Late April… a wedding and a mass murder, so it goes.

April 18, 2007

Hello loyal reader. I have been a bit remiss in regularly blogging, I know. I tend to save up everything and then let it out all at once. I think I can blame the lack of good beer for my inability to write more often. The lubricant delivered by that sacred combination of fine hops and barley has earned my even further appreciation. Not sure I thought that was possible, but there you go.

Well, leave it to big events to get me going again.

First, I’ll be leaving tomorrow for a trip down to Jiri-san with my pal Annie. She’s going to do a little travelogue piece for some Indian newspaper and wanted some friends to join along. I don’t know if this will garner me some free curry somewhere down the line, but… it’ll be worth it regardless. I’ll bring back pictures and stories, fo sho.

First the bad news. As most of you all certainly know by now, the mass murderer at Virginia Tech was a Korean citizen, though a permanent resident in the United States. This itself is quite odd, in my book, as he had been living in the US since he was 8. It has, as anyone would imagine, inspired a massive news flurry on this side of the Pacific. Shock, shame, fear… it’s all there. I endorse the first, reject the second, and understand, but brush off the latter.

Shock – sadly, the shock is not that another school shooting went down, but that the perp was a Korean. Murders are not common here, mass murders even less so (though, interestingly, the King of Mass Murder is Korean. I did not know that.) This isn’t to say that this country is altogether peaceful, certainly. Car accidents related to drunk driving and carelessness, alcoholism and suicide are very prevalent, and can be thought of violence/murder in their own ways. Still, when the initial reports changed from the perp being Chinese to being Korea, the text message system was immediately overloaded. The reason being, partly, because of the deep influence of shame culture here.

Shame – it is certainly an understatement to note the deleterious effects of colonialism on any country, but here in Korea, one of the most dismal manifestations has been an intense and profound penetration of nationalist conciousness, such that each and every action is seemingly first put through the “national” filter. That is to say, he wasn’t a mass murderer, he was a Korean mass murderer. Sometimes this filter works to glom onto the achievements of individuals, such as when Hines Ward won the Super Bowl MVP last year, as if his prize was a prize for the nation, a nod of approval for its collective merit. Other times, like right now, many people will take the blame of the heinous act upon themselves. As if the nation has somehow done wrong. Indeed, I got a phone call early this morning from one of my hyoungs, “Matty! Matty! I’m ashamed, so ashamed and so sorry.” No introduction, that was it… as if I was to immediately understand what he was apologizing for and why. He demanded I allow him to take me out to eat for lunch today, to quell his sense of shame. I fervently resisted, noting that he was more American than Korean, and if anything, I should apologize for the fact that such a thing could be allowed to take place in my country. Unconvinced, he would not let me refuse, so, we had lunch together. Whereupon… the owner of the restaurant approached me so that she could… apologize! We had a long discussion about the notion of national shame, individual responsibility, and the possiblility that this could reflect badly on Korea and Koreans. I acknowledged their sentiments, but predicted that the greater amount of attention would be placed not on his ethnicity, but on the reasons why such events take place, and the ways they can be prevented, whether through stricter/looser gun laws. Again, they were unmoved and stated that Korean students in the States had much to fear.

Fear – Yes, it has been reported that Koreans on the VT campus have left, fearing any kind of reprisals in response to the news that the killer was Korean. I know that I’m not in their shoes, and I know that it can be difficult being a minority and that there are assholes who might lash out, but in general, my sense is that this will not play out that way. I have to be really honest here… I know the fear is related to a very real sense of isolation they may feel as ethnic minorities, as expressed in this sentiment here:

“It’s like when 9/11 happened,” Ko said. “Arab people are victims even
though they didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just the same to me.” Ko
said Korean students have been e-mailing and calling each other since
the release of Cho’s name this morning. He said he wanted to attend
today’s convocation at 2 p.m., where President Bush was scheduled to
speak, but friends warned him against it. “People said don’t attend
because it could be a bad situation,” he said.

But, I can’t help but sense that some of this fear is also a bit of projecting, as in, how Koreans know that Koreans would act were the situation reversed. That is, if an American guy went ballistic in a school here, there would be hell to pay for a lot of random foreigners. I know it, and I think most every Korean knows it too. If one feels obliged to feel collective shame, one then feels at least entitled to lash out in collective retribution. I may be way off, but, I can’t help but let that analysis filter through. That said, the recent rape of an elderly woman here by and American soldier came and went without any repurcussions for foreigners, save a crackdown on late night public drunkeness for one weekend. That’s a pretty heinous crime there, and the result was zip. Still, a mass murder is a bit different, and I can say that I would most definitely be on high alert if every anything like that went down. A few years back when two middle school girls were run over by a US Army bridgelaying tracked vehicle, some bars/cafes had signs saying “No Americans” and public harrassment of Westerners was common. Luckily, the lack of guns here makes such a situation unlikely, and I thank God for that. Regardless of the effectiveness/ineffectiveness of possible gun laws in the States, here in Korea, it works like a charm, and I’ve never, ever felt safer in a big city in my life, at all hours, walking alone, even in unknown neighborhoods. Maybe this fear gap helps to contribute to a bit of sensitivity then to the foreign students in the States. It’s complicated, I know, but I’m praying that the better angels of society will win out, and the students will see that, at least in this case, they have nothing to fear.

OK – now the good news! I went to a wedding this past weekend and had a great time. Of course, the time spent in the wedding hall was less than the time: driving, eating, drinking, waiting to find a parking spot, waiting for friends to come out of the restroom, etc. etc., but still it was all part of the “wedding experience” as practiced by many here in Korea.

I went with a good friend of mine named Shannon:

She’s a manager at a Tony Roma’s restaurant here. The bride was our good friend Jaegyeong, a waitress at the aforementioned Mr. Roma’s. Jaegyeong was the one who got my butt out for the 10K a couple of weeks ago:

Oh, by the way, member the hwangsa I was telling you about, the yellow dust that blankets the sky? Here it is! Note, this is a cloudless day, and yet, the sun is barely visible:

We headed down to the provincial city of Yesan, where the groom’s family lived. The event was at a Wedding Hall, where all the festivities would take place, said festivities being: the ceremony, lunch, and a private ceremony calle pyebaek where the groom’s family members all get bowed to by the new couple and the new couple picks up oodles of cash filled envelopes.

There are helpers, who serve as both ushers and sword bearers as the participants march in:

As well as a ready made cake for the “cake cutting,” of which, none is actually eaten. Boo.

The ceremony is quick, and by American standards, a bit lacking in the solemnity department. People mull about, chatter a lot during the service, and many don’t bother to actually sit inside, but hover in back, chatting with friends. I’m not making this up!

Still, the bride was lovely, and what more do you need at a wedding, right?

Shannon was nonplussed by the whole affair and quickly grew tired of the hackneyed platitudes that were being issued by the preacher. Shannon is a bit jaded about weddings in Korea, as her own led to a divorce under very rotten terms. She is also less than thrilled about the marriage in general, feeling that Jaegyeong decided way too suddenly to do it (she just all of a sudden decided in January to get married, called up an ex-boyfriend who was still pining for her, and then here, a couple of months later, the deed was done) and that he isn’t really a good match for her. So, after about five minutes, Shannon sighed, rolled her eyes and poked my elbow, “Let’s get outta here! We’ll eat before everyone else. No waiting!” And so, we left and had our free lunch. About 20 minutes later, some other friends came running into the dining hall to request our presence for pictures. We went back to the wedding hall, and did our duty. That’s it. Soon Jaegyeong was off to the changing room and into her traditional outfit for the private ceremony.

As she ascended the stairs to the private suite, the Tony Roma’s caravan bid farewell and headed out for our own adventure, a trip to Ganwol-do, a small island nearby, where sushi and soju where quaffed in copious amounts.

I ate a bit of rice and kimchee as everyone else feasted. The soju allayed my disappointment, however, and I even took a documentary interest in the evening’s fare. Here we have baby octopus heads. Did you know what was inside of their heads? Not brains, so much. Acutally, eggs. Look for yourself.

Rough translation: Here we have baby octupus. What’s inside their heads? Let’s see… Eggs! Gross! Is it delicious? You bet!

Our dinner lasted at least twice as long as the whole time at the wedding hall. But even longer than all of that combined? The seven hours or so on the very very crowded South Korean highways. The whole trip took 13 hours. I was glad it was done, but it was an experience to add to the scrapbook of life.



  1. Hi Matty, Glad to finally see another posting. I check every day and it’s been a long wait. This was a fun read. Thanks.

  2. Matty
    I entirely agree.
    It’s not reasonable, nor does it make sense when your pals in Korea expressed their sincere sorry for this massacre.

    But that’s who we are. Our ethinic identity is so deep-rooted within our DNA that we cannot help being ashamed and painful by this lunatic massacre committed by OUR compatriot.

    Koreans care what others perceive and evaluate US, not simply me. Not only does the group mentality make us overexcited by the HEROIC achivement of Hines Ward who WE believe shares the same DNA as we have but it also make us overreac to this shocking crime that we also believe to be made by ONE OF US.

    I think Koreans will be top-ranked in having a group identity in terms of in-group and out-group separation. In a national level, we identify us as “Korean” first. But we don’t stop there in identitying us. We even break down “in-groups” and “out-groups” based on our “hometown,” “alma mater,” and even worse on “what church we go to.” You probably heard the famous Cho-won Swellfish restaurant scandal and the winning catch phrase of “우리가 남이가” in Korean politics history, which made YS president.

    I also need to mention face-saving culture in explaining this current sentiment among Koreans. It is not only our adherence to “Us” that explains your Korean friends’ expression of “sorry,” which sounds very weird.

    However, if you go deep inside OUR mind, you probably find Confusian mentality and face-saving culture are entrenched in every single Korean’s brain even in the brain of church-goers who refuse to bow to their ancestors during memorial services.

    While I can buy and respect all your points in this discussion and in your observance, I’d like to tell that you will be more comfortable if you just embrace even such an absurd “We-US” mentality among Koreans.

    Finally, don’t you have any plan to publish a book titled “Hey, You, Mr. Nation!”?
    I guarantee that it will become a mega-bestselling book. 🙂

  3. I’ve already heard some perhaps not-so-surprisingly racist comments on this campus, so far away from VT. I’m glad you can remain optimistic about the absence of retaliatory acts, and it can be hoped that people will see in a sense how horrifically universal and yet simultaneously quintessentially American this event was… but all I can say is that if I were an undergrad at VT, I would have checked out for the semester by this morning at the latest.

  4. Hi Matty,

    Beeen busy, busy, busy around here with all the news re Mom’s health. Iwas up at cabin for turkey hunting when the news from oncologist came down on recommendations re calcifications. Fully support Mom’s decision on masectomy. Only way to handle it. We both want her here for a long time to come.

    She’s handling it unbelievably well. I try to be as supportative as I can. Prayers won’t hurt either.

    PJ seems better but week. Still lapses into past memories from time to time. Doesn’t always eat well, but finished full can of beer Cara brought Sunday while I was there. Stopped on way down from Wausaukee. Mom’s up there today. Her surgury may be as early as next week. Irony department – she was released to return to work on 5/1!

    All for now stay well.


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