The uniquely Korean concept of Jeong (정/情)
Ask any Korean to name a unique aspects of Korean culture, and there is a good chance they will tell you all about the concept of ‘jeong’ (정/情). Put simply, jeong is the warm feeling of attachment felt between people who share a close relationship. Of course, Koreans are not the only who feel attachment to those close to them, so what is it about jeong that makes it so uniquely Korean? For a start, compared to individualistic Western cultures, in Korea the sentiment is based in the idea of collective social responsibility.
In one blog, a Korean teacher relayed the story of a Chinese student who came to Korea and stayed in a hasukjib, a dormitory typically run by an older woman. On their first day, the owner was very inquisitive, asking a series of questions about their hometown, family and birthday. Even coming from a collectivist culture like China, the student felt caught out by all these personal questions. Some months later, the student left their room to have breakfast, and was greeted with seaweed soup and a small cake. Confused, they asked the owner, who informed them that they were in celebration of the student’s birthday. Though they were almost strangers, from her viewpoint, as the owner as the hasukjib, and furthermore through the questions shared on their first day, they had entered into a close relationship, where gestures such as this were a given.
In this sense, jeong can be described as intimate and warm feelings arising from one's relationship with another person, and the desire to do something for them. Like an old grandmother piling plate upon plate of food in front of their grandchild to the point they feel they might burst.
Don’t take Koreans’ words for it either, foreigners in Korea also feel jeong makes Korea uniquely different to their own countries, as shown by several entrants into the 12th international Student Korean Competition. Japanese student Takebi Eiga noted how mothers in Korea act like a mother to everyone, not just their children. They will share tasty food with you, or worry about your thin clothes on a cold day. This is evident in the way that Koreans refer to their mothers not as ‘my mother’, but as ‘our mother’. Sri Lankan Malhari also noted how even the bus drivers will greet you and warn you to hold on carefully, unlike the silent drivers back home.
At times, this extent of attention and concern can seem burdensome, or even an invasion of privacy, but in a world where society is becoming more fragmented and individualized, the care for those around you expressed through jeong becomes increasingly valuable.