William McKenzie: the first American to “go native” in Korea

William McKenzie: the first American to “go native” in Korea

I have spent much time thinking about my role in Korea and the significance of my work. Having lived in Korea now for almost five years, I realize that a critical issue in one’s success, in every action, is how one is perceived by Koreans, and that how Koreans perceive one it related to how one perceives oneself and one’s role.

In this age, there are increasing opportunities for internationals to play a role in Korea beyond the rather limited roles played by internationals in the previous generation. In fact, I meet internationals who come to Korea because they think there is greater opportunity here than in their own countries. But working as a professor at Korean University is not the same as doing so at an American University, and Koreans clearly struggle to understand why I am there. After all, it is not normal for an American to come to a Korean university and teach Korean literature.

There have been traditionally a limited variety of Americans in Korea. There are English teachers whose existence is far from stable and although they may be artists or scholar, the full range of their potential is generally not recognized. There are military personnel whose role in Korean society is far from clear outside of their official capacity-even though many make quite sincere efforts to understand Korea, others certainly do not., And then there are Americans who come to work for multinational firms in Seoul who tend to live in a separate world. There are occasionally the Americans who are technical specialists who find a space in Korean society, and there are also free spirits who live as musicians or artists, often under difficult circumstances. And there are those who marry Koreans and disappear into Korean society.

When I wrote my recent book in Korean, the original title was 한국표류기, Records of a Castaway in Korea. Along the way, the publisher pasted on “A Harvard Ph.D.’s” in front stuck on a subtitle “Life is a matter of direction, not speed.” The subtitle is in such large type that most people assume it is the primary title.

“Castaway in Korea” harkens back to most famous European to live in Korea in the pre-modern period, Hendrick Hamel (1630-1692) of the Netherlands. Shipwrecked in Korea, Hamel struggled in what he perceived as a truly alien culture until he was at last able to flee. His journal, published as “Hamel’s Journal and a Description of the Kingdom of Korea, 1653-1666” describes years of hardship and formed the archetypal image of Korea as a hermit kingdom. I had Hamel in mind, but he is not my senior really in terms of engagement with Korea. He certainly was not trying to build a better Korea. I tended to compare myself more with Ming dynasty intellectuals who found their way into the Korean scholarly community after the decay and fall of their empire in the late seventeenth century. They came at the same time as Hamel, but in many times became quite intimately integrated into the Korean intellectual community.

But as I looked for examples from the past of Americans like myself who had come to Korea to do something of import, to make a contribution, the person I felt great sympathy for was Carl Ferris Miller, an American who assumed the name of Min Pyong-gal and built the Chollipo Arboretum in Taean. The arboretum is a remarkable garden that I spent a day exploring with my children, the home to 7,000 plant species. Miller had started in the navy and entered Korea at the beginning of the occupation. He later worked with the Bank of Korea as an advisor, and successful businessman, before devoting himself to the arboretum.

Miller was an exceptional figure. The real tradition of coming to Korea to achieve something greater starts with the American missionaries of the last 19th century. Although I do not attend church and have never engaged in evangelistic activities, I find the closest parallel between my own experience and those of the missionaries to Korea of that period. Moreover, I have found myself compared to a missionary, even if I did not perceive myself in that manner at all. These were individuals who in some cases felt a remarkable affection for Korea and strived to work together to build a new society with Koreans. Whatever one may think about missionary work itself, the contributions of these individuals was quite impressive.

In an effort to learn more about the first generation of Americans in Korea, I read Elizabeth Underwood’s excellent book “Challenged Identities: North American Missionaries in Korea, 1884-1934” (Royal Asiatic Society, 2003). She describes the conflicted feelings of Americans who both tried to become part of Korea in a profound manner and yet maintain their own identity and their own unique spiritual mission.

There was a tremendous tension in that era about how close Americans should be to Korea, and the tragic story of William McKenzie, the man who fully devoted himself to living with Koreans and as a Korean stands out in my mind. McKenzie was the example cited thereafter of the dangers of “going native.” McKenzie is  significant not only in terms of what he accomplished, but also in terms of how his example affected the perception of Korea. Here was a man who decided to try to understand Korea from within and did not survive. I quote the original passage in full:




William McKenzie, of Nova Scotia, first read of Korea while traveling from Halifax to Labrador for eighteen months of missions work. He was profoundly moved by what he read of the work of the Presbyterians in Korea and recorded his thoughts in his diary: “Why not go out there and do as Paul did. Get there some way, and grow intot heir life by some trade or labor, and also preach.” After his time in Labrador he completed his theological degree and set out to find some way of reaching Korea. Unable to persuade the Canadian Presbyterian Church to open up work in Korea, and unwilling to go under the American Boards, he raised money to go independently by petitioning members of the Presbyterian churches in Nova Scotia. Finally, by the fall of 1893, he departed for Korea, writing:

“Stepping on board ship, I did not wish it otherwise, leaving my native continent. Have no regret, nor do I feel badly about it. It is no sacrificed, would be to stay. Henceforth may Korea be the land of my adoption. May I live and work there many a year for the glory of God, and may my dust mingle with theirs.”

McKenzie spent his first two months in Seoul, learning what he could from the missionaries there. Taking a short trip with Methodist missionary George H. Jones, he had his first experience in a Korean inn and Korean food:

“His fellow traveler was more affected than he by the “tiffin,” and had no appetite for another meal; but Mr. McKenzie writes cheerfully of making up for his friend’s deficiencies, evidently accepting his enjoyment of them as a token that God had chosen him by adaptation for the life in Korea.” (McCulley, 1903:80)

In January, 1894 McKenzie took a short trip with William Hall to Pyongyang, where they met up with Sam Moffett. McKenzie was impressed by Moffett’s “simple and economical living.. in true Korean style” and found in Hall and Moffett’s work the incentive to get started in his own field of work.

After consultation with the missionaries in Seoul, in February McKenzie set off on foot for the village of Sorai (also called Song Chun) in Whang Hai province and the home of So Kyong-jo. So, who had refused both William Baird and Sam Moffett’s requests that he work with them, later wrote: “I cannot think of a clear reason why I just wanted to go back to Song Chun both times when I was in Pusan or was invited to Pyongyang, but I do know that had I gone to either of these places I wouldn’t have been in Song Chun to meet Pastor McKenzie.” McKenzie settled into So’s home, together forming what his biographer described as a “congenial household” as the two men developed a friendship and mutual respect. So reportedly later recalled, with great emotion, that in their time together, “what was mine was his, and what was his was mine.” Though McKenzie’s primary task on this first stay in Sorai was language, he often preached with So and got to know the people in Sorai and those of surrounding villages who came to see him.

Within a month McKenzie had determined to settle permanently in Sorai and wrote to his supporting churches of his happiness to be working with the people there: “Oh what a field! I know no better.” After three months McKenzie traveled to Seoul for the summer where he found the cost of living prohibitive. He returned to Sorai again in October, this time determined to devote his time to evangelical work. With the intent of getting closer to the Koreans, he wore Korean clothes and ate only Korean food. Though the region was in turmoil due to the Sino-Japanese war and the Tonghak rebellion he traveled extensively in the area, preaching and meeting with both Tonghak supporters and opponents. McKenzie had little sympathy for the Tonghaks, seeing the havoc they wreaked throughout the area, but he, along with So, made friends from within their ranks and as a result, Sorai came to be known as a place of refuge from their raids. In early 1895, the Christians in Sorai decided to erect a church building for their growing congregation. McKenzie, who lent his labor to the effort, was excited by the prospect of a church funded entirely by Korean contributions: “Thus Christian work is independently Korean; thus Christianity will be made strong and Korean.” Though he lived to see the church built, in June 1895, after just eighteen months in Korea—eleven in Sorai—McKenzie, suffering from sunstroke, took his own life.

Due in large part to the great strength of the little church in Sorai, and the impact of that region on Korean church history, McKenzie’s name is fondly remembered by Korean Christians. Living primarily on the Korean economic level, wearing Korean clothes and eating only Korean food, McKenzie, though his time in Korea was short, was able to enter into the lives of Koreans in a way that few other missionaries did. While missionaries affiliated with the missions spent years struggling to learn the language and gain contact with Koreans in the confines of foreign settlements, McKenzie was able to immerse himself in Korea in the village of Sorai. As an independent missionary he never had to deal with mission “business” and was free to associate himself, first and foremost, with the Koreans. Though other missionaries, through their travel and close work with Koreans were able to gain insight into Korean lives and develop close relationships with Korean fellow-workers, McKenzie’s life provides the most celebrated example of true identification with Koreans.

McKenzie’s death, however, served as the most dramatic advertisement in favor of limiting efforts at identification. In his last diary entry, after a week of severe illness, McKenzie wrote, “Hope it is not death, for sake of Korea and the many who will say it was my manner of living like Koreans. It was imprudence, on my part, traveling under the hot sun and sitting out at night till cold.” McKenzie’s concerns were prophetic. Lottie Bell, who in May 1895 had written admiringly of those who sought to live near the Koreans and eat their food, after hearing of McKenzie’s death, abruptly changed her attitude. Though noting McKenzie’s proficiency in Korean and the “fine work” he had accomplished, Lottie added, “His death is one more illustration, it seems to me, of the fallacy of the theory of missionaries living among the people as one of them.” That fall when Eugene Bell set off on a trip to the country he carefully packed all the food provisions he would need, remarking “I can’t eat Korean food at all.”

January 31, 2012

Emanuel Pastreich

7 responses to “William McKenzie: the first American to “go native” in Korea

  1. Craig February 1, 2012 at 2:57 am

    This was an amazing read. I’ve since looked upboth Mckenzie, my kind-of fellow countryman, and read of the others who have come here; Australians and Americans and others who have made this place their home.

    I came for a few months years ago and can’t seem to get the place out of me, despite coming and going. I remain a foreigner, but am adapting despite myself; and I admire Mckenzie for his devotion. What strikes me is this: he was able to survive the rigours of life in Labrador – perhaps one of the harshest places in Canada to live or spend time – and yet Korea did him in. I suspect there was more to the story. One: The invention of modern medicine. To this we all owe our existences.

    And this quote was inspirational:
    “Stepping on board ship, I did not wish it otherwise, leaving my native continent. Have no regret, nor do I feel badly about it. It is no sacrificed, would be to stay. Henceforth may Korea be the land of my adoption. May I live and work there many a year for the glory of God, and may my dust mingle with theirs.”

    I could only think of vaguely similar thoughts, though perhaps less ambitiously xenophilic, as I got on board an airplane, with trepidation and anxiety, leaving home for how long I didn’t know.

    The emotions involved in being far and away. A most compelling post.

  2. Emanuel Pastreich February 1, 2012 at 3:03 am

    The question is not so much what country you came from or what your job is in Korea. The question is why did you come here.

  3. Craig February 1, 2012 at 4:07 am

    This was what i was getting at; but it’s the emotions of coming here that grab me. The ultimate reasons used by the missionaries- in the case of missionaries, to serve – are rare among foreigners anywhere. Usually, it’s personal.

    I know of no individuals who are here for the reason of glorifying Korea; the missionaries felt that they might have been doing this, in the sense of bringing them to God, but this was, even among them, a conceit. Any such ideas are, ultimately, likely conceits of one order or another.

    As far as reasons go – I suspect people are drawn here for deeply personal reasons, and then end up falling in love (or falling into ‘familiarity’ or ‘convenience’; love is usually obvious when, in fact, it’s depely inconveneint and yet you still can’t drag yourself away).

    For some, the people, the culture, its staggering contradictions and truly unique character infect like no cultural disease or meme on Earth. And then it’s hard to extricate oneself.

  4. Craig February 1, 2012 at 4:09 am

    I liked this piece because of the way it juxtaposes motivation and purpose. I don’t know if this was meant, but it does it quite neatly.

  5. William Loewen February 3, 2012 at 10:07 pm

    It was quite timely that I found this piece. I spent 2.5 years in Korea doing voluntary service work and resourcing churches. I too admired the example of Mackenzie, who grew up where I honeymooned in cape breton. Unfortunately, the other missionaries with their prosperity gospel seemed to have had a deeper impact on contemporary Korean Christianity.

  6. Daniel December 14, 2017 at 3:36 pm

    Thank you for this thought provoking read. As an American married to a Korean, though currently living in the USA, I can see the possibility that I might “disappear into Korean society” if we were ever to move to Korea. Curious if you see this “disappearing” as a failure to achieve greatness or as a preferred solution over coming to Korea but not integrating in any significant way?

    Also, does Elizabeth Underwood’s book explicitly state that William McKenzie died by suicide after suffering sunstroke? In reading various accounts of his death, it appears most of the missionary accounts simply state he died from fever – omitting the detail of suicide, and certainly not diagnosing his illness. I suspect these mission accounts may omit the detail of suicide out of respect for the dead, but was curious what your source was for this detail.

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