SBS 301 Cultural Diversity         Fall 2001        Personal Memory Ethnographies


Billy Rountree

The Outsider

Even though I grew up in a predominantly Hispanic town, I never really felt like an outsider.  I had many friends that were white and many that were Hispanic.  Some of the best friends I still keep in touch with are Hispanic.  There were instances where I didnít fit into a particular group, but those instances were so seldom that I never really let it become an issue of race, I convinced myself that it was just personal feelings of the people who were in the group.

With that as my background, I assumed that visiting and living in other countries would be fairly similar to my experience growing up in a town where minorities were the majority.  I was greatly mistaken. Two experiences have heightened my awareness that people in general donít like people who are different than they are.  People want to be respected for who they are not what they are.  Visiting other countries and experiencing their cultures has given me a greater respect for the struggles felt all over the world.  The people of these two cultures definitely preferred to be around people of their own race.

My first trip of any duration was to Saudi Arabia in 1991.  I spent nearly five months there mostly after the Persian Gulf War.  Even after the war had ended it was tough to try to enjoy the customs of our host nation because the stigma of being American and military was difficult to deal with.  Of course our cultures were different, but being respectful of their heritage and customs wasnít enough.  It seemed as though we Americans were expected to respect Saudi customs, but also to act as if we were inferior to them in general.  We couldnít go to shopping districts, restaurants, or other public places without everyone around us staring and commenting about us among them.  Even mild confrontations occurred during some of our trips into town, although never to the point of violence.  We were definitely not regarded highly by them as a nation and you could feel it on an individual level.  On the other hand, most of the working class people living there were third world nationals.  The people of the host nation treated them very poorly also.  They were considered ďsecond class citizens,Ē unwelcome unless they were willing to work for next to nothing doing thankless, demeaning labor.

My second experience of this nature was during a one-year assignment to South Korea.  As with my experience in Saudi Arabia there is no one single incident that sticks out in my mind, just the overall feeling of not being liked or respected.  I tried to enjoy as many of the local cultural events as I could to learn about the heritage of this nation I was living in.  But the fact remained that I, as an American serviceman, was unwelcome or unwanted in their country.  Again people would stare and talk about our group as we visited restaurants and shopping districts.  However, the consumption of alcohol in Korea was more prevalent than it was in Saudi Arabia, so confrontations between Americans and Korean nationals became more violent. I didnít find that this was an acceptable way of handling our differences, so I avoided putting myself in situations where this type of activity could occur.  The angry stares and verbal abuse we were confronted with was met with anger and violence.  When some of my American counterparts, most of whom didnít want to be there in the first place, became drunk enough to get physically involved in a confrontation.

There were approximately 180,000 people living in the town adjacent to our base, and it looked as though they were all living in poverty.  The structure of the town was like something out of the TV show M*A*S*H.  The houses were very shabbily constructed and seemed likely to fall at the first sign of a breeze, but they held their ground because there were so many of them connected to each other.  The sewage was truly an outdoor system, with open canals running throughout the country.  The smell from these canals was atrocious.  There was a really good chance you could see a very large rat anytime you passed by one of these many ditches.  Iím not talking about a friendly, hungry rat.  These rats were the size of large house cats and would chase people for food if they could scamper out of the ditch.  To put it mildly, the sites and smells of this cozy little country were disgusting.

The people I encountered during my year away from home in this aromatic paradise were less than enchanting.  My problems with the people here started the first morning I was there when my personal goods were delivered.  I heard a loud thumping sound coming from outside.  When I looked I noticed the movers dropping my boxes off of the truck to the ground, and the others rolling the boxers end-over-end to deliver them.  When I confronted them they were extremely rude and near violent.  But it wasnít just American servicemen that these people were rude to.  I witnessed several confrontations turning very violent among themselves and especially with the women in their society.  Their culture strictly believes in respecting their elders, and they expected everyone to feel the same way.  That made the older people more obnoxious to deal with in a business sense, but they had more respect for the American servicemen than the younger generation.

I am Korean.  I was born in this country 35 years ago.  None of my family has ever left here excluding short vacations to other countries.  We are a farming family with ownership of a retail store in town catering to the U.S. military unit assigned just outside of town.  We take turns working the store with the men spending more time on the farm during the more labor-intensive times of the year.  However, itís difficult not to have one male member of the family at the store all the time to deal with difficult customers.

My parents and grandparents lived during the war between North and South Korea, and they have handed down their gratitude for the protection of our country during that time.  That isnít enough for the members of my generation.  We are still expected by our government and families to look the other way while the military members who are assigned here now do atrocious things.  The fact is that we arenít as grateful for the efforts of Americans who helped our country over 50 years ago as our elders are.  We resent their presence in our communities and the moral standards that they bring with them.  We feel that itís time that their presence in our homeland ended.

These Americans have committed crimes against our stores, against our families, and against our nation.  They mock our customs, question the ways in which we live, and treat us disrespectfully.  We understand that most of these people are forced to be here away from their families, but donít believe that is an excuse for their behavior.  The fact is that we donít want them here even more than they donít want to be here.  We can defend ourselves now and wish they would leave so we can continue our lives without their influence, their disrespect, and above all else, their anger.

It was undoubtedly a year Iíd prefer to forget, it was also no picnic.  We worked very hard the whole time, and Koreans hated us.  For the most part we knew this going into the tour, but not many of us wanted to be there anyway.  We were two stubborn cultures thrown together to work with each other by a different generation than us.  Most of the Americans there were away from their families, which was the worst part of the tour.  This was called a ďremote tourĒ which meant the service member goes on his or her own for the year.  Many marriages fell apart as a result of these ďremote tours,Ē but also we lost time with our families that could never be recovered, for people we didnít really like.

South Korea is a very proud nation.  They work hard for their families and do so together as a family.  The country itself is not wealthy, but growing rapidly in the technology industry to assist their agricultural economy.  Unlike the diversity we enjoy in the United States, South Korea is mostly of one race.  South Korea doesnít have large numbers of immigrants to deal with.  Therefore, they have relatively the same cultural background throughout the country.  Since Americans have been stationed there since the Korean War in 1947, we have imposed many of our own cultural ideas upon the people of South Korea.  We may not agree on everything, but Koreans are proud of their heritage and culture and we shouldnít try to change that to suit ourselves while we are there.

To say I had a difficult time in this situation is an understatement.  I had been so accustomed to cultural diversity that I really gave no thought to the race of others as to how they should be treated.  To me everyone deserved the same consideration, but that is not what I encountered during my time in South Korea.  I also wasnít naive enough to assume that we were the conquering heroes that should or would be revered throughout the country.  I know of the dislike for Americans throughout the world, but didnít think it was a feeling I would encounter in a friendly nation.  Upon reflection, I know we werenít angels on a mission from God, but just because we were Americans didnít make us all the hateful Americans that some people had encountered.  We too, deserved a chance to be judged by what we did, not what or who we were.  And that is how it should be.

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