Finding jeong in South Korea
I was riding one of those pimped out intercity buses you can get for an extra W5000 — the ones with wide seats that can recline to almost horizontal. The woman seated next to me turned and piled a half dozen peeled tangerines in my lap. I nodded my thanks, and bit into a section.
- “Mashissoyo,” I said.
The woman smiled and began tucking into some herself. It was not important to her that I was grateful, but that she had given and shared. While I knew she was not looking to gain in return, I was sad not to have something to give her.
Plus, I had a secret. There was a tangerine in my bag, which I then planned to hide for the duration of the journey. I knew it was too small to share, that she wouldn’t accept it — and I kicked myself for not packing any extra food. How could I have forgotten that living in South Korea means always carrying more than your share? I hated not having anything to offer the many kind people I had met, who had shared their food and drink with me almost instantly upon our first meeting.
I’d been fed by strangers so many times. I bit into another tangerine and remembered one of my favourite moments in Korea — when my stomach was rescued from its own gurgling by an ajusshi on a bike.
The skies hadn’t seemed threatening when my girlfriend and I headed out for a long Sunday run. But by the time we hit the river, the rain was blinding. We stopped at a bridge, staring at the sky and hoping the shower would pass. Small groups of runners, cyclists, and power-walkers gathered under the bridge, all fully geared in neon synthetic outfits, face masks, and gloves.
One of the cyclists had taken advantage of the break in his ride to jump rope. I was stretching out my legs when I saw him stop, pull something out of his pack, and hand it to my girlfriend. We had barely finished our regular chorus of “kamsahamnida!” (thank you!) before he was back on the rope. Inside the packet was a mini carton of milk, a sweet bean candy, and a chocolate bar. He had no doubt packed two of each before hitting the road that morning. The skies cleared and so did the bridge, as we all went our separate ways.
In the absence of a shared language, people have shown me hospitality and kindness with food. Moments like these are usually unexpected, except on hiking trails. Hikers in South Korea are renowned for hauling feast-sized snacks up the path, and sharing with fellow trekkers. On a recent hiking trip to Geumodo, an island off the seaside city of Yeosu, my friends and I were graced yet again with Korean hospitality.
After four trails and two days, we reached a bus stop and untied our shoelaces. The hiking group next to us had just packed up their lunch, and were asking us some standard questions. Luckily our broken Korean was up to the challenge.
- “Where are you from?”
“Oh, Mandela’s hometown!”
“Yes, we love him!”
“What is your job?”
“We are English teachers.”
“How old are you?”
“I am 29, Korean age.”
“Do you like kimchi?”
“Yes, I love it, especially with tofu.”
Like your age or job, your taste in food — and your opinion on Korean food — lets people know how they should relate to you. Express a love for kimchi and you’re certain to impress.
Halfway through the friendly interrogation, someone thrust slices of peeled Asian pears into our hands and mouths. We proceeded to chew, splutter and giggle through the conversation. During our chat, one of the ajummas put together a pack of mixed rice, beans, seaweed, and kimchi for us to eat on the ferry home.
This sharing of food, even if not eaten together or immediately, was a symbol of our new friendship. The gift was evidence of jeong — an untranslatable word that describes a feeling of affection and attachment. For a foreigner in South Korea, eating together is one of the few ways to experience jeong. Most people in Korea speak only a little English, so unless you speak Korean well it’s difficult to form relationships with people. Eating together becomes a bridge across the language gap.
While South Korea certainly has hyper-capitalistic ambitions, it’s in a metamorphic moment between a global future and an ancient collective past. School kids don smartphones and robots build ships, but people still share kimchi and chocolate with strangers and dry their vegetables in the street.
The generosity I’ve encountered in Korea has taught me that food can be a way to communicate when language fails. Along with plasters and a water bottle, my hiking pack is now stocked with rice cakes and sweets to share along the trail.