Friday, April 25, 2008

Super Special Korean Emotions?

Dear Korean,

I used to live in Korea and was recently reading something about a description for Korean emotion called ‘Chung’. I am not sure of the spelling of this, so am hopefully not confusing you. I skimmed through the article and saved it for later, only to discover I saved the wrong thing. Do you know anything about this? I asked a Korean friend, and didn’t get very far on account of his English not being ‘all that’.


Dear Elizabeth,

The spelling was good enough, since the Korean got the idea. Technically the correct Romanization rule would make the word transliterated as jeong, but not even Korean people are fully versed in Romanization rules anyway. Jeong is a word that denotes a mixture of affection and attachment.

Especially with pets, jeong is closer to “attachment”. The word is frequently used in parents’ attempt to get their child let go of a stray cat – as in, “get rid of it before you develop jeong for it.” It is equivalent to “get rid of it before you get attached.” In a similar sense, a person with a lot of jeong is a person who gets attached to people/animals easily.

With other situations, jeong is closer to “affection”. Various actions are considered to be “with” or “without” jeong. For example, when you are serving rice from the pot into the bowl, you are supposed to serve it in two small scoops instead of one large scoop, because serving only once does not show affection. It is an action without jeong.

But beyond the ordinary use of the word, what Koreans believe to be unique about jeong is largely in two ways: (1) to describe random acts of kindness between people who barely know each other or total strangers; (2) to describe Korean people’s preference for informal processes.

In the first sense, jeong is especially used to describe the action of giving small, gratuitous gift – such action is full of jeong. A particularly close neighborhood is described as full of jeong, in which the neighbors act in a way that displays jeong – i.e. helping out and being nice to each other.

In fact, this is the marketing pitch for one of the most successful Korean exports, namely Choco-Pie. Vintage Choco-Pie commercials would show various situations where a small packet of Choco-Pie is given as a gift. (For example, a “good job” gift from teacher to student; “keep up the good work” gift from a passerby to a hard-working street sweeper, etc.) The last second of the commercial would give this line in a soft tone: “Choco-Pie is jeong.”

Another way in which Koreans claim that jeong is special to Koreans is that, compared to America and other Western societies, Koreans are more likely to rely on informal processes. For example, if a Korean person screws up in a job, the boss would yell at him first. But later the boss would take the employee out for dinners and drinks, to establish a bond (= jeong) and show that nothing personal was involved.

Whereas in America and other Western societies, (at least in the images in Korean people's head,) your performance would be evaluated on a dry piece of paper, and you are fired mercilessly if you cannot measure up, no matter how well you built a personal bond with your boss and coworkers. The entire process is heartless, and no jeong is involved.

But the Korean disagrees that jeong is anything particular to Koreans. The fact that Koreans believe so only highlights how narrow-minded stereotypes (about themselves no less!) continue to live on.

Jeong in the first sense can be found almost anywhere in the world. Anyone who traveled extensively would know that random acts of kindness are not particularly difficult to find. Even in New York, which has a reputation to be brusque city, the Korean has no difficulty finding strangers helping each other out. In short, jeong is not anything specific to Koreans; it is human nature.

Jeong in the second sense is even less defensible as uniquely Korean. In an example that the Korean gave, top-flight Korean companies like Samsung already employs the same heartless system that any American firm would. Formal process is a natural outcome of a society that pursues greater economic efficiency. It is also a natural outcome of a society that is increasingly individualized because of economic growth. After all, when people are forced to interact with complete strangers all the time, formal process is the only process people can turn to.

More broadly, the Korean believes that there is no such thing as “uniquely [insert culture’s name here] emotion”. Humans are all the same, and they are all capable of the same range of emotions. The only difference is the circumstances in which a particular group of humans are placed that generate such emotions. Then only thing that is unique about a “uniquely Korean emotion” is the experience that generated that emotion.

But a student of world history knows that, at the end of the day, the experience of the Korean people is not truly unique. Sure, Koreans were historically oppressed; but that oppression is nothing compared to the oppression suffered by, say, the Irish. And sure enough, Irish literature has a flavor that is strongly like Korean literature.

Bottom line: There is no point discussing a “uniquely Korean emotion”. A Korean who talks about that nonsense is someone who has not traveled or read enough to realize that it is all crap. It is a meaningless label in an attempt to distinguish Koreans from others somehow.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Ask away at


  1. In a Western Cowboy themed movie(don't know the title) that I watched long time ago, there's a sequence where someone asks a cowboy for a cigar.

    The cowboy breaks his last cigar in half for the stranger and tells his fellow, "if I give him the entire cigar, he may think the cigar is worthless to me. By giving him half of it, he knows that I value the cigar and appreciates it more."

    That's the same idea as using two half-spoons vs one full-spoon for sharing rice, and it's obviously not unique to Koreans.

  2. As usual your detailed discussion of a Korea-related topic entertains and informs.

    In this case, while it is another opportunity for you to argue that Koreans aren't that much different than anyone else, it is notable that the culture has distilled a word for the concept of jeong. Like the Japanese "shibumi" or German "Gemultlicheit", "jeong" may not be unique to the culture that created the word.

    However, if a society has crafted a word that gives its members a shorthand to recall and refer to valuable state of mind, then it's a time celebrate their culture (to the degree just shy of fueling any latent racist tendencies, of course).

  3. rscherm,

    Very astute. But the Korean feels that by insisting on a "special Korean emotion", Koreans do exactly what you suggested -- namely, feeding their own latent racist tendencies.

    Essentially, Koreans want to say to outsiders that "we have this special something that no one else has, and no one else would understand without considerable amount of time and effort." It simultaneously elevates Koreans to a special status and forecloses Koreans from looking beyond themselves.

  4. Great blog, love it.

    Reading the jeong piece made me recall how a Korean co-worker tried to define it for me when I asked him way back when:

    "Jeong is,'s like when you've been married forever, and you can't stand your wife and really you wish she would just go away or shut up. But you'd be destroyed if she ever left, and you'd feel sick to your stomach if you found out she had cancer or something."

    I'm not saying it's the correct definition, just colorful!


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