Fighting Korea


I somehow just stumbled across a years-old interview with the actor John Cho, who, like me, is of Korean ethnic background. The Korean soccer team slogan, made famous in their run in the World Cup a while back, was “Fighting!” Somehow that came up during the interview, and John Cho explained:

This is our condition. Fighting.

Every once in a while, I idly consider getting a tattoo, but it never gets very far, because I can’t think of anything I’d want permanently imprinted on my body, other than a well-placed battle scar. But now I know that if I ever go through with it, I’m going to inscribe “This is Our Condition: Fighting!”

Now, I’m not some kind of Korean studies major – I’m as far from that as I could be. I don’t speak Korean, though I’m sure if I did I’d be aware of the subtleties lost in translation into the simple term “Fighting!” I wouldn’t be surprised if those subtleties are most of what I’m trying to explain here. I don’t even remember specifically being taught any of this. And yet still, I’m writing entirely from memory, I’m not going to look up any of it. That’s why there’s no dates or numbers: my memory’s really not that good.

But I’ve always loved to fight, and I still do, even though I may not have what it takes anymore. I’ve been asked many times over the years what this is all about. For most of the time, I’ve really been unable to explain, mostly because I was too angry to explain. But for some reason, John Cho’s explanation was like a koan that opened up the doors of enlightenment as I pondered its meaning. (By the way, it’s not like I’m some sort of besotted fan. I mean, he seems plenty talented, but I haven’t really seen him in enough things. Yes, I’m aware that there’s a meme where he’s in movie posters for movies that no one will cast him in. I think I liked him in the first Harold & Kumar movie, but I never seem to finish it because I keep wandering off to grab something to eat, you know?)

So anyway, first I’ll explain “Fighting!” very quickly, then I’ll break it down. Here’s the quick version (just speed read it for now – it’s deliberately dense, we’ll come back to it later):

Yes, of course I love to fight, it’s part of my core, and there’s no foreign mystery to this at all, no false stereotype. It’s a natural outcome, as follows: my mother, burdened by PTSD and bipolar disorder, made her poor attempts to find shelter in her rigidly sexist world by instilling an absolutely indomitable ego in her only son, which ironically is exactly what the patriarchy insists upon. A child’s ego is thoroughly reinforced by its use as a shield against the relentless onslaught of physical and emotional rage from father to son, as father had inherited from his father before him, in a ruined landscape of the battlefields of actual and proxy wars among superpowers on the Korean peninsula. That sense of fighting spirit – fighting as not only necessary but tantamount to survival – it never goes away, not with age nor wisdom, so that any satiation is temporary and the fight is everlasting.

Now … that might sound like a uniquely specific and melodramatic personal story, but there’s hardly anything unusual in it for generations of Koreans. You may be vaguely aware of the history. I’ll keep the pace up through this breezy recital, since these are all things you probably heard about in bits and pieces before:

After decades of imperial rule under Japanese occupation, in which the Japanese routinely pursued policies of cultural eradication, the Koreans were briefly liberated with the Allied victory in World War II. This liberation was incomplete when the Korean War promptly broke out, greatly inflamed as a proxy war between the United States and China, with the looming specter of the Soviet Union in the background. (This actually was only the first of a series of bloody proxy wars against Communism which continued through Vietnam and much of Southeast Asia, and even today continues in the Middle East and Africa.) Korean families were divided and impoverished by war, such that it became very common to experience the early deaths of immediate family members, including an especially high proportion of children. Korea is a relatively small country for superpowers to stomp around on – the war affected everyone.

Of course, as this happened way back in the middle of the twentieth century, there was hardly any therapeutic understanding of the mental trauma involved in all of this; at least, not in the terms we would discuss for same conditions today. The prevalence of PTSD was undoubtedly very high, and bipolar disorder could be expected to be no less than it would be at any time in any other place – though with even light cases highly likely to be exacerbated by the conditions of survival in the war-torn land.

Go back up to the short version, and see if it makes more sense now.

I’m not saying that every single Korean has experience with all of the implications of the description here, nor that all Koreans would agree with all of the implications of this description. And of course some of the effects of these common events are dissipated in time as well as diaspora, although some may be intensified by the common immigrant experience of dislocation, isolation, and racism.

I’m also not even going to attempt to explain whether or not any of this is related to a progress within three generations from a country that looks like background footage in M*A*S*H to a country that makes among the best consumer electronics in the world while also producing entertainment that somehow has not only reached the heights of world mass culture, but also accrued international social media clout with actual political impact in the United States of America. I mean …

I’m just saying, I think I know what John Cho was talking about, and I just wanted to share it with you. Put him in some more goddamn movies.

ETA Jan 2023: This seems the right place to note my succinct definition of han: A deep-seated sense of injustice, which fuels a never-ending thirst for revenge.