I have always thought that I spent the best years of my life in the United States. Living in the States as a young man was truly an inspiration to me because I was exposed to the great American heritage: cultural and ethnic diversity. From American culture, I also learned the promise of social mobility, generosity, and the capacity for embracing differences. Indeed, my youthful years in America significantly expanded the scope of my mind and broadened my perspective.
Recently, I spent the best year of the latter period of my life in Spain. Thanks to the generous invitation of Professor Antonio Domenech, Vice-Rector Victor Munoz and Rector Jose Angel of the University of Malaga, I have had a precious opportunity to live in Malaga for a semester as a visiting professor. During my stay in Malaga, it was my delight to learn the European way of living and thinking, which I could not have known if I had not lived in Spain.
While I lived in Malaga, I also discovered the inexhaustible charm of Spain itself. To me, Spain was like a hidden gem, even though it was already a famous tourist attraction where foreigners are constantly pouring in. Despite its turbulent recent history, Spain is still a peaceful country where you can lead a serene and stress-free, quality life. In Spain, wherever you go, you encounter beautifully preserved historic architecture, archeological treasures and friendly people. You will also be impressed by the famous Spanish flexibility and warmth. In fact, it would have been a great loss if I had not visited Spain during my lifetime. Thus, I firmly believe that Spain should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Now I am back in America, where I am always comfortable and relaxed as if I were in my hometown. Looking back upon my stay in Spain, I realize I was so happy and contented there too. It is no wonder, therefore, that I feel nostalgia and affection toward America and Spain as if they were my second homelands. In the era of transnationalism, you do not need to have only one homeland. As Maya Angelou says, “You are only free when you realize you belong no place -- you belong every place -- no place at all.”
It occurs to me that the States and Spain have many things in common. For example, just like today’s America, Spain was once the most powerful and influential country in the world. During her heyday, Spain once owned virtually all of South America and part of Europe as well. Gradually, however, Spain lost Latin America, the Caribbean islands and the Philippines.
It occurs to me that the States, Spain and South Korea have one thing in common besides the fact that their names happen to start with “S.” The three nations are mostly surrounded by the sea. The difference is that in America and Spain, the navy has always been stronger than the army or the air force, whereas in Korea that is not the case. Consequently, both America and Spain are known to be strong maritime countries while Korea is not, even though she has similar geographical features. In Korea, ground troops are always greater in number and stronger than the Navy or the Air Force. It looks like the Korean people have chosen to live in a closed nutshell, not attempting to venture into the sea over the horizon.
Another difference is that, unlike America and Spain, Korea seems to seriously lack tolerance, generosity and magnanimity. Unlike the others, Korea is still divided by the ideological warfare between the Left and the Right, and suffers the evil cycle of political vendettas marked by zero tolerance, hostility and small-mindedness. Unlike the Spanish -- who wisely chose not to repeat political retributions after Franco died -- and unlike the Americans, who have chosen not to do such a thing based on a gentlemen’s agreement, Korean politicians are still unabashedly fixated on pursuing political vengeance.
According to a chart that appeared in “Factfulness,” authored by famed Swedish professor Hans Rosling, the US, Spain and Korea currently belong to the category of the wealthiest and healthiest countries on earth. However, if Korea does not stop its factional brawls, the pursuit of political retribution and populism, she is likely to fall away sooner or later. Then a nation once admired by the world will be irrevocably disgraced and humiliated.
While residing in the States and Spain of late, I could not help but compare the three countries in a somber mood, brooding on a future for Korea that looks nebulous, if not grim. These days, rapid and radical changes are taking place in every sphere of human life all over the world. If we are obsessed with the past and fail to catch up to these dazzling changes, we all will go down sooner or later, both the progressives and the conservatives. In order to avoid that fateful day, we must change now.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine. -- Ed.