A Canadian writer teaches English and finds out what it's like to be a foreigner.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

So say we all

The media is currently full of stories on Cho Seung-Hui, the South Korean resident alien who killed 30+ students at Virginia Tech in the US on Monday.

I hadn't read anything about the shooting until today, but both the Globe & Mail and the Korean media are inundated with new and breaking stories about the 23-year-old killer. Many of the kids at school are surprisingly aware of what happens in the media. When I was in junior high (older than almost all of my students) I wasn't the most socially aware kid, only vaguely understanding why the OJ verdict was announced on the radio in my computer class. But these kids are up on many grisly happenings, like guys chopping up their girlfriends in the news and such, so they were definitely aware of this.

Jeremy, the American teacher at our school even said some of the students apologised to him, as an American, on behalf the the country.

Reading some of the stories at the Korea Herald, it's interesting to see how this has really galvanized people. University students are holding memorials for the victims; people on the other side of the world whose lives they had no part in, but were taken away by one of their "countrymen."

Koreans take their cultural identity very seriously. They are very proud and nationalistic and eager to advertise their culture. Watching commercials for broadcasts of American reality TV like The Apprentice, or Survivor, they will always mention if a Korean-American is participating. The English TV Station Arirang regularly runs documentaries on Koreans who are involved in local politics all over the world (from New Brunswick to Hawaii). If a Korean is making good in the world, other Koreans want to know about it.

Fair enough. Most countries are the same.

Through the media coverage of the shooting in Virginia, as well as the general response from the students, it seems this cultural ownership goes both ways. If a Korean does something horrible out on the world stage, the government seems quick to respond and apologise and make sure it doesn't injure that image of Korea which they are trying to project. I'm not by any means saying that this is opportunistic or just empty politicking, but I think that Koreans are just generally concerned with how they are seen. Maybe this comes partly from notions of a collective society, where everyone is just part of a big family (hence the familiar honorifics). As such, if a member of your family commits a horrendous crime, though you yourself are not responsible, it still reflects badly on your family situation. A few rotten apples puts the bushel in question, so to speak.

Take this excerpt from an apologetic editorial in The Herald:

"The slayings were a crime committed by a member of the Korean community, one rotten apple. But the savage act was not sponsored by the Korean community or the Korean state. Nonetheless, there is no denying that the shocking incident will taint the good image that the Korean community and the Korean nation have strived to build among Americans."

It goes on to make some rather paranoid predictions:

"For example, it would be a good idea to send a delegation to Virginia Tech to express the condolences of the nation. It will also do well to consult closely with the Korean community in the United States on what they can do together to improve relations with the host country and avert another outbreak of racial conflict like the L.A. riots back in 1992."

I doubt this situation will degenerate into race riots, but again the concern is to look after (and own up to) one's own.

That said, there are always differences of opinion. An unfortunately named "netizen" was quoted in this article posting their concern on a Korean website:

"'As a Korean, I feel the need to apologize to the victims and family members. We should hold a nationwide candlelight vigil to show Korea's grief,' said user foxyfox26."

But maybe a younger demographic is less influenced by this older idea of National "responsibility":

"'The suspect is an American who spent most of his life in the U.S. I cannot understand why him being a Korean is suddenly the core of the issue," said 25-year-old college student Park Yu-ra. "We should lament what has happened, but this is not an ethnic issue that the whole Korean society should apologize for.'"

In any case, all notions of Nationhood aside, this is still a tragic loss of life and it is reassuring that so far away, people still feel for those lives senselessly lost.


Tim said...

Very well put Sam.

Anonymous said...

I too have seen this concern for Korea's image, coming from my Korean friends and co-workers. I hope this sense of unease and/or shame can pass soon, because it seems so unfair for people to feel like this over the actions of a man half the world away.

Well written, Sam. You always put things into perspective and give me something to think about.

Peggy said...

I wonder if Korean and American students can come together for better gun control - don't know what the situation is in Korea, but for someone to be able to get hand guns so easily is criminal.

I'm baffled as to why there are not more protests against guns

Sam said...

Funny you should mention that Peg, apparently gangsters don't usually carry guns in Korea, so this director Wonsuk Chin is making a movie called Expats about wayward American teachers who hatch a plot to get guns and thus easily rip-off a bunch of them...

Says something right there doesn't it?