Sunday, October 28, 2007

Korean Week 4 - Apologies

Since the inspiration for Korean week was the paper I am co-authoring (with a Korean linguistics teacher) about apologies in Korea, I decided to copy a bit of it here. This paper is rather far afield for me, occurring in a subfield of linguistics called sociolinguistics. Sociolinguistics deals with how social structures and relationships are expressed in language, as well as how language is used to maintain those relationships. This is a very different sort of focus than, say, grammar study.

One large part of this subfield studies what is called politeness, which isn't stuff like holding the door for someone or saying "bless you" when they sneeze. It's really a study of relationships and how those are maintained. One of the most popular theories of politeness is called face theory. The idea is that all individuals have this things called "face". Face has been defined as the public image that someone holds up for others, or alternatively as the desire to act freely. Whenever someone threatens another's face, then you have to do some sort of action to restore peace. One part of this is apologizing. If I threaten your face, i.e., harming your public image or interfering with you, then I must apologize.

In this paper, my co-author and I are taking a big collection of apology examples in Korea that she collected for her dissertation and trying to modify face theory based on the data. One way in which we are hoping to change face theory is to say that face does not just belong to individuals. It can also belong to groups of people, culturally defined groups. In America, one might build a case that a family can have face, such that it is possible to harm the face of an entire family. This is the case in Korean society as well. However, Korean culture seems to allow for the entire Korean ethnicity to have a face as well. This face of a nation can require apologies to the whole nation. Additionally, the bad actions of a few can be seen as harming the face of the entire group.

In the bit below, we are discussing the Viriginia Tech shootings earlier this year. I'd love any thoughts you have. The stuff below is going to come across rather academic-ey, because it is, though I chose this section because it isn't all that lingo-driven. The excerpt:

Further, evidence of a face-bearing group comes from the tragic case of a mass murder at Virginia Tech University in 2007, at the hands of someone who had immigrated to the United States from Korea at the age of eight. After this event, many Koreans, and Korean-Americans, expressed the idea that the murderer's actions brought shame to all Koreans. For instance, the South Korean Ambassador to the United States, Lee Tae-sik, stated that Korean-Americans were shamed and should repent with a day of fast for each victim. (Brewington, 2007). State Senator Paull Shin of Washington State publicly apologized in the senate chambers, adding “it hurts me deeply, knowing what happened to Korea and how much the U.S. helped. This is not the way to pay back the blessings we received” (Iwasaki, 2007). Shin associates the attacking student’s actions with what the entire Korean people owe to the United States.

These comments reinforce the notion that groups that can bear face are indeed culturally defined, as anecdotal questioning of Caucasian Americans drew a unified response that they would not have apologized in similar circumstances. In fact, the concept that Koreans as an ethnic group do share a single group face is highly controversial in the Korean-American community. Professor Kyeyoung Park of the University of California at Los Angeles' Center for Korean Studies, for instance, was publicly quoted as saying, "Some of them [Korean-Americans] feel truly responsible, even though it is ridiculous to think they are responsible for the actions of this person" (Brewington, 2007).

Indeed, even Korean-Americans at the same university and of the same approximate age expressed opposing views on the matter. Jihye Kim, president of the Korean Student Union at the University of Washington, stated, "Personally, after hearing about the criminal's racial background, I felt as if I am the one who caused the tragedy. I couldn't make eye contact with others. I greatly apologize for those who are closely related to the victims." Meanwhile, his fellow student at the same university, Kiwon Suh, president of the Korean Student Association, stated a completely different sentiment. "Just because he's Korean or Korean American doesn't mean I have to go around apologizing for what he did. He didn't do anything representative of Korea by his horrible doing" (Iwasaki, 2007).

It would appear from these statements that the idea of Koreans as an entire ethnicity bearing face varies greatly among Korean-Americans, a variability seemingly much greater than in Korea itself. This assertion, however, is based simply upon the sort of evidence presented here, not from a designed socio-linguistic study of face concepts among Koreans and Korean-Americans and so awaits stronger empirical support. Indeed, the quantification and documentation of the variability, and change through time, of which groups can possess face, perhaps using traditional Labovian sociolinguistic methods, appears like a largely unexplored subfield. In short, while the types of face, positive, negative, and covenant, might be universal; the entities that bear face are cultural and variable.

Part of my quandry is in terms of referring to people by ethnicity. In general, I hate doing it; I'd rather just talk about humans with names rather than ethnicities and all the problems associated with it So if you have any advice on that...? The subfield idea mentioned in the last paragraph could be the most important point going forward in the entire essay. Sociology, and linguistics to some degree, are frequently stuck talking about cultures using the terms "collectivist" and "individualist". Virtually, all of the East Asian traditional cultures are supposed to be collectivist, while "Western" ones are supposed to be individualist. However, everyone knows that these labels greatly over simplify everything and cover up almost as much as they reveal. However, no better terms are around. If you refuse to use some term, then it's like saying Korea and the U.S. are identical, which they clearly are not. Anyway, I wonder if we can use this idea of group face to describe things a lot more accurately. In this proposed framework, Korea is not just collectivist and the U.S. a bunch of rugged individualists. Instead, Korea lets certain groups have face, while the U.S. allows for a different set to have face.


December/Stacia said...

Hmm. I guess on the one hand I certainly don't think Koreans have any reason to apologize for the actions of one troubled person. On the other, I find it somehow endearing they would want to. I guess because I love the idea of tight-knit groups and, really, of anyone taking responsibility for anything. I see it as an honor thing and I love honor cultures.

Ello said...

Hey Paca,
One of the things that you have in the Korean community in the states is a huge difference between the FOBs and the Gyopos. The Gyopos are first or second generation Americans with Korean heritage while the FOBs are the ones that came when they were 8 years old and up. (I am choosing as young as 8 but possibly closer to 10 might be more realistic of where the differences begin.) They might speak perfect English and act completely American, but their heart and soul is still completely Korean. They act, talk and think completely differently from the Gyopos. They also speak fluent Korean while Gyopos speak little or no Korean. They look down at us and we look down at them and not a whole lot of understanding is going on between the two groups. When the Virginia Tech incident occurred, you had huge fighting with these two groups for exactly the reason stated. No question, we were all ashamed the shooter was Korean, who wants to have anything in relation with that crazy nut job. But we Gyopos reacted as the Americans that we are, very sorry it happened, but not apologizing for his actions. The FOBs had an entirely different reaction and there were quite heated debates about this. When the Korean Ambassador made his asinine comment about forgiving us and we should pray etc, the Gyopos were furious, while the FOBs all railed at us for not being good Koreans. Well, here's the deal, bub, I'm an American first, Korean second. That's just who I am, and how most of us feel. Errr, I could go on and on. But I will stop now. The problem I think is a deeper issue of the Korean culture as a whole.

pacatrue said...

Thanks, DecStac. Your comment made me think of something else, namely, I've seen a couple comments in newspaper articles that this sort of group identity is common among minorities. This is supposed to be in part because crimes by an individual who is of some minority are quite often used by the majority as justification for attacking the entire group. "You know what Those People are like -- like Him," comes the majority response.

However, even if that is some part of it, that's not the whole picture in this case at all, as the response typified by the Korean Ambassador is expressing something Korean (population close to 30 million in South Korea alone) and is not influenced by being a minority (unless you tried to argue that Korea is a small nation always on the defense from China and Japan, and yet I think many Chinese or Japanese people would react similarly). Indeed, a group that might indeed be considered a minority, Korean-Americans, disagrees strongly with the ideas.

More directly to what you actually said, there is a certain appeal to the idea, because it's like the person is going beyond themselves, thinking of others and not being just me-me-me all the time.

Thanks for your comments, ello. First up, please let me know if I am accidentally saying anything insulting. I'd much rather know now before I try to get this article in print.

When I was writing my essay, I kept cringing every time I used the terms Korean-American, and then had to use Caucasian Americans, too. Part of the reason I was cringing relates to the issues you mention. I am presuming, by using the word, there is some unified group to be called "Korean-American", ignoring all the huge differences that exist between people. Following your comments and my own guess, it is very possible that the real difference in views on this topic has a lot more to do with where one's childhood was, or something similar, than one's genetic heritage. I mean, why am I lumping 2nd generation Korean-Americans in as a possible group with new Korean immigrants at all? The first group might be better identified as just Americans with all the other Americans of various ethnicities.

I'm having a hard time getting my point out of my mouth, or fingers, so I'm starting over:

I am presenting the varying responses to VaTech as telling us something about the diversity in the Korean-American community. However, that only assumes there is a Korean-American community. Perhaps, things are quite uniform in fact if I grouped differently. People who grew up in the U.S., of whatever ethnicity, generally think X, while people who grew up in Korea generally think Y. When I lump people together into Korean-Americans, it's a sort of racial thinking in which etnicity is the most important criteria.

All that said, on the other hand, I'm afraid to get rid of the term here completely, because it opens up possibilities for study and learning. Are the differenct viewpoints on this topic precisely for the reasons you stated, or is there some other cause that correlates with the growing up facts? Are these differences among Korean-Americans unique to that (possible) community or does it exemplify a more general pattern? For instance, does the childhood distinction work exactly the same for Pakistani Americans, Thai Americans, Somali Americans, etc.? Another question is: do people change over time, such that even a current FOB has similar views to a gyopo after 30 years in the U.S., or is it set completely in childhood? And if it is, isn't that fascination, because we are sort of talking about morality here. If things do not change, it is implying that some basic ideas of right and wrong are set for life by the time we are eight!

I think I've written a new blog entry with this thing.

Church Lady said...

I don't think people change over time (regards to your last paragraph in the comments). I think your primary identity is stamped by about the age of ten. If I went to live in France for the next 30 years, I would never consider myself French (as much as I love everything French and have always wanted to speak French).

My husband is Egyptian (born in Texas by Egyptian parents). He traveled everywhere because his father worked for the U.N. He always says he doesn't care where he lives, as long as he's making money. I just don't understand that!! But I guess he grew up with a broader definition of rooted-ness.

All of the nationalities we see/interact with in Dubai are even more nationalistic there.

This is a great discussion. I could go on forever, with so many examples.

Ello, I thought you were Japanese because of the book you were writing, and when you said you were Asian, I just made that assumption. Hmm...funny. But perhaps you may assume I'm a man dressed as a woman. :-)

Ello said...

Hey Paca, I am not insulted at all by this type of discussion. I actually love it and find it very stimulating. You are very well balanced in your reasonings so don't worry. I would tell you if I thought you weren't!

But your points are very valid and I do think it applies culturally to all immigrants to this country. How the first immigrants feel versus how the next generation does. My dad is a US citizen and has lived in the states longer than in his native country, but he still puts Korea over US in his heart. I think that might be a basic difference. How deep an attachment is there between the generation and their motherland. If you asked 3rd or 4th generation Chinese or Irish Americans, I'm sure their attachment to China or Ireland cannot compare to that of the 1st generation. That's just my point.

I can't wait to read your whole paper when you are done.

pacatrue said...

Thanks, ello and CL. Due to working until 12:25 AM last night, the paper is almost done. I've sent it back to my co-author and if she gives the okay, I will finally be sending it to a couple profs to read, and will post it on my web site for you guys. I will let you know.

Even if this thing does end up published one day, it's a long way off. There will be revisions from the two ling profs, then maybe revisions from this one second language studies prof, then, if we are lucky, it will be judged revise and resubmit by some journal with a huge list of changes, and then it will be either revised a 5th time or maybe, possibly move to copy editing for more revisions.... And then I can only hope. How much do we get paid for this? Directly, nothing. Indirectly, it might help me get a job one day.