Saturday, September 10, 2011

"Hello" as "hate speech," an essay


This is the age of Twitter on your iPhone. You can document right there in the moment something good (or bad) that has happened to you. It's the age where you can blog something good or bad at a traffic light, at a game, right there in the restaurant, or anywhere you happen to be, with great immediacy.

If, for example, someone in a Las Vegas department store who has overheard me speaking Korean on the phone growls, "Speak English!" (a bit relevant to the recent The Black Guy on the Bus™ incident), then I can blog about it right there on the spot. It gains some credibility despite the lack of audio because the "facts" are laid down right away, and my surprise-turned-to-anger was great enough that I felt compelled to share it with others.

It wasn't always so. In the days before smart phones, people usually had to wait until they got home, to the office, or to the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf before they could put thoughts to phosphorus. And before camera phones became so ubiquitous (I still like that word, despite its recent ubiquity within Korea), we would have to merely describe, hours or days later, what we'd seen, in our blogs, in list groups, in emails back home, on USENET, on snailmail, or even the guest columnist pages of the local newspaper. This was always unsatisfying to many readers, who would eventually come up with a standard reply: "Pics or it didn't happen!" That's probably why Steve Jobs invented the iPhone.

Um, anyway, as someone who has lived in Seoul off and on since being a teenager, who has lived there for over a third of his life and at this point most of his adult life, a good chunk of that is in the pre-smartphone era, at a time even when few people had email addresses, when the Kexpat list-serve was The Marmot's Hole of the day, and a good back-and-forth might take weeks if it were on the pages of the Korea Times or Korea Herald. My first camera here required negatives to be processed (and it wasn't cheap).

It was frustrating, because living in South Korea, just as now, different people would have different experiences, but it would be so hard without Google, voluminous tweets, or even grainy pictures from an old LG camera phone, it would be very hard to document claims that we made. Right now, I take pictures of everything, but there are literally thousands of things I would have taken a picture back in the day if I'd had at least a camera phone with me everywhere I went, giving me an arsenal of pictures I could use when making arguments on future posts on a blog somewhere that had not yet been created.

If I'd had an iPhone back then, I'd probably have filled it up with pictures of people running around the Panpo-dong Kim's Club in a panic as the economy started to collapse before our very eyes in the last days of 1997. I'd have made a collection of the once-ubiquitous page-sized movie posters that used to be put up in neighborhoods as a collection of movie advertisements or local notices, including one that depicted how violent an American movie was by showing just a frightened woman with a gun pointed right in her face. No concern that kids impressionable kids would be walking by and seeing this on a regular basis, but also very telling in that, while some in Korea complained American movies were too violent, the marketers who made and then disseminated this poster obviously thought that "violence sells."

But when I made that argument (to a KoKo) and cited that poster that is still clear in my mind's eye, my claim was regarded as incredulous, in part because I could not produce said poster. "Pics or it didn't happen."

That's right. It's been so long ago, that I think a lot of people have forgotten what it was like in the days before we could document right there in the moment.

I have run into this kind of problem when describing how much things have changed in South Korea. Though I'm not particularly old (I'm a Gen-Xer in grad school), I've lived in South Korea longer than most bloggers or commenters in the K-blogosphere, and the lack of documentation of so many things before the Millennium makes it hard to make an argument. The owner of The Grand Narrative called this view of mine annoying or some such (I'm still looking for the link to that).

So I was a little giddy when I saw Casey Lartigue, a once ubiquitous writer for the Korea Times who has found his way to the K-blogs, post links to some of his articles from before Y2K. You see, he'd given me the documentation to back up a claim I'd made that was, frankly, nothing more than my word against anybody who might choose not to believe me.

Back in 2009 (pre-Y2.01K), I had written the following, in response to someone asking (first line below, in bold) about the effects of constantly being called "foreigners":
Do they call us foreigners because we stay here a year or two, or do we only stay here a year or two because they call us foreigners?

Oh, my God! If the precious little lotus blossoms can't handle being called oégugin or foreigner (or gaijin or whatever), then they should stay home where they can wrap themselves up in the cocoon of their majority-ness and feel all secure. Never leave your home country in that case.

Seriously, if someone is so sensitive that would cause them to leave, then they really have too thin a skin. This reminds me of the people who thought little kids shouting "Hello!" was "hate speech" (I'm not making that up).

Damn fu¢king racist Koreans. Most racist people in the world! Fu¢kin' Koreans always shouting Hello!
Now you may or may not agree with my perhaps too-harsh sentiment (being a kvetchpat often stems largely from being stripped of one's "racial transparency" back home), but the main point here is about "Hello!" being "hate speech." Yeah, that was really an argument making the rounds. Not merely that it was annoying to be singled out as a tall, blond White dude, but that shouting "Hello!" was race-based mockery. Mockery. They were making fun of you based on your race.

If you were to acknowledge that the Hello-ee (is this where Haole comes from?) was indeed being noticed because of their obvious physical differences, but that shouting "Hello!" was a way to be friendly or even inclusive, you were dead wrong. Because it was mockery! They were shouting it because of their racism! "Hello" is "hate speech."

So when Mr Lartigue decided to post an old KT piece from August 1999, in response to The Metropolemicist's rant about The Black Guy on the Bus™, I was pleased to see it contained a reference to such:
I heard other complaints from expatriates. Some are bothered by the personal questions many Koreans ask. Some also complain about the lack of personal space and privacy that they have in Korea . By far, the most incredible complaint I heard is that some expatriates feel unfairly singled out by drunks and smart-aleck children shouting, "Hello!"

Now that I'm back in America , I can see that drunks here aren't exactly the most dignified of souls. And many of the kids will tell you to "go f...yourself" if you tell them to tie their shoes. In our respective countries, when encountering rude or playful children, we say, "stupid kids." While in Korea, far too many Americans will say, "stupid Korean kids," attributing the "hello" to a character flaw in Koreans.
I'll be the first to admit that I didn't always see eye to eye with Mr Lartigue, a staunch libertarian. And although he does not corroborate that some of the plaintive cultural plaintiffs did in fact call it "hate speech," but he does independently confirm that there were in fact a number of people making "the most incredible complaint" that they were afflicted by people shouting "Hello!" to them.

Now, if you've read this far and you're hoping for some grand bow to tie this all up with, I'm sorry to disappoint you. I had meant to write a three- or four-sentence post tying my "hate speech" remark at Brian's with the newly posted Lartigue piece from 1999, but I was too tired. This morning, after a restless night of bad dreams of being chased by arachnoid monsters in a post-apocalyptic California, I woke up and just went to town, reminiscing about the days when we could prove so little of what we lived through in Seoul, in South Korea, or in Asia at large, and just had our stories.

If these North Korean kids don't say "Hello," it really might be hate speech.



  1. Well, I can see how being "hello'd" constantly could be annoying, but to call it hate speech is a bit much. Anyhow, I think what the foreigners are reacting to is being singled out as such. Because Korean kids are only coming up to them and not other Koreans when they say, "hello!" Anyhow, it is an example of how some expats blow things out of proportion. It is rude, but to be defined as hate speech is just a gross exaggeration.

  2. And if I tried to share my unhappy memories of being a 'racially opaque' child in all-white suburban Virginia in my very first year of life in the U.S., no doubt these persons would attribute it to my uniquely flawed Korean character. Can I say 'a$$es' here? How about 'pu$$ies'? 'Babie$'?.

  3. itissaid--I will back up Kushibo about this. Some white Americans I met during the 1990s were saying that "hello" was an attack on non-Koreans. Some actually did mention that it was a form of hate speech, in that "hello" reminds non-Koreans here that they can never truly be Korean. Another one was that Korean kids yelling or shouting "hello" was the equivalent of a racial slur against black people in America. It has been quite some time but there were other responses along those lines. I remember one guy writing that he felt like he was being called a monkey when Korean kids shouted hello at him. Many white Americans I met in Korea at that time said they felt, for the first time, what it must be like to be black in America, to be victims of hate speech, stares, being in the minority.

  4. I wouldn't call it hate speech for any reason, but isn't it mockery most of the time? I don't think we can say that the fat kid shouting "HELLO!" from across the street and jumping up and down is looking for a normal conversation or a deeper understanding of foreigners.

  5. Turner--1) Unless someone is shouting something like "hey, your clothes are on fire," I tend not to analyze the things that people shout at me. 2) But let's think about that fat kid shouting at you...What else would you prefer to have him or her shout at you? "Hello, handsome!" "Hey, beautiful!" 3) It is a kid--and in your scenario, a fat kid. The kid probably isn't looking for a normal conversation or deeper understanding. 4) I'm not a mind-reader, not sure how you and others conclude it is mockery. Perhaps in your native country it might be mockery, but you are not in your native country.

  6. "Hello" could be mockery, but in most cases that I'VE seen, it is just kids fooling around. Foreigners are fascinating to them and they are very curious about foreigners. So making contact through "hello" is novel and fun for them. It's not done to be insulting or tease. It certainly is not the most polite way to greet someone, but they are kids and foreign ADULTS should have some maturity and understanding. They are ADULTS after all.


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