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The Ali Detail That Means More Than You Think In Squid Game

Netflix's newest sensation, "Squid Game," continues to be one of the streaming service's most popular shows worldwide and may even be positioning itself to make TV awards history. As "Squid Game" becomes an increasingly global cultural artifact, viewers have begun to look a little closer at the behavior of some of its most prominent characters, such as Ali Abdul (Anupam Tripathi).

In the brutal competition depicted on the show, Ali is the rare character who seems to express genuine concern for others, which makes his involvement in some of the gruesome scenes on "Squid Game" all the more unfortunate. However, some viewers have expressed some discomfort at the deference that Ali, one of the darkest complexioned characters on the show, exhibits to everyone around him.

One such viewer is Dr. Uju Anya, a critical sociolinguistics professor. Anya asked on Twitter if anyone could explain why the show depicted "the only non-Korean main character as a brown skinned man who the entire time snivels in 'sirs,' gratitude, sacrifice, and subservience to people equally f***ed as him."

That is certainly a fair question, especially coming from an individual with such a deeply credentialed understanding of language and its cultural repercussions as Anya. John Lee, the host of The Weekly Korean Foreigner podcast, took it upon himself to offer an answer. 

'Sir' is not a direct translation of the Korean term Ali often uses

In a lengthy Twitter thread, podcast host John Lee offered a detailed analysis as to why Ali uses the term "sir" so frequently and his interpretation of what the writers of "Squid Game" were trying to accomplish in doing so.

Lee wrote that Ali does not refer to any of the other characters by name when he is first introduced to them, which he explains is common practice in South Korea. Lee also explained that aspects of friendship work differently in Korean society, writing, "unless you are the same age and you happened to have gone to the same school, it is nearly impossible to be friends with someone – no matter how close you get."

Next, Lee broke down the Korean term Ali often uses, which is different from its English translation, "sir." The word in question that Ali says is "sajang-nim," and Lee noted, "Sajang is a word used to mean a company president. Nim is a gender-neutral suffix that is used to elevate the person that you're speaking to." This makes the direct translation for the word closer to "boss sir" or "boss madam," depending on the gender of the person addressed.

Ali's use of the term 'sajang-nim' in Squid Game is a reflection of his cultural status

While there may be some translation issues with how Ali addresses his fellow "Squid Game" contestants, Lee feels that there are also some critical cultural connotations that are essential for viewers to understand Ali's portrayal.

On "Squid Game," Ali is depicted as an undocumented Pakistani migrant, making him vulnerable to being taken advantage of by his employer. In addition, as Lee wrote on Twitter, "what that means is that as far as social hierarchies go, Ali is WAY at the bottom of it."

Lee clarified that as a prosperous nation, South Korea attracts migrant workers worldwide, but like most nations, grapples with racism. Beyond that, the use of informal terms can potentially elicit strong negative responses from individuals higher in the South Korean social hierarchy. Lee interprets Ali's use of the word "sajang-nim," especially toward a character like Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), as the result of years of social conditioning.

To close his comments on Twitter, Lee asked, "So, when Ali calls Sang-woo sajang-nim and constantly bows, were the writers trying to paint him as some kind of Uncle Tom?" In Lee's opinion, this is not the case. Instead, the writers attempted to demonstrate the level of societal pressure individuals in Ali's position face.

Finally, Lee introduced his followers to one last Korean term — "hyeong," which is a term that would typically be used when addressing an older brother, and this is as close as Ali and Sang-woo could get to becoming friends. However, even that relationship is ultimately undermined by the brutal conditions of "Squid Game" and the harsh realities of rigid social hierarchies.