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What strange side effects

April 24, 2007

The fallout from the VT massacre is having some truly revelatory effects over here. The initial fear of Korea “losing face” based on the horrific acts of an immigrant is gradually fading and a rather stark appreciation of America’s public grieving process is taking hold. This is causing a bit of soul-searching that is, frankly, refreshing and a bit overdue.

First of all, there have been articles asking Koreans, “what would we do if an immigrant here did something so horrific?” Such self-reflective pondering is absolutely essential to the process of the cultural maturation of a nation growing increasingly multiethnic/multicultural. This preventative reflection is obviously much wiser than simply waiting for something to happen and then trying to harness the inevitable whirlwind.

In addition, there are some rather startling realizations about cultural differences vis-a-vis assigning blame and forgiveness. For too long, the comparative analysis between the US and Korean culture has been stuck in two simplistic modes: 1) we are different, and if it goes any deeper than that, 2) we are different, and we are better. But the reaction to the massacre has brought something new, 3) they have their own impressive aspects, too, don’t they?

What has been most impressive to Korean people has been the respect shown to the perpetrator, Seung Cho. Take a look at this cartoon, from the Hankyoreh Sinmun:

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The top picture refers to an incident in 2002 when two middle school students were run over by a bridge-laying vehicle during military exercises. The caption notes that the US is has not only a “responsibility shirking culture” and the in the tracks of the vehicle are written the schoolgirl victims’ names and the phrase, “numerous crimes by American troops in Korea”, but also… in the lower picture, “On the other hand, a culture of forgiveness: a memorial for Cho that is exactly like those of the victims.”

I’ll admit, while I was optimistic that no major backlash against Asian students would occur in the States, I wasn’t such a pollyanna to think that this self-reflection would be inspired here in Korea. Let’s hope this otherwise entirely lamentable event continues to contribute to more positive cross-cultural communication and mutual understanding.

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