[Outlook]Land of the morning calm?

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[Outlook]Land of the morning calm?

The German word gelassen means cool, composed, calm or placid, according to a German-English dictionary. But this explanation doesn’t seem to really explain the word.
To understand the meaning of a word fully, one should look at the context in which it is used. Gelassen refers to a state of mind in which a person is unperturbed and remains calm even though he is expected to be disturbed emotionally. The word’s connotation is resignation or tolerance in many cases.
Some 10 years ago, in an airplane from Korea to Germany, I was seated next to a German in his 50s, and we had a conversation during the flight. He was an engineer for a German company and had been working for a joint venture in Korea for around two years.
He said Koreans were “gelassen.” He didn’t simply mean that Koreans do not express their feelings as much as Westerners do, or use a variety of gestures. He pointed out Koreans’ attitudes toward their communities.
He explained that Westerners express their opinions freely and argue openly. They feel that they deserve certain rights and become sensitive if those rights or interests are to be infringed upon or damaged.
Meanwhile, Koreans remain relatively calm when they are subject to sacrifices or disadvantages. Koreans are not obsessed with individual interests when dealing with issues that affect their groups or communities, so they are more generous and tolerant in human relations, he said.
In short, he used the word gelassen as a compliment to Koreans. His notion that Koreans are gelassen made a deep impression on me. I remember his words and, every now and then, feel the same way I did on first encountering them.
I also believe that Koreans put their families, work and other communities to which they belong before themselves, and in some cases they sacrifice themselves for the sake of the group.
But at times I feel skeptical about the German engineer’s compliment for Koreans, particularly when I think about Korea’s politics. It is hard to use the words “placid,” “resigned” or “tolerant” to describe Korean politicians.
Other words, such as “obsessive” or “ambitious,” better portray them.
For instance, in a presidential election, some candidates run for the presidency a second, third or even fourth time, which is anything but calm. Not only those who are currently in the political arena who haven’t assumed power but also former presidents engage in electioneering, deciding which candidate to support and dividing the people by their standards.
Some may say that the ambition to assume power is a trait of politicians, but there must be something wrong when there is not a single politician who can give up and withdraw when it is needed.
When it comes to politics, not only politicians but also the general public do not deserve to be called calm or tolerant. Still many people cling to regionalism and belong to groups that support certain candidates. They call themselves groups that “love” a candidate, but they spread hatred instead of love.
Korea has been democratized for the past 20 years. However, apart from institutions and procedures, political culture has not improved much. Many still think of politics more as a set of world views or ideologies than as give and take between interests.
Thus, politicians claim certain values are absolutely right, and by these standards, they divide people into friends and enemies instead of appreciating diversity and accepting diversity of values.
As a result, most politicians are stubborn and determined rather than generous and cooperative. The political arena in Korea is far from being gelassen.
Today, we vote to elect the 17th president of Korea. The biggest issue of the day is for whom we should cast our votes and who will be elected. To tell a story about a compliment a foreigner paid Koreans a long time ago may not sound related to this issue.
However, those who felt this story was worth giving thought to might meet their great responsibility with a gelassen state of mind.
In such a state of mind, voters will look into candidates’ traits and competence instead of their hometowns and regional networks, and the candidates who lose will accept their defeat without putting up a huge fuss.
The winner, if he is also deserving of the compliment of being called gelassen, will refocus his mind after the election and calmly devote himself to the country and its people.

The writer is a professor of Western history at Seoul National University. Tanslation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Ahn Byung-jik
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