Censoring Cigarettes

“Did you hear what happened in America?” I asked.

“No,” Eunha replied. She’s a fourteen year old, exceptionally brilliant girl whose fluency in English can largely be attributed to her time spent in India. “What happened?”

I didn’t want to tell her about the violence at Sandy Hook Elementary, so I told her, “Don’t worry about it. How are you?”

But before she could answer, her friend gasped and quickly explained in Korean. I hadn’t seen much about the tragedy on Korean news websites, but was sure that it had been reported. This was the week of their presidential election, however, so I knew that most of the press was busy covering that.

After Eunha’s friend finished her explanation, I asked both of them, “What do you think about that?”

“That man has a mental problem,” Eunha replied. Her friend nodded.

“Could that happen in Korea?”

“No. Never,” Eunha said.

Months ago, at my wife’s elementary school, a young girl named Minji had been acting strangely. This girl was perhaps stressed from the many pressures of being a student in Korea. Whatever the reason, she took a box cutter (which students use here near universally instead of scissors) and held it to her neck and threatened to cut herself. A boy named Chi-hyeon, in an act of reactionary nobility, grabbed the knife bare handed and pulled it from her skin. The blade sank into his palm and severed tendons, but at least Minji was safe.

This past year, a boy at a middle school took the life of both his mother and himself. His mother has been on his case about playing too many video games and not spending enough time on his schoolwork. In an act of defiance he stabbed her and jumped out of the window.

Violence happens the world over. And when it does it evokes questions that we can breeze over or actually examine. Though I’ve lived in Korea for two and a half years, it’s still difficult to gauge the opinions of society. I recently asked one of my co-teachers who she supported in the Korean election and she refused to tell me, explaining it was a secret ballot. Much of what I understand about Korean attitudes comes from interacting with my students who, I assume, reiterate their parents’ opinions.

“Why couldn’t that happen in Korea?” I asked Eunha.

“Nobody has guns,” she said.

A coworker of mine echoed this opinion. She explained that to her it’s strange that Americans want to have guns. In Korea, almost no one has a gun, and for those few hunters that do, they must store their gun at their local police station in the off season. I explained that because of the 2nd amendment, many Americans feel it’s their right to own a gun, that it’s an essential part of their freedom. My coworker shook her head and said, “They don’t need to have guns to be free.”

The sentiment in Korea is one of disconnected condolence. Most of my students had heard nothing about the recent shooting(s) in America. And for the ones who had, it was a concept wholly foreign to them. They understood what had happened and were shocked, but it was in a country known for it’s love of guns. Many of my students assume that everyone in America has a gun, and when I told them that I do not and most of the people I know do not, they were a little surprised.

Here, daytime television doesn’t allow knives, smoking, or violence to be shown. The censors blur it, so the impression is given, but not explicitly displayed. When I first came here, I was quite confused. They’d show guns being fired, but would blur out the blood. You could see the smoke of a cigarette exhaled into the air, but couldn’t not see the cigarette. Sure, you could peek out the door and see any man over 19 puffing away, but show that on TV and the censors would have a fit.

I think about my students like Eunha and her friend, how the laws and rules in their country give them confidence. It couldn’t happen here, they said. Yet I wonder what the response would be if we asked the same question to middle school student in America. I wish it could be the same.


Steven E. Athay is an aspiring story designer and connoisseur of all things awesome. Follow him on Twitter at @steveneathay, or read his blog Afflatus.

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One thought on “Censoring Cigarettes

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  1. When Columbine happened, I worked at a school in Nebraska, and my students were unimpressed-“it happened in Colorado, what do we care?” was the general impression. This past couple of weeks, I had many students express fear to me that it could and would happen here, and that’s why they didn’t want to come to school on Friday. It is a very scary shift. Thank you for writing about this.

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