The Word Of Choice

by Vanessa Raney

November 3, 2003


I recently saw the 2002 Korean spy thriller, Joint Security Area. While I won't go into all the details, what I can say is that I was deeply moved by it. The main theme, connected to the idea that words have the power to change, is important in answering the question: How do we get along as people of different cultures?

In the context of the movie, the word of choice is brother instead of comrade. And yet it's also an irony that the formation of brotherhood begins with the saving of a life. It's ironic because the friendships that form are in part from the yearnings of a South Korean soldier for his saviors who are North Korean soldiers. Its ironical nature has to do with how bonds are formed with other people.

So I begin to wonder how we derive friendships of choice that don't involve extreme circumstances. Is it simply in the exchange of a word -- from enemy to friend? Or is it more complex -- as in the turn from need to compassion? Perhaps, as the movie suggests, it is in recognizing that we are more alike than different -- not just in the fact of our being human beings, but also in the everyday things.

Many of us grew up in families or had friends who helped us codify our languages of experience. More basically, we had to eat, find shelter (or live under rules of the family), survive. As we progressed, we learned how to speak in a common language to participate in communal living -- with our neighbors and ourselves. We acceded to the concerns of trade and commerce, education (if ours to accept), life.

Or confronted issues of death, maybe formed a new family. Whatever our differences, we are in fact the same. Sure, we could argue that our environments and our backgrounds are unique -- culturally, physically. However, regardless of how we live our lives, we move toward a common destination: death, in whatever its forms. In whatever our moments, we gain from what's around us by participating in the act of living. To deny one group or person is to ignore our own common interests: life.

Okay, so maybe there are people out there ready to die, but I don't think most of us are that way. And the idea of separating out one person from a common family into two places divided by a borderline without the possibility of contact denies the common bond of what it means to be social. And yet we find this situation between North and South Korea, further enmeshed with the actuality that contact between North and South is illegal. (1)

We find it in America, too, with the constant divisions among people of different backgrounds -- race, nationality, religion. Although not as overt as the Koreas, we nonetheless mark out territories that divide one group from another, even within families. These are issues as complex as class and more telling as nation, and illegal. We find no common barriers because we choose words like white man, black man, migrant worker, CEO.

What if instead of these words we chose human, human, contributor, contributor? Could we not then begin to identify common aspirations? Could we not see that all humans are able and capable of contributing to society? Does it matter what class, race or identity we have if we are moving forward in the same way -- toward death? I mean, think about it: our color, origin, sexuality -- these all lead to the same thing, death.

And in dying, our bodies break apart. Years later we can't identify the body of a white man, black man, migrant worker, or CEO. These bodies become objects, with bones and cavities that once framed animals. Who knows -- one hundred years from now we might be an old breed of human, with humans of the future so advanced that they don't even have bodies! Can't you imagine that? -- if in a future time there wasn't even the issue of race or sex?



1.  From Dr. Minju Kim's introduction. She teaches Korean language and literature at Claremont McKenna College.  (back)

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Vanessa Raney is a graduate student in History at Claremont Graduate University. Her poetry has recently appeared in American Western Magazine (online), Quirk, Asphyxia Digest, WireTap Magazine (online), The Bayou Review, and The Thing Itself.

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Published November 3, 2003
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