By the time I first heard the Korean terms han and jeong, I’d already moved out of the country, twice. But the instant they were described to me, the memories hit me like a flood. “Ohhhh, so that’s what those feelings were?” In my life in Korea—that second, older one—I knew them so acutely, so intimately, but I did not know they had their own special names.
Many countries have that certain je ne sais quoi notion that, by virtue of belonging to each individual person, helps bind together a collective nation. These concepts are raw and deeply embedded, and often revolve around the emotions most essential to the human condition: sorrow, fear, joy, and, of course, love. But despite their universality, they cannot quite be translated to outsiders, whose language lacks an equivalent word.
In Denmark, there is hygge, that hard-to-explain feeling of comfort and coziness. In Israel, there’s koev halev, the indescribable emotion of identifying with another’s suffering so intensely it makes your heart hurt. In Portugal, there’s saudade, the term for a sort of deep yearning or melancholy. And in Korea, there are han and jeong.
Han and jeong connect the Korean people with silent force, cultivating shared culture and kinship.
If han is the dark cloud that hangs over Korea and the promise of clear skies on the horizon, then jeong is the enormous umbrella everyone shares in the meantime. Han is sorrow and the hope to overcome it, and it is injustice and the obsession to avenge it. Jeong is love and loyalty and deep emotional attachment. These ideas are difficult to capture in their full complexity, but they’re fundamental and basic too; you’ll know them when you see them.
In my life in Korea, even though han and jeong were yet unnamed to me, I saw them everywhere—and in everyone. They popped up on city streets and peeked out on mountain trails. They dwelled within every place of work, school, food, and family. They were represented by the most tragic of national traumas, and revealed through the most mundane of daily interactions.
In Korea, I felt han when a conversation turned to historical hardship, like the nation’s Japanese occupation or the war that ripped the peninsula into two. I felt han among my students as they studied 18-hour days. And I felt han in my own story of abandonment and adoption that drew from my Korean comrades’ pity-filled gazes and embarrassed whispers.
Han, though, is going out of fashion. As each generation of Koreans grows up more detached from the pains of the past, it’s becoming increasingly outdated. Jeong, however, that indelible feeling of affection, carries on among Koreans of all ages—and as buoyantly as ever.
Jeong is coworkers singing noraebang karaoke with their boss on the tambourine. It’s friends reaching across a crowded dinner table with samgyeopsal barbecue crackling on the grill, gyeran jjim eggs steaming in a pot, and banchan side dishes overflowing with kimchi and kongnamul bean sprouts and gaji namul eggplants. Or students doting on their teachers with chocolate cookie sticks on November 11. Or passengers giving their subway seats to elders. Jeong is every communal bottle of soju.
Han and jeong connect the Korean people with silent force, cultivating shared culture and kinship. As an adoptee, my sense of kinship was learned, not inherited. But, as a Korean, and in the eyes of other Koreans, it didn’t much matter. They treated my education in han and jeong a bit like the giving of a gift. And this gift is both my burden and my delight to bear—even if only subconsciously—for as long as I am a Korean.