Never one to stay idle Casey seamlessly moves in and out of different roles. Based in Seoul, he currently serves as the Director of International Relations at the Freedom Factory and is also the Asia Outreach Fellow for the Atlas Network, a D.C based non-profit. Casey discusses North Korea and North Korean issues on his show with co-host Yeon-Mi Park, who defected from North Korea in 2007. Casey also blogs, speaks, is a contributor for The Korea Times and is working on a book. We appreciate the time he was able to share with us.
ND: You’re currently based in Seoul, South Korea where you’ve held various academic positions and you’ve also worked a lot with North Korean refugees. How did you come to live/work abroad? Was it something you always aspired to?
Casey: Thanks, Sean, for interviewing me. I tend to live life in the moment, just kind of bouncing around, like a leaf floating in the wind. I knew from a young age that I was not destined to work at one job for the rest of my life, but I didn’t know that would mean that I would end up living abroad. So when people ask me “what do you do?” my answer is usually: “As I please.” I rarely do just one thing. I usually have one main job, but I am usually dabbling in a few things, volunteering, organizing.
It is usually that one job can’t satisfy my interests or that I can loop my various activities into my job. So I seek companies and projects that allow me to remain curious about things. An essay that greatly influenced me is Peter Drucker’s“Managing Oneself”. One main point he made is that times have changed, people should have have two or three projects at one time. The main job is your career, but the other projects help you develop skills and build your network.
One of the great things about living abroad is that people don’t expect me to be just like them.
In Korea, when people try to tell me how to live, I give it right back to them.
For example, and I am not blaming them because I know they are trying to teach me, but when my Korean friends and colleagues will try to tell me the proper place to put food on a plate, I will observe how they do it, think about the way I want to do, then do it the way I want to do it. When they complain I am not doing it the right way, I will thank them, then politely inform them: “Your plate, your way. My plate, my way.”
Even before I had my grad school degree, I was planning to see the world. I hopped on a plane and went to Taipei, Taiwan and I have been zigzagging across life since then. For a number of years, I did work at some professional jobs, but I am always focused on finding situations where I have colleagues who appreciate my particular style. If my skills are like a tow-truck, then don’t treat me like I am a Ferrari. And vice-versa. If I am like a Ferrari, don’t expect me to pull stuff in the snow. A lot of problems in the world are caused by people trying to get others to fit their model instead of trying to figure out how they can work, live, study together or love each other.
And now, in South Korea, I am working with people who actually had to escape to freedom. It is no longer just an advocating activity. It is now being able to be part of the welcoming party for people who have suffered, who had to escape to freedom. So I am really proud of the Teach North Korean Refugees project that I co-founded with Lee EunKoo, and my colleagues who also volunteer to do something practical. And I am always happy to help the North Korean refugee children at the Mulmangcho School, I’m the international adviser, so I do my best to inform people about the school. These are children who had a tough start in life, they must catch-up, so it is always wonderful when volunteers take time out to teach and mentor them.
To connect these things, I bounce from project to project, from place to place, find my role, and try to make something happen. I am now co-hosting a show with Park Yeon-mi, a young North Korean refugee who I believe has the chance to become a leading spokesperson for North Korean victims of the Kim regime. If I had stayed in Missouri City, Texas, where I grew up, then I am sure I still would have enjoyed myself. But because of my style, I can jump into an activity that has captured my attention at that particular moment, so that work is never boring.
ND: You’ve talked about having met Koreans who upon meeting retorted that you weren’t really black. What do you think they were getting at?
Casey: Well, I’m not a mind-reader, so I am not sure what they were getting at. It should be clear to anyone who looks at me that I am not 100% black. My birth certificate issued by the state of Texas identifies both of my parents as “Negroid,” so perhaps I should show that to them?
It may be that I don’t fit the image of what Koreans are expecting. I guess too many people in this world spend too much time watching TV, music videos, and getting their worldview from that, and then they are confused when they meet people who don’t fit the model of what they have seen in the media. I’m not saying they shouldn’t pay attention to those things, but what they learn should be a guide, a starter, not the final word on the world and the people in it.
What Koreans have told me is that those other people were probably trying to explain that I wasn’t a criminal, when they said, “He’s not black“.
ND: You’ve said that you don’t think culture shock is ‘real’. Why do you say that, and what do you think people are experiencing when they experience culture shock?
Casey: There are always people with problems adjusting to things. Some people have trouble adjusting going from one neighborhood to the next. In contrast, there are some others who would have no problem if you dropped them in the middle of a foreign country with only the clothes they are wearing.
I wrote about this a while ago when I kept hearing people complain about culture shock. The point I was trying to make is that people who aren’t prepared to travel with an open mindset— who keep looking back to where they came from— are less likely to be able to adapt to changing circumstances. When I say that, people will respond, “Yes, of course,” then in the next sentence will start complaining that things aren’t the same [as] back home. No kidding!
But then that is true of people everywhere. If you move to a new town, and you keep talking about your old town, then you probably aren’t going to adjust very well to your new circumstances.
I do want to be careful about this point because I know that people are quick to misunderstand. There is something to be said for comparing things. I mean, maybe some people should go back to wherever it is they were having a better time.
But I’m talking in particular about the “tourist” mindset of people who stick to the familiar and keep looking back at where they came from. I occasionally run into people complaining that the price of something is cheaper from some place they lived before. Well, you’re not there now. So your challenge is to adapt to your changing circumstances, not to wish those other things could be transported to your new place. If you are still thinking about home sweet home somewhere else, then it may be that you never should have left, or that you should return. As I said at the beginning, you can learn how people do something in a new place, combine that with your own desire, then make your own way. That’s a good idea not only when you are abroad, but a good way to enjoy life without unnecessary stress.