I generally shy away from the idea of han, that ever-present all-encompassing feeling of suffering and repressed rage often used to describe the Korean psyche. The exclusive claim to a collective sentiment makes me uncomfortable, especially when it’s used to explain a self-defined history of victimhood. I have similar feelings about jŏng/jeong (basically ‘feeling’ or ‘kinship’), which was recently defined by one of the most patronizing medical professionals I’ve ever encountered (but that’s a different story) as “a particular sentimental attitutde that is without equivalence in other countries of the world. It is unique to Korea.” How often have we heard about the untranslatability or uniqueness of some feature of Korean culture? As someone who has translated Korean literature and taught Korean texts in translation, I have heard about the untranslatability of Korean ideas over and over and over again and it makes me want to ask: Is this belief in the impenetrability of Korean culture a uniquely Korean thing?
I’ve generally thought this default reliance on the vous ne savez quoi of Korean culture was a matter of expedience: you don’t get it, so leave us alone and let us do our thing. That’s may be a little crass, but were I to distill my long and tortured process of feeling like I understood it and feeling like it shouldn’t happen, that’s what it would sound like. Reading Jay Caspian Kang’s article, “That Other School Shooting” in last weekend’s NYT Magazine on the Korean American community’s response to the shooting at Oikos college in Oakland nearly a year ago made me rethink the appeal of han as a way of explaining that often ill-defined, but strong sense of communal identification not just for Korean Americans, but for the forgotten. That han has been so well-deployed to explain the Korean cultural psyche makes sense in the context of its 20th century history when the Korean War has long been called “the forgotten war”, and Korean immigrants the “other Asians”. Insisting on the uniqueness of han, however, limits the power of that long-suppressed feeling of injustice when it expresses a sentiment that can be understood by a much wider community of the forgotten and invisible.
What comes out most forcefully in the conclusion to the piece is the author’s and the Korean community’s unhappy internalization of the mass shooting that was so quickly forgotten, and even excluded from national discussions of school shootings. Kang refers to the ordinariness, the lack of anything remarkable about the immigrant community in which the shooting occurred and points out that it resists politicization because it is invisible: this rather ordinary and unexceptional immigrant community is not a part of the image of “ordinary life” that is disrupted by gun violence. It’s the reminder, once again, of that invisibility that sparks the rage—the han— in the Korean Americans Kang writes about. In the end, though, that uniquely Korean feeling arises from being unseen and undistinguished as immigrants, as Americans, and almost incidentally as Koreans. Goh, he says, “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 sad thing is that the Oikos shooting occurred in a community that bears a resemblance to many parts of the country and to many immigrant communities all over the world that are ethnically diverse, unexceptional, invisible, but that bear no resemblance to the agreed-upon idea of the rest of whatever country they’re in.
Should It Matter That the Shooter at Oikos University Was Korean? – NYTimes.com.
From the article:
One week after the Virginia Tech massacre, I sat in a bar in Upper Manhattan with the same Korean friend who would later send me that four-word e-mail about Oikos and One Goh. He confessed that he felt violently angry nearly every day but couldn’t understand why. He wondered if Cho had felt the same way. His honesty upset me. I said some platitudes about how one maniac doesn’t represent an entire people, but even back then, I felt I was lying. I agreed in theory, but I did not believe it was actually true. I don’t mean to say that there’s something faulty and irreparable in the Korean psyche, but these shootings have become part of our identity, and they come, at least in part — and possibly in large part — from a place that many of us know instinctively. One Goh, sitting on the other side of the glass from me in jail, and Winston Chung, walking past the desiccated flowers set out in front of Oikos, both described their fathers as “typically Korean,” knowing that I would understand instantly what they meant. Kinsa Durst and I, even though we’re separated by 17 years, both had the same reaction to the news that the gunman at Oikos was Korean. And all the people I tried to talk to in and around Oakland who wouldn’t speak with me, who ushered me out of churches and cultural centers or grimly waved me off — their silence, protected so forcefully, spoke to the intensity of their shame.
On July 20 last year, James Holmes opened fire on a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colo. Two weeks later, Wade Michael Page killed six people in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis. For the first time since Virginia Tech, the conversation about gun violence picked up, despite a tacit refusal by the two men running for president to address the issue in their campaigns. Then came the Newtown shootings, after which President Obama gave several speeches on the need for substantive gun control. In those speeches, he mentioned Aurora and Oak Creek and a shooting in a shopping mall in Clackamas Town Center, Ore. Oikos was never mentioned.
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.
I am familiar with this emotion because I felt the same way when my friend told me about his own troubling, long suppressed feelings. I don’t know if I’ll ever quite understand the delicate contingency of my citizenship as clearly as I did that night. Here, a Korean friend was confessing his own visceral anger to me and searching for an explanation for it. And even though I’ve felt the same slow burn inside myself for much of my own life, I could not bring myself to talk to him about it.