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News | May 01, 2010

Being a Columnist—Chosun Ilbo

At the end of 2008, I was asked to contribute a monthly column to the Chosun Ilbo in their “Morning Forum” (“Ah-chim Nohn-dahn”). Founded in 1920, the Chosun Ilbo is the most influential newspaper of South Korea with a daily print circulation of 2.2 million readers and is the No. 1 source of Korean news on the internet. The Chosun Ilbo is publlished in Korean in print and on-line and in English only on-line. The rotating contributing columnists of the Morning Forum are scholars, politicians, economists and artists who weigh in on topics relating to Korea. Every six months, a new slate of 6 columnists are chosen by the Chosun Ilbo editorial board. Apparently, they wanted a Korean-American novelist to write about Korea on the topics of my choosing. My column would appear in the Korean Chosun Ilbo. Because my Korean language skills are poor, my columns would be written in English then translated into Korean by my editor Sunny Park.

Yes, I felt honored, but I was also anxious and doubtful, because I wasn’t sure if I could do it. I’d never been a columnist before. The high level of sophistication and difficulty of the Korean diction of the Chosun Ilbo made it impossible for me to read and study the column format without the help of a translator. And then, there were the politics. The Chosun Ilbo is viewed as an establishment paper and often considered conservative. I am not conservative. So, for the uninitiated, imagine the tone and quality of The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal, the diction and scope of subject matter of The New York Times and the serious circulation of USA Today with some readers equating its political stance as more Fox News than The Daily Show. That said, no one in Korea dismisses the Chosun Ilbo, because of its history and imprimatur. Many of my favorite Korean writers had published first in the Chosun Ilbo. I expressed these anxieties to my editor. A brilliant and generous editor, Sunny did not blink.

So I wrote a column each month and submitted them. After I finished my first 6-month term, the editorial board asked me to stay on for another six months. After I finished my second term, they asked me to continue for a third term.

Recently, I had to put together a list of my columns, and I was surprised to see that I had written 15 already link.

Over the past year and a half, I’ve written about plastic surgery, how to choose a career, education, declining birth rate, rising suicide rate, mental therapy, and translating korean literature, among other things. Each month when I write my column, I worry myself sick for the obvious reasons: authority, accuracy, legitimacy, relevancy, and you bet, the on-line comment box where readers get to tell me what they really think of my theories about South Korea’s place in the world.

As I reach the middle of my third, and I think, my final term, I continue to tie myself in knots about what I should write, but I am also finally beginning to see how cool it is to study and write about my birthplace from the vantage point of having grown up and been educated in the United States. This is a privilege indeed, and I am grateful to have a say.