You Know Nothing About Korea

You Know Nothing About Korea

“If you don’t know what the word, ‘han,’ in Korean means, then you know nothing about Korea.”

This is what one of my Korean friends told me last week (as of 11/2014).

To me, it meant a few things. First, it was a smack in the face. I have lived in Korea for almost two years now, and by comparison, in the scope of life, it really isn’t a long time. I’m not Korean, I can’t speak the language fluently, and I can only really understand the hearts and minds of Korean people only through their ability to speak and express themselves (for the most part) in English. I don’t know their true hopes and dreams, their frustrations, their fears . . . because often, when speaking in a second language, expressing oneself is extremely difficult. But to be told, I know NOTHING about Korea, was a shock to my system.

South Korea is one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in the world. It has the second lowest ethnic diversity rank in the world. First in the world is North Korea.

map of the world showing more ethnically homogenous countries (orange) and more ethnically diverse countries (green)

This makes for an interesting time when living as a foreigner in S. Korea because among foreigners there are various “kinds,” for lack of a better word. There are those that marry Koreans and begin a life here, while some come here to live abroad or travel after college, or are somewhere in between their mid-life professional career. Then there are others who haven’t quite figured it out. I think I fit into that category. Well, I know I want to live here and learn the language while I write books and travel but I don’t know how far I see Korea in my future.

In addition to the 7 countries where English is accepted as the official language and whose citizens can legally teach in South Korea, there are many other foreigners here, from different Asian countries, working for better pay, or scientists, engineers and researchers from all over the world, although those majorities don’t seem to be as obvious as the native English teachers that inhabit nearly every part of South Korea.

My point is, the “kind” of foreigner that I am, is one that constantly makes an effort to learn about Korea. I teach myself the language and take lessons when I have time. I ask questions and keep notebooks of memos, notes, and vocabulary that I want to be able to use later. In my first year in Korea this was not the case. I could get by, but I wasn’t interested enough to put my other priorities behind learning the language. Now, the priority is much higher, but writing is still my main interest. That will likely never change.

But, I’m juggling.

It turns out I did know about this word, “han.” I just didn’t know the term for it. My friend, who was intoxicated at the time, came at me aggressively and it was the first time I had seen her like this. She told me that I need to write about Korea, that I need to know the culture and the language and that I need to try harder. I didn’t like hearing it. A typical week for me is already jam-packed. Without boring you, I’ll try to give you the short version. I wake up at 6:30 every morning and am at school by 8 where I’m teaching until 5 Monday – Friday. From 5-7 I’m working out at the gym. It’s pretty normal for me to get home at 8 three nights a week and 10 the other two nights because of my extra classes. The rest of that time from when I get home until I lay down somewhere between 12 and 1, I’m doing one of these things:

Writing: I am in the midst of editing my first book of my Worlds Apart series, A Myth Reborn.

Reading: I’m part of a book club in my city and have to read one book per month. Some of the books are quite long and if I want to join in the discussion and not get kicked out of the club, which I don’t want, I have to keep up.

Critiquing: I recently joined a critique group in order to post my own writings for critique and to critique others. The system is based on karma points so I can’t post anything until I’ve critiqued other’s work.

Social Media: In an effort to build my author platform, I try to stay active in the social media community by running free giveaways on my Facebook page, tweeting to people about book stuff and making connections on twitter, or by using Instagram to meet and connect even further. Those are the three main ones but I also use Pinterest, Linkedin, Tumblr, and the most time-consuming one . . .

WordPress: I try to blog at least once a week but these days with everything else, I’m lucky if I get one in. These posts devour my time and can take anywhere from 2-4 hours to complete one post. Insanity!

Writing: Yup. I’m saying it again. I started writing a new story. Its fan fiction and I want to use it as a way to write this cool story inside my head but also train my writing muscles outside of Worlds Apart. I don’t know why or how I started but I couldn’t keep the ideas away any more.

As for the weekends? I’m working, as in writing or doing any combination of the things above or I’m traveling. Many times I’ll bring my work with me.

And no matter what day it is, I’m always trying to learn more Korean. If I can learn one new word, sentence, or construction every day and use it properly the next day, then that’s progress. I try to think of it like that.

So again, when my friend said, “you should try harder – you’re not doing enough,” I felt angry, misunderstood, and overwhelmed. I thought, “How can I possibly do more? This is the busiest I’ve ever been in my life!”

I won’t even get into the specifics of my job, but it is very difficult to balance everything not to mention a social life and my huge family back home.

When I left her that night and her final words were, “you need to try harder,” mainly because she wants me to effectively express Korean culture and attitudes in book form, I thought, “Wow. I really don’t want to see her again. She read me all wrong, even after I tried to explain what I was doing.”

I went home and mulled it over more, and this thought prevailed.

It’s not worth losing a friend over.

Yes. She was aggressive and unfair, and I told her that later (when she wasn’t drunk) to which she apologized . . . but I knew it wasn’t worth losing a friend over.

Later that weekend I researched what “han” meant.

In English there is no equivalent. Here is what Wikipedia says:

Han or Haan is a concept in Korean culture. Despite being a cultural-psychological trait shared among East Asian peoples, the feeling in Korea is probably more pronounced as a nationally distributed emotion, which likely has resulted from Korea’s more frequent exposure to invasions by overwhelming foreign powers. Han denotes a collective feeling of oppression and isolation in the face of insurmountable odds (the overcoming of which is beyond the nation’s capabilities on its own). It connotes aspects of lament and unavenged injustice.

Han is frequently translated as sorrow, spite, rancor, regret, resentment or grief, among many other attempts to explain a concept that has no English equivalent. The word ‘Han’ is an inherent characteristic of the Korean character and as such finds expression, implied or explicit, in nearly every aspect of Korean life and culture.

Han is passive. It yearns for vengeance, but does not seek it. Han is held close to the heart, hoping and patient but never aggressive. It becomes part of the blood and breath of a person. There is a sense of lamentation and even of reproach toward the destiny that led to such misery.

By having male and female Korean friends, an ex-girlfriend (Korean), co teachers, students and parents of various ages, I knew of this sentiment. It’s pouring out of television, movies, different forms of media and runs through the veins of Koreans that understand what it means. I just didn’t know it was called, “han.”

Now I know, and I haven’t lost a friend. A quote from Frank Herbert’s Dune comes to mind.

“When strangers meet, great allowances should be made for differences of custom and training.” – Lady Jessica

There should always be some leeway or else resentment, prejudice and racism will follow. It’s better to be patient, open-minded and objective about everything you see and do.

I believe the definition of han itself captures why my friend was so upset. Korea is one of the lowest ethnically diverse countries in the world, but my friend wanted me to know about han. She wants me to learn the language (and she is 100% unconditionally there when I ask for help). She wants me and probably other foreigners to know about this deep feeling of han that is common among Korean people. I felt misunderstood but in a lot of ways my friend probably did too.

We as foreigners are outsiders, and sometimes lack cultural awareness. As natives and foreigners alike, we both need understanding, patience, and effort if we want to evolve.

This post isn’t here to make you think that all Korean people are like this, or (on the flip side) that my actions represent every American. In fact, that is the last thing I want you to think when reading this. We need to break outside our normal ways of thinking. I told you my friend was Korean in order to put this anecdote in the context of our conversation but that part shouldn’t matter in the end.

We cannot pin down one race, religion or country for the actions of one person. How many times have you met someone from “insert country here” and thought, oh they must “insert stereotype or prejudice here” . . .? Never done it? Well consider yourself the minority. We all do it to some level subconsciously. I’m trying to break my old ways of thinking and broaden my horizons and I believe after we talked about it, that my friend did too.

Some questions that I tend to think about (and may end up as future blog posts) are: what are the differences between high and low context cultures and why are those differences important? When should people of different races, genders, and sex compliment one another on appearance and where is the line drawn? And finally, and perhaps most relevant is, what are the true implications and meanings of taking a picture of oneself—aka “the selfie”?

I want to keep learning about this dynamic and interesting country. If you are interested too, ask me anything. I’m not native but I can give you a foreigner’s perspective.

I was going to make a post on what I do with my free time because my friends ask me what I am actually doing and why I can never hang out. I took the opportunity to combine this post about Korea and what I do with my free time into one.

What problems or frustrations have you faced living in a foreign country?