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Nigga Means You in Korean
September 14, 2011 - By: - In: Language - 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.

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