The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] On leaving Washington for Seoul

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : July 10, 2018 - 17:29

    • Link copied

They say that it is a privilege to live in New York City or Washington. Both cities are famous tourist destinations, full of historic sites and monuments. Every year, millions of people from around the world come to visit them. Even inside the States, there are many Americans who have never been to Manhattan or DC. Indeed, not anybody can spend their lives watching the Empire State Building or the Washington Monument every day.

Luckily, I have had the privilege of living in both New York and Washington for some time. Thirty-six years ago, I lived in Manhattan while I studied at Columbia University. Even then, living in New York City was costly, especially due to the outrageously expensive housing. As a humble student, therefore, I had to lead a life that was far from extravagant. Despite this, as a New Yorker, I still had the pleasure of watching Broadway shows and roaming about Times Square whenever I wanted.

This year, I had an opportunity to live in Washington. Dean Ben Vinson of the George Washington University generously invited me as Dean’s Distinguished Global Scholar and Visiting Professor in the Humanities. GWU is conveniently located in Downtown DC. The White House was only 10 minutes away on foot and the National Mall, where you can find the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, was also walking distance, 15 minutes from my office.

One of the pleasures of living in DC is that you can frequently bump into famous people. While I was strolling at the National Mall on a Sunday morning, for example, I encountered Secretary of Defense James Mattis who was also taking a walk with two of his aides. At the exclusive Cosmos Club, I also came across a number of social and political celebrities. My GWU students, too, told me that they once saw Oprah Winfrey shopping in the Whole Foods Market next to my apartment. DC is a city where such pleasant surprises are possible.

I also had a wonderful cultural interaction with my students at GWU. They are bright, intelligent, and open-minded. Since Washington is the gateway to America, my American students were interested in working at international organizations. They were also eager to learn about Hallyu, or the Korean pop culture wave, as well as Korea’s cutting-edge technology represented by Samsung, LG, and Hyundai, among others. The old newsman Horace Greely once said to American youngsters, “Go West, young men!” But I urged my American students to learn from Asia, saying, “Go East, young men and women!” Janice, one of my best students at GWU came to Seoul for a visit already a few days ago.

I have often compared America’s capital city with Seoul. Although Washington is polarized and divided these days, just like Seoul, by progressives vs. conservatives, pro-Trump people vs. anti-Trump people, it still is a city full of ethnic variety and cultural diversity. It is a city of open-minded folks with an internationalist sensibility. On the contrary, Seoul still seems to be a city of closed-minded people who seriously lack a global mindset. Inhabited by those who think of themselves as homogeneous, Seoul is devoid of cultural and ethnic diversity as well. Koreans are even reluctant to accept foreign refugees who seek political asylum in their country.

These days, Washington is often criticized due to America’s misguided domestic and foreign policies. So is Seoul, only in the opposite direction. I was amused to hear the announcement of the DC Metro, “The doors will open on the right,” because it sounded like a metaphor depicting the difference between the US and Korea. When I rode the subway in Seoul, the announcement was, “The doors are on your left.”

Aside from right or left, the American announcement is lucid and correct. At least, passengers can tell where the exit is and do not have to be disoriented. The Korean announcement, however, it is awkward and confusing. Foreigners in Korea make fun of the announcement by mimicking it, “The doors are on your left,” because the opening doors will be different depending on which direction a passenger is standing. Only Koreans do not seem to recognize the problem with the perplexing announcement.

Despite current political turmoil, I have always admired Washington for its openness and capacity for embracing differences. Like it or not, Washington is a city that has influenced Korea so much and will play a crucial role on deciding the future of the Korean Peninsula. It is a city Korea should know well and closely work with in order to survive and thrive in the entangled web of international politics.

While waiting for my flight bound for Seoul, I brooded on the uncertain future of the ROK-US alliance and became heavy-hearted. At the same time, I realized I really loved this charming, cosmopolitan city whole-heartedly. Suddenly beset by a conflict of anxiety and affection, I felt a throng of pain in my heart.

Leaving Dulles International Airport, I left my heart in Washington. 

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and visiting professor at Kyung Hee Cyber University. He can be reached at -- Ed.