Insights into Levels of Speech and Bus Violence in Korea

A couple months ago, an African-American teacher in Korea got into a fight with an elderly Korean on a bus. More specifically, the American thought the Korean had used racist speech against him and he hit the Korean, which another passenger managed to get on video:


This incident caused quite a stir in Korea, with a lot of commentary online, including this one over at Marmot's Hole, the top expat blog in Korea:

I discussed the incident with Ken Clark, President of 1-800 Translate and he followed up with an interesting posting about the situation too, with some linguistic explanation:

It is unfortunate that "nigga" does have the meaning of "you" in some situations in Korea, and it seems possible that the use of this Korean word was partly responsible for triggering the situation. However, Ken's blog post indicated that "nigga" is a polite form of "you", which gave me the opportunity to clarify:

Interesting insights! Thanks for sharing.

I should point out that 니가 is actually the least polite way of expressing “you” in the subject form. When used between friends, it implies closeness; and when from an adult to a small child, it indicates a degree of affection. But when spoken between people of similar status or adults who don’t know each other, it’s extremely rude.

The only way this word could have been used in a positive sense is if the senior citizen was attempting to show a great deal of affection (for lack of a better word) for the American. However, in this situation, the potential for misunderstanding due to cultural and language factors (not to mention that Korean senior citizens don’t generally get overly friendly on buses with black Americans), it would have been an extremely inappropriate and risky expression to use. If 니가 was used, it was an insulting choice of terminology.

Besides, I’ve heard that the senior citizen did not say 니가; he actually used Korean slang for a “nigger” equivalent on the assumption that the “stupid American” wouldn’t understand it. In this case, even though the American may have only picked up the nuance from his body language and not understood the word used, the insult was clearly intended.

In the end, the American was not deported. He apologized and paid for the medical care of the senior citizen, and considering that Koreans were at least as embarrased that a foreigner would be treated with such disrespect in their country as they were angry at the violence, giving the American a second chance was the choice made by officials in charge.

1 Response

  1. campbell scott says:

    What a prolonged encounter…I would not have expected this type of reaction from a degree educated American University graduate…living in a foreign country, regardless of what was or was not said or taken to be said.
    I was also not entirely surprised to see big city culture, where no one (except the lady) is willing to step in… either with a calming approach to explain context (perhaps the english levels were low on the bus in question).
    It is exactly the type of situation that people refer to as walk away situations… you are on a bus going somewhere… to get involved in this type of action seems crazy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *