Seven things I like about Koreans by Peter M. Beck

Even though I have spent seven years in Seoul, it is not one of my favorite cities in the world. Actually, until the recent beautification projects, it was one of my least favorite. Seoul has too much concrete, too many people and too little traditional culture has been preserved. Yet, I consider Seoul my second hometown and yearn to be there whenever I am away for very long. It is the Korean people who keep me coming back.

Some of the things I appreciate most about Koreans, such as Korean hospitality, I discovered during my first visit to Seoul in 1987. Others, like “jeong” and “euiri,” I am still learning to fully appreciate and often find difficult to explain to non-Koreans.

One of the qualities that define the Korean people is also one of the most complex: jeong. Of the many definitions in my dictionary, “feeling,” “compassion,” “sentiment,” and “affection” seem to come the closest, but none of them convey the real meaning or importance of the term. I see jeong existing between family members and close friends as an invisible force that binds them together. It is difficult for foreigners to “see” this emotion because it is often not verbalized. Westerners regularly tell their loved ones, “I love you,” but for Koreans, these words are infrequently spoken.

I first experienced jeong with my wife`s family. I was very close to my father-in-law, who passed away in 2002. As someone who fled North Korea during the Korean War, he took great interest in my work on North Korea. He once told me, “Of my six sons-in-law, you are my best hope for visiting my hometown and finding out what happened to my parents and siblings.” I still have not had a chance to visit Haeju, but I believe that I will someday. He also taught me that a son-in-law is a “one hundred-year guest.” He raised two ornery turkeys during one of my stays in Korea so that the whole family could have a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner.

The second quality I admire in Koreans has been even more difficult to grasp. Euiri can literally be translated as “moral sense,” but is better understood as a combination of loyalty and integrity-two qualities often lacking in America`s capital. Former President Harry Truman once said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog!” We have had a clear display of euiri in the passing of Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. The expressions of anguish on the faces of those who worked with and for them tell it all. In contrast, here in the U.S., former Bush administration officials have created a circular firing squad of blame for the Iraq fiasco and even Vice President Cheney has turned on his old boss.

When you combine jeong and euiri and apply them to the three connections that bind Koreans together – namely blood, hometown and school ties – it leads to intense and powerful personal relationships. For non-Koreans, these relationships are impressive to observe, but they do not come without a price – the burden of responsibility and occasionally conflicting moral imperatives. For example, do you help a close friend even if it means breaking the law?

Confucianism has shaped Koreans in many positive ways, but the characteristic I like most is the respect accorded to elders and teachers. If I had to point to the cultural underpinnings of Korea`s rapid economic growth, an age-based social order and the centrality of education would be at the top of the list. Teachers have a status in Korea that is unimaginable in most other countries. Of course, attitudes change and a growing number of younger people are challenging the traditional hierarchy, but it is a quality that remains vital. The tension between the traditional and the modern is part of what makes Koreans so fascinating.

One of the Korean qualities that has not changed and I find most endearing is the hospitality and kindness I continually receive from total strangers. I was always getting lost during my first visit to Seoul, but people went out of their way to help me find my destination. Wandering around the countryside, I have been invited to join in 60th birthday celebrations and offered snacks on the hiking trail. Countless people have patiently explained to me the mysteries of Korea`s language and culture. How could one not appreciate such a people?

A fifth quality I have both admired and tried to embrace is the Korean proclivity to work hard and play hard. I attribute this to the drive for accomplishment and a general thirst for life. The ability to work a 10- or 12- hour day and then go out eating and drinking is a skill not easily acquired. I know of no other country that offers “three days, no nights” tours, where you depart on a bus in the evening, then hike all day, and return home that night.

The sixth quality I would like to mention is also the most esoteric. During my very first visit to Seoul, even in the midst of a concrete jungle, I was struck by the beauty of Korea`s people. My eyes were the first part of my body to become Korean. We all know that Bae Yong-jun spearheaded the “Korean Wave,” and Korea`s actresses and models have no rivals in my eyes when it comes to beauty. Many a foreign reporter visiting Pyongyang has commented on the attractive female traffic police. When I exclaimed to several Gaeseong factory workers, “the old saying is really true, `Southern men, Northern women (nam-nam buk-nyeo),`” I did not receive any response.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the Korean preoccupation with eating and drinking. One of the first greetings I learned was, “Have you eaten?” and my very first Korean proverb was, “Even Diamond Mountain should be viewed after eating.” Eating is of course central to our existence, but Koreans do it with a relish that is almost unrivaled. In Japan, you are never far from a vending machine; in Korea, you are never far from 10 restaurants. I am still amazed when I go into a Korean barbecue restaurant, eat two or three portions of galbi, finish off several side dishes, only to hear the waitress ask, “What would you like for dinner?” (Shiksanunyo?).

Korea has an equally intense drinking culture, which I have also tried to embrace without pickling my liver. I was introduced to this culture during my first summer in Korea in 1988. One of my teachers (Prof. Lee Young-hui) invited me to go hiking in Bukhan-san with several other dissidents (including Baek Nak-chung and Poet Ko Eun). I should have known from the enormous backpacks each was carrying, but on top of the mountain we had a huge meal and rice wine (makkoli)! One of the things that keeps most Koreans (and myself) from becoming an alcoholic is not drinking alone. I like the custom of never pouring for oneself so much that I impose it on non-Korean family and friends.

When I got married, not only did my wife wear a hanbok, but we also followed the Korean custom of having the most prominent social figure in our lives, my graduate school advisor, conduct the ceremony rather than a religious person. A Korean professor attending described our ceremony as “Komerican.” I have taught my daughter to be proud that she is both Korean and American. She comes from two great peoples!

Peter M. Beck is the Pantech fellow at Stanford University`s Asia-Pacific Research Center. – Ed.