Nigga Means You in Korean

by Translation Guy on September 14, 2011
22 comments

Nigga, or 니가, is the polite form of “you” in Korean, but if you don’t speak Korean, it doesn’t sound so polite. That phrase, reportedly, is what set off a whole riot, captured on YouTube, and spread like wildfire in Korean media. What could be a more perfect ethnic storm than some dread-locked American going off on an old Korean guy on a crowded bus. Watch it if you dare, because I can promise you, it is deeply depressing to see how high the language barrier can be.

The video started only when the situation escalated, but according to eyewitness testimony, it all started thanks to that Korean-style n-word. Robert J. Koehler of The Marmot’s Hole reports that the incident occurred between a 24-year-old African-American English teacher and a 61-year-old Korean man on a crowded bus in South Korea. According to Koehler, “The elderly man reportedly said “니가 여기 앉아” (a sign of consideration [meaning “you can sit here”]), but not knowing Korean, the man in question interpreted “니가” [pronounced “nigga” and meaning “you”] as the N-word, which led to his violent outburst.” Others say the old guy was telling the American guy to lower his voice, but who knows, since I know from my newspaper days that “eyewitnesses” is just another way of saying “liars,” especially when someone is standing in front of a reporter scribbling away in his notebook. But the consensus is that the misinterpretation was what caused the American guy to lose it.

It all ended when the bus driver pulled up in front of a police station and the young man was pulled off the bus. (BTW, if you happen to catch this, Mr. Dreadlocks, and can prove to me you’re the man in the video, I’d love to hear your side of the story.)

Because it’s hard for me to read the video, but this looks like assault, or at least disorderly conduct, from my cultural context, or should I say police record. So I have to admit that I’ve got a soft spot for assholes like this guy, since I’ve put myself in similar situations due to in irrepressible font of belligerence.

As an exchange student in Japan, before I had a handle on the language, I used to sit alone on the bus—since the seat next to the foreigner was always the last taken—convinced that they were all talking about me, saying gaijin, gaijin, or “foreigner, foreigner,” over and over. It took me a while to realize that they were using words I hadn’t learned yet that happened to sound like gaijin, but had nothing to do with my ethnicity. Still, I never did get over the shock when I would exit the bus and catch a glimpse of my enormous lantern-jawed whiteness in the rear view mirror. Like the cowardly lion, I always managed to scare myself. It helped me to appreciate the horrified expressions of Japanese looking at me aghast as the elevator doors opened on my foreign devil visage, there back in the bad old days. Harmless, that, but other infuriating interactions were much less so.

Seeing this guy reminds me of my own excesses when I was full of piss and vinegar. You always tell yourself that the other guy was asking for it, for which they need to be taught a lesson. This is the comfort and refuge of all us assholes.

Plenty of that to go around. I remember a beautiful evening in the zócalo in Cuernavaca, drinking Tecate, where my friend Steve whispered to me that every Mexican there was speaking of the gringos drinking Tecate in their midst. They weren’t, of course, since Steve was crazy, but even if they were… You gotta let it go, amigo. Take a deep breath, count to 10, do an OODA loop, or best of all, buy the next round, which is the unwritten obligation of all strangers in a strange land.

22 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. The black guy speaks Korean so he must have understood if the guy said 니가. So I think the guy must have truly said nigger.

  3. I’m Korean native. Sadly, Koreans are not well accustomed to interacting with foreigners. They are not taught in this regard, I have to admit. It takes time to learn and the learning period will get reduced as more and more foreigners are coming in to their realm recently. Until then, we might get into some uncomfortable situations.

  4. Susan Connor says:

    Niga’ in the Korean language is not a term used to call someone a derogatory name. However ‘geomdong-I’ (검둥이), which means coon or darky is the term that a ‘racist’ Korean would use.

  5. Fruitcake says:

    Violence against the elderly is just plain wrong. I don’t care what you think he said. Grow up.

  6. Muffy says:

    I think it is too easy just to say ‘oh we are all assholes at some point…’ and laugh it off. These kinds of things have global consequences and hurt the American people in the long run.

  7. Once again, this shows all the more reasons to learn other languages correctly, paying attention to tones, cultural contexts and body language.

  8. Sunny Nelson says:

    He could have easily shown his unhappiness in a calmer, different way. Isn’t he a teacher? He wasted a moment where he could have EDUCATED someone on the meaning and the history behind that word.

  9. He is an English teacher?? With that language? The world is in a terrible state indeed.

  10. I didn’t hear the American speak Korean, so I think it is safe to say he knew only the basics.

  11. I just don’t understand why none of the MANY Koreans on the bus were doing anything about this? That was equally shocking for me to see.

  12. Dorothy Bell says:

    Some consideration has to be given to the age of the Korean man. He is 61, and his world view is very different. Maybe he didn’t even realize that it was a bad word? My father is 60 and although he says he is not racist I often catch him making racist comments. In his perspective he may not have thought he was being racist. (if he did actually say it)

    • Ken says:

      One of the problems in analyzing this story is that no one can say for sure how it got started.

  13. Let’s analyze this. Korean man says a horrible racist word. American man reacts like a violent madman. People are left focusing mostly on… the American. Great.

  14. Dan Moody says:

    How would the story have been reported if the youth was a Korean attacking an elderly American??….

  15. Bea says:

    The US will be kicked out of Asia eventually, so not to worry.

  16. Kyle Dejute says:

    I am personally fed up with the infintile way people are forced to treat blacks, as if they were toddlers on the verge of a tantrum instead of grown-ups responsible for their actions!

  17. Misha says:

    I truly hope this does not become an issue of Blacks vs.Koreans or Americans vs. Koreans. It is an issue of lack of understanding of cultural differences and language.

  18. Mudfoot says:

    think of all of the terrible names that Asian people have been called by us, and have a little more tolerance for people who don’t know any better!

  19. It is so important that we have an understanding of cultures and take the time to learn their foreign language before we visit other countries. And to be safe, don’t assume that you understand what has been said and make a spectacle of yourself!

  20. Florrie says:

    Let me point out the obvious: regardless of what was said, his behaviour was extremely violent and insulting (calling her a bitch, assulting her…) and far worse than any word that may or may not have been said. Shame on him.

  21. Raymond says:

    watching this makes me embarassed to be an American. No wonder they don’t like us around the world!

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