I have two little boys who profess to be best friends but cannot sit next to each other for twenty minutes without one of them making the other cry. Theirs is a tumultuous friendship. A few days ago, I made the mistake of telling the littler one that he could sit next to the curly-haired one for the last fifteen minutes of class. Just for the game, he reasoned. I was bone tired at this point and hadn’t the strength to say no, so I didn’t.
Not very long after, the curly-haired one had his hands over his face, his tiny shoulders shaking. His little friend was back in his original seat in a flash, his back straight and resolute, and without anyone having to speak I knew that neither thought they were in the wrong. When children fight, there is no ignoring it and moving on with anything, so I kneeled by their desks and began trying to determine what had happened. Neither my Korean nor their English has the capacity for nuance yet, and so, in exhausted desperation, I asked all I knew to ask with the language available to me: 釭雌 餌塋 援 掘撿? (Who is the bad guy?)
What a question to ask. And we ask it every day, in all earnest, and nowhere more than in this complicated country of ours. So complicated that a question that is inadequate in even the most harmless situations could not even begin to skim the surface of the well-hidden pain that is our collective lot to bear.
I have been reading of how my country came to be what it is now – sad, beautiful, violent – in a book by Martin Meredith, a Brit who has written many books about my tumultuous continent, despite not having been born on it. Maybe that’s exactly right; maybe what history needs is precisely someone not too blinded by and preoccupied with their own scars to look the truth in the eyes and tell it like it needs to be told.
But maybe that isn’t what we need at all. Maybe, if we are to understand history right, all of us with our scars and our stories need to tell them; tell them quietly and seriously, without raising our voices and our fists. Maybe that’s how we heal.
My question is this: how have we not gotten better by now. We have had many years to learn and mature, and still we are no better, collectively, than one tired teacher who doesn’t speak the language and wishes more than anything for her lesson to go smoothly. The thing is, for the tired teacher, the stakes are low. Something has transpired and for things to move along, I ask the most time-efficient question I am capable of. That the question is lazy, and that it ignores all the nuances that come along with the privilege of human interaction, is almost unimportant, because the lesson will proceed smoothly after it is answered.
But the same is not true when the stakes are as high as they are for my country, and her people. We do not, I fear, have enough left to lose to still be wasting our time asking otiose questions like “who is the bad guy?” Because the frightening, freeing, realisation that comes about when you look at human relationships – past and present – with the sort of distanced curiosity that comes from living away from your country for long enough, is that there is scarcely ever a bad guy.