This article by Dr. Luke Kim is part of a series designed to teach families about Korean culture. For a listing of all the articles in the series, click here.
Although most second generation Korean Americans in the United States have experienced jeong relations with family members, especially in parental love, they may not have the slightest idea what jeong is. No word in the Korean vocabulary is more endearing and evocative. Jeong refers to a special interpersonal bond of trust and closeness. There is no English equivalent. Jeong encompasses the meaning of a wide range of English terms: feeling, empathy, affection, closeness, tenderness, pathos, compassion, sentiment, trust, bonding and love.
Jeong strengthens the bond between two persons. It is a special affection toward a person but not sexualized or erotic love. Koreans consider jeong an essential element in human life, promoting the depth and richness of personal relations. With jeong, relationships are deeper and longer lasting. In times of social upheaval, calamity and unrest, jeong is the only binding and stabilizing force. Without it, life would be emotionally barren. People would be isolated and disconnected from one another. Jeong is more than kindness or liking another. Jeong brings about the "special" feelings in relationships: togetherness, sharing, bonding. Jeong is what makes us say "we" rather than "I," "ours" rather than "mine".
The word jeong is usually combined with another word that modifies the nuances of meaning and defines the relationship. Mo-jeong is jeong bonding between a mother and child. Jeong among friends is Woo-jeong. Ae-jeong is usually lovers' jeong; In-jeong is human sympathy and universal compassion. The jeong relationship between teacher and student is that of an enduring mentorship, not merely a relationship where the teacher has the duty to transmit knowledge to the student. Shim-jeong is "jeong in the heart," the emotions we feel about another in our heart.
Jeong develops not only in horizontal relations, such as friendship, but also in vertical relationships, such as those between parent and child or teacher and student. Woo-jeong, jeong of two friends, connotes more than an ordinary friendship. The concept of "soul mate" perhaps comes close to capturing the essence of a friendship with deep jeong.
Jeong is not erotic and not sexualized. There is no implication of a homosexual relationship. The only erotic jeong is Ae-jeong, which is the love jeong between husband and wife or between two lovers, although some would say that erotic jeong is also present between a mother and her baby.
Although jeong can develop mutually among a group of people, such as alumni, through group identification, it is usually cultivated in a give-and-take relationship between two people. Jeong is usually reciprocated, but it can be unilateral. Jeong is not experienced instantly but grows over time. It is not a love at first sight. It needs a certain period of incubation, so that the jeong bonding can occur.
Jeong is like water coming up slowly and gently sipping through sands in the beach. It is not a gush. The process occurs more naturally and less intentionally than in love.
Luke Kim, M.D., Ph.D. is a clinical professor of psychiatry at University of California School of Medicine. He is a board member of Friends of Korea organization in Sacramento, California, and a friend and supporter of Korean Quarterly newspaper.
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