Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Is the NPR Review of Please Look After Mom Racist?

Dear Korean,

Have you seen this review of Kyung-sook Shin's
Please Look After Mom? Besides the offensive comment at the bottom about "kimchee-scented Kleenex," it took me a little while to articulate why this review was so triggering for me. I understand that Corrigan doesn't seem to like books that are marketed toward a mass audience and/or books that seem to be written for the sole purpose of making readers cry. And she's entitled to her preferences, although I do think they're rather culturally elitist. However I think her criticisms come from a place of little to no understanding of Korean history or culture -- I mean, this book has han practically emanating from the pages with little odor lines -- which prevents her from seeing what she condescendingly calls a "Korean soap opera" in its full context. She also seems to attribute much of the novel's perceived faults to Korean literature as a whole.

But I would love to see what you think, and if you believe I've over-analyzed this.

T


First of all, the Korean encourages everyone to first read the review written by Maureen Corrigan. Outrage is one of the most powerful forces available to the humankind, and also one of the most misused. If something appears to deserve our outrage, the least we should do is to have the full set of facts. Also, one big caveat before we start: The Korean did not read Please Look After Mom. As he is not much of a novel reader, he does not intend to. But he is aware of the approximate outlines of the story enough to discuss Corrigan's review of PLAM. So off we go.

Seems like there are two relevant questions coming out of Corrigan's review: (1) Is Corrigan's use of the phrase "kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction" racist? and; (2) What, if anything, is wrong with Corrigan's review? The Korean will address each in turn.

1.

First, the notorious last line of Corrigan's review that set Korean American blogosphere ablaze -- what exactly is offensive about "kimchee-scented," if it is at all offensive? Recall that this is not the first time this blog dealt with this type of situation. This situation is reminiscent of the outrage over a Super Bowl commercial featuring Pandas speaking in ungrammatical sentences with vague Chinese accent. And the Korean thought the charges of racism there was unwarranted:
Pandas are from China. There is no dispute about this. So why is it so weird to have Panda speaking Chinese accent? And if a cartoon Panda speaks in Chinese accent, why must we demand it to speak in grammatically correct, complete sentences? 
So, the same logic right? Koreans don't just eat kimchi; they flaunt the fact that they do. In that case, what is wrong with calling a novel from Korea "kimchee[sic]-scented"? Nothing wrong, right?

But no -- not the same logic at all. To understand the difference, consider this hypothetical: is it offensive to call South Asians "dot heads"? Most people would intuitively say it is, but the reason is somewhat difficult to articulate. There is no dispute that South Asians often put on bindi, a dot-like decoration on their foreheads. And there is nothing to be embarrassed about wearing a bindi -- it is customary to wear a bindi, and the decoration is often quite beautiful. Then why is "dot head" offensive?

Here is why: we are not offended by words, but by intentions behind the words. What is offensive is not the words "dot" and "head." What is offensive is the ugly intent to ridicule by the users of those words. Regardless of the dictionary definition of the words "dot" and "head," the use of the words "dot head" indicates a certain mindset about the utterer of those words. That mindset is where the offense lies. For the same reason, calling an African American "black" is hardly offensive, but calling an African American "darkie" is pretty offensive. Again, it does not matter that the words "black" and "darkie" have approximately the same meaning. What matters is the mindset that makes one choose the word "darkie" over "black."

It should go without saying that the use of the words "dot head" and "darkie" are also racist. It is no defense to say that "dot head" and "darkie" are plain statements of fact, because it is not those facts that are offensive. What is offensive is the willingness to ridicule by pointing out the difference that is unique to a race. Such willingness necessarily implies a sense of racial superiority. Using a racial characteristic as a put-down of another necessarily means one's relative elevation of status by virtue of one's race. That is the dictionary definition of racism.

More after the jump.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.



Having said all this, the question again: Is Maureen Corrigan's use of the term "kimchee [sic]-scented" racist?

Yes. It is obvious from the review that Corrigan is no fan of PLAM. Further, as discussed further below, the reason why Corrigan disliked PLAM is intertwined with the fact that the novel is of Korean origin. The message of PLAM, according to Corrigan, is "completely alien to our own therapeutic culture" and incomprehensible to her, "an American reader indoctrinated in resolute messages about 'boundaries' and 'taking responsibility'". By asking "why wallow in cross-cultural self-pity, ladies?" Corrigan is saying: "It is bad enough that women indulge in this kind of tear-jerker novels. Why do we have to seek out those novels from Korea?" And she delivers her coup d'grace at the end to drive the point home, that this novel cannot be taken seriously.

Did Corrigan want to put down and belittle PLAM? Absolutely. Did she use a racial characteristic to carry out that intention? Definitely. Then there is only one conclusion: that's racist.

2.

Second, what is wrong with Corrigan's review, if at all?

Corrigan's beef with PLAM is plainly stated in her review: she dislikes a novel that involves motherly guilt trip, which elicits strong emotional response, often accompanied by tears. There is nothing wrong with having that kind of preference. Competent criticism requires a strongly developed sense of taste. But make no mistake about it -- Corrigan's review is lazy, ignorant and arrogant.

Corrigan's review is lazy because she is demanding that PLAM cater to her own particular taste without informing the readers whose tastes to which PLAM is designed to cater. Again, there is nothing wrong with disliking a novel that does not deal with woman's empowerment. But PLAM's purpose was clearly not to speak of woman's empowerment. Its purpose was to explore mother's relationship with her husband and children, in a deeply emotional manner. And given its wild success in Korea as well as in the U.S. (the English version of the novel is in its fifth print,) apparently PLAM is achieving that purpose rather well.

Then why isn't Corrigan speaking about that purpose? In what area can a critic get away with something like this?  Does a movie critic, even with a penchant for philosophy-heavy movies, ever complain that there is no deep philosophical reflection in Napoleon Dynamite? Would a restaurant critic ever mark down Del Posto because Mario Battali's restaurant does not serve smoked tea duck, no matter how much the critic likes smoked tea duck? Will we ever see a gadget critic who write a scathing review of a toaster because it does not send emails like the critic wanted to?

You are not doing your job as a literary critic if, at the end of the day, all you can say about the novel is: "The novel did not suit my taste, and I don't understand people who do not share my taste." (Corrigan is plain about the fact that she does not understand people who do not share her taste. She wrote: "I'm mystified as to why this guilt-laden morality tale has become such a sensation in Korea and why a literary house like Knopf would embrace it.") Through a book review, people are trying to get information about the book, not your preferences. To be sure, the critic can -- and must -- have her own preferences of literature. She can even work in her preference in a review. But she cannot let her preference utterly dominate the review, and wonder why people do not share her preference. In her review, Corrigan is being a lazy critic because she does not bother to explore beyond her own preference. Instead of doing her job, Corrigan chose to be ignorant.

The same characteristic also makes Corrigan's review arrogant. Questioner T suggests that maybe if Corrigan was more fully aware of the culture context in which the novel is set, she would have understood the impetus of the novel better. The Korean is not sure about that. Corrigan is undoubtedly familiar with Western culture, but still looks down upon the "immortal weepies of the western canon." Her preferences are set, and she will shoot down anything that does not fit them with snark -- and racist snark, when she deems appropriate.

Again, it is fine for Corrigan to have strong preferences. But demanding that everyone share her preference? That is arrogant. Particularly obnoxious is the way in which Corrigan talks down to women who like "manipulative sob sister melodrama" that is beneath a dignified publishing house like Knopf. Of all the range of emotions available through art, apparently a sense of pride through empowerment is acceptable, while a sense of deep reflection that brings tears to one's eyes is not ok. This is obnoxious elitism in its purest form.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

45 comments:

  1. What a beautifully written review and analysis~!

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  2. With all due respect—and I mean that, I am an avid reader of your blog and enjoy your insights very much—I find it questionable logic to state that we are to be offended “by the intentions behind the words.” We cannot truly know another’s intentions. We can attempt to surmise them through circumstantial evidence—as you have done with Ms. Corrigan—but we simply cannot know. We also cannot know the intent of the creator of grammar-challenged panda. Further, is dot-head or darkie not offensive if the individual did not understand that the terms are inherently offensive?

    Second, I would argue that your expectations for critics may be a little high. Sampling the critical response to Napoleon Dynamite, I see very little difference between Ms. Corrigan’s slams against those whom might enjoy PLAM and the comments regarding the possible audience in the negative movie reviews found through Rotten Tomatoes. I have not read anything about PLAM other than Ms. Corrigan’s review, and I feel I know as much about it as I do about a movie panned by Roger Ebert or Mark Kermode.

    Was the kimchi scented Kleenex statement offensive? It is obvious that you and others have taken offense at it, so I would have to say yes. However, I would argue the logical bases by which you defend your offence as different from the offence taken by some at the grammar-challenged panda is questionable.

    I hope that didn’t offend.

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  3. I heard this review when she gave it online, and it really bothered me (I am not Korean, btw). The kimchi-scented kleenex blow stuck with me for weeks! I am so glad someone else pointed this out!

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  4. Loved your analysis. It seems to me that kimchi references are a crutch many Westerners use to show off that they know something about Korean culture, not realizing that in doing so they reveal more about how _little_ they know.

    This reminds me of a line in S.M. Stirling's novel, "A Meeting at Corvallis." (The book is part of a long series depicting a world where all electronics and explosives have abruptly stopped working, and the survivors have to battle for territory using medieval techniques.)

    In one scene, the enemy faction has just re-invented Yi Sung Shin's armored "turtle boat" technology. One of the main characters, observing these boats coming toward him down a river, remarks, "Here comes the Kimchi!"

    This line struck me instantly as weak and unnecessary. The comment makes no sense except that, yes, kimchi is Korean, and that kind of ship also originated in Korea. The author seemed to be trying to use this to depict his character's intelligence and worldly knowledge, but the impression I got was of a guy with a very lame sense of humor and a few bits of trivia rattling around in his head.

    Bottom line, we need to develop a broader range of well-known cultural references related to Korea. Japan is known (rightly or wrongly) for sushi, sumo, tea ceremony, kamikazes, etc. Korea has kimchi and Hyundai. We need to launch a cultural offensive to expand this list! Get cracking, people!

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  5. @ AccidentalFraser
    No. You cannot Know a persons intentions.That is true.

    But sometimes actions(speaking words) betray a persons intent. And I think here the Koreans logic is sound.

    People can try to play word games all they like to disguise their intentions, but the fact of the matter is that if I were to review an Italian novel and use words like "hot Parmesan reeking melodrama" I would be in the realm of trying to insult something Italian just for it being Italian. Which even if that was not my "stated" intentions, writing is a conscious choice. Words have power and people choose to use certain words, use them because they will have a certain affect. In the case of this review the effect was obviously meant to be negative. If she did not want to be perceived as racist maybe she should have picked a less racist sounding critique of the book. Just a thought.

    And it's not like she didn't have time to think about it. Her choice of words was deliberate. And this woman is a professional writer? reviewer of literature? Oh my god.


    She doesn't even describe the plot at all, or the themes, except her distaste for the themes which I could care less about. I don't care about her culturally biased perceptions. Its her job to at least describe the plot! I could get better information about the novel from reading the book jacket!


    And she honestly plays her own hand. I believe in the review that she stated "Why would a respectable publishing house such as____ review this positively"

    Hmmm maybe because it has merit you are too culturally biased to appreciate/see. She just dismissed the opinions of other professionals in her own field of work just because they liked something that she didn't. Childish.

    Reminds me of my brothers friend that told me just because I didn't like basketball I was "stupid".

    He was ten and I was five.

    Ohhh, what scathing criticism.

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  6. affect should be effect, sorry

    And any other typos

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  7. yeah, I was totally offended by Corrigan's review! She made it seem that the novel is cheesy and puts down women! Not at all! Agree with TK that Corrigan is not doing her job as a critic, but Corrigan is encouraging readers to read books that she believes are better for our minds, and more "empowering." In context of the whole review, Corrigan's "intent" can be understood. She wants to give the impression that PLAM is of no literary uniqueness or worth and is on the same level of a cheesy-follow-the-formula chick flick. I mean, she says she's surprised that Knopf even is behind it and is surprised of how many copies it sold. Then she goes on to imply that maybe it did so well in Korean b/c Korean women like this sort of cheesy mother's guilt stuff b/c they don't want to empower themselves. Which is even more offensive!

    I have PLAM on my kindle and have read maybe about 25 pages so far and love it! The feelings and internal conflicts of being adult Korean children are wonderfully portrayed in her book. It's beautifully written and resonates well with the dynamics of most Korean families, likely most Korean-American families and Asian families.

    Corrigan probably can't relate due to her American mentality about family where you throw your aging parents in an adult day care or nursing home and treat them worse than the family's pet.

    Similar themes of "guilt" of adult Korean children are also in "War of Pigeons," written by a Korean-American male.

    I'm so pissed off about Corrigan's review - I now want to quickly finish PLAM and write back to Corrigan....that selfish cracker! She can just stick up a ladle full of Betty Crocker up her ..... ha ha. j/k.

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  8. Odd, because I found the cartoon panda ad to be as equally as offensive as the "kimchi-scented kleenex" nonsense. It was pretty clear that they were portraying a caricature of Chinese people -- that was the intention.

    I also disagree with your logic that offense could be measured by the intent behind someone's words. I have heard plenty of offensive things coming from people whose intent was not at all malicious.

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  9. Your analysis of racial epithets and your examples of "dot heads" and "darkies" were clear and thought out well. The conclusion of your analysis follows very elegantly: your level of outrage depends greatly on how much you can understand about the intentions of the speaker. And for that very reason, I would like to suggest that have no reason for outrage, that there's nothing particularly mean in the epithet "kimchee-flavored Kleenex".

    As a blog writer, surely you have two goals in mind when you write your articles--1. to get the message across, and 2. to be interesting and memorable. I think the reviewer, in writing "kimchee-scented Kleenex", was focused on Goal 2 rather than Goal 1. Here is how I picture her thought process: "My final sentence should tie up everything in a memorable way. It needs to make reference to the fact that it's a Korean novel, that it's a sob story, and I that I don't recommend it. Hm, what do I know about Korea? There's North Korea, kimchee, M*A*S*H, Hyundai automobiles.... the only one of those that I could possibly incorporate in the article is kimchee, I guess. Kimchee and Kleenex make a good alliterative pair, so lets use that."

    To me, it seems most likely that this was her intention--just to make a memorable image to finish off her article. Certainly she couldn't have had any meaning behind it. How could anyone draw any meaning from "kimchee-scented Kleenex"? Does it mean that Koreans get their kimchee-scented fingers on everything? It really doesn't make sense. If we are to judge based on intention, then I don't see how you can be outraged.

    As to the remainder of your argument, I was confused by it. You say that the review is lazy "because she is demanding that PLAM cater to her own particular taste without informing the readers whose tastes to which PLAM is designed to cater." You yourself have delivered even harsher criticism than her when you talk about K-dramas, without considered who the target audience of K-dramas is supposed to be: "the writings are terrible, the lines are unnatural, acting is awkward, everything is about hysterical yelling and the storylines defy belief." At least Maureen does something to situate her opinion: she describes her own background and ideals and suggests that her dislike may stem from this. This is more than you did when you delivered your criticism of K-dramas.

    While I'm disagreeing with your message, I'd like to conclude by saying that you wrote a good blog article. The point of an article to deliver a message and to be interesting. And by both measures, I think your latest article is a success.

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  10. Thank you for writing a post around my question and for not mocking me. After reading your response I realized that my suggestion that her criticisms come from a lack of understanding of Korean culture was one step short; I agree with your opinion that the true problem with her review is that she never bothers to contemplate why this novel would resonate with others. In fact, the more I read of this novel, the more I believe that the overall themes it espouses are transnational. It is a shame Corrigan chose not to explore this in spite of her personal preferences.

    - T

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  11. Shit, I only have kimchi scented toilet paper. It makes my 똥고 smell kimchi fresh!

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  12. The ombudsman (well actually her intern) responded here and I was actually more offended by that than the review, as it's ostensibly their job to give a crap about how their reviews react. I even wrote an mail in response.

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  13. Lemme ask Koreans this:

    If we flipped the situation and the critic was a non-American, and called the American author's book, "Big Mac-scented sob story," is that racist?

    Or even a more common example: If a woman critic called a man's book, "Sausage-infested story" for an overwhelming emphasis on masculine topics on his book...is that sexist?

    Im asking here, because from my observation, cultural weapons - yes, weapons - like the word "racist" or "sexist" is applied VERY selectively, so Im just curious.

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  14. The small excerpt of the book that I read piqued my interest enough to make me want to read the rest.

    Since when is caring about your family anti-feminist anyway? I mean taking care of the things that matter :family is universal I thought.

    I don't know much about Korean culture but in the excerpt that I read, I saw a situation/people that I could easily relate to, understand.

    The family is arguing about how to make a flyer for the missing mother. How it should be worded, whether or not to offer a reward, what picture to use, they don't have a recent one available, the brother is arguing with the sister and everyone is shifting blame and responsibility and being really irritable.

    I especially enjoyed the second person writing technique she used. It distances the reader from the events so that every point of view/emotion is examined.

    Why this didn't make it into her review I have no idea.

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  15. "To me, it seems most likely that this was her intention--just to make a memorable image to finish off her article. Certainly she couldn't have had any meaning behind it. How could anyone draw any meaning from "kimchee-scented Kleenex"? "

    You make a fabulous point.

    Far too many people, it seems, are ready to pull out the R-card without stopping and thinking in a less-ideological, more objective fashion, by asking: "Hmm, is she really trying to be racially mean? Am I being too agenda-driven by calling everyone that makes any ethnic-related remark as racist?"

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  16. @ Student of the World

    I have some disagreements with your assessment, but I suppose that is to be expected, no? ;)

    What if her intention was to create an alliterative witticism for the end of her review? She failed and offended readers instead, but can we say for certain that she meant to be racist? And this is the problem with saying racism is based on intent. If we do use intent as the metric, then ignorance becomes a defence. For me, it is a disconnect between judging a panda bear with a caricature accent not racist but saying kimchi Kleenex is.

    And I don’t think—other than that one sentence—that I would call this a “racist sounding critique of the book.” She didn’t like it, for certain, but where else is it racist?

    I would also argue that she gave two paragraphs out of a grand total of seven to the book’s plot. She also includes plot information in one of the other five paragraphs, so I don’t think it is fair to say “She doesn't even describe the plot at all, or the themes . . .”

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  17. I echo AccidentalFraser and rlee here. This appears to be just a culturally insensitive remark on the reviewer's part, not a racist one, and even one that may be justifiable.

    Does "Sphagetti Western" have a negative connotation to Italian Americans/Italians?

    When someone says "I'll throw you a bone" to a Korean, who get offended by being called a dog, is the speaker to blame? I realize "dog" is not specific to Korean culture, but my point here is that a perfectly acceptable figure of speech may be offensive to a person from a different culture, due to a cultural connotation a word carries only on the part of the listener's people and not the speaker's people.

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  18. AccidentalFraser,

    No offense taken :)

    1.

    Sampling the critical response to Napoleon Dynamite, I see very little difference between Ms. Corrigan’s slams against those whom might enjoy PLAM and the comments regarding the possible audience in the negative movie reviews found through Rotten Tomatoes.

    Rotten Tomatoes is not the appropriate example here. That site is meant for people to share their own opinions, not exactly give a review for everyone. The reviews by "Top Critics" might be more appropriate, and no one among the Top Critics lost sight of the fact that Napoleon Dynamite was a comedy.

    2.

    If offense is not based on intent, then what is it based on? It seems like you have a type of ipso facto rule -- "it is offensive if people find it offensive." But that doesn't have any semblance of logic. If "black" and "darkie" have similar dictionary definition, why is the former ok while the latter offensive?

    And why is it a problem that ignorance can be a defense of some sort? Surely a deliberate, calculated utterance of a slur by someone who knows the full social context of that slur is far more offensive than an off-hand slip by someone who does not know the word is a slur at all, right?

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  19. Erika,

    Odd, because I found the cartoon panda ad to be as equally as offensive as the "kimchi-scented kleenex" nonsense. It was pretty clear that they were portraying a caricature of Chinese people -- that was the intention.

    People can disagree, but the Korean did not see that kind of intention in the panda commercial. But if you read the comment section of that post, the Korean does concede that an Asian Am who had experienced racism growing up might see it differently.

    I also disagree with your logic that offense could be measured by the intent behind someone's words. I have heard plenty of offensive things coming from people whose intent was not at all malicious.

    Right, plenty of offensive things come from people who hold no malice. (Alexandra Wallace is a good recent example.) But surely it is more offensive if the same things were said with malice, right?

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  20. rlee,

    To me, it seems most likely that this was her intention--just to make a memorable image to finish off her article.

    It does not make sense to gauge the intent in fragments, trying to figure out what Corrigan was thinking while writing one particular sentence as opposed to writing another sentence. The overall intent is clearly shown in the review. Corrigan does not like the book (which is fine); the reason why she does not like the book is closely intertwined with the fact that the book has Korean characteristics (which is fine); then Corrigan chose to express her disdain with a race-specific term (which is not fine.)

    You yourself have delivered even harsher criticism than her when you talk about K-dramas, without considered who the target audience of K-dramas is supposed to be ...

    There, the Korean was simply stating his preference. No one was paying him to give a review of Korean dramas as a genre. Big difference.

    Carl Walker,

    Yeah, that intern is pretty tone-deaf.

    cornflakes,

    If we flipped the situation and the critic was a non-American, and called the American author's book, "Big Mac-scented sob story," is that racist?

    Well, no. America is not monoracial, and neither is Big Mac. It might be culturalist.

    If a woman critic called a man's book, "Sausage-infested story" for an overwhelming emphasis on masculine topics on his book...is that sexist?

    Need a more full context there, but the Korean is leaning toward yes.

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  21. Joonkeun,

    Does "Sphagetti Western" have a negative connotation to Italian Americans/Italians?

    It certainly used to, when the phrase was coined. Probably not currently, however.

    a perfectly acceptable figure of speech may be offensive to a person from a different culture, due to a cultural connotation a word carries only on the part of the listener's people and not the speaker's people.

    Valid point, but that is not the situation we have here with Corrigan's review.

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  22. TK -

    What I was driving at was, as others pointed out, it is by no means clear to me that the book reviewer betrayed malice in using the term "kimchee-scented", as the negative connotation of that hyphenated words carries may be well known for Koreans/Korean Americans, but not necessarily so with other Americans. (There may have been "malice" to ridicule the book, but not the book's Korean origin.) Also, the word "kimchee" has not been recognized as racist term for any length of time here in the U.S. Just as referring a Korean as a "dog" can happen in America without a sliver of malicious intent to ridicule, I personally think and agree with some others here that the reference to kimchee here may have been used without the willingness to ridicule Korea or its people. Then, per your article and comments, such a usage (which resembles slip of a tongue) should be given some break, meaning it shouldn't be considered a racist remark. I think it is just a culturally insensitive remark that arose from (probably justifiable) ignorance, and given the offense taken by numerous Korean Americans/Koreans, it is a term best avoided in the future.

    Now, if this reviewer made the same comment in Korean for general demographic in Korea, I would say it merits more reprehension. "Kimchee-scented" has a clearly negative connotation in contemporary usage of Korean language and such connotation is widely known to Korean people. There is a strong presumption of malicious intent there, and even without malicious intent, it is difficult not to label such a comment justifiable or non-racist. (Compare a situation where an immigrant using the term "darkie" to describe a black person in America, knowing the literal meaning of the term but not the well-established racist connotation) I suspect the outrage of Korean/Korean American bloggers on this topic is a manifestation of this sentiment, which in my view is not to be simply transplanted into a usage in English targeted at general American demographic.

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  23. "What I was driving at was, as others pointed out, it is by no means clear to me that the book reviewer betrayed malice in using the term "kimchee-scented""

    Exactly, I agree. And not only that: why is it that any ethnic-related remark - whether negative, positive, or humorous in tone or intent - automatically racist? This is the prime weakness of TK and other Asian racial ideologues/activists. They dont stop and think, "Am I imposing my own narrow world view by automatically assuming all ethnic remarks with negative tone as racist?" This is also without trying to understand the complexity of a "negative" remark - is it insult? joking? a lay observation? a memorable closing to a piece of writing? a more neutral remark? Also, racist to whom? That is, universally racist in general...or racist to only you and people who think like you?

    No such consideration for alternative views. No, it's "gotta be racist."

    What's worse is that it dilutes the word racist, to the detriment of pointing out true racism (and reverse-racism, which is increasing nowadays). Of course, there is the whole topic of "selective racism", where certain actions by whites and/or Westerners is deemed racist, but the same actions by a non-white is not, or is less so. Hmm, who was it that famously said, "Judge not by the color of the skin..."

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  24. Joonkeun,

    it is by no means clear to me that the book reviewer betrayed malice in using the term "kimchee-scented"...

    We disagree there. Why do you focus exclusively on that one term, when the malice was made abundantly clear in what Corrigan wrote previous to using that term?

    cornflakes,

    And not only that: why is it that any ethnic-related remark - whether negative, positive, or humorous in tone or intent - automatically racist? This is the prime weakness of TK and other Asian racial ideologues/activists.

    Please don't lump the Korean with other butt-hurt, overly sensitive Asian Am yaktivists. In the original post, the Korean already provided an example in which he considered an ethnic-related expression not racist. (The panda commercial.) The Korean also tore down Emil Guillermo, the worst offender among yaktivists, for daring to call Joe Wong racist.

    This is the prime weakness of TK and other Asian racial ideologues/activists. They dont stop and think, "Am I imposing my own narrow world view by automatically assuming all ethnic remarks with negative tone as racist?"

    Fucking puh-leez. The Korean just wrote a 1,500 word post carefully considering just what about the review was racist. How much more stopping and thinking should there be? Until the Korean comes around to your view?

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  25. "Did you catch the anti-city, anti-modernist, anti-feminist messages in that passage? The lost mother clearly stands for values that are fading from Korean culture as industrialization and urbanization triumph. Her life, which we glimpse in flashbacks, has been one long ordeal since her marriage at age 17, yet mom has retained her simple humanity. We readers know this because we're told that mom secretly donated money for years to an orphanage and only asked in return that a worker there read aloud to her the books written by her cold-hearted novelist daughter."
    I have read 'Please Look After Mom,' and I do not agree with Corrigan's view that there is an anti-city/modernist/feminist message in the book. Likewise, I have never felt that her daughter is "cold-hearted." Perhaps it takes a fellow Korean to understand this book (not to be racist or anything), because I can relate. I believe the book sheds light on how women (e.g. the Mom) have sacrificed during the past to raise their daughters well and provide better lives for them. This does not sound anti-feminist at all to me. If anything, shouldn't this be considered "feminist," since we the readers are led to appreciate these women of the past? The book is not anti-city/ modernist: I believe the author's intentions were not to criticize current modern lifestyles but rather to shed light on how previous generations have sacrificed in order for us to live these luxuriant lifestyles (of which they could never have imagined). I think that there is a fine line between anti- and appreciation.
    Personally, I was really moved by PLAM. The book was not just some tear-inducing tragedy. The book is a look at modern Korean culture and values, and how older Koreans (like Mom) have sacrificed in order to bring about the Korea we know today. Though modern technology may have brought about taller buildings and faster communication, that the book reminds us not to forget the many moms of the past who have rigorously advocated for education and who have fed us, clothed us during a time when doing so was really difficult. These moms have facilitated the quick transition of post-war Korea to modern Korea. The book also really moved my mom, who lived during that awkward post-war Korea to modern Korea transition. Perhaps Corrigan is unable to realize the significance of such a story because she is unaware of these underlying themes.

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  26. I just find it odd that when it comes to ethnic literature we automatically tune into the language of food as the distinguishing factor that identifies the qualities of the literature. There are reviews that refer to the food of almost all ethnic minority literature. I just don't see the same type of food references when we discuss white American literature. Do we call the literature of a southern white man reminiscent of blue plate cheeseburger specials at noon? No, because that would anger a bunch of southerners.

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  27. Yes, it was racist. And the reason it was racist is that the smell of kimchi is often considered by Westerners to be offensive, and even for Koreans who like it, not a pleasant scent outside the food context. Therefore, "kimchi-scented" would be derisive even if this review were in Korean and written by a Korean.

    There would be a difference between, say, calling a Japanese melodrama a "green tea-scented melodrama" and a "natto-scented melodrama." The former would be (merely) orientalist cliche. The latter would be intentionally insulting.

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  28. That said, I think Ms. Corrigan just did not get this book. Though I am not particularly enamored of PLAM, her criticism that it is anti-feminist is totally off-base. The novel's message is not that a poor, uneducated, ultra-self-sacrificing mother is the ideal woman. Rather, it recognizes that many Korean mothers of an older generation fit this profile, and it encourages their modern, successful, and sometimes self-centered children not to forget where they came from, and not to forget these women's contributions to their lives.

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  29. First of all the tone of the review was stereotypical and racist not just that that one sentence but also in this one:
    "Mama Mia, who knew that Koreans outstrip Italians and Jews when it comes to mother guilt!"

    Thats an example of the type of cultural stereotyping she uses. Its also THE FIRST SENTENCE of the review. She's genralizing Koreans along with other marginalized ethnic groups in a NEGATIVE way. Furthermore she's being dismissive cultures she (presumeably) isn't a part of.

    And that's stand alone and the opener to the review, so it isn't taken out of context. In brevity its a summation of her argument, or what she took out of the book, the book which seems to be:

    " Worrying about respecting your parents and the alienating effects of modern western industrial life is so ignorant and backwards! Like these people(Italians,Jews,Koreans) tend to be."

    Now maybe she didn't care if what she said was taken out of context or had the ability to be. Which she should have if she was writing something for public consumption, like Oh say...a REVIEW!

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  30. And to FINISH the review, the crux of her argument she wrote: "Smith will get your book club on its feet and pumping its collective fists in the air, rather than knocking back the wine and reaching for the cheap consolations of kimchee-scented Kleenex fiction."

    Accidental Fraser do you know how many words there are in the English language? Neither does anyone else, it's a number so large it's hard to count even if it were easy to define what a word is.


    That being said there are an untold number of words in the English language she could have used. Well over millions of adjectives.

    But instead of any of those MILLLIONS OF WORDS she CHOSE to use the word Kimchee.

    She chose to use the word that describes an ostensibly KOREAN dish which is known to have a strong odor, in a negative description " Kimchee scented Kleenex fiction" of the Korean novel she's reading. So she's insulting something KOrean just for it bean Korean and apparently the negative opposite of free spirited Western culture symbolized by Patti Smith "getting lost in the big city" memoir "Just Kids".

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  31. Now I don't know exactly what her intentions were when she wrote that but I know what her intentions were when she wrote that, not to a certainty anyway. No one can know that.

    So if I understand you getting offended by "the intentions behind actions", in this case speaking, is illogical in your opinion, right? Because you cannot know what someone intends by their actions?

    Thats is not the point. I don't need to know her exact intentions, I know the tone and message conveyed by the words she used.

    That is all I need to know.


    I don't really need to know whether she consciously intended to convey that message or not.

    But based off of the CONTEXT in which she used KEY words and the fact that I and other literate people were not born yesterday and generalizations and stereotypes are inacceptable and are better to be avoided ESPECIALLY in the context that she used them in.


    Reasonable doubt, because she may have been intending to do one thing and accidentally did something else doesn't really stand up in the face of that. If she were not educated, or a child, or was forced to right this review at gun point in a matter of 2 minutes and she HAD to say whatever just popped into her mind without regard to reader sensibility/audience THEN I MIGHT afford her some reasonable doubt.

    But in this case, I and many other people cannot.


    She had TOO MANY other choices in words for the stereotypical imagery conveyed by her words NOT to be deliberate and of malicious intent. And yes doing things without care IS malicious in regards to cross culture perception. Being dismissive/indifferent of how someone different from you in terms of culture will receive YOUR opinion of their culture or something belonging to it is MALICIOUS.

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  32. Sorry:Now I don't know exactly what her intentions were when she wrote that but I know what her intentions were when she wrote that, not to a certainty anyway. No one can know that.

    Should be: Now I don't know exactly what her intentions were when she wrote that, not to a certainty anyway. No one can know that aside from her I'm assuming.

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  33. "In addition to serving on the advisory panel of The American Heritage Dictionary," thats from maureen Corrigan's Bio on NPRs sight.

    "What if her intention was to create an alliterative witticism for the end of her review? She failed and offended readers instead, but can we say for certain that she meant to be racist?"

    Yeah that defense is really weak taken in context.

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  34. @TheKorean

    1. Just want to be clear on what I meant. In regards to Napoleon Dynamite, I was referring to: “Does a movie critic, even with a penchant for philosophy-heavy movies, ever complain that there is no deep philosophical reflection in Napoleon Dynamite?” In looking at the negative reviews for the movie among the top critics at Rotten Tomatoes, I would still stand by my original statement that. I do not think that Ms. Corrigan lost sight of the genre of the novel, but rather felt that it was not—in her opinion—good.

    2. In all honesty, I do not believe we can have an objective definition of “offensive” in such a situation. As you have pointed out, you did not find the grammar-challenged panda offensive while others did. If there is an objective definition of offensive, who is right?

    Also, I find intent and ignorance slippery criteria to judge the offensiveness of an utterance given the difficulty of ascertaining the two--as we have seen in these very comments. It seems to me that judgements based on intention are biased heavily on the offense taken by the individual judging.

    Thanks for the blog!

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  35. @ Student of the World

    I was hoping for reasonable discourse. Not being a fan of hyperbole or emotional diatribes, I'll just back away slowly.

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  36. @Student of the World.

    Good points. Corrigan's entire review was laced with derision, contempt, and a fair amount of self-righteous indignation. Given this context, it's hard to buy that the most loaded phrase in her entire piece, was merely an attempt at alliterative witticism.

    It's kinda like if someone had written this about Koreans:

    "Those backward, wife-beating, garlic smelling, dog-eating Koreans."

    Given the context of the entire sentence, it's a bit hard to accept that the phrase "dog-eating Koreans" is merely a statement of fact with no intent to insult.

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  37. AccidentalFraser,

    1. We disagree about the critic's assessment of Napoleon Dynamite. The Korean would maintain that every critic accepted ND as a comedy, and no critic said anything like: I hate this movie because I think comedy is stupid. The critics accepted ND as a comedy, and discussed whether the movie was actually funny, i.e. achieve its purpose as a comedy movie. People may legitimately disagree whether ND is actually funny; it is not legitimate to denounced the entire genre as a whole, which is what Corrigan did.

    2. Ok, then do you have an alternate working definition/formula of what is offensive? Because the way you put it, it sounds like offensiveness is something that is wielded arbitrarily based on how the person is feeling that day.

    As to... As you have pointed out, you did not find the grammar-challenged panda offensive while others did. If there is an objective definition of offensive, who is right?

    We can have objective standards with which everyone can agree, although we may disagree with the precise application of that standard. For example, I might say that something that is 1.000001 inch long is good enough to be considered 1 inch long, and you might disagree. But we have no disagreement as to how long 1 inch is. That is what an objective standard is for.

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  38. Thanks for this great break down.

    I only just found Corrigan's take on Please Look After Mom yesterday. So I am still newly pissed

    Maybe Corriagan had a book proposal recently rejected , or maybe she's upset at not being invited to Shin's book release party.

    One things for sure this felt personal, unprofessional and yes racist.

    I just posted something on this at Color Online

    http://coloronline.blogspot.com/2011/04/nprs-racially-inappropriate-look-at.html

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  39. After reading the review, if its racist really doesn't matter to me. I guess to me it was that she was so dense that she doesn't even seem to realize it. I can understand reading it, you might get the feeling it may be following certain "motifs" that could lead one to conclude that the kimchi statement was blatantly anti-Korean.

    I don't really get the feeling that she meant it to be anything other than a witty ending. It reminds me a bit of when I used to be the mascot for my high school, which was a trojan. Hearing condom jokes got a little stale, although the person telling me thought it was pretty fresh and funny. Not so much for the person that has heard it twenty times.

    The real problem that I have with the review is that a book often times can make demands on the reader. She as an international reader of the book, needed to realize the book had a lot of context. One would have to make some attempt to understand what is happening in Korea, then weight and consider what it means.

    Instead she wants to make demands on the book to be something that it wasn't meant to be. She wanted something empowering for women and progressive in her sense of progress. Of course, one should understand that one does need to consider problems of his/her ideas. The book may not actually be anti-empowerment, but focuses on relationships during major cultural changes.

    I haven't read the book, and it may very well be crap. The reviewer totally fails to understand, Koreans may not actually be just like her with different a slightly different look and be located in some place called Korea.

    While I can understand, it just seems a bit strange to me to be offended by what she wrote. It seems more the case that she just embarrasses herself by showing how dense she is, and is so unaware of it. I guess it'd be different thing if she just wrote that she had to write something, but for her she just wasn't able to get and appreciate what was going on.

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  40. Corrigan's problem isn't racism or a lack of cultural intelligence. It's that she's a rich Modern urban Liberal who can't imagine that someone would acknowledge obligation toward anything but their own disordered desires. That she would recommend the Patti Smith memoir (an unbelievably vapid tale about a young woman's self-indulgent and self-destructive dive into hedonism) as a more enlightened and empowering narrative of womanhood in the city speaks volumes.

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  41. Great, in depth and spot on analysis and understanding!

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  42. I'm going to go ahead and assume that Mz Corrigan gave the book a literary review because it was presented to her as ... a work worthy of literary review. Something belonging in the category of modern literature, in other words, and *not* something better described as popular fiction. Therefore The Korean's comment that a reviewer shouldn't judge only by her own personal tastes is not valid: preferring Dostoyevsky to Henry James may be regarded as a matter or personal taste; but preferring Dostoyevsky to Dean Koontz is a matter of having or not having any taste in literature at all. Whether we *should* regard certain genres as better than others, or whether it's elitist or subjective to do so is a whole other debate; the fact remains that there is a common consensus on what constitutes good literature that goes beyond personal preference.

    I believe the substantive content of her derogatory 'kimchi-scented Kleenex' remark was that PLAM is not literature but popular trash. Don't be misled, she was saying, by the fact that it's from another culture and therefore perhaps has an interesting new perspective - i.e. don't be misled by the 'kimchi scent'. In fact, it's just Kleenex - a trashy novella.

    Whether or not she's right in her judgement I cannot say, not having read PLAM. But I believe it's a judgement she's entitled to make. What else is a literary reviewer's job?

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  43. Cont...

    Should she have phrased her judgement in a less snide and derogatory way? On the one hand, it could be seen as a cheap shot, as if one were to refer to some new French book as 'garlic-scented trash'. On the other hand, a literary reviewer is expected to have a gift for writing, and the metaphor with Kleenex - with it's associations of retro weepy women's groups - actually seems to me cleverer than, say, merely calling the novel 'trash'. And it's not easy to see what else would work in place of 'kimchi-scented'. Mulberry paper Kleenex perhaps? No good because a.) few would get the reference, and b.) Mulberry paper is classy stuff.

    There's a further question on racism which goes back to the idea of literary consensus. Is the consensus different in a different culture such as Korea's? Is Mz Corrigan being condescending to another culture, assuming the superiority of Western notions, and therefore being racist? I believe I'm in a way sticking up for Korea by answering no: the consensus of serious critical opinion is not much different in Korea. Korea has a literary tradition going back centuries, plenty of gifted contemporary writers, and plenty of people of sophisticated literary taste quite capable of handing out sharp criticism of naive works. PLAM's success in Korea - and elsewhere - could simply be due to its popular rather than literary appeal (or not: again, I haven't read it). The things that appeal to popular sentiment certainly do vary from country to country, but critical consensus on how well a work deals with its theme varies much less. To really find out the answer, one would have to look not at sales figures but at what respected literary reviewers are saying in Korea - and I would guess that, in general, they don't vary too much from Western critics.

    Mz Corrigan, judging by her review as a whole, could be seen as disparaging the literary judgement not just of the general population (which, I think we can all agree, is not that great everywhere) but of the Korean elite too. How is it, she seems to be saying, that this work is being taken seriously? As mentioned above, Korean literary standards of judgement are as high as anywhere else, so she would be wrong to impugn them. But her review could equally well be seen as implying criticism of fellow Western critics who rated PLAM highly simply - and condescendingly - because of its Korean origin, shutting off their own literary judgement; because of culturalism, in other words.

    So, in a nutshell, I think the controversy over Mz Corrigan's remark is way overblown. Our perceptions, not her intentions, were responsible for most of the outrage.

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  44. I don't think the review was racist or offensive at all. Being an Asian myself, I think Korean and many other Asian cultures in general are too mushy in their introspection. Everyone makes sacrifices, but Asian cultures seem to like to put Moms on a pedestal, exaggerating the kinds of self-sacrifices and long suffering they place on themselves. We all make choices. We need to appreciate and not mull on them.

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  45. I don't see how you can claim the Panda advert is not racist, but 'kimchee scented kleenex' is.

    OK, pandas are Chinese so it makes sense for them to speak in Chinese accents, but why would they speak ungrammatically? The obvious implication is that Chinese people speak grammatically incorrect English. If you want to claim that the 'intention behind the words' is what's important, it's clear that whoever wrote that advert intended to make people laugh at "Chinese" accents or English skills. Whereas I can see how 'kimchee scented' could just be a misguided casual reference to Korean culture. I wouldn't be offended if someone described my writing as "tea scented" or "fish-and-chip scented". I would be offended if I was portrayed in an archaic stereotypical way that was clearly meant to make people laugh at my stupidity or accent.

    Either they're both racist, or neither are. The intentions behind the potential racism are far clearer in the Chinese example than the Korean one. The Korean seems to only see racism when it affects or offends him personally as a Korean or America. He insults foreigners who dare to suggest Korea can be racist and implies it's oversensitive to be hurt by racist behaviour in Korea. And he defends a blatant example of racism in America and yet gets offended at a far more debatable example of racism against Koreans.

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