There are a lot of things that make South Korea one of the most unique places in the world. K-pop, food, language, its political situation…These are the things anyone can see from the outside looking in. However, there are some things that you simply will not experience without being here, namely, jeong (정).
Jeong is a difficult concept to explain because, due to the ambiguity of the phrase, it can mean so many things. But stay in Korea for longer than a month, take a step out of your comfort zone and into the whirlwind of Korean life, and you will feel it on a day-to-day basis. Jeong, as simply as I can put it from my understanding, is the outward expression of care for others.
The definitions I get when I look up the word are love, passion, heart, sympathy, and these words are true, but it’s more of a combination of each. I feel it on a daily basis in very simple interactions. People genuinely and truly care about how you are doing and your wellbeing. Greetings in Korean are often mixed in with some form of inclusion. For example, you will often hear in Korean, when translated, phrases like “Our Mom” or “Our House” when talking to people who are not familially related.
Like most experiences, the night started with the simple question of where to eat for dinner. It was a bit of a celebration following a hectic week, and things were starting to look up. My friend Florence, a fellow Ewha exchange student from London, had cousins flying in from Hong Kong for a short weekend holiday the next day, and I had a date later on in the evening.
So think to yourself: “What is the only true and honest way to celebrate the end of a crazy week?” If you guessed, “steak and wine,” you are correct (if you didn’t, that’s okay, your guess was probably still a pleasant option). Luckily for us, there is an amazing little steakhouse in Edae (이대) about five minutes out of the Ewha University main gate called Popo Namu (포포 나무).
The last time we went into this restaurant, there were six of us having a delightful time. Great songs were playing off of the owner’s smartphone, and when she saw me struggling to Shazam to the songs, she told us the name of one song in particular, Dry Your Eyes by 3rd Storee (which to this day my friends and I randomly sing out in public). Bear in mind that she does not speak English—not a lick. She liked that we liked the song, which she told us her sons had shared with her. From then on, my friends and I had been looking for a reason to return to Popo Namu.
So Florence and I arrive and are greeted with a happy 안녕하세요 (Hello) then seated at a table. Going to restaurants in Seoul is fun, because people remember us as part of a large-ish group of foreign students from Ewha with very basic Korean language skills. It’s a bit of a process when we place our orders. In addition, I’m a 6’3” black guy in a country of comprised mostly of native Koreans, so by nature I’m a bit unforgettable.
We order steaks and wine and dig in. Mind you these steak dinners range in price from 6,000 to 9,000 won (maybe, $5.50-8.00 U.S.) making them cheap yet wildly delicious. The owner comes by inquiring how our meals are, and of course we tell her they’re wonderful. Then we get into the music. The music this time around is quite different, more jazzy and swanky. She tells us that if it wasn’t the nighttime dinner rush she would play Dry Your Eyes for us. Somehow, we end up still in the restaurant after everyone else has left, so we stick around to talk to the owner, a lovely woman who runs the restaurant with her son, who cooks. She asked us what we like about Korea so far to which I respond: “The food and the people.”
“What about the people?” she asked.
I replied, “The Jeong, the language.”
“Ah! You know about jeong! I understand. And what about the language?”
“In Korean language, the way you speak… it’s all very concerned and inclusive. It is about ‘we,’ not ‘I,’” I explained.
We spoke with her for maybe an hour or so. She introduced us to her son and to another employee, and she even gave us her personal phone number. Then she advised Florence and I to stay in touch with each other after our time in Korea.
This is what I’m trying to explain to you, this is jeong: that Florence and I barely know this woman but our small amount of time with her has created a connection. Not exclusive to Korea, this sort of all-inclusive, group-oriented thinking is an East Asian mindset. Looking back to the teachings of Confucius, heavily relied upon in this part of the world, there is an emphasis on the family and the group, as opposed to the West and our idea of the individual as a monolith, a singular being separate from everyone else. Meals in Asia are eaten as a group, with people oftentimes ordering one of something to share amongst themselves. A common greeting, “밥 먹었어(요)?” translates to “Have you eaten?” While this is very simply a greeting, it shows the thinking-of-others mindset that is ingrained even into the language.
As a westerner living here, even though I often find myself sharing or doing something for someone else rather than myself, I do get to view this aspect of the culture from the outside looking in, in comparison to the interactions I’m used to between people back home. One thing I think can serve as a very clear distinction between the cultures: on the subway here in Seoul, if someone is standing in front of someone sitting, the person seated often takes the person’s bag to hold it for them. I want you to try and imagine that happening in the States. Rating one culture above the other is purely subjective, but experiencing something so different from my own life that is so embedded in normal life here in Korea is absolutely necessary for becoming a well-rounded, global citizen.