To the Editor:
The dining hall cultural insensitivity incident involving “Korean Food Night” is disturbing for all the wrong reasons (“Yale employee’s racial remark elicits hardened response,” 2/6).
I have lived and taught at a university in Korea for three years. I can easily see myself making the same joke (“kimchi and dogs”) that reduced Yale student David Ahn to a stunned, offended silence.
Bohshintang — which is a Korean dog meat stew — is part of Korean traditional and modern cuisine, and kimchi is a staple food eaten by nearly all Koreans virtually every day. Did the dining hall manager’s joke reflect the “cultural ignorance” Ahn suggests, or perhaps too much cultural awareness?
Cultural sensitivity should cut two ways: new cultural elements should be welcomed into an ever-opening society, and a sense of humor and hesitation to cry foul should accompany them. Any American living in Seoul or Busan watching and listening — as I have — while Korean citizens point at passing jets and make 9/11 jokes will know that no two societies understand one another’s feelings and perspectives perfectly.
When cultures collide, or even merely connect, friction occurs — and moaning about the insensitivity of it all is both petty and counterproductive.
If the manager’s comment was made spitefully instead of in fun, then he is indeed to blame for his hurtful intentions. If his comment was lighthearted, I think one must squint hard to find in it a slur.
In any case, bemoaning insensitivity elicits nothing but hollow, formalistic apologies (“Frantz then submitted a formal letter of apology –“) while ultimately increasing the distance between cultural groups.
If Ahn is truly interested in reducing “cultural ignorance,” he might accomplish more by avoiding moralistic standoffs and encouraging open and easygoing exchange.
February 8, 2002
The writer is an English instructor at Dong-A University in Busan, South Korea and former resident of New Haven.