Toyota, Women’s Figure Skating and Cultural Lessons

When the Toyota recalls made headline news my husband asked me one question: “You don’t think someone will commit suicide over this, do you?”

Absurd or plausible? How many of you understand where this question comes from or can’t believe Peter would ask such a thing?

When Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, criticized Toyota President Akio Toyoda’s apology for not showing enough remorse did you nod in agreement or get defensive? If you nodded in agreement, what would have demonstrated an appropriate show of remorse? If you got defensive what did you see or hear that might not have been as obvious or direct?

Last night’s women’s figure skating finals was beautiful and stressful to watch: Mao Asada v. Kim Yu-Na = Japan v. South Korea = two women carrying the weight of their respective countries. The entire country.

Overly dramatic sports commentators telling a story? Or did you feel the weight too? Did you feel relief for Kim Yu-Na and simultaneously feel the weight of a second place finish or did you wonder when America would once again be on the podium?

I don’t remember anyone ever telling me that getting a ‘B’ or not getting into a top university or quitting every instrument I ever picked up brought shame and disgrace to my country, but I certainly understood that my family (and by family I mean those alive and dead) would forever be a part of each success and failure.

My father asked me to play the piano at the inaugural Sunday service of the church plant he was pastoring. I told him I really wasn’t sure because I’m not that strong of an accompanist. Practice may make perfect, but I really didn’t think I could practice close enough to perfect. My parents insisted in direct and indirect ways about how important this was and what it would mean for me to play the piano. I gave in. Big mistake. I was horrible. I was so embarrassed, but more for my parents than anyone else. We carried each other’s disappointment and embarrassment. We never talked about it. (Dad, if you’re reading this we still don’t have to talk about it.)

Multiply that by, um, infinity, and that might be what Kim Yu-Na and Koreans and Mao Asada and Japanese everywhere were experiencing – the weight of a nation carried by two women and their nations. (And I can’t even get into the historic animosity between these two nations…)

You could almost see that weight come off of Kim Yu-Na as she finished her long program and hit that final pose. We all saw it – it was obvious and indirect at the same time. Kim Yu-Na couldn’t explain in post-performance interviews why she uncharacteristically started crying, but the sports commentators filled in the blanks. They may not have felt a nation’s pressure on them, but they saw it and understood it enough to translate the indirect and subtle.

That’s what Rep. Kaptur missed during the congressional hearings. Perhaps she and the other politicians were expecting tears but what they missed was the indirect weight of a nation losing face and issuing apologies and testimony in both English and Japanese. Maybe they need a lesson in cross-cultural awareness, and watch some tape of last night’s figure skating performances. Maybe our politicians need cultural interpreters as well as language interpreters?

So what did you catch or miss or learn or find yourself explaining as an automotive giant was held accountable and an ice queen held court?


  1. awwwjin February 28, 2010

    hi kathy

    now that i am no longer a silent stalker, i suppose i should contribute like you suggested. ๐Ÿ™‚

    i couldn’t stop crying when i watched the medal ceremony. some of the tears were shed joyfully- i was ecstatic for yuna. but i couldn’t help but also mourn for the ungodly hope and pressure that south korea has placed on her. maybe it’s because i don’t fully understand the atrocities that took place during the japanese occupation. even so, i don’t think it’s fair to place an entire nation’s worth and “supremacy” on the shoulders of one young girl. if that’s not idolatry, i don’t know what is. as happy as i am for yuna, winning the gold won’t change this broken view of our national worth; if anything it’ll encourage it even more…

    • Kathy Khang March 1, 2010

      After Yu-Na won all my demented mind could come up with was, “If I had the money I would open up a couple skating rinks near larger Korean and Korean-American populations around the world”. Yes, what the country did with her is idolatry in a way uniquely broken to Korea’s history of oppression and occupation. But as a hyphenated American I feel that tension – cheering and cringing. Korea’s brand of idolatry will spawn a generation of ice skaters seeking to prove Korea’s supremacy. No doubt. But dare I say Korea and other “formerly known as developing nations” took many cues from America? Maybe I should stop here? ๐Ÿ˜‰


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