Culture Living in Korea

What is 체면 “saving face”? 정 JEONG? 한 HAN? Korean psychology explained!

“Did you have to correct my mistake in front of my business partners? I totally lost my face today!”

“Thank you for talking me up to my girlfriend today. You really saved my face!”  

“Face” used here is a conceptual representation for “social standing,” “reputation,” “honor,” “influence,” and “dignity” – known as chemyeon 체면, and is extremely important in Korean culture. As noted previously, Korean society is hierarchical which is determined by the dynamics of relationships among the members of a circle. For that, how one’s perceived is very important, and maintaining and preserving one’s reputation in front of others is also crucial. For this reason, not making others “lose face” is equally important as “saving your face.” To avoid this, it’s best to engage in indirect expressions when in front of other people.

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For example, when refusing or rejecting an offer from someone, do not outright say “no,” but find an indirect route to express your thoughts. Also, try to avoid direct confrontation when dealing with someone older or higher in rank even if the older/higher rank person is clearly at fault. Pointing out their mistake in private will be much appreciated. It’s always a good idea to allow the elders to lead the decision-making process and honor their opinion if possible, such as when they insist on picking up the tab after a meal because the Korean society runs on a set of unwritten rules of hierarchy, and letting a senior do what they are expected to do would help them “save their face.”

JEONG is probably the most mysterious word in Korean dramas because it gets translated differently (e.g., “affection,” “intimacy,” “sharing,” “generosity,” “love,” “emotional bond,”… You name it.) every time it pops up! Because it connotes such a wide spectrum of meanings, even the most advanced Korean language experts find defining it quite difficult, let alone explaining it to foreigners who don’t have a deep understanding of Korean culture to fully comprehend the context in where it’s used. As a result, the concept is often chalked up to “cultural idiosyncrasy” and gets introduced to foreigners as something unique to Korean culture which can’t be understood unless you are Korean, keeping it shrouded in mystery. But is it really? Let’s look at the journey of Maria, an exchange student from Texas, who had a series of accounts of the mysterious Korean jeong.

Chloe from We Bare Bears putting some Korean jeong in the bear’s mouth.

Day 1 in Korea – “I arrived at the boarding house located in Seoul. The landlady ajumma 아줌마 seemed like a very caring person but a little nosy at the same time. She asked a lot of personal questions like if I have a boyfriend or not, when my birthday is, what my blood type is (creepy!), how old I am, how tall I am, how much I weigh and stuff, things I would share only with my doctor, but I decided to look on the bright side and believe she was showing genuine interest in me! She even told me to call her my “Korean mom,” which I thought was a really kind gesture. I almost cried. This must be the Korean jeong they are talking about?”

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Day 5 in Korea – “Today I got totally flabbergasted when I came back home from school! I opened the fridge to grab a bottled water and what the heck? There were a bunch of Tupperware containers sitting in the fridge! Inside them were different types of kimchi and all sorts of Korean foods which definitely were not mine. I immediately knew that someone broke into my room so I thought about calling the police but reached out to the landlady for help. She came down to my room and to my surprise, she said, “Oh, I put them in there for you! I make extra for everyone here. They are very yummy! You should try them all!” Wait… So she just arbitrarily decided to barge into my room without my permission and put them in my fridge? I didn’t know what to say so I just said thanks but I couldn’t wrap my head around it for quite some time. I spoke to another exchange student from Brazil, and she said that’s the Korean jeong! She also said she had the same experience, and got used to it and she likes it now. All right… When in Seoul I should do as the Seoulites do then!”

RELATED : History of Kimchi, the Korean soul food. Kimchi and Koreans go waaaaaay back! Kimchi fun facts we BAECHU didn’t know.

Day 8 in Korea – “I stopped by my favorite tteobokki 떡볶이 (recipe here) place for a quick lunch and the owner ajusshi 아저씨 greeted me with a huge smile, as always. I ordered a tteokbokki but he also gave me a roll of kimbap 김밥 (recipe here) , saying that it was a “service,” which means “complimentary/on the house!” This must be the awesome Korean jeong again!

Day 9 in Korea – “I went to an evening class and sat next to my favorite Korean friend Min-su. During the break, I took out a bag of BBQ-flavored potato chips and an energy bar I brought for dinner. I asked Min-su if he already had dinner, but he said he wasn’t hungry. I finished my snacks just before the break ended, so I crinkled and tossed them into a trash can. When I got back, Min-su said, “Oh my god… You absolutely have no jeong! You didn’t even offer me a bite…!” I was like… What? Sir, you said you weren’t hungry…? Was I supposed to insist on sharing it with him? This jeong thing really confuses me…! After a long day of culture shock, I finally got home to chill and watch Netflix. I tuned to this Korean family drama that’s all the rage these days. In the drama, this old couple constantly quarrels over the most trivial things. The wife leaves the house in a huff, and her worried daughter chases her right after. On a park bench, the daughter asks her, “Mom, why don’t you just divorce him then? Don’t worry about me, I just want you to be happy!” Then the mom says, “It’s not because of you, sweetheart! It’s because of this damn jeong…” Okay, so there’s that jeong again and this time it really came out of nowhere. I’m just way too tired to process all this… so I’m just going to call it a night and go to sleep!”

Day 98 in Korea – “Today’s my birthday and I got the biggest birthday gift ever. I woke up to a call from the owner ajumma inviting me to have breakfast with other housemates. I went down to the dining room in my jammies, and was greeted with everyone in the boarding house, all shouting, “Happy birthday, Maria!” My eyes flooded with tears and I said, “How in the world did you know it was my birthday?” Natasha from Russia answered, “Ajumma remembers everything about us, and for us! She’s our Korean mom!” Oh my goodness… I flashed back to the first day I got here – All the questions she asked… and the birthday, she still remembers it… “Don’t cry, Maria and have your birthday miyeokguk 미역국! This is what we eat on our birthday, as a means to celebrate and honor your mom.” I lifted my spoon and had a sip of my first miyeokguk in Korea and it’s something I never experienced before – This is what the Korean jeong must taste like!”

RELATED : Why do Koreans eat miyeokguk on birthdays but never before a big exam?

m-m-m-m-m miyeokguk 미역국!

Is your birthday coming up? Celebrate it Korean with miyeokguk!

Bibigo Korean Seaweed Soup, Miyeok-Guk, Ready-to-Eat, 17-ounce (1-Pack) [Amazon] – This one’s soup only.

Korean CJ Hetbahn Cupbahn Microwavable Cooked Rice with Soup (Seaweed Soup, 2 Pack) [Amazon] – This one has rice in it, so it’s a ready-to-eat meal.

That was quite a journey Maria had, wasn’t it? I believe her experiences of jeong could help you get the drift of the concept. In the beginning, we briefly touched that some of the popular translations for jeong include “affection,” “emotional attachment,” “bond,” and “generosity,” and we can see that they all point in the same direction: humanistic values. Then the real question is – are these something unique to only Korean people? Of course not. They are the basic universal emotions all humans possess regardless of race and culture, but how they were displayed is different – it was the style that’s uniquely Korean, and it’s called jeong. It’s similar to how different cultures create stunningly different dishes using the same ingredients that are universally available, when mixed with their own unique cultural elements. The interpretation is a dish unique to their society! Jeong is no different – it’s the Korean interpretation of the universal ingredients, mixed with unique Korean cultural elements like yugyo values, social hierarchy, collectivism, and the co-existence of traditionalism and modernism. And just with any ethnic food, first-timers might find it too foreign. Jeong, too, can come as a shock for many (a possible red flag for the invasion of privacy, lack of respect for personal space and life, etc.), especially those who come from an individualistic culture. But like an acquired taste, many find jeong to grow on them once they understand and decide to embrace the concept.

This jeong has been the glue that kept the Korean people together through history, looking after each other and helping each other, even without explicit request – dure 두레, a farmer’s cooperative group during the Joseon Dynasty is a prime example.

This jeong has been the glue that kept the Korean people together through history, looking after each other and helping each other, even without explicit request – dure 두레, a farmer’s cooperative group during the Joseon Dynasty is a prime example.
dure genre painting @ Dong A University Museum

Again, this notion – acting proactively on one’s own assumption to help and care and expect the same from another is the key point here. A popular catchphrase for a chocolate-pie advert, “malhaji anado alayo 말하지 않아도 알아요 (“You don’t have to say it for me to know it”),” captures the essence of the ideology.

Orion’s Choco-pie
Choco-pie commercial feat. 말하지 않아도 알아요 malhaji anado alayo song

Want to taste what Korea jeong tastes like?

Orion Snack Pies (Choco Pie) [Amazon]

It’s good to know that there’s someone who’s looking out and cares for you like a family, but it also has a downside – the excessive attention and concern for others can be burdensome for many, and even many Korean people find it unfit for the modern-day Korean lifestyle where individualism is of higher priority than of the agriculture-based family-oriented traditional society. Reflecting the change in sentiment, the use of the term ojirap 오지랖 (“nosy”, “meddlesome”, “intrusive”) and a newly-coined term kkondae 꼰대 (“fogey” or “Boomer” as in “OK, Boomer!”) are popularly used.

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So… What do you think? It looks like showing love is important, but how you show it is even more important, and jeong would be something everyone would enjoy if proper balance were achieved, like using gochugaru 고추가루 (“chili pepper powder”) which adds a unique flavor to Korean dishes.

HAN 한 – Another term that gets mentioned often as a uniquely-Korean emotion is han 한.

Another term that gets mentioned often as a uniquely-Korean emotion is han . While also difficult to find the perfect word-for-word translation, it’s usually described as “pent up emotions,” composed of a combination of resentment, regret, grief, longing, and sorrow largely coming from being hopeless in one’s struggle and suffering (some say that saudade in Portuguese and tоска in Russian are quite similar in meaning, and also note that it’s different from wonhan 원한 (“grudge”) whose focus is revenge and retaliation).

This is wonhan 원한 (“grudge”)
Photo by Pedro Figueras on Pexels.com

Although it’s described in Korean pop culture and literature as a national trait embedded in the Korean people’s DNA, some historians find its roots from modern Korean history. According to Dr. Sandra So Hee Chi Kim, “[H]an did not exist in ancient Korea but was an idea anachronistically imposed on Koreans during the Japanese colonial period.” Added to that was the fratricidal tragedy of the Korean War, and the “shared suffering and struggle” of the Korean people gave birth to the notion of han. In Korean dramas and literature, han is also associated with “not being able to achieve or get something that one earnestly longed for or desired.” For example, old people who can’t read or write because they had to work to support the family during difficult times say that it’s been their han all their life that they never got the chance to go to school.

And the opponents of the idea that han is the national trait of Koreans say that Koreans are actually the people of heung (“fun/joy”) because Koreans always find a way to bring joy and excitement to wherever they are needed! If you want to experience the Korean heung, try any sporting event and you would find yourself wondering if you are in a giant karaoke because everybody sings the cheering anthem and chants the players’ names non-stop.

Korean Baseball 101: Way Beyond the Bat Flips

With such overflowing energy you would surely doubt whether “resentment, regret, grief, longing, and sorrow” even exist in the Korean dictionary.

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