Just a wee bit of background. About a month ago, the Korean's friends visited from New York. The Korean's friends wanted to have dinner together with another one of their friends. (He is not Korean. Let's call him "V".) That other friend brought a friend, who was a Korean. (Let's call her "M".) The Korean drove and picked up everyone. As we were chatting in the car, an interesting thing happened. Here is the actual conversation, as verbatim as the Korean can remember.
V: Are you going home [=Korea] for the holidays?
M: No. I'll probably go back in February. My friends will actually be available because I'm trying to go at Chinese New Year.
V: I didn't know Koreans celebrated Chinese New Year. Do Korean people call it "Chinese New Year"?
V: What do they call it then?
M: Um... Korean New Year (laugh).
[Silence for about five seconds.]
TK: Actually, it's called seol or gujeong in Korea.
Now, the conversation itself is trivial. But the point that the Korean wants to make is not. Imagine what would happen if the Korean was not there. V would think Koreans call Lunar New Year a "Korean New Year," because he heard it from a Korean from Korea.
Again, V thinking that is not such a terrible thing, because who really cares what Koreans call Lunar New Year? But the Korean's point is about the manner in which V acquired that knowledge. If V and M were touching on a more serious topic, V would be badly misled.
Did M not know Lunar New Year in Korea is called seol or gujeong? No way -- everyone in Korea knows that. Why did she give the wrong answer then? Who knows? Maybe she didn't feel like saying the word and then hear V mangle the pronunciation as he repeated the word. Maybe she didn't feel like explaining the historical background or etymology of gujeong (which is actually pretty involved and can be fascinating.)
Two points from this:
1. You cannot fully trust the information you glean from a casual conversation. People are often wrong, and often do not care they are wrong. Heck, even the Korean himself is looser with research and facts in a casual conversation. A lot of people also like to emphasize something like "I heard this from college-educated Korean ..." to validate what they heard about Korea. That does not matter either -- both V and M are attorneys with graduate degrees. Didn't matter one bit.
2. More often than not, a member of a culture is not all that knowledgeable in that culture. In fact, this is a form of culturalism also -- turning a person into a representative of the person's culture, and making judgments on that culture (and by extension other people of that culture) based on what that person says or does. This is definitely true with how non-Koreans interact with Korean Americans, but also true with respect to interacting with Koreans in Korea.
Give this some thought. Is anything you think you know based on a casual conversation like this? Then it is time to reexamine that knowledge, and get a second opinion. You know whom to ask.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at email@example.com.