Caveat: 情

It was several years ago, now, that my Korean friend Curt told me:  “You have no jeong.”  Many Koreans have an exceptionalist view of this emotion that is described by the word jeong [정 (情)] – they will explain that it is a uniquely Korean emotion, or that Koreans uniquely tend toward it in contrast to members of other cultures.

The dictionary tells us that jeong means something like:  love, affection, attachment, sentiment, strong feeling, concern, matter-of-the-heart.

I found a fascinating academic write up on the word online, which I unfortunately cannot recommend to non-linguists because of its utterly obtuse non-standard romanization of Korean, which renders 정 as [ceng] – I believe this is called the “Yale” romanization, and while as a linguist I understand the motivations behind it, I dislike it intensely because it is very remote from being accessible to non-specialists, leading to inevitable mutilations of pronunciation.

Here is a more typical exceptionalist presentation of the concept from a “study English” website (i.e. it’s an essay talking about jeong as unique to Korean culture, written in English to provide a chance to study aspects of English – this kind of thing is everywhere in Korean English educaction at all levels).

At the time that Curt made his assertion, I was skeptical, on two counts.  I discounted the exceptionalist view that there could exist a basic “emotion” that was unique to one culture, and I also rejected the idea that I lacked it.  I suppose, in part, my feelings were hurt.  And when it comes to notions of language and culture, I tend toward universalism – I assume that basic human emotions, for example, are the same for all humans.

So I attributed his statement regarding my lack of jeong as a simple issue of there being a language barrier – surely a truly bilingual person could identify the proper English equivalent, both in linguistic and cultural terms.

But now, several years later, I have begun to genuinely harbor reservations about my prior rejection.  I find the workings of Korean jeong mysterious and impenetrable.  It seems to be a hybrid of irrational loyalty and intense platonic love, with a strong seasoning of smarmy sentimentality.  And I’ve come to accept that, as a Westerner, I probably “lack” it – in that I have no reductive mental category that encompasses these sorts feelings in simple conjuct.

When Mr Choi throws his arm around me at the staff volleyball game, that’s jeong.  And when the staff take up a collection of cash to help my fellow teacher pay his outrageous electricity bill, that’s somehow also jeong.  When a teacher admonishes a student to study harder, that might be jeong, too.

I keep trying to figure it out.