Ex-Americans embracing Korea find gesture returned

Protective of national homogeneity, Korea welcomes handful of

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The US embassy official took Robert Holley's American passport and put holes through it, terminating his official existence as a United States citizen.

The counsel "looks you in the eye ... and tells you that you may never go back to the United States for the rest of your life," says Mr. Holley. It may have been a traumatic experience, but also a step closer to Holley's goal: becoming a Korean.

Only a handful of Americans who are not ethnic Koreans have done it - just 14 since 1954 - and it might seem like an odd choice. Korea has one of the world's most ethnically homogenous populations and is famous for a nationalistic pride in keeping a "pure bloodline." The government doesn't permit dual citizenship.

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But like fellow Korean Gary Rector, a translator and editor, Holley thought that he could best pursue life, liberty, and happiness here. As Mr. Rector told a US official when he turned in his passport in 1994, "I'm [living] the American dream, just not in America."

Since the end of the Korean War, the government says several hundred people have immigrated to Korea from southeast Asia in search of opportunity. And as Korea's economy boomed in the late 1980s, many Koreans returned from Western nations.

For Holley, maybe pilgrimage runs in the family. He counts as a direct ancestor William Bradford, who penned the Mayflower Compact in 1620. In 1978, the young Holley came to South Korea as a missionary before settling as a lawyer in the southern port city of Pusan. Because he speaks in the quirky Pusan accent, Holley was a big hit on TV when one station had him on as a guest several years ago.

Offers poured in. Holley now endorses everything from milk to Korean Airlines. During the 1997 presidential election, "I was the top of the news," he says. "It showed the presidential candidates voting and then it showed Robert Holley voting!"

But not all the attention is welcome. Koreans who want to maintain national homogeneity are critical. A taxi driver once told him, "Korea is a pure country with a pure nationality and pure blood! You should stay in your home country!"

Foreigners here sometimes complain that Holley's TV antics don't improve Korea's understanding of other countries either. Koreans only want foreigners "for sensationalistic effect and he plays into that," says a long-time foreign resident.

Holley and others say a certain magic and the warmth of Koreans made them stay. But on visits to the US they miss Korea. "I can't imagine a dull day in Korea. It's kind of an adventure," says Holley. "It seemed like every rock had a story behind it," says Rector, who is particularly interested in the traditional culture of shaman rituals and folk music. The language is so different from English that it "opens up a whole new door in your head," he says.

For many who settle here it's a gradual decision. But Carl Ferris Miller fell in love with Korea when he landed in 1945 with US forces mopping up the defeated Japanese who had held Korea as a colony since 1910. The young interpreter was attracted by the exoticism, and the locals regarded him as an American hero. "Everybody doted on me. I was able to overthrow my inferiority complex and my shyness because of Koreans," he says.

Now he goes by a second name, Min Byong Gal (Min sounds a little like Miller), runs an arboretum, and manages stock portfolios. In 1985 he went to a Min clan meeting in the southern town of Yeoju. "They accepted me as a Min!" he says proudly.

Rector says he's been accepted by other Koreans too - and heavily questioned by customs officials when visiting the US.

In terms of identity, they straddle two worlds. When Rector goes to America, people pick up on his different mannerisms. "What country are you from? You speak really good English," they ask him, he says.

Some Koreans are convinced too. Once an elderly woman said, "You've had one of those eye operations haven't you?" referring to a procedure some Koreans undergo to Anglicize flat Asian eyelids.

But come lunchtime, "I want to go out and eat Hardee's or McDonald's hamburgers rather than kimchee bokum bop [fried rice]," says Rector.

And allegiance? "I'm a big internationalist," says Holley. We're not all that much different." But he hopes to one day return to America again. "The more I'm away from the States, the more of an interesting country it seems to me," he says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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