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82 3 • Cold War Epistemologies The enemy becomes abstract. The relationship becomes abstract. The nation the enemy the name becomes larger than its own identity. Larger than its own measure. Larger than its own properties. Larger than its own signification. —Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee How do we live with the past? How do we tailor it so that we can go about living our daily lives? —Cristina García, “A Conversation” In Susan Choi’s novel The Foreign Student (1998), Korean American Chang Ahn (known in the United States as “Chuck”) confronts the impossibility of explaining the war in Korea to a group of white Americans in 1950s Tennessee. Chang’s slide show presentations about Korean culture and history are a condition of his scholarship as the eponymous “foreign student” at the University of the South at Sewanee. Yet speaking in churches throughout the South, Chang encounters the difficulty of translating the complexity of Cold War politics to audiences who understand Korea as a timeless, exotic place liberated from communism by American generosity. As the text of the novel gradually reveals, Chang’s experience of the war has been brutal, a painful story of oppression and betrayal, torture , starvation, and terror at the hands of both the North Korean communist forces and the Republic of Korea’s American-­led military government. However, he is unable to reconcile this experience with the audiences’ Cold War ideology; finally, he is reduced to comparing the shape of Korea to Florida and “groundlessly ” equating the thirty-­ eighth parallel to the Mason-­ Dixon line.1 This simplified and inaccurate narrative satisfies his audiences’ understanding of the world in terms of two opposing forces, although notably it complicates ideas of justice by equating South Korea with the antebellum South.2 As Chang discovers, however, complications are not welcome ideas to his American audiences; “the Cold War Epistemologies 83 particularities of the UN force never interested anyone,” even though these very particularities were key to his own fate and those of millions of Korean civilians during the war.3 Trying and failing to bridge the gap between his own experience and his audiences’ limited understanding, Chang focuses on the single ostensibly successful American military action in Korea: General MacArthur’s landing at Inchon. Again and again, Chang explains to white American audiences, “I’m not here, if this doesn’t happen.”4 Chang’s statement is deliberately framed to satisfy a Cold War epistemology that interprets the war as Korean liberation by American military action; if the “here” is understood to be a place of freedom, then MacArthur and the U.S. forces have enabled Chang’s passage from a Korea menaced by communism to freedom in America. The paternalism that underlies this ideology is evident in many instances in the novel, as when a white American man jovially asks Chang, “How did you people like that war we had for you?”5 However, the text necessitates that Chang’s explanation also be read ironically, as a testament to the massive displacement and violence that occurred along with U.S. military intervention in Korea. Chang’s “I” in the statement, incorporating the physical and emotional scars of the war, is “here” in a church in the U.S. South because he has cast his lot with the U.S. military as a strategy of survival, much as his father survived the Japanese imperial occupation of Korea by choosing to study in Japan. By drawing structural parallels between Chang’s situation and that of his father, the novel forces a comparison between Japanese and American occupations of Korea. Thus, Chang’s statement “I’m not here, if this doesn’t happen” satisfies his audiences’ desire for an American liberation narrative, but it also resonates with the postcolonial slogan: “We are here because you were there.”6 It traces a genealogy that emphasizes the continuities of imperialism and Cold War military interventions overseas to explain the development of new racial and ethnic demographics in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century. The emergence of Korean American, Vietnamese American, Hmong, and Laotian American literature in the second half of the twentieth century, as well as the establishment of a significant body of Cuban American literature since 1959, unevenly reflects the large numbers of communities and individuals within the United States whose presence is directly tied to Cold War military operations .7 More generally, Asian American and Latina/o cultural productions since the last decades of...


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