Koreans have a culturally specific, ultra-distilled form of rage so potent that some believe one can literally die from it. The Korean word for this rage is han, which is basically the racial memory of thousands of years of being invaded and put-upon.
The disease caused by han is called “hwa-byung,” which translates to “anger illness.” It is an actual, fatal, medically recognized condition. It’s even in the DSM, which refers to it as a “culturally specific disease.” Colloquially, I’ve heard han called “kimchi temper.”
I fully admit to playing the han card, i.e., flying off the handle at people and later saying, “Sorry; I’m Korean,” at which point most is forgiven, even if the forgiving party doesn’t quite understand why.
Within the Pacific Rim, the wrathful Korean is something of a regional stereotype: Koreans are said to drink a lot, to love crying, and to have fits of white-hot, blinding rage that channel the ancestral anger of 5,000 years of being pillaged and colonized.
An Australian veteran of the Vietnam War, for example, once felt it necessary to tell me that Aussie troops knew the Korean troops would be the most bloodthirsty. The Americans seemed to agree: A U.S. Department of Defense report on South Korean participation in Vietnam stated that the Koreans “usually surrounded an area by stealth and quick movement … The enemy feared the Koreans both for their tactical innovations and for the soldiers’ tenacity.”
Han is most likely what James Bond creator Ian Fleming had in mind when he wrote in his 007 novel Goldfinger that Koreans “are the cruelest, most ruthless people in the world,” adding that they have no respect for human life. In this scene, the supervillain of the title is explaining to James Bond why he picked only Koreans as bodyguards, among them the stocky, grunting, subhuman karate expert Oddjob, who decapitates people by hurling his razor-sharp black bowler hat at them.
Fleming’s description of Koreans is widely regarded as racist, but my desire to be offended is contradicted by a sheepish How did he know? sort of feeling.
The world has also become familiar with the Self-Destructively Vengeful Korean stereotype, thanks to films like Park Chan-wook’s 2003 masterpiece, the ultraviolent Oldboy — which depicts a man cutting off his own tongue with a letter-opener and another tricking a childhood nemesis into having sex with his own daughter, among other such gruesome things.
Are Koreans more wrathful than other people? It’s hard to be sure. I can speak only to my experience: Korea is the only nation where I’ve regularly witnessed grown-ass men getting out of their cars to fistfight over road rage. (My dad’s explanation for this phenomenon: “Koreans don’t have guns, so they do not hesitate to confront each other physically.”)
It’s the only nation whose citizens send me emails threatening to show my articles to my parents — more on that later.
(To all the would-be trolls out there threatening to snitch on me: My parents are already painfully aware of my disreputable scribbles. My dad described my first book — a novel called Kept: A Comedy of Sex and Manners — as “inaccurate and treacherous.” When I appear on TV, all I get from my mom is “That lipstick is very … red.” There’s nothing you can tell them that they haven’t thought of already, and they’re better at this than you are.)
Korea is also the only country in the world whose representative airline is run by a family dynasty that is better known by the term nut rage than by their business achievements or even their actual name.