The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] What does it mean to be a 'strong man?'

By Korea Herald

Published : Oct. 18, 2023 - 05:31

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When people meet for the first time in English speaking countries, they usually ask, “What do you do for a living?” In South Korea, by comparison, people habitually ask, “Where is your hometown?” because Koreans are strongly attached to their hometowns. If one party shares a hometown with the other party, the two may immediately become good friends.

As for me, I do not have any particular attachment to my hometown because I have lived in so many places all throughout my life. I left home when I was 12 and, ever since, I have lived in various places, both domestically and overseas. Even before the age of 12, I did not live in any one particular spot. In Korea alone, I have lived in all the provinces, except for Gangwon. Therefore, I think of the whole nation of Korea as my hometown.

I have lived for 33 years in Seoul, where my registered permanent domicile is. Yet, it is not my hometown, per se. When people ask me where my hometown is, therefore, I answer, “I have several hometowns.” The reason is that I am not sure which one is my real hometown: the place of my birth, the place I grew up, or the place my ancestors came from.

My ancestral family origin is Gimhae. According to my genealogy, I am a descendant of King Kim Soo-ro, who founded the ancient Kingdom of Gaya, the capital of which was Gimhae and whose queen was a princess from the Ayuta Kingdom in India. I might also be a descendant of a northern tribe in Manchuria, who migrated to Southeast Korea in ancient times. My insurance company once sent me some dubious information as a reference that made me smile. It said that I might be a descendant of a Japanese general who acquired the Korean name “Kim” from King Seonjo as a memento for his surrender and naturalization during the Japanese invasion of 1592. Given these multiple “origin stories,” the idea that I would be rooted in one single place has never really made much sense to me.

Suppose a man was born in Korea, but raised in a foreign country. Where, then, is his hometown? He may not remember his birthplace, but he may have fond memories of the foreign city where he grew up. Then, he might think of the foreign city as his hometown, rather than his Korean birthplace

The great literary critic Erich Auerbach, who fled from persecution in Nazi Germany, lived in exile in Istanbul. Paraphrasing the famous maxim of the 12th-century theologian Hugh of St. Victor, who was also an exile, Auerbach wrote these powerful lines: “The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his.”

We can paraphrase Auerbach’s paraphrase of Hugh’s insight in our own way: “The weak man loves his own hometown or homeland only. The strong man embraces the whole world. The perfect man can criticize even his own hometown or homeland.” Many of us seem to belong to the first category because we have such a strong attachment to our hometown and homeland.

However, we should strive to become “the strong man” who is capable of loving other towns and other people. Ideally, we all should emulate “the perfect man” who can transcend the gravity of his hometown and homeland, and soar into the “friendly skies,” as the Korean Air catchphrase goes.

Embarrassingly, however, we still tend to favor our own hometowns and their people exclusively. We frequently say, “He is one of us” and antagonize those who are not “ours.” Consequently, we blindly support the politicians from our home province and antagonize those from other provinces. As a result, our society is torn by regions. It is a shame, considering the small size of our country.

The same thing goes for the enmity of political ideologies that polarized our society into two mutually antagonizing groups: left wing vs. right wing, self-appointed progressives (who are, in actuality, “regressive”) vs. conservatives, and advocates for a people’s democracy vs. the declared “defenders” of liberal democracy. This hostile atmosphere seems to tell us, “If you are not one of us, you are our enemy.”

In this global age, it is so important that we extend our affection to the whole world. We should encourage our children to grow up to be global citizens who can embrace other people from other places. We do not want them to become ultra-nationalists who are hopelessly stuck on their hometown and homeland.

We do not need to fix our love to one particular place. We can extend our love to many places. Someday along the way, we might become capable of criticizing even the politicians from our hometown when they do wrong. Then, we can become truly “perfect men.”

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.