Updated: Feb 3, 2019
I often tell people that it was the army that helped me fall in love with Asia. Compliments of “Uncle Sam” I spent a thirteen-month tour of duty in South Korea, during the Vietnam conflict, with a ten day R & R to Tokyo. In those years there were around 50,000 U. S. troups in South Korea, most of them up near the DMZ.
I’d been drafted out of graduate school. Back then in 1968 if you were a young man in college you got a deferment from the draft. This was an obvious privilege for young white people that the later introduction of the draft lottery somewhat mitigated, but that’s another story. The president had eliminated graduate deferments so once I’d graduated from Colorado State University my draft board snatched me from grad school like a brown bear grabbing a salmon from the river.
Thus, as so many young men from my generation, I went into the army. I did my basic training at Fort Lewis, advanced individual training (AIT) at Fort Ord, and Radio Teletype training at Fort Gordon. I was a Specialist 4thClass when I finished at Fort Gordon and waited for orders. Every class that graduated before mine in the 10-week course went straight to Vietnam. So, I fully expected to be sent there. We did the Vietnam Village training, qualified with the M16, and further prepared for what awaited us in Vietnam.
This is why I was so surprised with our orders. The army split our group in half and sent half of the class to Vietnam and my half to South Korea. I spent my 13-month tour of duty as a Field Radio Teletype Operator at a headquarters battery of a 7thDivision Artillery Unit in support of the 2ndDivision Infantry on the DMZ. Several black and white photographs I took while stationed in Korea are in the photo album at the end of the blog section.
I didn’t much care for the army (and I’ll write more about my time in the army later), but I became fascinated with Korea specifically and Asia generally. I’ve said before how I have wanted to travel since childhood. Asia had always seemed to me exotic and inaccessible, and the place to find adventure. My memories of writing, such as Rudyard Kipling’s poetry, Sax Rohmer’s novels about Fu Manchu, published between 1912 and 1959, and other novels, and movies and tv from the 1930’s up through the ‘60’s, supported that view.
But living in South Korea, getting to know the Koreans, like the KATUSA’s (Korean Augmentation to the United States Army) who worked with us on our compound, and the various people I met in the villages near our compound, along with stints to the field, made me realize that although quite different on the surface, these people were not so alien as I’d once thought.
A few years later, 1973, after I returned from the army and finished graduate school, I went to Europe to mountain climb and explore. I wanted to make the “grand tour” that I’d heard about so much as a child. I wanted to see the places I’d read about in Hemmingway, Faulkner, and Maugham. I had a fantastic time and met people with whom I’m friends still today. I saw the tradition, the refinement, the culture of Europe that I’d read about in my studies of Modern British and European Literature. But Europe didn’t have the adventurous feel or lure for me that Asia did. This became even clearer to me when I left the States to teach for two years in Australia in 1976. When I finished teaching I spent the greater part of 1978 traveling through Asia on my way back to the States. With a buddy of mine I drove a VW bus from Kathmandu to Amsterdam (more about that later too). My extensive and in depth travel through Asia, from New Guinea to Turkey, drove home the fact that my heart was drawn to Asia more than Europe.
I also realized that the media presentation of the inscrutable Asian person was skewed. In the first stanza from his poem, “The Ballad of East and West,” Rudyard Kipling wrote:
“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat; But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!”
Kipling’s view of the ‘East’ expresses the thought that people, though they come from different continents and quite different cultures and all, recognize the same things like courage and heart. They may be vastly different on the surface but similar in their humanity.
The following quote expresses precisely the problem with the prevailing view of the inscrutable Asian that European media has perpetuated:
“Throughout the years, people from East Asia have been depicted in European media as being more reserved and stoic than Europeans. This comes from the perceptions of European merchants, soldiers, and officials unable or simply unwilling to appreciate the astonishingly diverse social customs of a region of many million square kilometres and more than 300 million people (from the 17th century onward).”
I must admit that I succumbed to the lure of the East. And that is one of many reasons in 1987 that my wife and I jumped at the chance to move to Singapore to teach at the Singapore American School. It was the opportunity to live, work, and learn more about that part of the earth that the U. S. Army had introduced to me.