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.
Che-myun literally means "body and face," and refers to face-saving in the sense of saving social face or saving the external facade to maintain respectability. As in other Asian countries, face-saving behavior is very important to Koreans in their public and social relationship. Maintaining che-myun protects one's sense of dignity, self-respect, and respectability. Honor is an important concept to live by for Koreans, and the honor of the individual as well as his or her family is maintained through che-myun. Che-myun helps to promote harmonious relationships. For example, face-saving may help a person to behave more gracefully, and moderate his or her temper in facing a person, even if he or she is very angry with the person.
Che-myun also promotes the development of mutual obligations and responsibilities. If a person does not respond in a reciprocal manner, he or she loses face. If a person does you a favor, it is your turn to return the favor, Hence, Che-myun is conducive to the development of a reciprocal bond and mutual relationships between and among people. Asian societies historically have been very social status-oriented. Therefore, generally Koreans/Asians are very conscious of their social status. That's why they like titles, honors, academic degrees from Ivy-league colleges, brand-name products, etc. People display che-myun behavior to maintain their social status, pride and prestige.
However, sometimes the che-myun behavior can be pretentious. If che-myun behavior is exaggerated, it can lead to a behavior of "huh-seh" or "ki-mae" in Japanese. Huh-seh is similar to the Western concept of bravado or show-off. A person may want to assure others as well as oneself of his or her status and prestige by driving a Mercedes and living in an expensive house in a exclusive area, even if he or she is actually living on a tight budget, In the spirit of huh-seh, one may give an expensive and extravagant party for friends, even if it means going into debt. Koreans especially are known for their very generous hospitality to house guests.
A concept related to che-myun is a behavior of ab-dui. In Korean Ab means "front," and dui, "back." It refers to presenting an external facade to a person's face, but behave differently behind the other's back. This is similar to Takeo Doi's (1985) two fold theory of social consciousness of Japanese people. It is a behavior of "Omote and Ura: "external public display" and "internal private reality." This theme is often played symbolically in Asian theatrical dramas or dancing wearing carved wooden facial masks, such as in Kabuki, Korean Tal-Choom, and Chinese traditional opera. Carl Jung also spoke of a "persona," an external social person.
The behavior of ab-dui represents a willful effort, perhaps sometimes desperately, to maintain a facade, not only to save one's own face, but to pay the courtesy of being pleasant or presenting one's best to the other person. An example is smiling to a person's face, while being angry with him or her inside oneself It is difficult to be totally honest and open all the time, and to show one's real or raw feelings --especially when one wants to maintain social harmony and civility.
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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