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.
Some call Korea a nation of haan, and a nation of suffering. A Korean psychiatrist stated that haan is "some thing that has been formed, accumulated and precipitated in mass in the depth of Korean psyche over generations -- it is deeply imprinted in the collective subconscious of the Korean people." A well-known poet, Ko-Un, expressed his view graphically: "Koreans are born from the womb of haan, grew up in the bosom of haan, and live out haan, die leaving haan behind."
When seen in this way, haan is a symbol, a sign language of the Korean psyche and Korean history. Haan is the Korean version of victimization syndrome, analogous to the Holocaust when used as a symbol by the Jewish people. Korean folklore, songs, poems, novels, dancing, artwork and autobiographical literature are full of haan-ridden stories, where motive and themes are derived from haan experiences.
A haan-ridden person feels that he or she is an innocent victim, who suffers not because of one's own fault or mistake but because of another's. That someone else could be a bad master, an abusive husband, a cruel mother-in-law, a corrupt government or an invading foreign power. Or it could be fate, nature, calamity or supernatural powers. The common way of expressing haan feeling is: "Uh-gul-ha-da," which refers to the sense of indignation at the injustice done to the person.
A Korean theologian, Suk-mo Ahn, takes the interpretation of haan one step further. For him, haan refers not only to pent-up emotions of anger and the holding of a grudge, but it also carries the image of woundedness, the wrecked meaning of life, the fragmentation of self and world, and most of all, a strong sense of "Why me?" It is almost akin to the experience of mourning
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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