When I think about what I love most about Korea, a few things come to mind. There are velvety sheet masks, drenched in my favorite fermented skin care ingredients. There’s the excitement of sharing Korean BBQ, sitting around sizzling meat over hot coals with a green bottle of soju being passed around. There’s the buzz you get from watching Korean entertainment—the electric dance moves of BTS or the never-ending feels of Korean dramas. There are the super aesthetic cafes that dot all my favorite neighborhoods. And then, there’s jeong.
Jeong isn’t something you can buy. It’s a cultural concept that influences every aspect of Korean life, from your relationships with your family and friends to your career. Jeong is a complicated term; as my colleagues explained, it can’t be easily translated into English.
Still, I’ve found that the following principles of jeong, when broken down, help make the intangible concept a little easier to grasp.
What is Jeong?
Jeong: When you feel it, you know.
As I said earlier, jeong is one of Korea’s most defining cultural concepts. Although jeong is better felt than put into words, the best way to describe it is a deep connection and emotional bond that builds over time and through shared experiences with other people, places, or things.
Jeong is omnipresent in Korean culture.
Jeong is so deeply ingrained in Korean society that it is constantly alluded to in everyday conversations. It’s safe to say that every Korean person knows what jeong means, although they may struggle to describe it. If you’re into Korean entertainment, you’ll often hear it being referenced in movies, dramas, reality shows, and songs.
Jeong takes time.
Jeong doesn’t come from grabbing a quick coffee with someone or sending a series of texts, no matter how witty the exchanges may be. It develops with time and requires your energy and investment to build over the years. To have jeong demands vulnerability and to experience both private hardships and celebratory moments together.
Jeong creates lasting bonds.
If you have jeong with someone, chances are you’ll be willing to stick by their side and bend over backward for them, even when it may not make sense.
Jeong encourages generosity.
When you do bend over backward, you’ll do it without expecting anything in return. While outside observers might find your generosity to be excessive or unreasonable, it makes perfect sense in your eyes since it was all in the name of your deep connection.
Jeong lasts forever.
Once you have jeong, you will always have that bond. You may not see that person or place for decades, but when you do, it will feel like no time has passed at all. Even when jeong turns to hate—like a falling out with one of your best friends—there will still be an invisible cord that ties you together, built from the many memories you’ve shared.
Jeong is different from love.
Some say jeong is like love. There are a few similarities, but jeong is a different connection than love because it’s not romantic. You can have jeong with a group of friends from the neighborhood that you grew up in or a mentor that took care of you at your first job. Another thing that makes jeong special is the fact that it can be shared between larger groups of people—very different from the typical significant-other relationship.
And unlike love, there is no such thing as unrequited jeong. It’s a feeling that is 100 percent mutual between all parties. Once you have jeong with someone, you never lose it. It’s an unending connection that is never severed.
Jeong goes beyond the relationships you have with people.
You can have jeong with an object or any place that is deeply personal and meaningful to you. After spending five years exploring all that Korea had to offer, I had so much jeong with the country that it actually fueled my passion to start Soko Glam.
Jeong is good for the community—when used right.
Jeong is such a prominent part of Korean culture that people who are capable of having jeong are openly sought after by companies in the hiring process. To say someone lacks jeong is considered an insult, especially in social circles. Many people in Korea credit it for creating tight-knit communities that are stable and reliable because of how jeong motivates people to do good for one another without expecting anything in return. For instance, a young man helping an older woman cross the street safely with all her belongings, or a woman who makes warm homecooked meals for all the neighborhood kids as if they were her own. These are both examples of how simple acts of jeong can foster a form of collectivism, which has become increasingly important among today’s fragmented communities.
Jeong makes us human.
Jeong humanizes us because it inspires us to do more than what we have been asked to do—or what makes sense to do. Often, it comes hand in hand with empathy, or the idea that by connecting to someone’s life experience, you might be compelled to help them in ways you would not otherwise. Some say that in order to have jeong, you must also experience han, which is the Korean word for a deep sorrow that is shared among all Korean people. Whether you experience han or not, the point is that empathy will help you fully understand others and establish deeper connections.
Jeong is universal.
Jeong is incredibly important to Korean culture, but it shouldn’t be considered a uniquely Korean experience. It is truly applicable to everyone and present everywhere, across diverse cultures. Chances are you have already felt it and taken part in simple acts of jeong with those around you, but never knew its name until now.
Ultimately, jeong is best understood by living it—which is one reason why I decided to share my personal story through this book. Through experience, it becomes simple: When you feel it, you know.
How jeong changed my life.
After I learned how to describe jeong, I realized that I had been cultivating it unknowingly for years while growing up in California. Most of you will also easily relate jeong to the deep connection you have with family members like your siblings, parents, or grandparents. It makes sense that jeong builds quickly within a family unit due to the sheer amount of time you spend together: Living in the same house, sharing the same stash of toilet paper, arguing over the family Netflix account, you organically share so much of what life throws at you.
This was true of my relationship with my grandmother, who raised me until I was in elementary school. She was in her 70s, a longtime widow (my grandfather passed away from cancer when my dad was only in high school) who chose to live alone in a tidy, one-bedroom high-rise apartment near Western and Wilshire [in L.A.] with other seniors. Despite the fact that Koreatown in L.A. is the largest Korean community outside of Korea, I always worried about how she spent her time and how she got around. Her English was pretty scant, though she had miraculously passed her citizenship test by diligently memorizing all the questions and answers, leaving her fully prepared for every verbal interaction with her immigration officer.
“I’m fine, thank you...and you?” she would gleefully say to me, careful to overly enunciate each word and pause for effect, the way she had rehearsed many times over. It was her favorite English phrase because those were the magic words she believed had unlocked the gates to citizenship. My grandma was a firecracker with so much spunk and passion, but also a hot temper that often caused year-long rifts with her three sons. (Let’s just say their wives—my mom included—didn’t exactly get along with her either.) Despite having contentious relationships with her own sons, she and I got along very well—so much so that it was a running joke that I was the only member of the family she liked.
Even though she was a firecracker, inevitably age started to slow her down. She began losing her ability to move about freely. First she relied on a walker and then eventually needed a wheelchair to keep her mobile. As soon as I could drive, I made it a point to go to L.A. and visit her whenever I could, even though there was only so much we could chat about with the language barrier. To fill some of the time, and because she wasn’t exactly free to move around, I wanted to ensure she had some form of entertainment—The Tonight Show with Jay Leno wasn’t going to cut it. Luckily, there were plenty of Korean immigrant–owned video stores around her apartment. Those tiny hole-in-the-wall shops were important touchstones for the Korean-American community. Nowadays, you can easily stream Korean talk shows and dramas online, but back then, physical video tapes recorded in Korea were the only option. Those tapes were slivers of proof that their native land existed.
It took me just a short walk and a few dollars to rent a whole collection of Korean dramas, talk shows, and other programs that would be to my grandma’s liking. Unlike the nearby Blockbuster with its Hollywood new releases spaced evenly on shelves, these video shops made use of every inch of wall. There were tapes lined from floor to ceiling, rows and rows of black VHS with plain white stickers that had the recorded show titles written in Korean. Sometimes I wouldn’t be able to get my hands on a hot K-drama series for weeks. If I was lucky to land my picks, I’d leave with a black plastic bag overflowing with tapes, already rewound and ready to pop in the VCR once I got to my grandma’s place. Then, after a few seconds of flickering as the picture settled into frame, we’d finally start to binge (yes, even on VHS!).
Thinking back on the many hours I spent at her apartment, we didn’t really have to say much: We just rolled the tapes. And off-screen, I found so much to observe. I got to see the corners of her lips turn up when the two lovers serendipitously ran into each other, their affection shown through an innocent grazing of hands (or even pinkies). I got to see, from the corner of my eye, her tears flowing at the end of a particularly emotional scene, as I tried to blink my own away. Whenever the ending was terrible, she made it known with snide remarks. I didn’t ask many questions, but I got to know a little more about her through these small moments we shared. I also grew curious about the life she had left behind in Korea. Even as I acknowledged the cheesy sheen of Korean dramas, I couldn’t help but become invested in their real-world setting. They gave me a glimpse into the highly charismatic side of Korea that I had shunned for so long.
Yes, it may be hard to believe, but until that point, I had possessed zero interest in the country of Korea or being Korean—period. My older sister, Michelle, was fully on board the K-train, plastering H.O.T. posters on her wall and obsessing over the “fact” that Kang-ta had looked directly at her while she stood in a sea of thousands of screaming fans at Wilshire Theater. Meanwhile, I was on the opposite end of the spectrum. I grew up ashamed of being Korean. I had no role models in American mainstream media and no real connection to the culture, other than the terrible Saturday Korean language classes that I absolutely dreaded. Some kids in my neighborhood had bullied me for having “slits for eyes,” which I internalized. Part of me likely wanted to rebel against what my older sister liked, too.
Although the tapes were meant to appease my grandma, I quickly became the one enraptured by the magic I saw on screen. Those dramas changed the lens through which I viewed my heritage, shifting toward a more positive light. Watching them together with my grandma, splayed out comfortably on her apartment floor with a plate of honey-dew she had cut into perfect little squares, only made the warm feelings grow stronger. Whatever subconscious negativity I had felt about being Korean began to slowly melt away. I didn’t realize it at the time, but those hours we spent in front of the TV were overflowing with jeong. There was the jeong I built with my grandmother, which drove me to want to know more about her and dive more deeply into our shared roots. From there, my intrinsic curiosity and desire to learn about life in Korea began to build, leading me to the world of Korean dramas, to the JoongAng Daily where I saw the ad for Samsung, to my new life in Seoul. Those first seeds of jeong with my grandmother slowly but surely changed the course of my life.
Excerpted from The Little Book of Jeong by Charlotte Cho. Copyright © 2021. Reprinted with permission of the author.