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Jeong in Modern Korea: How We’re Losing It

Last updated on November 5, 2018

Everyone in Korea speaks of jeong as the national symbol of country. But when you ask for the definition, they’re unclear. They would probably just say, “Jeong is untranslatable.”

I have been thinking about this sentiment that is simultaneously individual and social with my experiences in various countries. (I live in Chad and have lived in France, Canada, Australia, Korea, China, Cambodia and Algeria)

Jeong: homogeneity and affection easily created between the known and unknown

That is to say with jeong, you can share things and feel like you are in the same group with strangers. For instance a Korean person would call out to a stranger, “Come here, sit down and eat with me.” In Korea, we say we offer a piece of bread even to the enemies. We are slow to dislike people because of jeong, but we’re in the process of losing it.

Recently, hating on groups of people has become a social phenomenon in Korea: Namhyeom (남혐; Hatred of men), noinhyeom-o (노인혐오; aversion to old people), yeohyeom (여혐; dislike of women), momchung (맘충; antipathy to mothers who overprotect their children) and so on.

I live in Chad, and I wonder why I love Chadians so much. My answer is jeong. Chadians can easily become friends. They greet each other without saying, “Are you looking for something?” or “Do you know me?” They’re not too wary to offer, “Come eat with me.” They can share things without fear.

Antonym of Jeong: Personal Space

“Personal space” is a necessary element in modernity and capitalism. To not be disturbed or invaded, we must repulse the curiosity towards others and oppress jeong.

Jeong is disappearing in Korea, because everyone is looking for privacy. They work long hours and carry unbearable amount of social pressure. The fading life asks us of isolation and cuts off solidarity and empathy.

Social conformity nauseates the individuals and drives them away from jeong.

Everyone has the same way of life, they dress in the same style, and we look for “my space.” Starbucks is a good example. It is loud, but nobody bothers me looking at the macbook screen.

The social phenomena honbap (혼술; eating alone) and honsul (혼밥; drinking alone) can be interpreted in the same way. The younger generation does not want to disturb others or be disturbed, which is really the opposite of jeong, the sentiment to share and communicate.

Can modern Korea keep its jeong or does it even still exist?

Published in Seoul Travel Guide


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