Joanne Yang, an eighth grade student of Brice Lee at Seoul International School in Seoul, South Korea, read and responded to the online YES! Magazine article, “’They’ and the Emotional Weight of Words.” In this article, Cole, founder of the Brown Boi Project, welcomes the expanding list of gender pronouns. Pronouns can help us all learn to see and respect each other’s identity. Instead of cultivating fear, shame, and embarrassment around not knowing the right thing to say, Cole encourages us to create new approaches to language so we feel freer and more open with each other.
Writing Prompt: Is there anyone in your life—you included—who is not comfortable being referred to as “he” or “she”? Write a letter to Cole on how you feel about this expansion of gender pronoun language. How do you deal with this cultural change?
The Jintas of Conservative Korean Culture
Frankly, when I first read your article, I had no context to understand it at all. The issue of language pronouns is completely alien to me, since there are no actual words in Korean to describe people in the LGBTQ+ community. There are only romanized versions of them which are seldom—in fact, almost never— used.
Even though I was sympathetic towards LGBTQ+ causes, your YES! article, “‘They’ and the Emotional Weight of Words,” made me realize how little I understood about LGBTQ+ people’s dilemmas and the negative effects of society forcing them into limiting categories. In Korea, all the issues you have addressed are latent, neglected, and invisible in the eyes of many people, including mine.
Your article was a wake-up call for me that the LGBTQ+ movement for full acceptance is almost nonexistent in Korea. I became disheartened when I realized how far Korea lags behind other nations in supporting LGBTQ+ issues. As one of the most Confucian societies in the world, we adhere strictly to gender norms. Quite simply, women are expected to be feminine and men are expected to be masculine. In fact, the only Korean cultural event that celebrates LGBTQ+ acceptance is called the Korea Queer Culture Festival. I had never heard of it before reading your article. I felt even more sympathy towards Korean LGBTQ+ people when I learned that people involved in the festival wear masks to hide their identities.
I am ashamed to say that it would be almost inconceivable for a single Korean person I know to identify as transgender because it would trigger so much fear and embarrassment. Even if someone were to come out openly as gay, he or she would be ridiculed with the common Korean slang jinta (찐따). This word is used to mock or marginalize people as different, peculiar, and uncommon, and it has devastating power in Korean culture. The mere mention of being labeled jinta can completely—and permanently— ostracize you from society.
I grasped the true power of this word in high school when my friend was shunned for being too “masculine.” She is still known as the ultimate jinta simply because she preferred soccer over gossiping and baggy jeans over skirts. As soon as one person characterized her as a jinta, it was as if there was a tacit and invisible agreement among all students not to interact with her, lest they be categorized as a jinta as well. This may seem like an innocuous example of high school bullying, but it is a reflection of a deeply entrenched part of our culture that has an almost Orwellian kind of control over what types of individual behavior and actions are acceptable in Korean society.
All this exemplifies the primary reason why people choose to conform in Korea and emphasizes the impact even one word can have on what people think of themselves. If one word can change how people think and feel about their identity, then we should enlarge the scope of them so that we are more inclusive.
Reading your article opened my eyes and inspired me to learn more about LGBTQ+ people and bring awareness to this cultural cause in Korea. It even motivated me to look at myself differently. Our identities do not always fit in a narrow “gendered box” as you mention in your article, and people like my friend should not have to face discrimination because of this.
Language is constantly evolving and plays a large role in defining us and how we perceive each other. When gender pronouns are too limited, we unnecessarily limit ourselves and fail to see how truly nuanced and malleable we actually are. The strict options of “she” or “he” prevent us from understanding and connecting with each other on a deeper level.
In society, and especially in conservative countries like Korea, we must broaden our language to include more gender pronouns to allow people to define themselves however they like. Words should never be allowed to limit who we are.