Alexander Chee

 

*The essay presented here was written for a special event Korean Literature Now hosted as part of its tenth anniversary celebrations on September 15, 2018 at the Brooklyn Book Festival, one of America’s biggest book festivals and the largest free literary event in New York City.

 

Author's Profile

Alexander Chee has authored the novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night and the essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. He is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Dartmouth College.