Friday, January 21, 2011

Did You Ever Have This Conversation?

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"?
M:  No.
V:   What do they call it then?
M:  Um... Korean New Year (laugh).
V:   Really?
M:  Yeah.
[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


  1. Since Chinese don't actually call the Lunar New Year, "Chinese New Year" but that's what an average American know it as, perhaps M was equating "Seol" to the best equivalent, "Korean New Year." M's answer sort of makes sense in the context. If V had asked what Korean call "xxx" (Chinese word/pronunciation) of Lunar New Year, then an answer of "Seol" would have been appropriate.

  2. Too true. So many times I've heard people say "Koreans do this" or "Arabs do that", and so on, as if they are an expert anthropologist... when in reality, they are talking about what the only Korean/Arab/whatever person they know does, or says they do.

    I'm guilty of this myself, and since I'm something of a knowitall, I've looked foolish once or twice by spouting information on certain cultures based on what one such person told me out-of-context.

  3. i think amy might be right

  4. Well... I have a distinct feeling that M's English isn't as proficient as the Korean's so she may have not gotten the intent of V's question "what do Koreans 'call' it", so yeah Amy is right, the question should really have been more like "How do you say Lunar New Year in Korean?"

    At any rate, now that you've brought it up, please don't leave us hanging... enlighten us on what the historical background/etymology is of gujeong? I know the word but know nothing about where it came from..

  5. I can understand why she didn't want to explain, because she feared the conversation would get to be too intricate and explode his foreign mind with really confusing details that foreign minds aren't capable of understanding.

    Also she wanted to avoid any kind of awkwardness, or having to coach his pronunciation for a word he'll likely forget 10 minutes later.

  6. On the question of knowledge:

    I wonder, TK, if part of your education in the course of becoming a law practitioner included discourse on Epistemology directly?

    I personally think it should be taught at every level from grade school to university, alongside mathematics and English. It might reduce the incidence of otherwise rational people believing in homeopathic nonsense, miracles, ghosts/aliens/gods, and magic and the supernatural in general.

    There is truth and there is untruth: what is and what isn't. People are by and large cast adrift in an ocean of misinformation and half truth, and so poorly equipped to discern fact from fiction or heresay.

    As an example, most people will have an opinion one way or the other on the question of whether being gay is a choice or not. Most people are not, however, developmental nor behavioral psychologists and neither are they neuroscientists. So objectively it's baffling that anyone could consider their opinion on the question to hold any worth whatsoever.

    My own KoKo wife has a number of misconceptions about Korea which she'll gladly rattle off as fact, and no doubt I do the same about things I believe so thoroughly that I've never bothered to fact check them.

    The morals: a) Don't believe everything you hear and b) we could all do with a little more skepticism.

    PS. Are you kevjumba?

    Just kidding.

  7. Ah, I can relate. My parents are both from Somalia, a country in Africa. People I know that aren't from Somalia make many assumptions about Somali people based on little information they have acquired from conversations. It can be very frustrating, and in some cases it can lead to stereotyping. Which isn't fun at all.

  8. I know that Koreans do not call the Lunar New Year "Korean New Year" simply by watching Korean dramas. But then again why would they?
    The French do not call fried potatos "French fried". I think that "M" was underwhelmed by the questioner and considered a thoughtful response a waste of precious time.

  9. Korean, you are absolutely spot-on. Maybe it's that Korean insularity and sense of unique difference that people are always making a deal out of (though I don't know how many grains of salt I'm supposed to take it with...), or maybe the famous facesaving when stuck for an answer, or perhaps simply a desire to scare/impress the ignorant foreigner with the exoticness of Korea--I hear Icelanders like to offer hakarl(a 'dish' made of stinky rotten shark meat) to foreigners for this reason, but I digress--but I have the impression Koreans are to a significant degree themselves responsible for much of the misinformation about them and their country. And I'm not just talking about inadvertent, accidental slips of the tongue.

    When the enthusiastic schoolboy says to the curious westerner "Oh, KOREANS hate Japan; we want to kill many Japanese", he probably doesn't believe it himself-- he probably thinks Japan is cool and he may well be lugging the latest issue of his favorite J-comic next to his textbooks. And when the cab driver tells the tourist that "KOREANS love to eat dog! We eat dog everyday--very good for man", he knows that's not true either, but it makes for an excitingly exotic, weird picture of his country and makes him seem interestingly different.

    And another thing -- I, like you, learned English as an adolescent and in the process picked up an obsessive interest in the meanings and connotations of words across cultural divides. Most people simply don't think about this stuff, though, and will automatically color the foreigner's words with the linguistic and cultural baggage of their own backgrounds. I guess that's another argument in favor of adopting English as everyone's second native language (wink wink).

  10. So perhaps this is a weird notion, but wouldn't "Korean New Year" be what "Koreans" call seol or gujeong in English? I'm kind of assuming that's what was being spoken. I put quotation marks around "Koreans" since we've made the distinction between a perceived group and the actual boiling sea that is cultural reality (it's multi-colored, too, like tie-dye!)

    Anyway, V seems like he's stumbling through cultural barriers, which is how you have to do things until you learn better. V's much like a toddler taking it's first steps.

    Although it's a tad annoying to watch him be, shall we say, ill-informed, eventually, just like the toddler, he'd have learned the correct answer. Thanks to our good host The Korean (With a title like that, you need a Theme-song), he learned sooner than later.

    I'll admit that I didn't know it was called seol or gujeong, either. And now I must restate Brutus's request: What's special about Gujeong?

  11. Amy, you might be right. But M's laughter suggested (to the Korean) that she knew it was the wrong answer and did not care.

    Ryan, no, not directly. But the course on evidence in law school was pretty close to epistemology.

    maddymappo, no, it's not like M thought V was dumb or anything.

    brutus and Chris C., the Korean is sure you know the questions policy. :)

  12. I was helping out one of my friends from Vietnam in a history class. We finally concluded one day that I knew more about the history of Vietnam than she did. For her she didn't really care about the history. With her I realized, she could, from her point of view, be reliable on somethings on other things should wouldn't be. In the least if she didn't care she'd let you know.

    Also many times unless you really care to dig into the differences it can be hard to really get to the heart of the differences. Superficial differences may be relatively easy to explain, but they can quickly then lead to more deep differences. If one has to go into fundamental differences between Confucianism/Legalism/Buddhism/Taoism etc. and Greco/Roman/Christianity/etc., I doubt many could realize those underpinnings. There too are differences between living in a place that nearly always has plenty of food and one that regularly has famine. Granted I doubt many care to go that deep for an explanation.

    I would guess the people who really do care will actually go to more than just one person or source. The people who only superficially care, perhaps for the novelty will conclude what they hear from one person who may not care or may only give a quick answer that is bad.

  13. Could it be that she wanted to employ a bit of provocative language to underscore that the Lunar New Year is celebrated by Koreans also and therefore it is not PC to call the holiday a "Chinese New Year"? I feel as though, in Korea, any Chinese claim to what Koreans feel (justifiably or not) as their own culture is received as on par with praise for communism/tyranny. Whether it really is justifiable / appropriate / correct to call it "Chinese" would be a wholly separate matter.

  14. LMFAO this regularly occurs in conversations when a non asian asks a chinese/korean/japanese person about their own culture. We sometimes just feed you an altered form of the truth just to keep you from asking anymore questions relating to it. Yes Chinese people like myself call it'Lunar New Year'. I hated how the non asians in my class would always ask the other asian kids what they celebrated on "chinese new years" since theyre not chinese. If you ask us what food we eat etc. sometimes we'll just say something random or specifically related to us. Ex. Are all chinese girls flat in China? A: Yes... yes we are.

    It's just an awkward conversation sometimes, and people like me have no patience to say "look i do this, but not all chinese people do that. its just a personal thing"

    Although.. I do feel guilty.

  15. You know this is kind of simmilar to what happened to me in Early January, I was on the bus with my Chinese boyfriend and My mom was with us we were just having a normal chat and then my mom said oh I heard Chinese New year is coming soon. What date is it? What animal is it this year?

    My boyfriend was kind of alarmed and genuinely didn't know I supose it was too early to know the exact dates. and he could hardly remember what animal it was this year. Well my mom thought this was the strangest thing. How could a chinese person not know the details of Chinese new year? Well my boyfriend has been in Ireland for 7 years and i supose he's just out of the loop and not really interested in the animal side of the new year. Obviously he celebrates Chinese new year.


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