Am I the only Korean American that thinks some of this article is patently ridiculous? Yes, 'han' is uniquely a Korean word, and even we Koreans like to pretend that it's a uniquely Korean thing. And I see that the writer is trying to be somewhat balanced in his treatment of the issue. Still, I can't help but think that whenever 'han' or 'jeong' is brought up to explain how Koreans act, it's a gesture of "othering" us. We, like people of any culture, are not so strange from the rest of humanity that our actions have to be explained in terms of unique emotions that westerners can't possibly understand.
David H. is speaking of this article by Jay Kang, a Korean American writer who wrote a lengthy feature regarding the Oikos College mass shooting for the New York Times. Regardless of precisely one may feel about it, it is a good read. The Korean would recommend reading it.
The Oikos Shooting occurred on April 2, 2012. The shooter was One L. Goh, a Korean immigrant. In the article discussing the shooting, Kang advances two major points. First is that, for a mass shooting that left behind seven dead people, the shooting at Oikos did not receive much attention, and was quickly forgotten--likely because the college was an obscure, technical school, and those who died were immigrants and racial minorities. After examining the lives of the victims who died in the shooting, Kang presents this points in a powerful manner:
It rakes at your guts, to watch your tragedies turn invisible. You know why it’s happening, but admitting it to yourself — that it has to do in some indivisible way with the value of immigrants’ lives — is something you’d rather not confront. The victims of the Oikos massacre came from Korean, Indian, Tibetan, Nigerian, Filipino and Guyanese backgrounds. They attended a low-cost, for-profit, poorly rated Korean-community nursing school in a completely featureless building set along the edge of a completely unremarkable part of Oakland. They were not held up as beacons for the possibilities of immigration, nor were they the faces of urban decay and the need for government assistance and intervention. They did not exist within any politicized realm. One Goh came from the same forgotten stock. And because the Oikos shooting occurred in a community that bore almost no resemblance to the rest of the country, the magnitude of the tragedy was contained almost entirely within the same small immigrant circles, many of whom fear that any talk about such terrible things will bring shame directly on them.
The Korean cannot help but admire Kang's writing prowess on display in this paragraph. "To watch your tragedies turn invisible." That is a fantastic phrase that very succinctly captures the lot of racial minorities in America.
The second point that Kang advances may be more controversial--and this is the point to which the questioner David objects. Kang notes that the Oikos shooting was the second mass-shooting involving a Korean American perpetrator since the Virginia Tech shooting with Cho Seung-hui. Kang attempts to find a Korean cultural trait that might connect the two shooters, and in the process speaks with Winston Chung, a child psychiatrist in the Bay Area:
Chung’s interest in One Goh and Seung-Hui Cho comes from a lifelong, personal investigation into han and hwabyung, two Korean cultural concepts that have no equivalent in the English language. By Western standards, the two words are remarkably similar. Both describe a state of hopeless, crippling sadness combined with anger at an unjust world. And both suggest entrapment by suppressed emotions. Both words have been a part of the Korean lexicon for as long as anyone can remember, their roots in the country’s history of occupation, war and poverty.
To the degree equal to which the Korean admired the earlier quoted paragraph, he cringes at this paragraph. One should be automatically suspicious when there is a claim that certain words or concepts are "untranslatable" or "have no equivalent." Also, in a previous post, I wrote that it makes little sense to talk about certain types of super special Korean emotion such as jeong.
To be sure, Kang does not go so far as to blame some type of Korean essence as the culprit for a proliferation of Korean American mass shooters. (In fact, there is no such proliferation.) In this sense, the Korean would disagree with David H.'s assessment, even as I understand where he is coming from. Yes, I would agree that maybe the concepts like han and hwabyung were better left unintroduced, or at least not characterized something unique to Koreans that Anglophones cannot understand. But Kang is not exactly latching onto this concept to make a broad indictment about Koreans. (Kang's interview with the NPR on this point makes his intentions clearer.)
On that point, this paragraph was both revealing and puzzling to the Korean:
Two Korean-American men, five years apart, walked into their former places of education and executed innocent students. This, by definition, is a coincidence, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a single Korean-American who feels that way. I have no idea whether these killings came out of han or hwabyung or some other shared heritage, but it’s clear that the search for an explanation is far more threatening to the Korean-American community than whatever the actual answer might be.
This paragraph is revealing because it makes clear that Kang is not exactly blaming han or whatever cultural characteristic that is supposed to be unique to Koreans. Kang just wants to find some logic, any logic that might connect the two shooters, because as a Korean American man, he feels that connection may explain something about himself as well. Kang knows that it is a tenuous logic to latch onto han or hwabyung, so he refrains from completely buying into those concepts. But a tenuous logic might have to do when there is no other real logic.
But on a personal level, the paragraph was at the same time hugely puzzling. The Korean furrowed his brow at this sentence in particular: "This, by definition, is a coincidence, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a single Korean-American who feels that way." Hard-pressed? I am a Korean American, and it never occurred to me that the connection between Virginia Tech shooting and Oikos shooting was anything other than coincidental. I know I am not alone in this. I am inclined to think that David H. might feel the same way. I certainly did not have the same kind of conversation that Kang and his Korean American friend had with my own Korean American friends.
So this was the puzzling part. Kang does not actually think that the connection between the two shootings is not coincidental. (Please excuse the double negative.) Then why does Kang, and a lot of Korean Americans that he knows, feel that it was not coincidental? And why does the Korean, and a lot of Korean Americans that he knows, do not feel the same? What sets these two camps of Korean Americans apart?
This is even more puzzling because, even as Kang talks about how he instantly understood the term "typical Korean father," he says his own father does not fit into that concept. I, on the other hand, would describe the Korean Father as a "typical Korean father"--yet I do not feel the compulsion to somehow connect the two shootings through some nebulous Korean essence. One might expect that Kang and I would have the opposite attitudes: Kang with nonchalance recognition of coincidence, and the Korean with brooding search for some kind of Korea-related explanation. Yet somewhere there is a twist along the way, and we stand on the opposite shores of where we are expected to be. So what, exactly, is it that separates Jay Kang and the Korean?
Ever since the flare-up with Wesley Yang, I am sensing that there is an important fault line within the Korean American community that is only instinctively recognized. I feel that this is another manifestation of that fault line. How deep and how far that line runs is the question that requires more thought.
Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at firstname.lastname@example.org.