Sunday, February 18, 2007

of suicide and antisemitism

Two hot issues in South Korea right now are suicide and antisemitism. Suicide seems to be part of the national fabric-- there's even a "suicide season" in Korea, when clusters of students who fail college entrance exams jump from apartment balconies. Antisemitism, while part and parcel of Korean racism in general, has made the news of late thanks to the belated unearthing of a stereotype-filled comic book whose ostensible intention is to instruct students about other countries. I'd like to comment on both of these issues and draw a possible connection between them.


An ugly trend has appeared: in February of 2005, a Korean star named Lee Eun-joo committed suicide. She was in her twenties. Last month, pop singer and dancer Unee (also written "Yuni") hanged herself at the age of 26, and recently, 27-year-old star Jeong Da-bin was found dead in her boyfriend's apartment. This, too, was apparently a suicide, and as with the other two women, she had hanged herself.

I've already made my views on suicide painfully (some might say obnoxiously) clear, so I won't revisit that issue. I do want to comment, however, on the Korean public's attempt to frame these suicides as examples of victimization by a nasty group of so-called "keyboard warriors." These "warriors" are essentially online trolls who spend inordinate amounts of time harassing stars via message boards, or by leaving cruel remarks on the victim's blog or CyWorld homepage.

In Korea, notions of ego are not firmly rooted in a pervasive ethos of individualism. An American assessing the Korean suicide problem would probably observe that the victims of cyber-harassment simply need to "toughen up" or "know themselves." Such remarks betray the unspoken assumption that the human ego is somehow bordered and distinct from the rest of society, much as cells have distinct cell walls. As someone who grew up in the West, I largely share this view. Koreans, however, do not-- which is why it makes sense to them to seek an "external locus of responsibility" when considering a person's suicide. Where I might see a matter of choice, Koreans are more likely to see a helpless person pushed over the edge. The truth probably lies somewhere between these extremes.

Koreans care about what others-- especially other Koreans-- think of them. While I might find it easy to shake off and ignore the opinions of people close to me, or the opinions of a mob, Koreans often cannot do this. The willingness to shove against the crowd can bloom in the Korean heart, but it is only possible because, somewhere, other Koreans support that person in his or her defiance.* If the human ego is like a cell, then Koreans, seizing upon that analogy, would quickly note how permeable a cell wall is, how alike the neighboring cells are, and how harmoniously those cells function together as parts of a greater whole.

In other words, when a Korean TV, music, or movie star is attacked by masses of online vigilantes, the sense of rejection probably runs far deeper than would be the case for an American star.** What naturally follows for the victimized star is depression or something akin to it. In a country that already has a morbid fixation on suicide, it is not unreasonable to assume that a depressed person might be more prone to taking that final step to end the pain.

Because of how I feel about suicide, I would suggest that these stars need to look within themselves to find again the self-confidence that motivated them to take the risk to become stars in the first place. Perspective is also essential: understanding that each phase of one's career is merely that-- a phase-- is a good way to dull the pain of current rejection, to remember that one is already a success, and that future successes remain possible. While a victimized star will find no solace in a hostile public, he or she will still have a support system of friends and relatives who wish him or her well. In Korean Confucian thinking, a person is not a fenced-off monad, but a nexus of interrelationships. The very skein that causes a star pain can be relied on to provide some measure of relief.


On the subject of Korean antisemitism, there is very little I can add to an already-lively discussion on such blogs as The Marmot's Hole, Scribblings of the Metropolitician, Gypsy Scholar, and of course, Reading Monnara.**

Worthy of comment is a meta-issue: the twin Korean desires to retain a Hermit Kingdom attitude vis-à-vis the world, and simultaneously to be recognized and celebrated as a global power. The problem, of course, is that as Korea's global prominence continues to grow, more people will inevitably pay attention to who Koreans are and what they truly believe. American culture has laid itself on the dissection table for decades, whereas Korean culture has yet to learn how to handle unasked-for scrutiny. In my opinion, as Korea edges further into the spotlight, it will have no choice but to clean up its act. By the same token, Korea will never satisfy the expectations of its critics, which means that, even as Korea cleans up its act, it will have to develop a true sense of pride that springs from within and is not a matter of "face" or the avoidance of shame on the world stage.

And therein lies an important connection between the issues of star suicide and antisemitism: the sensitivity that leads stars to take harassment from unnamed assailants personally is the very same trait that will govern collective Korean behavior on the world stage. As a "face" and "shame" culture, Korea cares how it is viewed. In those instances where the country seems not to care what others think of it, we are seeing the temporary victory of the eremitic impulse over the globalization impulse.**** Which impulse will ultimately be the victor?

*A good example of this is the stereotypically pushy Korean ajumma, the loud, obnoxious, middle-aged woman who sees nothing wrong with shoving people aside to cut in line, or with shouting across a crowded hallway or square, or with being otherwise rude. Such rudeness is possible because the ajumma belongs to a subculture both recognized and heralded by the larger culture. Korean men sometimes half-jokingly refer to "ajumma power," i.e., the ability of ajummas to get things done in a blunt, direct, take-no-prisoners manner. An ajumma removed from this subculture will still act in an ajumma-like manner because she will have been too conditioned to do or think otherwise.

**There are, of course, exceptions, but by and large, I'd submit that American stars who kill themselves are dealing with their own personal demons. Such stars often embrace public vilification because they know it's free publicity. A "bad boy/girl" image can, in the long term, prove to be a helpful phase in a star's career. Look at the difference between the images of Marky Mark and Mark Wahlberg: it was hard to take the former seriously, but the latter is hailed as a talented, unpretentious actor. They are, of course, the same person.

***Reading Monnara is a blog devoted to translating a Korean tract, written in comic-book form, that, in certain volumes, introduces young Korean students to a slew of hateful, ignorant stereotypes about America, Americans, and Jews. The creator of this comic, South Korean university professor Rhie Wonbok [Lee Weon-bok], has issued what amounts to a non-apology for his work.

****One could draw parallels between this and the sinusoidal nature of American isolationism, a vogue that seems to return, periodically, to American public discourse. Pat Buchanan is probably the most famous incarnation of this particular -ism.

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