Empathy


“I only understood a little, but things were not going well.” —Max Payne

The first weird thing that happened to me in South Korea was when I was doing a favorite thing: sitting in my boxers, eating pistachios. I was in front of my computer talking to a friend from home when someone knocked on my door. This was unusual. I’d only just moved to Korea to teach English and no one knew where I lived and no one had any reason to visit. Reasons for others to intrude into your life accumulate without your awareness all the time, and in strolled five police officers clad in black track suits.

One of them cradled my arm. They didn’t speak English. They said one thing, over and over, ‘Passport! Passport! Passport!’ and I struggled, panicking, to locate my passport. It wasn’t where it usually was. The adrenaline rush that accompanied five police officers surrounding me made me forget that I had brought it out earlier to fill out paperwork and so it was in the jeans slung on the back of my chair and not tucked away in its drawer. They waited patiently while I collected myself. I asked them a few questions: Who are you? Why are you here? Can I see a badge? They answered none, I guess because they couldn’t understand a word I was saying. I had the passport. They flipped it open to the page of my visa, read it, and were satisfied.

They tried to leave but I held one in my grasp—convinced now that I was legally invited, they turned gentle; these officers, certainly weirded about my presence in their monoculture country, my chest hair peeking from the V collar of my sweatshirt—that I almost didn’t feel scared and I tried to get him to explain. He didn’t have enough English and so he scribbled down a phone number for me to contact.

The next morning a second weird thing happened while I was doing a least favorite thing: walking to work too early in the morning. The sun was only just sliding out to start the day. While waiting to cross the street to school a maroon minivan pulled in front of me and the door slid open. I was eating a 7-11 burger for breakfast. It was disgusting. A middle aged lady appeared, looked me straight in the eye, and shouted at me with an incredible 7 a.m. glee: “I love you!”—and then she slid the door shut and drove away.

I told my high school boys about the police, not sure what to expect—easy sympathy, or apathy? The boys were sympathetic but the teacher who shared the class with me laughed out loud and brushed his open palm over my cheeks and said, ‘It’s because of your face!’ He moved the lesson along quickly. I didn’t know why I had told the class. They didn’t have enough English to glean anything real from it, and I had no Korean to try to explain. It was a weird anecdote. I gave another co-worker the phone number later and he found out that a neighbor had called the police on me, suspecting that I was an illegal immigrant. Why? Because they just did. Because everyone around me was Korean, I wasn’t, and there were Sri Lankan migrants in the area, some who may have been illegal. No one knew. I’m not Sri Lankan, I said. He shrugged.

The Gwangju Biennale came by every two years and 2010 was the lucky year. Being confronted daily with the fact I wasn’t Korean was whittling me down and I wanted to see a bit of the world. Thomas Hirschhorn’s Embedded Fetish was there and instead of calming me down, it rattled me inside and out. It contains a collection of photographs of men that had died in the War on Terror. These were close ups, sometimes heavily pixelated, but still, the aura of their pain was obvious in the room, multiplied, over and over again. Already strung out, I wasn’t really ready for the magnified effect the photos would have on me. There were also busts that had screws and bolts jutting out of them to show the impact point as depicted in the photographs, to draw out in visceral detail the suffering that these men had gone through.

My parents have always been reticent to talk about their history, but I had recently managed to learn that my paternal Grandfather was a Pashtun Afghani orphan and so in both an abstract and biological way, I was quite heftily Afghani. I felt claustrophobic and left. Immediately outside I walked into a group of 100 middle school students who could not believe their luck at seeing a brown, bearded man in the middle of the city. They screamed and screamed until I walked away and discovered a bizarre Turkish donair stand, and chewed slowly, examining the odd wobbliness I felt.

Physical recognition can be the first step towards empathy or its opposite. Understanding is preceded by a desire to understand: you have to want to care to care. It was always easy for me to be against the wars in the Middle East, but knowing that I was Afghani and discovering those photographs was too much—I couldn’t stand.

The Boston Marathon bombings reminded me of this murkiness. These kinds of events were apparently now only possible from people on “the inside,” committed by “normal college students,” and even more frustratingly, from people who fell under the large swath of “people like me”: immigrants. Dzhokar arrived in the U.S. at 8, I entered Canada almost 7, having forgotten the purple scarf my mother got for me on the plane. Where did my mother find a scarf in Saudi Arabia? Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, arrived from South Korea at 8. One Goh, the school shooter in Oakland, arrived later in life, older, and closer to being fully formed.


Jay Caspian Kang recalled meeting One Goh in 2012. He visited the shooter in prison and they quickly discovering a mutual connection.

He said, ‘You know, my father is a pretty typical Korean guy.’ I told him I knew what that meant. There’s a shorthand among Korean immigrants, and as I sat across from One Goh, I tried not to think about the ease with which we had connected.

Kang later reveals sharing the same type of heart-dropping feeling many “dark skinned males” felt when the Boston marathon bombing happened when he heard about One Goh:

I learned about the Oikos shooting shortly after it happened from a Korean friend who communicated the whole thing in a one-line e-mail: “We did it again.” I knew what he was talking about the moment I read it. “We,” indeed, had done “it” again, and “it” required no further explanation.

Kang’s article was actually the first I’d heard of the Oikos shooting, from here outside America. Kang wrote: “The victims of the Oikos massacre came from Korean, Indian, Tibetan, Nigerian, Filipino and Guyanese backgrounds.” Their lack of wealth, success and any visibility at all meant that “they were not held up as beacons for the possibilities of immigration, nor were they the faces of urban decay and the need for government assistance and intervention. They did not exist within any politicized realm.”

My Facebook feed did break the news of the Boston bombings to me, but instead of the horror and bravado that usually greeted past attacks on America, this was different. Friends were posting links to a bombing in Iraq that occurred on the same day and that had killed more people, and the status updates were tender: “This happens every day to others” was the general theme.

What does it take to start feeling for others? Each Facebook post reflected a sort of anger—and they were all from white people—at the havoc that was regularly visited upon the rest of the world. Photographs that were blurred or not shown on TV squirm onto the Internet; these were some of the top links on Reddit. To these people, the Boston marathon photographs resembled the Middle East’s war photographs. Photographs of white men in the U.S. in tracksuits with their legs blown off from bombs containing ball bearings. This may have been the bombers’ point. Forced to see the West like the East, would that be enough to cause reflection? Is that simple or garish? Do we need to see someone harmed to empathize?

The Tsarnaev brothers were building up towards being indistinguishable. The most confrontational of the photos of them show the older brother as a boxer, training in America, hoping to ascend from himself, but still stuck in a type of alienation. (“I don’t have a single American friend.”) A photograph of Tamerlan doing a bizarre ankle strengthening exercise and laughing because Americans don’t worry about their ankles; a quote from a coach who admired his strong European boxing stance. The Rolling Stone cover with Dzhokhar, looking like any kid’s selfie, because he did a better job of becoming American then his brother did.

“You know how vampires have no reflections in the mirror?” Junot Diaz once rhetorically asked an audience. “If you want to make a human being a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” What was being reflected toward us?

“Nobody in Temescal’s Koreatown wanted to talk about Koreanness and One Goh,” Kang found. They did not want to draw attention to Koreans, or Koreanness. Mosques, too, are the first to distance themselves from crazy people who murder and who look like they might be Muslim.

But the community Kang is speaking to can’t no-comment forever, especially if this happens again. Eventually, others will fill the need for discussion, as Martin Amis did for Muslims in 2006, expounding on an “urge”: “The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order,” Amis felt compelled to say, detailing his desire to prohibit Muslims from traveling and other “discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children.” Mosques now answer the question before being prompted, generally issuing “This is not what Islam is” statements when an atrocity occurs. Bill Cosby’s approach looms long after the Trayvon Martin disaster, where the black community gets denied the force of American history and instead told to pull their pants up.

The other popular set of images of Tamerlan is him lying on the autopsy table, his guts seemingly evacuated from his body, gashes covering his frame. “Who expected Chechens?” was one of the first updates on my news feed when the identities of the bombers was revealed. I had been worried about empathy since right after the bombing, when I read that the males were considered “dark skinned.”

Is it empathy I’m looking for? I have a shimmering sensation of both being here and not being here that I’m looking to conquer. Maybe that’s said of anyone who realizes the tender fabric we build ourselves up with. This mischievous pain that so many of us feel, that Kang, Diaz, and hundreds of others try to illuminate, but always seems to remain forever outside the reach of the sliding sun, can that really be vanquished?


Last year in Kill Screen, Filipe Salgado argued that the video game Max Payne 3 turns us all into “ugly Americans.”

Max is ushered from the richest VIP clubs in São Paulo to the poorest slums, and even he comments on not understanding how one really connects to the other. It’s something Rockstar’s script keeps coming back to, his inability and unwillingness to comprehend the complex socio-economic relationships in Brazil’s major cities. Max shoots first, and doesn’t bother to ask many questions later.

This is on purpose, Salgado suggests, as none of the Portuguese dialogue in the game is translated. You are not meant to bridge the gap between Max and the scenery.

“MP3″ is lavishly designed. Furious colors and crisp noir dialogue guide your progress. The controller vibrates whenever you shoot your gun. You never know what anyone is saying to you because they are a foreign enemy. It’s an intense experience during which I took several week-long breaks; the constant violence is too much.

Salgado’s apprehension is this depiction of Brazilians as faceless targets. The game rips through our popular comprehension of Brazil. Money, thugs, slums. It’s only after at least 10 hours of game play that I remember Salgado’s argument and realize that at no point I saw a problem with blasting away hoards of Brazilians.

I do avoid any video games that I think might be set in Afghanistan or Iraq. The other day, while waiting tables, I got silently and rapidly very angry at the band British India for choosing such a goofy name. I get mad when Wes Anderson writes an Indian character, or at any Muslim terrorist character on “Homeland.” But this was easy – I just wanted to shoot people. Where was my empathy? Emotional, intellectual, or otherwise? When is fun fun? Why can’t British India just be a band?

When I play NHL 2011, I play as my hometown team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Ice hockey is an overwhelmingly white sport and the Toronto Maple Leafs have the highest drafted Muslim player in the league, Nazem Kadri. This led the way for me creating my own “dark-skinned” team, beginning with Kadri and including Ray Emery, Wayne Simmonds, Johnny Odyua, Manny Maholtra and PK Subban. I inspect the rosters of other teams for dark faces. I had friends growing up who would search the NBA’s payrolls to add white faces to their video game basketball teams; the short kids sought out Muggsy Bogues and Damon “Mighty Mouse” Stoudamire. My own roster patrolling started in Korea, when I wanted to act on a craving to witness a representation of something “like” me. It was that weird elastic loneliness of wanting to be alone—why else travel?—and not wanting to be alone—how does one wrangle longing?—that manifested itself in that intermediate state: A video game. Where else would I get it?

There’s an interesting loneliness that comes with having no reflections. I want to think that the closest I’ve found is Kumar from the Harold and Kumar movie franchise; n+1 recently suggested Kumar might be the “single best role model for generations of brown people otherwise condemned to going pre-med.” But how flat is his rendering? How desperate is my desire that I fling everything on to poor Kal Penn? I treat Kumar with the same sort of reverence that someone could treat a Max Payne. Why am I so eager for the immigrant Dude, Where’s My Car? I hold “Grand Theft Auto IV”—about a Serbian immigrant—strangely close to my heart, pumping the narrative full of meaning that was probably not intended.

The uselessness of brown angst. What am I supposed to do with all this scaffolding of thought that I’ve built? All these sputtering images, do they place any of us in the world? This color of pain gets brighter and more opaque with age, into something that I notice more but am less sure what to do with.

At the restaurant I work at, now in Melbourne, I recently seated an old couple. She had a perm and bright red lipstick, he had a gold ring, a red sweater. He ordered a drink. “Where are you from?” he asked, after noticing my accent, my skin. His hair was slicked back but I could see that he’s a bit bald. “Canada,” I said. I’m awful at pouring wine; nervous, too slow. It dribbles from the bottle. I found out later that he’s a popular local columnist. “Oh good,” he said. They were staring at each other, still in love. “At least you’re not a Muslim.”






Adnan Khan currently lives in Melbourne, Australia.