The 정 Challenge

This evening, Miss Jiwaku and I had a conversation with some of her relatives. These particular relatives are very nice and very decent people, good folks. But there was a line in the conversation that got me, where someone said, “But you know, as nice or polite as people in other countries might be to one another, Koreans have something unique… they have jeong.”

If you haven’t run into this idea, jeong, well, then you apparently haven’t talked to many South Koreans. It gets translated variously as “harmony” or “coexistence” or all kinds of other things that sound, well, nice, but which one does not actually encounter out there in the real world.

My personal theory is that jeong may have meant something at some point in the past, but that today, it’s a referent to something that simply doesn’t exist in general within Korean society. Perhaps the way that people lived together in small villages in bygone ages did incorporate something called jeong–not that this would be unique to Korea, of course–but even if such a thing did exist in the village life of Korea centuries ago, it seems largely dead and gone.

One of the strongest indicators that this is the case is that everytime I’ve asked a Korean to define jeong, they’ve gotten all vague and “it’s untranslatable” on me. But the question of translation is a cop-out, as Miss Jiwaku agreed earlier today: after all, ask a Korean to define jeong in their own language, and you get the same airy, vague, and ultimately meaningless kind of, “I know it when I see it,” sort of stuff.

Indeed, though I think the conclusion to the post series is garbage, I still can’t help but think of what Joshing Gnome wrote about the subject years ago:

Koreans claim that jung is an untranslatable Korean concept.  The reason that Koreans have a difficult time translating jung is that it is, in fact, an alien concept to them.  Korean culture draws that ten foot trench between those you care about and those for whom you feel nothing.  To feel some affinity for someone on the other side of that trench is jung.  And it’s totally outside of the basic bounds of the culture.  That’s why jung is such a hard thing for Koreans to explain to you.  Because you already feel it all the time.  It would be like you explaining buoyancy to a fish.  You’s be at such a loss to express the concept that fish would merely nod in wonder when you told them ‘I guess buoyancy is a human concept that you just wouldn’t get.’

I either just knocked your socks off or you’re shaking your head in total disagreement.

Let’s think of jung using this rather out of left field analogy.  Remember the movie Empire of the Sun, which was about a bunch of Westerners in a Japanese POW camp during World War II.  The Japanese commander of the camp obviously felt some affection for the main character, a plucky British boy.  He might remark to one of his colleagues ‘I feel the strangest feeling of affinity for that boy.  How very odd.’  But that odd feeling would just be the entirely normal feeling of affection that one usually feels for a plucky young kid, filtered through the lens of the War.

Jung is like that.  People are meant to feel nothing for strangers.  Instead they feel something.  They feel moved to give this amazing development a name, and settle on ‘jung’.  They would have felt the same warmth if they didn’t live in a society of amoral familism, but since they do, the feeling sweeps over their natural defenses and overpowers their inborn urge to ignore the humanity of strangers.

I hope that explains jung.

This does make sense to me, but I’ve heard people argue that it’s off, that Joshing Gnome missed something, he misdefined jung.

I would argue that if it’s possible to misdefine a word, then it’s also possible constructively to define it. One chips away at all the misdefinitions until one arrives at a definition. The definition might be long. It might be complex. It might encompass different cases, different contexts. But the idea that a word “cannot be defined” or “cannot be translated” is horseshit. It’s an easy out, and a lazy excuse used to cover for when one either can’t be bothered, or has no idea how to define the word.

That’s not saying it’d be easy: there are words we bandy about in daily conversation that are hard to define. For English speakers, ask someone to really, clearly, and straightforwardly define “freedom” or “beauty” or “responsibility.” If the person is a thoughtful type, they may well say, “Look, this is too complex a concept to summarize in a couple of sentences.” But at the same time, they usually can churn out a conventional notion of the concept, one not dependent on the idea of its undefinability.

What I suspect is that if jeong ever did refer to anything in the real world, it no longer does. It either has always been, or has at least become, a simulacrum. What’s a simulacrum? Well, the guy who came up with the term defined it as a simulation without a referent to the real world; it is a simulation that refers to itself as an abstract conception. (Update: As Kevin notes below, my citation of Baudrillard as the originator of the concept in Simulacra and Simulation somehow got cut from this post, which I have now rectified.)

Which sounds like a good foundation for coming to grips with the task of defining jeong (Koreans’ putatively real special and unique form of social relational bonding) and han (Koreans’ special and unique form of suffering and victimhood). After all, if these words are themselves simulacra, then they call to mind nothing so much as what teenagers are so often trying, incoherently, to express in their gloomy, monotonous poetry.

Those teens’s poems represent incoherent attempts because those teens’ special suffering and their victimhood, their personal specialness, the amazing uniqueness and specialness of their social lives, cannot be expressed… because that special unique thing possessed only by teenagers, or by a specific group of teens or a specific teen, simply does not exist. 

I suspect that’s the case with jeong and han: since these words refer to nothing in the real world–there is no special harmony among Koreans, nor is there any special sense of victimhood–they are “impossible to translate” and “difficult to define” even in Korean.

But I’m willing to listen to counterarguments. I’m willing to consider definitions, as long as those definitions take into account the claim implicit in these terms that they describe things unique to Koreans–which is something that is part of the conventional definition of these words in Korea, hence all the silly claims that the terms cannot be translated, or that foreigners cannot understand their meanings. (Yes, I, like tsukinofune, have had Koreans declare that our relationship had “jung” before… but even as a participant in the thing, it was assumed the term could never be explained to me, that I could never understand; I know because I asked.)

So tsukinofune’s definition, as mentioned at the linked tumblr page:

it’s just 情 AS IN 感情友情 純情

… would be disqualified because it fails to include that special Korean context that most Koreans seem to insist is part of jung. Tsukinofune goes so far as to write:

i hate people who mystify jung

… but, I hate to break it to him or her, that includes a vast number of Koreans, indeed quite possibly (or, I’d guess from my own experience, more like probably) the majority of South Korean society.

So here’s the challenge:

  1. Define jung intelligibly and coherently–not in vague terms or in terms of its undefinability–along the lines commonly accepted in Korean society. Do so in Korean.
  2. Translate that definition to English coherently, using as many words as necessary, and in a way that conveys why it would be thought of by so many Koreans as either untranslateable (or incomprehensibly to non-Koreans).

If you can carry out both those steps, and convince me that jung does exist in Korean society, as a thing that is unique to that society, I’ll give you a prize. I’m not sure what, but probably a printed-out copy of a full basic set of the Creative-Commons game Cards Against Humanity, which, I guess one could say, embodies the diametrical opposite of jung itself.

But I’m going to be a tough sell. The main reason being that what usually when Koreans declare a relationship between them and me “has jung” my sense is simply that it’s one of those rare, truly good relationships one has in one’s life at any given time. Nothing special, nothing particularly Korean about it.

Also, because when I hear people get vague and all “it cannot be defined” or “it’s impossible to translate”–and they’re not talking about those tricky self-referential sentences in Douglas Hofstadter’s Metamagical Themas, like “Cette phrase est difficile à traduire en Anglais” (and pardon my rusty French, if that’s off). When someone claims something is not translatable, or cannot be understood by outsiders, it always sets off my bullshit meter. (I’m sure it’s true for any nonreligious person who had a religious upbringing imposed upon them.)

But hey, go on and try. I dare you!

37 thoughts on “The 정 Challenge

  1. Really interesting post. “The guy” you were referring to is Baudrillard, yes? Simulacra and Simulation?

    Regarding this:

    “and pardon my rusty French, if that’s off”

    Just de-capitalize “anglais,” and you’re golden. The French (and the Québecois!) capitalize words referring to nationality only when they’re talking about people from those countries: “Jai rencontré un Anglais. J’ai vu une belle Canadienne. Ce Coréen est cinglé!”

    My Korean’s not nearly good enough to take a stab at defining this word in Korean, and I also have to admit I’ve got no subtlety in how I imagine “jeong.” I tend to think of it, vaguely, as “warm connection.” Not very deep, eh? But I’d definitely agree that (1) not all Koreans have it, given how prone Koreans are to infighting, and (2) whatever “jeong” is, it’s not unique to Koreans, who are always looking for ways to prove their uniqueness. In truth, the uniqueness of any given culture is a trivial truth: all discrete cultures are unique. There’s no need to prove or advertise this.

    1. Kevin,

      Thanks for the French tips, and yeah, I was talking about Baudrillard. The post went through several edits and I suppose the citation got cut. I’ve added it again. :)

      I agree about the apparent drive to prove Korea’s uniqueness being kind of silly, since, yeah, all cultures are unique, technically…

      … but maybe you’ve hit upon something: maybe it’s a common neurosis not to realize that Korean culture–despite being in many aspects copy-and-pasted from somewhere else–is actually unique. I’d imagine it’s probably a hang-up for a lot of Koreans, the way a lot of Canadians seem to feel some quiet, reproachful sense of resentment towards the US because, mainly, Canada can’t help but be a peripheral nation as long as the States is a superpower.

      Canadians aren’t necessarily hung up on the degree to which they’ve imported American innovations because that cuts two ways, and Americans have imported both Canadian innovations and also innovations that Canadians also got from elsewhere (like Britain)… but perhaps out big hangup is how much of our media comes from down there, which is why so many Canadians seem to like keeping a running tab on just how many media figures in American media originally came from Canada.

      Likewise, I guess, a lot of Koreans probably feel a hangup because of how much of their own culture is permeated with foreign influences, mainly Chinese and Japanese in the past, and American today. And so, they feel the need to declare Korean culture somehow unique.

      I also agree with points 1 and 2, though I can hardly accept your definition of jeong as fulfilling my challenge, since part of the challenge is to demonstrate how jeong is uniquely Korean, since that is part of how it is conventionally defined.

  2. Jeong isn’t all that mysterious (as you note), but like many concepts, it isn’t easy to define without a lot of thought and discussion (as you also note). I think that Koreans encounter particular difficulty explaining it because they aren’t taught critical thinking and they lack a culture of discussion.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    1. Jeffery,

      Ha, I think “they aren’t taught critical thinking and they lack a culture of discussion” can’t be used to explain everything. For example, Koreans I know who have acquired critical thinking skills and also are initiated into a culture of discussion still usually cannot define jeong. (Of course, those individuals usually are skeptical of its special Koreanness, too.)

      And of course, defining something can be as hard or easy as one likes. One can write a treatise on defining love, or one can simply take a stab and know it will be imperfect. When one instead says, “This concept is unique to my language and racial group, and others can’t understand anyway,” it reminds me of nothing so much as when people who claim to have been spoken to by God are asked what God’s voice sounds like (for a wonderful example from one of the more recent episodes of The Newsroom).

      I’d say people who cannot define transubstantiation also cannot, by definition, believe in it… but this is an article of faith that seems almost designed to be incomprehensible. And what one finds is not believing in something, when enough anxiety is tied to the necessity of said belief, actually leads to just enough people talking authoritatively about it, as if they did understand and could explain it, except you don’t have enough faith or spiritual enlightenment or whatever.

      And this is worse than parlor tricks, in that sense, because it depends on what one could, following those performance-study books of the 80s, title The Inner Game of Self-Delusion.

      (And if I seem a little uncharitable towards religious institutions, well, show me a time when atheists have taken clerics and burned them at the stake for believing what we think is the wrong thing, and then I’ll start worrying about whether I’m being nice enough.)

      1. There could be several reasons your friends couldn’t explain jeong. Perhaps it’s a very vague term that doesn’t allow for complete clarity, or perhaps it’s an incoherent term that entails contradiction, or perhaps it’s just a term for something that doesn’t exist, or perhaps it’s just a term that has never been discussed before.

        But there’s nothing to prevent discussion that would bring these points out.

        Even contradictory concepts can be discussed and eventually defined in a manner that acknowledges contradiction, though this might demonstrate the uselessness of the concept.

        I still maintain that most Koreans can’t discuss it for the two reasons given.

        Jeffery Hodges

        * * *

        1. Jeffery,

          There could be several reasons your friends couldn’t explain jeong. Perhaps it’s a very vague term that doesn’t allow for complete clarity, or perhaps it’s an incoherent term that entails contradiction, or perhaps it’s just a term for something that doesn’t exist, or perhaps it’s just a term that has never been discussed before.

          True, though, ha, jeong has been discussed plenty… I’m guessing you mean “has never been critically discussed before by those individuals,” which is closer to the mark I’d suppose.

          And as for very vague terms that don’t allow for complete clarity–are there any terms that are in that set, and aren’t simultaneously in the set of incoherent terms or terms for things that don’t exist? Rather, I think terms for things that don’t exist often incorporate elements for both other sets, essentially by design. (One of the ways of getting people to believe in things that don’t exist is to insist that such things have self-contradictory, incoherent, or inherently vague properties, as in the theological example I mentioned before. I’m pretty stuck on that one, so I’m having trouble envisioning terms that are so vague as to resist any definition at all, while still describing real things; or terms that are inherently self-contradictory that cannot be defined, which describe things which are real. I come up blank in both cases, but it may be a blind spot caused by the struggle entailed in escaping a religious upbringing.)

          So I see your point, and raise you a “but”: that “but” is that the few Koreans I do hang around with aren’t in the category of “most Koreans” set out by your comment. They’re mostly unusually bright, unusually cosmopolitan in their worldview, and usually quite capable of engaging in reasoned discussion. (And engage in reasoned discussions about all kinds of things among themselves.)

          I’ve had people on occasion call my experience of Korean society unrepresentative for the same reason–disclaiming what I say when I argue that things are changing here, for example, because I’m just talking to young, financially well-off, fairly-will-educated people. Okay, but that cuts both ways, and so far none of the people I’d consider in the group have, in my memory at least, held forth on the Korean uniqueness of jeong, while some of them had dismissed the notion altogether… especially those who have been abroad to places where the public manners are, well, more focused on consideration and on acknowledging the humanity of other people, including strangers.

    1. Marvin,

      Thanks for the link. In it, though, I’d say jeong‘s unique Koreanness is taken as a given from the beginning, and in fact is insisted upon as unique despite the word being shared in common with China and Japan.

      Which is to say, it does fulfill my criteria for defining jeong as is commonly understood–but (and, I would say, necessarily) by begging the question regarding the uniqueness of jeong and “haan” (sic). Nothing in the actual definition besides the repeated insistence that is unique goes to any great trouble of establishing what is particularly unique about it. While that may be useful when dealing with psychiatric patients who take the same belief for granted, it certainly doesn’t demonstrate for our purposes that jeong actually exists as a unique Korean emotional experience… rather than as fantastical idea in some people’s heads about the specialness of humanizing feeling that permeates Korean relationships and doesn’t exist in others’ relationships.

      For one thing, I can’t help but note that all the familiar fallacies are out on display. While Korea does tend towards idealizing collectivity, it’s silly to place Korea and the West as polar opposites in terms of collectivity vs. individualism. That’s a newbie mistake, one I realized was pretty much wrong when I started thinking back to how Westerners live. We invest ourselves in collectives and groups too, and I’d argue that we do so with an ardour I rarely see in Korea, often because we tend to be forced to do so much less often. (I see a lot of Koreans participating in collectives, but mainly because they are often coerced to do so; I also see a lot of perfunctory participation.

      Compare the behaviour of the average group of attendees at a Korean wedding to those at a Western wedding: the fact that Westerners are usually shocked the behaviour they see at Korean weddings–and the generalized lack of collective feeling with the couple and the other attendees, as well as the attitude toward the ceremony itself–suggests this conception is wrong, if you ask me. I perceive Westerners at a Western wedding as focused on performing a role as a collective of witnesses to the wedding, as forming a community in which the marriage takes on meaning, as co-participants in the ceremony. Even at weddings of people I didn’t know, which I got dragged to back home, I would never have dreamed of shouting into my cell phone at the back of the church or hall; I would never have thought of leaving five minutes into the ceremony and chowing down at the reception venue, so as to beat the rush. And that’s just one small example. Westerners have all kinds of non-work-related organizations they join and participate in, regularly.

      Community has been steamrolled by business and work and so on in the last hundred years everywhere, of course… but the steamrolling seems so much more complete in Korea than in the West. But Westerners have had time to adapt to urban life, to develop alternative systems of community formation, like hobby groups, fandoms, and so on. Koreans are just on the cusp of reinventing a form of collectivity compatible with a modern, pluralistic society, because the older form of collectivism clearly just is not working for them. It’s probably the anxiety tied to that which makes everyone talk about how collective Korean society is.

      I’d also argue that it’s simply the degree to which collectivism is forced onto Koreans that accounts for the supposedly “unique” syndromes like Hwabeyong described in the article you link. This passage is illuminating:

      In order to explain the dynamics of hwabyung (HB), an analogy to borderline personality disorder (BPD), which might be viewed as a “Western” culture-bound syndrome 20 , would be useful (Table 3).
      Those with BPD are known for their frantic pursuit of attention from others, sometimes demonstrating destructive behaviors in that pursuit. The typical features of BPD include: 1) frantic efforts to avoid real or imagined abandonment, 2) a pattern of unstable and intense relationships, 3) a markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self, and 4) impulsivity in many areas with irresponsible behaviors… HB displays comparable symptoms, consisting of: 1) real or imagined violation of jeong, commitment, or loyalty, 2) suppression or explosiveness of emotion over the loss or betrayal of jeong, 3) damage of the “we-ness” (woori) self that causes anger, and 4) multiple somatic symptoms (lumps in the chest or epigastrium), panic-like symptoms, anxiety, and depression.

      A lot of effort is going into illustrating the differences between HB (Hwabeyong) and BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) and yet if you drain “jeong” of its magical connotations, the differences seem largely to melt away. Westerners with BPD freak out about perceived violations in relationship integrity just like people with HB do: but different words are used to describe and model their inner states.

      That’s not to say HB and BPD are necessarily identical, or that HB “really is” BPD. I’d guess they describe the same thing, with a focus on slightly different ways of describing and explaining it; mainly, I’d argue that the blame is laid by the sufferer in ways conventional to their own society, and that psychosomatic production of this or that set of symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean different conditions. But the fact that some mentally ill people in one culture blame the violation of some unique and inexplicable, untranslatable force (unknown among all other human beings) that binds them to other members of their culture, surely doesn’t do anything to establish that such a force exists. All it does is prove that such a belief exists not only among the general populace but also among the mentally ill.

      After all, if the claims of those afflicted by mental illness were evidence that the causes they claim for their condition are real, then why don’t we believe in witches cursing people, or treat love-sickness as a medical condition anymore?

      In other words, the paper seems to commit the fallacy of argumentum ad populum, and to ignore the way history tends to crush such arguments.

  3. This was an interesting read! I previously lived in China and had many people emphasis the same “uniqueness” about Chinese people. Their idea was that “Jeong” was centred around China’s strong sense of community. They claimed that the West just didn’t offer the same “Jeong”. They were happy to accept me as being “Jeong”, just not where I’m from, ha ha ha.
    After asking my Korean boyfriend about it, he proceeded to list examples of “Jeong”. He listed examples of things my (Western) mum and sister did, because they’re examples I’ve seen with my own eyes and can easily understand. He basically described “Jeong” as caring for another person or feeling a “connection” with them. So not all Koreans believe it to be a uniquely Korean sensation. It more so just seems that it’s hard to explain because there’s not an exact equivalent in the English language.

    1. Hi Umm,

      I suspect the obsession with the uniqueness and the specialness of community in these cultures is probably more than anything symptomatic of the difficulty of responding to American/Western hegemony. People manufacture mythologies about the specialness of their in-group all the time… for example, SF fandom seems to think it’s uniquely tolerant and forward thinking, though, well… that’s not really the case either.

      I’d argue that your boyfriend, if he’s dating someone who isn’t Korean, is probably already beyond the realm of the average Korean worldview from the get-go, but did he actually say that he didn’t feel jeong was specifically Korean? As a comparison, my partner is Korean, and while she thinks the idea of jeong-as-uniquely-Korean is ridiculous, she also acknowledges that most of her Korean friends and relatives do share this bizarre conviction. (And they tend to believe it mostly in inverse proportion to their exposure to other cultures, whether direct or through other intellectual means. (Movies, no; books, yes.)

      The idea that “jeong” doesn’t have an exact equivalent in English doesn’t really stand up to much if you ask me. I’d translate it as “a sense of mutual compassion” or “shared human decency” and like so many words that don’t directly translate between Korean and English, there are a host of adequate phrases for translating it. What these translations lack is the weird fetishization of the concept, one I suspect is probably inversely proportional to how often one actually encounters jeong in real life here.

      But that hardly supports the idea that the term is untranslatable. One could argue that “rule of law” cannot be translated to Korean because the exact translation of the word doesn’t convey the deeply-ingrained cultural aspect of the word — the profound internalization of the necessity of abstract legal systems that apply equally to all seems to be something missing in Korean society, where laws are treated more like suggestions subject to overriding personal circumstances, age-based hierarchy, and so on — but to claim (as so many do of jeong) it “cannot be translated” to Korean would be silly.

  4. From time to time we must challenge ourselves to know and weigh where we are already. To know our fears, success and future. Keep in touch with yourself.

  5. I’d say that, like most monolithic ideas, jeong is a misleading word. It’s one of the ideas that Koreans invoke as a component of their unique “national identity,” but then there is the 정 that all human beings are supposed to share intrinsically, regardless of creed or ethnicity.

    I was under the impression that any feeling of closeness or fellowship or affection is regarded as 정… the “ties that bind,” if you will, and that are acquired by some sort of proximity with the object, whether physical or psychological. Like what makes grannies on the subway offer to hold your luggage for you when you give up your seat for them (something I’ve both experienced and seen firsthand many times), or the residual affection that makes once estranged spouses unite in the face of adversity (a common Korean trope that holds true in real life far less often).

    Since you are “in the same boat”, there is an intrinsic sense of kinship in that, and it is what helps you unite. Korean culture emphasizes unity, and therefore, it is a logical step for Koreans to consider 정 one of the glues that hold their society together (and while not all Koreans believe that 정 is necessarily unique to Korean society, they do believe it is true of Korean society more than, say, American).

    I wouldn’t say this is all that 정 is, but I would say that, if you were to try and find a common thread running through all the situations that it might describe, that would be it.

    Along a similar vein, 한 is not only the perception of victimhood, but loss, which can encompass feelings as variable as actual victimhood, the inevitable reality that one can never have everything one wants, and a sense of lost potential. For a specific example, I would invoke the terrifying prospect of facing death still filled with regrets, broken promises, and dreams left unfulfilled. Or the emotion that, in Korean folklore, causes virgin maidens and bachelors to come back as ghosts to torment the living.

    My experience is that those two words are not that hard to define as long as you accept that they can stand for a multiplicity of ideas and realities. This is why, I think, so many Koreans consider 정 untranslatable, not because they’re unable to think critically, but because they see no value in picking apart the separate meanings: they know it when they see it, and that’s all that matters, to them.

    1. Anne,

      That’s interesting, but I think that the belief that Korea has some special, better, deeper sense of jeong is really prevalent and crucial. A few Koreans have insisted that of course jeong is universal, but most insist that I cannot understand it because I am not Korean — which I always felt was a patently insulting claim, until I realized that anyone who claims that is simply ignorant or stupid. And since that caveat — “You can’t understand it, of course, because you’re not Korean” — is so often added to the claim about untranslatability, along with the claim of uniqueness, I’m a bit dubious about how significant this ostensible universality is in many minds.

      (To me, it seems a bit like the churchmen who keep insisting that their god is neither male nor female, but who also constantly use masculine pronouns and titles for the same god: always King, never Queen, always Father and never Mother. The god of the Christians is obviously male in the minds of Christians, and likewise, however universal “jeong” might be in abstract theory, in practice the widespread belief is that it’s especially and uniquely Korean. Which is ironic because as a Westerner, I find people behaving in ways that embody what a generalized sense of jeong would entail far more often than I see it in Korea. The social contract where I come from (Saskatchewan, incidentally) seems unspoken but ubiquitous: we hold doors open for strangers as we walk out of a building, and try to be friendly and considerate towards people we don’t know, and we acknowledge their shared humanity on at a much greater frequency than I’ve seen anywhere in Korea except a fancy resort hotel. In my experience, people in Seoul seem to regard and treat strangers primarily as obstacles, when they acknowledge their presence at all. I guess I figure if Koreans had some extra-deep sense of jeong, they might actually be considerate to their fellow man in ways that I’ve failed to see, at least in Seoul.)

      As for Han, well, yes, perhaps in theory, but again: being told I cannot understand Han, that it’s a special Korean feeling that nobody but Koreans can understand — something I’ve been told countless times — doesn’t line up well with how you define it. The point for me is that when one walks about claiming to know it when they see it, and NOT seeing it where it obviously exists, then one is by definition refusing to think critically.

      (For example, claiming in the face of countless genocides and countless horrors across human history that members of one’s own ethnocultural group have a special kind of sense of sorrow. Anyone who claims that simply isn’t thinking very hard… or has such a deep-seated, childish need to be “special” or “unique” that it somehow overrides whatever critical capacity ought to give the claimant pause. And I suppose that’s what I’m trying to say: anyone who can make such a claim might be capable of critical thought, but is not doing it, for whatever reason.)

  6. I am willing to admit that the definitions I’ve supplied above are idiosyncratic, though I’m surprised to find so few people seem to agree with it. What you say, that so many Koreans act so entitled, was puzzling at first, but with ample time to recollect, I found plenty of anecdotal evidence to support it.

    Namely, it has irritated me before when I see Koreans talk about 정 and 한 as if Koreans had intellectual property rights to it. (Koreans are often compared to Jews in many ways, but particularly relevant here is the overwhelming sense of entitlement that marks the intracultural discourse of both.) I remember trying to talk them out of it, or at least showing them why believing so was not only likely to be wrong, but insulting to other cultures, but they were so firmly resistant and united in droves to patiently and indulgently tell me why I was wrong and lacked proper national identity.

    So mostly I blocked it out of memory. So yeah, I guess you have a point.

    1. Thanks. By the way, I’m impressed: you’re cutting a pretty fast track through my “Korea” posts here… did you just stumble onto my blog? Got one of your own? Just curious…

  7. Oh, and on a rather irrelevant note, certain churches in Korea claim that Koreans descend from one or another “lost” tribe of Israel, and therefore are literally direct descendents of “God’s children.” Those Korean Christians are totally batshit insane, and would be hilarious if they didn’t have such political and social clout.

  8. I’ve known about this blog for a while, since I stumbled here from The Grand Narrative, another favorite, and was a fan from my very first read. It’s not easy to find expats writing about their experiences here without unnecessary vitriol, let alone with such a sensitive touch. I always meant to read this blog more comprehensively… but life intervenes. I actually commented on one of your articles about two years ago, I think it was on a book review.

    I do have my own blog, and a tumblr, but they’re not much to read. I want to tackle issues of culture and society like you and James Turnbull, but I’m not confident enough to do that. I also guest write for a fashion and beauty blog.

    1. Yeah, I tend to avoid expat-in-Korea blogs these days… too much nastiness. (I sometimes slide into anger or rage too, but try to keep a level head most of the time.) Well, I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog now that you have time to read.

      Oh, you really shouldn’t think that way. James and I are far from superheroes. I think your perspective would be well worth sharing, if you have time for it. Don’t limit yourself too much. And don’t keep your blog and tumblr a secret — they’re not much read probably because the address isn’t appended to your comments!

    1. No worries, and hey… did you ever beat Bubble Bobble? I used to love that game!

      I know, not the most insightful reflection on your blog’s contents, but it’s been a long day! :)

      1. Nope, haven’t gotten around to it yet: boyfriend is too busy with the recent reboots of his old favorites (Diablo, X-COM, Baldur’s Gate, and most recently, Starcraft), and I’m preoccupied with The Sims.

        I see you’re into games too, but I’ve been too lazy to read that section of your blog, lol.

        1. Ha, actually, when I say “RPG” I mean the old-fashioned kind, ie. Tabletop Gaming. (Like, back in the old days, D&D.)

          But I do intend to explore computer/console games a little more now that I will have some time to do so…

  9. Ahh those! I used to do something similar in high school, and my boyfriend played World of Darkness way back in the day. He lent me the published book outlining the backstory and world, and I was enthralled. Too bad there are only a handful of players left in Korea, not to mention I’m now in med school!

    1. Anne,

      If you miss the hobby at all, there are games you can get that are more accessible to people who aren’t diehard RPGers, and which don’t require a lot of setup–a game like Fiasco can in fact be explained to newbies and played enjoyably without much prep at all (maybe just translation of the tables used for the scenario, if you’re playing with non-English speakers).

      I’ve only just returned to RPG games myself, after a long hiatus. Kinda kicking myself for staying away so long, but when I quit, there was far fewer options requiring little or no prep, and I was busy.

  10. Sorry for replying so late.
    It’s quite a complicated topic and life was busy so I didn’t really think I would reply.
    However, my inbox was lighting up because of the interaction between you and Anne so I stayed aware of the interaction here. Then today I read an interesting article that might shed some light on this discussion.

    http://www.psmag.com/magazines/pacific-standard-cover-story/joe-henrich-weird-ultimatum-game-shaking-up-psychology-economics-53135

    In my interpretation of this article it actually makes sense that people who And they tend to believe it mostly in inverse proportion to their exposure to other cultures would see it differently. As in that people with a lot of exposure to other cultures would have a markedly different perception of the world than those with less exposure. It might even mean that those with a lot of exposure to other cultures simply don’t understand the concept of 정 as it has existed in Korean culture for hundreds of years.

    And although the arguments you make about HB and BPD make sense. The difference relies solely on a perception of self I think. And how the self relates to the world. I agree for example with your observation that people in your hometown also have a sort of social contract that would on the surface imply a similar, or stronger, group awareness. (Don’t know if I’m interpreting it right here) The perception of self would be markedly different as such that the motivations for this social contract would be different in Korea compared to Canada (?) even though they have led to similar expressions.

    The things you mention are interesting. But the final referral to argumentum ad populum seems a strange one when referring to language though. History might crush arguments related to this fallacy, but whether it does the same with the definitions of words… Perhaps when the definition changes according to cultural values changing we will look back and retro-actively state that it’s not a unique word.

    Ah.. a quick note. What if part of the definition, meaning, of the word is its seeming untranslatability / untransferability.

    Anyway… maybe the correct definition of the word is not that 정 is a uniquely Korean bond, but a uniquely Korean perception of bonds. A perception that emerges because of a different perception of self that is culturally Korean.

    1. Marvin,

      I’m not 100% getting what you’re saying, so replying may be hazardous, but my argument as far as cultural exposure is concerned, is that people with less of it are more likely to make over-dramatic claims about their own culture’s special uniqueness.

      The irony in the article you read is that the culture that seems most invested in human-universalism is also the most unique and unusual — that is, more different from other cultures than they are from one another, in terms of how they wire up people’s brains developmentally. Note, as the author of the article points out, that’s not necessarily an argument that American culture is “better” — the cartoonification of Westerners’ understanding of animals is one example, though one could argue that is also why the protection of animals as a legislative and cultural concept has in the recent past become rather huge in the US and Canada, but, despite the influence of Buddhist teachings, remained to some degree an alien concept in a place like Korea — but they seem to be claiming it *is* uniquely different.

      In any case, when I read phrases like, “… the concept of 정 as it has existed in Korean culture for hundreds of years” I immediately think of Hobsbawm and Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition. People love to pretend that culture is inviolate, unchanging over thousands of years… but this is not the case in any culture. Culture is malleable, and changes much more rapidly than most of us ever imagine.

      In addition, cultures with a tendency toward inferiority complexes (like Canada and Korea alike) tend to hold up “grand traditions” as an emblem of their importance, specialness, and respectability. “Respect us, our culture is thousands of years old!” would be the Korean version of Canadians naming streets in Saskatoon or Toronto after streets or figures in the British Empire. (And the Anglo-Francophone equivalents in Montreal.)

      The truth is that most traditions are less than a couple of centuries old, and that whatever meaning “정” has now, it likely was different during different phases of Korean history. That’s not to say ancient things don’t survive, but they survive in very mutated form. (My mother tells the story of hearing Medieval songs and recognizing them, because as a child she learned the same tune, with different words, in the playground. To whatever degree the story is true, the mutation of the words is crucial. Culture, even when it does sort of survive, mutates irrevocably.)

      You can also be sure that when Koreans make a claim to Koreans’ understanding of a uniquely Korean concept which nonetheless is described by a Chinese loan-word, which also exists in many other Asian languages, that the claim to uniqueness is motivated by something other than a desire to describe actual reality. (It’s a bit like having a figure like Yi Sun-shin use the word “minjok” in a time-travel film while addressing North and South Koreans.) In a sense, what’s true of science fiction — that it is often more about the present day than the future — is equally true of history: we are constantly rebuilding history out of the ruins our predecessors left behind, to suit whatever story we want to tell about ourselves. Doubtless someday in the far future, children will be listening to stories about how, back on Earth, a war raged between the Greens and the Consumers, because they will be struggling to understand how humanity could trash the Earth so badly.

      The truth is more complex, nuanced, and problematic. (ie. Uncomfortable, because not all our ancestors were cool, or nice.

      Case in point: Korea’s officialized, legalized system of slavery. How does Koreans’ millennia-old, specially unique understanding of the bond that ties together all human beings relate to the fact Korea also had an intact form of hereditary chattel slavery for longer than anyone else on Earth? (I’ve seen that claim in several places, by the way, though I am open to correction.) Slavery, at base, depends on the dehumanization of a person so that he or she may be deemed property… which casts this special 정 concept in a light such that I would prefer not to understand it, because any philosophy that can square slavery with a uniquely deep understanding of human bonds horrifies me.

      (Just as does Christianity, another system that long demonstrated its compatibility with slavery… even if it was Christian womens’ leagues that helped bring slavery down in America and, IIRC, Britain.)

      You may be onto something about perception of self, on the other hand. I’ve heard people from other Asian countries who were living in Korea describe Koreans as being the most groupish of all Asians. But I find that the difference is likely quantitative, not qualitative. I can swallow the idea of Koreans being more concerned with the idea of how human beings ought to bond; I just find that overall Korean society’s models of how that ought to happen are pretty dysfunctional — sort of like how someone who is morbidly obese might worry about their looks more than someone who’s only a little overweight, or a little too skinny. And there’s evidence that demonstrates this, too, which I’ll mention below.)

      But to be clear, it’s not the concept of “정” that’s hard to understand, but the ridiculous investment in its ostensible uniqueness as… what? A marker of Korean specialness? This is what Westerners I know struggle to understand — not what the word “정” means, but rather what the excessive emotional investment in its significance means. Imagine being surrounded by people who believe that The Force (from Star Wars) is real, and that they themselves have The Force more than anyone else on Earth… and yet never seeing any acts of Jedi power, ever. What’s baffling is not the concept of The Force, but rather why everyone is so convinced that they need to keep saying they not only have it, but they have it better than anyone else.

      And for me, ultimately, the answer is a combination of brainwashing and lack of exposure to other cultures. The way this penetrates into so many interactions is baffling to most of us (Westerners): ask a Korean what his or her favorite food is, and he or she is likely to just blurt out, “kimchi,” without thinking, because somewhere along the way most people pick up the idea that kimchi=Korea. But when you ask a Korean, “What shall we have for lunch?” nobody says, “Kimchi!” They name a main dish, not a side dish.

      This could also be a result of rote learning: while most Westerners I know may differ on who they think was the best or worst monarch from their own European country, most Koreans blurt out “King Sejong!” without thinking it over. That’s not a nuanced sense of history, it’s just brainwashing. Likewise, Koreans holding up “정” as massively unique, special, and important doesn’t mean the concept impacts on their interactions at all…

      In fact, while I despise some of what The Joshing Gnome wrote about in his series on 정 (which I’m pretty sure I linked in my original post, right?), I think he’s right about one thing: my experience is that this beautiful, pervasive sense of harmony Koreans supposedly have a premium on surely doesn’t seem to have any effect on how Koreans treat one another in the real world: the average interaction with a stranger is about three degrees less polite and respectful than I am accustomed to expect from strangers in my culture, for example.

      Allow me to rephrase that: by North American terms, I find that many Koreans treat one another (strangers who are Korean, I mean) like crap on a fairly regular basis. Many Koreans are wonderfully polite to people they know personally, but strangers are basically barriers, annoyances… essentially, nonhuman obstacles.

      To put it another way, if North Americans behaved towards strangers the way most Koreans do toward strangers, those North Americans would be seen (by their fellow North Americans) as assholes; and I’m talking aout behaviours that are interpreted as normal in Korean cities.

      I don’t know if you’ve experienced it, Marvin, but mainstream North American cultures (though they are diverse as well) tend to be saturated with little expectations of consideration of others that transcend age, social status, and so on. If someone’s walking into a building behind you, you hold the door for them. In fact, you open the door differently than most Koreans would — pull the door toward you, so it’s easier to hold for the person behind you and less likely to slam into them if you let the door go too soon. If you see people in a closed space, and you want to enter it, you back away and let the people in the closed space out first. You don’t stand front and center of an elevator when it arrives, because obviously the people who are in it would want to exit and you’ll be in their way. You don’t stand around at the top of a stairway or, worse, the top of an escalator, and talk with someone or check your map. People give up seats not only for pregnant women but also for old people, for women in general. This sort of thing is very rare in Korea: I did a lot of subway-riding (on the Seoul system) in my last year in Korea, and the only people I ever saw give up a seat for someone who obviously needed it were myself, my wife, and one middle-aged woman who gave her seat to a pregnant woman.

      Which is to say, for someone raised with the conception of basic consideration that is normative in my part of Canada, “정” is not really very impressive at all. Either it’s just fantasy, or it’s limited only to people we know. (Which is kind of cheap when it comes to politeness, if you ask me.)

      Now, the absence of expectations of such considerations of other people in mainstream Korean society–the fact that it is neither expected nor even common to practice such consideration in Korean cities–is probably a product of Korea’s very late urbanization, and some of the cultural deformation of the dicctatorships Koreans had to live with for decades.

      But that said, it’s still hard for a Westerner to grasp why people would be talking about the “special bond” that their race shares, when by most Western measures, Korean people treat one another quite horribly. Not just in daily manners: ask any Korean about their daily social interactions–how many people bugged this woman for not wearing makeup, how many people hassled that man for wearing a backpack with a suit, how many people called someone fat today–with the constant and pretty stunning disregard for the lives of their fellow human beings. The way Koreans drive isn’t really cute or funny, it’s the reason Korea often competes for worst traffic fatalities and pedestrian fatalities in the OECD…

      All of that makes me wonder: what the hell use is a unique and special bond if the end result is a society where you have to be paranoid in every professional interaction, to be wary of drunks and idiots every time you cross the street, if you have to be exhausted to the point of despair every time you ride the subway?

      Perhaps that’s the thing we’ve been coasting towards: maybe “정” is uniquely poorly understood in Korea. Maybe the social bond that is unique in Korea is unique in its weakness. (I doubt it: I mean… Russia’s pretty rough, Liberia is scary… but Korea might be the least human-bonded place in the OECD, I don’t know.)

      Or maybe it’s a uniquely Korean misperception of the bond that ties all human beings together. Certainly, if the proof is in the pudding, the Korea version of that bond is failing miserably in preventing suicides, in helping the advancement of women’s rights, in any number of objective measures…

      In some ways, it comes back to what I’ve written elsewhere about boundaries: Korean society seems especially poor at facilitating people in the formation of healthy boundaries. It might seem ironic that the better one’s boundaries, the better one is able to respect oneself (and others) but it is actually true in my experience… and most Koreans I’ve talked to who have spent a lot of time abroad seem to feel that way too… but also recall never having thought that way until going abroad.

      (Which is not to say I didn’t learn from–or see good things in–Korea. If you’re in an in-group, it can be wonderful, though I found there was usually one prick in every group trying to control who could be in the in-group, and trying to shame or reject someone, and not always just foreigners. But as for the society-wide recognition of jung, well: no. No, I don’t see anything remotely like that.

      To be fair, liberty, fraternity, and equality are nice ideals no Western democracy has truly lived up to, and one of my biggest criticisms of Christians worldwide is that they tend to act in ways that contradict the deeper moral dimension of their chosen god’s teachings. But at least democracy and Christianity are claimed (now) to be universally comprehensible. To be told I cannot understand some elementary concept because of my racial/cultural background strikes me as supremely arrogant… especially when that concept seems to be primarily nice words that impact social behaviour not at all within the culture that supposedly understands it like nobody else can.)

      Ah.. a quick note. What if part of the definition, meaning, of the word is its seeming untranslatability / untransferability.

      As I’ve said before… I don’t think it is untranslatable: that’s what Korean people have constantly claimed, mainly I think as a way of holding something over the heads of foreigners: ah, you’re not one of us, you could never understand this complex concept.

      And if you believe that one, I’ve got a bridge on the Han I could sell you for a very cheap price…

  11. I don’t have the time to write a complete reply right now. (After all there’s a lot to reply to right now)

    I want to correct one thing you mention though. The supposed ‘most unique’ qualitative statement. I think that’s a patently untrue statement. It differs from others, but just as much as those others differ from each other. Unique implies a hierarchical structure of some sort, or at least a form of duality where unique opposes un-uniqueness, when there is hardly such a thing in the real world. I think the main point to be taken away from the article is that what we think of the world is severely biased. The mind is moulded to a certain degree by the culture we grow up in and it affects our perspective on the world. That’s why saying Psychology can’t call itself a Study of the Mind, but should rather call itself a Study of the Western-Mind. Or perhaps it should be even further specified. There’s nothing more unique about the American mind than the mind of someone who grew up in Shanghai, China or Lagos, Nigeria.

    I referred you to the article because there are some instances where it was shown that people just have different motivations and ways at looking things. It might be possible to explain to us, you and me (a Western-European), what 정 might be it is the biases and perspectives that we grow up that might prevent us from understanding it. Our perception of self is different , not diametrically opposed but nonetheless different, so therefore what we might try to label our relationships as having what is described as 정 even though it’s just a perception of relationships that is related to 정 but is not 정.

    You mention a lot of examples of common courtesy as being better than what you perceived in Korean society, but that doesn’t really prove anything I think. It just proves that our perception of self has different values compared to the Korean self. I mean holding the door open is common courtesy in the West, but it might not be considered a slight in Korea at all. So it doesn’t say anything about being more polite or not.

    And I completely agree with some of your ideas about the hierarchy in Korea. But I just think that I have no right of any sort to make a value judgment about it.

    One last comment though. About the link between Christianity and slavery. It’s also worth considering that at the same time as Christianity started to spread across Europe it was also the beginning of the end of slavery across large parts of Europe. And the so-called Dark Ages were also the location of the one of the greatest “industrial” revolution in human history. Replacing huge economies that were built on human(-slave) labour by economies that used mechanised labour on a scale not witnessed before in human history. Mechanised labour that eventually made possible large scale economies without the use of slave labour. I don’t know if it’s true but I feel that you’re cherry picking your Christianity arguments a little. Although there is definitely a truth to what you’re saying it’s not the complete truth.

    Also I thought we were trying to have discussion that led us closer to the core of what 정 is. Instead the last sentence in your text makes it seem that there’s something else at play… I don’t really understand what you’re trying to say with that sentence. Except for ridiculing something instead of truly engaging with the subject matter. Ad hominem?

    1. Hi Marvin,

      I don’t have the time to write a complete reply right now. (After all there’s a lot to reply to right now)

      That’s fine. I’m a bit busy too, having just moved to a new country and moved into a new house!

      I want to correct one thing you mention though. The supposed ‘most unique’ qualitative statement. I think that’s a patently untrue statement. It differs from others, but just as much as those others differ from each other. Unique implies a hierarchical structure of some sort, or at least a form of duality where unique opposes un-uniqueness, when there is hardly such a thing in the real world. I think the main point to be taken away from the article is that what we think of the world is severely biased. The mind is moulded to a certain degree by the culture we grow up in and it affects our perspective on the world. That’s why saying Psychology can’t call itself a Study of the Mind, but should rather call itself a Study of the Western-Mind. Or perhaps it should be even further specified. There’s nothing more unique about the American mind than the mind of someone who grew up in Shanghai, China or Lagos, Nigeria.

      I agree that it’s ridiculous to talk about which culture is the “most unique” but that doesn’t seem to stop a lot of Koreans from making exaggerated claims about Korean culture. After eleven years in the country, I can say that I’ve heard a number of people make that kind of claim: Hangeul is the “most scientific” form of writing, Korean language is the “most difficult,” Korean culture is the “most unique” and so on.

      But the article you yourself linked suggests that there is something unique about the American mind, in that it is distinctively different from the common patterns we find across a lot of cultures. (The article suggests that American minds are uniquely skewed, that is, one could argue, uniquely detached from the world around them… this isn’t (necessarily) a good thing.)

      I have no idea how valid this idea is… but I am of two minds: people are people, but also people are generally kind of dumbass about most things. So that is to say, most human beings are pretty much the same, and most human beings are a little stupid in a lot of the same ways. But of course concerted programs of social brainwashing can encourage certain kinds of degrees of stupidity.

      I referred you to the article because there are some instances where it was shown that people just have different motivations and ways at looking things. It might be possible to explain to us, you and me (a Western-European), what 정 might be it is the biases and perspectives that we grow up that might prevent us from understanding it. Our perception of self is different , not diametrically opposed but nonetheless different, so therefore what we might try to label our relationships as having what is described as 정 even though it’s just a perception of relationships that is related to 정 but is not 정.

      Are you saying you’re Western-European, Marvin? I had imagined you were Korean, from the way yoou spelled Marvin in your email (Mabin) and the fact you use a Naver account as your email contact, something usually only Koreans do. Or maybe, I think, you’re suggesting that I’m a Western European (okay, close enough) and just not mentioning that you’re Korean? It shouldn’t matter for this discussion, but it almost always seems to come up regardless.

      Also, this business of Westerner labeling relationships as having “jung” but not actually being constructed as to involve “jung,” all I can say is that this the kind of claim that a Korean usually makes when discussing the topic — not a Westerner. Westerners tend to imagine these kinds of words do have a universal, underlying meaning that can be grasped across language and culture barriers; Koreans tend to imagine that unless there’s a direct word-to-word translation, that the word and concept are untranslatable. (And, worse, I’ve even known Korean professors who claimed that a word for X concept didn’t exist in English merely because they themselves didn’t know the word, and their [poorly-written] dictionaries didn’t offer a direct translation.)

      You mention a lot of examples of common courtesy as being better than what you perceived in Korean society, but that doesn’t really prove anything I think. It just proves that our perception of self has different values compared to the Korean self. I mean holding the door open is common courtesy in the West, but it might not be considered a slight in Korea at all. So it doesn’t say anything about being more polite or not.

      Well, yes, obviously. My point, however, is that if members of a society claim that their culture integrates a deep, profound understanding of the bond that connects human beings–an understanding so nuanced and complex that outsiders cannot grasp it–then why, when I consider all the ways that bonds are expressed in other cultures I’ve experienced during my travels and my upbringing, is that people in Korean society seem to act the least like they feel a bond linking them to others around them?

      It’s not that letting the door you’re holding open slam into the face of the person following you isn’t a slight in Korea: it’s that not considering the person following you–through a door, up a stairway or escalator–is utterly normal. In other words, I have trouble seeing how the non-consideration of strangers is compatible with Korea having some special conception of the bond that connects people generally. Maybe there’s a special bond connecting people who already know one another, but that’s not a special idea–that’s universal to all cultures, and there’s nothing I’ve seen in Korea that suggests the conception of that bond differs significantly from how others do it.

      In the end, my point dovetails with yours: I think “jung” is a bit like “white superiority”: a weird, nonrational concept that some (or many?) people cling to without thinking hard enough to be able to explain or define it. (And if they tried, they’d fall into the blank space that the word really signifies: nothing except itself.)

      And I completely agree with some of your ideas about the hierarchy in Korea. But I just think that I have no right of any sort to make a value judgment about it.

      Meh, I lived within that system for eleven years, I saw how it affected the people I care about, how it affected the systems within which I worked. I feel as much right to make value judgments about that as do about any system. As I say, there are plenty of objective measures one could point to support a critique. And I know plenty of Koreans who do make value judgments about it, they’re just careful who they say them to.

      One last comment though. About the link between Christianity and slavery. It’s also worth considering that at the same time as Christianity started to spread across Europe it was also the beginning of the end of slavery across large parts of Europe. And the so-called Dark Ages were also the location of the one of the greatest “industrial” revolution in human history. Replacing huge economies that were built on human(-slave) labour by economies that used mechanised labour on a scale not witnessed before in human history. Mechanised labour that eventually made possible large scale economies without the use of slave labour. I don’t know if it’s true but I feel that you’re cherry picking your Christianity arguments a little. Although there is definitely a truth to what you’re saying it’s not the complete truth.

      Books written with Christian apologetics in mind tend to make this claim–that Christianity began the abatement of slavery in Europe, that Christianity aided the industrial revolution and the eventual abolition of slavery, and so on. Meanwhile, books focused on slavery tell a very different story: of how slavery thrived in Europe during the Dark Ages, how slavery boomed through the Age of Discovery, and how industrialization wasn’t the only force that helped end slavery… (That is, in those places where it has ended: the last I checked, South Korea was among those nations that has a human trafficking problem and had a bad reputation in the US as a source for sex slaves trafficked into the US.)

      Also I thought we were trying to have discussion that led us closer to the core of what 정 is. Instead the last sentence in your text makes it seem that there’s something else at play… I don’t really understand what you’re trying to say with that sentence. Except for ridiculing something instead of truly engaging with the subject matter. Ad hominem?

      Well, I’m still waiting for someone to actually come out and define “jung” in a way that nails down what is so untranslatable about it. The last line of my comment emphasizes my belief that until someone does so, this whole “untranslatable” thing is really bullshit.

      (And no, it’s not ad hominem. Ad hominem would be if I implied you were prone to believing or making such a claim because you’re Korean — which I haven’t actually done. To dismiss a claim or an idea as bullshit is fair play, unless or until someone can demonstrate that it isn’t… and nobody’s managed to do that so far.)

  12. My boyfriend pointed out a crucial fact, and it does support one of the claims you’ve made here: that jeong does NOT mean the same thing it used to, and survives today only in mutated form. His take is that Korean jeong is a characteristic of its agricultural background, and you might recall in the book about Japanese views of Korean culture during occupation (which I forget the title but I know you reviewed) that the Japanese looked on Korean culture at that time with a nostalgic fondness for their own rural past, now lost by industrialization and urbanization.

    The thing is, Koreans still have collective experiences of small-town living, which is generally supposed to involve more interpersonal intimacy. The generations 60 and above certainly do, and even 40 and 50 year olds were educated in that framework.So the insistence that jeong is part of the national character is somehow linked to the same nostalgia that the Japanese once had for an idealized past state of being. It’s conceptual, but because Korea today is largely industrialized, jeong doesn’t apply in most social situations anymore.

    I do not know why, then, people in other industrialized nations are not rude to the same degree. But in my personal experience, what you believe to be the proper manifestation of jeong would not be characterized by Koreans as jeong, the practice of which from the beginning was never meant to apply to “outsiders.” Even in rural Korea, people were naturally inclined to look on people not of their small communities with suspicion, and for all their claims of supposed unity, I would guess that Koreans are the most likely people to draw a strict boundary between their inner circle and mere acquaintances or strangers. This is possibly because jeong is a two-edged sword: feelings of kinship with others are tied up with burdensome obligations, and by association obligation is seen as a necessary condition to intimacy. So I would argue that Koreans, especially younger Koreans who are far removed from rural living, actually benefit by avoiding situations involving jeong whenever possible.

    That doesn’t stop Koreans from having an inferiority-superiority complex about jeong. I would say that you perhaps have an awkward handle on what jeong means to Koreans because you are making generalizations in an attempt to comprehend another culture in your own cultural framework. To my knowledge, no matter how intimate two people are, violating codes of etiquette or personal boundaries is a no-no in Anglo culture. In Korea, personal boundaries are seen as an obstacle to jeong, and can paradoxically lead to some pretty violent acts. This leads Koreans to make generalizations about Western culture along the same lines as your approach here: that Westerners do not have jeong because they are logical, concerned with personal boundaries, and are not demanding of each other, which to a Korean view is the opposite of what jeong is.

    In short, I think one of the things you are talking about is whether jeong is really present in Korean society. And to that I would reply, it is not as prevalent as Koreans are likely to believe, though existing in isolated pockets and in general society in a very twisted form that is more often than not an excuse for perpetrating many unspeakable acts, but remains only as a nostalgic memory.

    Please reply at your leisure. I am afraid I am bothering you too much. I wish you and Mrs. Jiwaku the best in your new life~

    1. First off, no worries, I don’t feel bothered: much the opposite, as my discussions of Korea on this blog have tended not to include viewpoints that pose a serious challenge to my thinking, as yours do.

      My boyfriend pointed out a crucial fact, and it does support one of the claims you’ve made here: that jeong does NOT mean the same thing it used to, and survives today only in mutated form. His take is that Korean jeong is a characteristic of its agricultural background, and you might recall in the book about Japanese views of Korean culture during occupation (which I forget the title but I know you reviewed) that the Japanese looked on Korean culture at that time with a nostalgic fondness for their own rural past, now lost by industrialization and urbanization.

      I wish I could post the article I wrote for Arc 1.2, in which I discussed Korea in terms of its “preservation” of mutant elements of its agrarian past. One line that sums it up suggests that in Korea, as is so many places, the past has been sewn into the lining of the present. I basically argue that things like the hyper-attentive focus on others that is expected in the ritualized drinking routine in Korea is not actually historical, so much as it is a kind of refuge wherein the old sense of community, of relatedness and all that–essentially “jeong”–can still be experienced, in vast contrast to the rest of one’s life in an urban Korean setting.

      So yeah, I get what you mean, and agree: it’s largely conceptual. But also, I think, it’s a case where cultural change is so radical that most of those younger people talking about “jeong” themselves have trouble grokking it.

      I do not know why, then, people in other industrialized nations are not rude to the same degree. But in my personal experience, what you believe to be the proper manifestation of jeong would not be characterized by Koreans as jeong, the practice of which from the beginning was never meant to apply to “outsiders.” Even in rural Korea, people were naturally inclined to look on people not of their small communities with suspicion, and for all their claims of supposed unity, I would guess that Koreans are the most likely people to draw a strict boundary between their inner circle and mere acquaintances or strangers. This is possibly because jeong is a two-edged sword: feelings of kinship with others are tied up with burdensome obligations, and by association obligation is seen as a necessary condition to intimacy. So I would argue that Koreans, especially younger Koreans who are far removed from rural living, actually benefit by avoiding situations involving jeong whenever possible.

      Which reminds me of how people seemed to be allergic to meeting others’ friends back in Iksan, when I first arrived. I honestly wondered whether people were just frightfully antisocial, since for a Westerner, one can simply meet the friends of their friends assuming no need to ever meet again unless both parties want it. Instead, people would sort of surreptitiously wander off as soon as some non-mutual friend said hello and approached on the sidewalk.

      But having experienced small-town Canada (and had friends who lived in small towns in many countries) I struggle to see what is unique or different in quality here. The quantity of the oppressiveness of small-town-community-sensibility is likely relatively higher in Korea (though, try living in the Bible belt sometime), but the basic dynamic is universal, isn’t it? Most of the world is made up of people whose families lived in small, close-knit (at times or in some ways oppressively close-knit), agrarian communities in the past, if you go far back enough.

      When we visited my wife’s uncle’s home–a wonderful family, by the way–her cousin’s husband expressed the idea that while it may be nice to live overseas, people there don’t have as much jeong as Koreans, or not the “same” jeong. I left it alone, mainly because that family is about the nicest Korean family I’ve ever met and were lifesavers for my wife, but I couldn’t help but wonder how he could be so sure, never having lived anywhere else himself.

      Perhaps that’s what it is: Korean “jeong” is simply the idealized form of human bonds that existed in agrarian life, and which people tell themselves is more beautiful and meaningful than the “jeong” of other societies simply because they haven’t any idea what they’re talking about: like so many comparisons in Korea, the non-Korean object is given short shrift since the point isn’t really to compare but to praise Korea.

      That doesn’t stop Koreans from having an inferiority-superiority complex about jeong. I would say that you perhaps have an awkward handle on what jeong means to Koreans because you are making generalizations in an attempt to comprehend another culture in your own cultural framework. To my knowledge, no matter how intimate two people are, violating codes of etiquette or personal boundaries is a no-no in Anglo culture.

      It depends. It’s complex. It’s funny, actually: while Westerners tend to idealize Asian cultures as being all implicit and unspoken and implied, I’m finding that’s more the case in the situation I’m in now, having (with my wife) become housemates with a group of Westerners. Different people have different senses of how the boundaries should be established, and we’re negotiating it all rather cautiously, slowly. There are definitely ways in which setting up this or that boundaries would be an obstacle to living together happily, respectfully, etc.

      In Korea, personal boundaries are seen as an obstacle to jeong, and can paradoxically lead to some pretty violent acts. This leads Koreans to make generalizations about Western culture along the same lines as your approach here: that Westerners do not have jeong because they are logical, concerned with personal boundaries, and are not demanding of each other, which to a Korean view is the opposite of what jeong is.

      Which is funny, because my perception is that Koreans don’t have jeong because they aren’t respectful of personal boundaries and because they are not demanding (of consideration) of one another. The logical thing makes sense in your comment, though, well, the only thing I can say is that distrusting logic is probably more a result of the Korea never having gone through The Enlightenment (the social transformation that was scripted in Enlightenment era philosophy, I mean). One of my friends quoted Thomas Paine thus:

      To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason… is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture.

      In short, I think one of the things you are talking about is whether jeong is really present in Korean society. And to that I would reply, it is not as prevalent as Koreans are likely to believe, though existing in isolated pockets and in general society in a very twisted form that is more often than not an excuse for perpetrating many unspeakable acts, but remains only as a nostalgic memory.

      That makes sense. I think what I’m also talking about is the paradoxical status it holds, given this reality, when its fantastical form is held up as being not only unique, but (implicitly) superior to the bonds that connect people in other societies, particularly Western societies…

      And I’m also condemning the comparison as not only one-sided, but also woefully poor at representing the Western part of it, in part because to Koreanize “jeong” one must dehistoricize whatever it is we’d call the basically universal bonding organizational principle in every other society on the planet back when it was mainly agrarian… or even now in small communities where it still primarily is. This is a bit like how my university students in Korea almost always talked about North American culture as if it were inherently feminist, egalitarian, and so on; as if the barriers to Korea becoming more egalitarian were somehow deep-rooted cultural ones that didn’t exist in the West… a profoundly ahistorical view, obviously, but one that is useful in justifying the deplorable status quo. (Justifications are a huge part of all of this, in the end… sigh.)

  13. Well, jeong in itself is probably not unique, and that only if it even exists at all. Plenty of other countries share the same experience of agrarian-to-industrial culture shock. Britain, for one. And wasn’t there a sort of sentimentalization of country life and the rise of the cult of the Angel of the Hearth? Not an exact correspondence, but I do see a link, however fuzzy, between industrialization and the development of emotional appeals to maintain a sort of status quo. What I am interested in is what factors exactly led Koreans to adopt that particular framework through which to make sense of their sudden disenfranchisement from a formerly accustomed way of life.

    As it so happens, I was just having an email conversation along similar lines (funnily enough the discussion was provoked by an entirely unrelated article), and I quote one of these friends:

    My understanding of national identity is that it rarely develops into such without some sort of state backing or recognition of it. So it intrigues me whether this is the case for “han”, and what possible motivation the South Korean government might have to cultivate such a reading of your collective experiences and history.

    A theory of mine, in its infancy, is that “han” is a way to distract the undercurrent of discontent in Korean society by encouraging the population to think of themselves as martyrs, unhappy due to persecution beyond their control. Certainly not anything the Korean people can be held culpable for themselves (after all, though the Chun Doo Hwan and Park Jung Hee administrations were dictatorships, Lee Myung Bak was democratically elected).

    1. Well, jeong in itself is probably not unique, and that only if it even exists at all. Plenty of other countries share the same experience of agrarian-to-industrial culture shock. Britain, for one. And wasn’t there a sort of sentimentalization of country life and the rise of the cult of the Angel of the Hearth?

      In a huge way! I’m reading a book on the Gin Craze, which is in part all about the intersecting culture shocks of urban life, industrialization, and class in both those contexts.

      Anyway, I would tend to think, by your definition, that jeong does exist, but in the way the ghosts do in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw: as an idea in people’s heads, or as the fantastical externalization of some other emotional turmoil. Define “real,” y’know?

      Not an exact correspondence, but I do see a link, however fuzzy, between industrialization and the development of emotional appeals to maintain a sort of status quo. What I am interested in is what factors exactly led Koreans to adopt that particular framework through which to make sense of their sudden disenfranchisement from a formerly accustomed way of life.

      Yes, that does make sense. And as Hobsbawm and Ranger argue, people tend to make sense of change by inventing traditions–not out of whole cloth, but from the detritus of the past.

      As it so happens, I was just having an email conversation along similar lines (funnily enough the discussion was provoked by an entirely unrelated article), and I quote one of these friends:

      My understanding of national identity is that it rarely develops into such without some sort of state backing or recognition of it. So it intrigues me whether this is the case for “han”, and what possible motivation the South Korean government might have to cultivate such a reading of your collective experiences and history.

      You seem to have fascinating friends!

      A theory of mine, in its infancy, is that “han” is a way to distract the undercurrent of discontent in Korean society by encouraging the population to think of themselves as martyrs, unhappy due to persecution beyond their control. Certainly not anything the Korean people can be held culpable for themselves (after all, though the Chun Doo Hwan and Park Jung Hee administrations were dictatorships, Lee Myung Bak was democratically elected).

      Not only Lee, but also Park Geun-Hye.

      Yeah, I’ve been thinking that for a long time. If you look under the Gaming heading on this site, you’ll find a link to an ebook in which an essay of mine was collected, which touches on the question of agency in the classroom and how RPGs can relate to it. Different attitudes towards the idea of agency in a fictional context are a whole can of worms, but I will say that if what gets translated is representative, Korean storytellers have a VERY different sense of it than Western ones… or rather, I’d would more honestly say that it’s very difficult to write characters that exert functional agency as individuals on the one hand, but on the other hand serve as exemplary martyrs or victims on the other… and when you have a nationalist program to fulfill, the latter seems to win out every time.

      Of course, there may be younger writers who are doing more with agency. I am planning to read a few things by Kim Young-Ha this year, and I’ll mention what I think of them when I do get around too ’em.

  14. I bought that magazine by the way (partly for your article and partly for the bitchin’ cover). Good article, and it rings very true.

    I am trying to write a full response to this article to post on my own blog (and will post the link here once I’m done!), but I can’t seem to get my thoughts organized. Also, exam time is looming, fekkit.

    But as my brainstorming so far goes, it seems the focus will be on “han” more than “jeong,” linking it to the Asian Financial Crisis, the two-faced behavior of the Korean government when it comes to the Dokdo question, and the refusal to acknowledge darker realities and the violence that leads to. I hope I do justice to the topic.

    1. I bought that magazine by the way (partly for your article and partly for the bitchin’ cover). Good article, and it rings very true.

      Wow, thank you. You must be an insomniac to have time to read so much while going to school!

      I am trying to write a full response to this article to post on my own blog (and will post the link here once I’m done!), but I can’t seem to get my thoughts organized. Also, exam time is looming, fekkit.

      I know your pain, though I don’t share it anymore. Not having a day job is nice. (Though I must get writing, once I’ve decompressed a bit more.)

      But as my brainstorming so far goes, it seems the focus will be on “han” more than “jeong,” linking it to the Asian Financial Crisis, the two-faced behavior of the Korean government when it comes to the Dokdo question, and the refusal to acknowledge darker realities and the violence that leads to. I hope I do justice to the topic.

      I’m sure you will, and if you feel you haven’t, you can always come back to it. I find the topics that bother me most also beckon me over and over to tackle them from different angles.

      Looking forward to your essay, in any case, so please do post a link when it’s up.

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