Two Cultures building One Alliance
July 18, 2013
CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea -- When Korean men turn 19, they receive a letter. After receiving it, some might experience panic striking their body, some might feel proud, or some might even feel thrilled. What kind of a letter can cause such a range of emotions? A letter from the Military Manpower Administration notifying them that they must conduct a physical examination for the 21-month-long mandatory conscription into military service.
On the other hand, U.S. Soldiers choose the Army as a career, it is not an obligation. While they often experience a similar range of emotions before reporting to basic training, the reasons they decide to join the military are diverse. "I joined the Army because my grandfather, father and sister also served in the military," said Pfc. Christopher Lee Sargent from Anderson, Ind., an information system operator-analyst assigned to Headquarters Support Company, 602nd Aviation Support Battalion, 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. "If I look at them, I just want to be one of them."
After the examination, Koreans can choose the date of the conscription and the military force they would like to apply to join. Among many military forces they can choose, there is a special program for Koreans who can speak English fluently: Korean Augmentation to the United States Army program. It began in July 1950 during the Korean War and provides the U.S. Army with Korean and English speaking Soldiers to assist the U.S. Army maneuver in the unfamiliar terrain. KATUSAs, with their own military occupational specialty, are assigned to U.S. units and work alongside U.S. Soldiers in the 2nd Infantry Division.
Quite evidently, when two groups of people with different cultural backgrounds work alongside each other, cultural misunderstandings sometimes occur. Yet friendships are forged when each side respects the other and makes an effort to understand the others' culture. "I was eating rice in a restaurant and I put both chopsticks in the rice standing up," said Sargent. "My KATUSA friend told me that was offensive because they only do that at funerals."
A cultural anomaly to a KATUSA is how American Soldiers are usually more outgoing and friendly with anyone. They can feel strange when someone who they don't know approaches them and says things such as "How are you doing?" or "What's up?"
"At first, I felt it was strange because Koreans normally do not say that when they first meet," said Cpl. Sung-Hun Lee from Gwacheon, Gyeonggi-do, a senior KATUSA assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade. "At that time, I just was at a loss for an answer."
On the other hand, U.S. Soldiers may sometimes feel that KATUSAs are quiet and shy leading some to think that KATUSAs are avoiding conversation. "Whenever I see a KATUSA I always yell a greeting at them but they never yell it back, always quiet and polite," said Sargent.
There are various reasons for such differences but one reason may be differing perspectives on social etiquette. Usually Koreans do not say hello until they feel they have become close friends with someone before they will greet one another. "Koreans try to act carefully before they get close," said Lee. "But once Koreans become close with others, they can be really kind and our friendships tend to last a long time."
Another social etiquette difference is Americans do not use formal titles. When they address someone they feel close to, they are allowed use first names; no matter the age gap. While there are many cultural challenges experienced by KATUSA and U.S. Soldiers, activities that encourage intercultural understanding have helped each come to appreciate the other's differences. One such program is the annual KATUSA Friendship Week that allows the Soldiers to come together and have fun playing sports, seeing live music performances, and experience other cultural demonstrations that are native to each country.
"Though U.S. Soldiers can experience Korean culture outside the military base, KATUSA Friendship Week gives an unique opportunity to U.S. Soldiers to experience Korean culture with KATUSAs," Said Lee. "During the sport events we become closer and closer with U.S. Soldiers. I think KATUSA Friendship Week is a great opportunity to build camaraderie and teamwork." Today, the KATUSA program still stands as a symbol of alliance between the United States and Republic of Korea. Such success would not have been possible without the effort of both sides to understand each other's cultural backgrounds.