Friday, 29 June 2012

The Perils of Making it in Olney

The fracas in Olney over Korean-language street signs reminds me of my visit to Korea in 1983. On October 10th of each year, the Koreans celebrate the creation of an alphabet by King Hangul, with a national holiday.

For a retired English professor, that was really astonishing—to see a people so dedicated to literacy they’d set aside a day to remind themselves what a blessing their king had given his people.

It was, of course, a great breakthrough for democracy of learning—reducing the 8,000 ideographs of classical Chinese to a manageable series of symbols. Scholars have argued as well that Hangul is the most perfectly attuned alphabet, symbol matching sound with great precision—none of the asymmetry that makes spelling in English a world-class pain in the memory.

The Olney Koreans went through the proper channels, getting city approval for their $3,000 worth of 26 signs. They claim they wanted to help older Koreans find their way around the new neighborhood, a possibly disingenuous explanation. More likely, they mainly wanted to feel more at home in a city where blacks bumped them off in North Philly and where, generally, in the blue-collar neighborhoods in which they can most easily get a foothold, they are derided as “gooks.”

No matter. It makes you wonder how much of the Lady Liberty centennial was a farce of fireworks, so little do her ideals prevail today in our neighborhoods.

The Koreans are used to being reviled and abused. The Japanese occupation of their peninsula between 1910 and 1945 has got to have been one of the ugliest episodes in the generally hateful annals of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

And the Koreans that the wartime Japanese shanghaied to their islands to do the dirtiest work in World War II are still treated like scum on Honshu and Hokkaido. (The most recent outrage is a law to require fingerprinting of all foreign nationals, but which is generally assumed to be a way of handling the Koreans “stranded” there.) So those street signs are probably, above all, a kind of psychic band aid for a people who have taken a lot of drubbings in the 20th Century.

To monolingual Americans, foreign signs—like foreign languages—are mostly a lot of goofy noise and gibberish. But that’s not the big issue in Olney. The big issue is that the Koreans are just too damned successful for their (the neighbors’) own good, “their” in this case being the two- and three- and four-generation Irish and Germans whose American Dream has been basically static for years and years (and, what is really damaging to their psyches, in Reagan’s two-tiering of America seems to be slipping behind.)

This is different from their cousins in Juniata Park and Frankford and Kensington. Those blue-collar ethnics are singing the blues because blacks “wreck the neighborhood”—even though some of those precincts seem dominated more by hoods than by neighbors.

The problem in Olney is that the Koreans are upgrading the neighborhood. Envy, that Achilles heel of egalitarian democracies, rears its ugly head. The current “Yellow Peril” is that these immigrants work too hard, save too prudently, upscale themselves too fast.

“There but for the grit of harder work, go I and mine,” grouse the blue-collar ethnics who are enraged by having to swallow the dust the industrious Koreans leave in their wake.

I’m convinced that this is a variant of anti-Semitism: The lazy hate Jews as well, for doing too well. And the trio of T-shirted, beer-swigging young whites who “lynched” the signs are an apt emblem of their own problem. They’d rather fight the success of others than switch their own lifestyles to more productive ones.

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