Jeong a force that binds us
Winters are cold in Korea. My grandfather, who served in the 1950-53 Korean War, said, “Sleeping in those tents in the dead of winter, it was unbelievably cold.” In November 1950, the United States 1st Marine Division fought not only the Chinese 9th Army, but also the deadly cold at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in South Hamgyong Province.
Winters in Korea are becoming increasingly colder, and it is not just because of the temperature. Rapid industrialization and urbanization has created a colder and more isolated world. In the past, we at least knew the names and faces of our next door neighbors, but now, I strongly doubt if we would even know if those living in the next door apartment are alive. Even worse are some of the sad stories of the utterly long-term neglect that the elderly face today as they are ostracized even by their families.
Worried voices say, “Jeong [warm caring for others through empathy] in Korea is disappearing.” But that’s not what I have seen. To me, Korea is still a less calculating and less lonely place than that of Western society. Only by living in the jeong-based society of Korea, I was able to see the world anew again, for the first time.
On February 2014, we founded the Arirang Institute - a human network working towards peace and unification of the Korean Peninsula and the future afterwards - in the United States and launched a branch in Seoul, Korea.
Through our work to build the Arirang Institute over the last two years, my life - and the lives of others - have changed hugely. As Seoul bureau chief of the institute, I had countless opportunities to experience the uniquely Korean sentiment. Our institute seeks to embody jeong. The Arirang Institute would not exist today without the jeong of the Korean people. Numerous artists, academics, businessmen, media professionals, men and women of all ages have enthusiastically supported us in the Arirang Institute.
The CEO of Kid’s English, an English publication company in Seoul, donated a digital library of online English educational material to provide cost-free English learning to North Korean refugees through a program called Arirang Readers.
Not too long ago, I was contacted by the CEO of the Hamssine Native Bean Company in Jeonju, North Jeolla. Upon seeing the Arirang Institute’s past work in a Joongang Ilbo article, she immediately reached out to get involved. She even sent us her gochujang (hot pepper paste), soy sauce and handmade kimchi. She invited us to a guided tour, so the Arirang Institute spent the day experiencing traditional Korean culture.
At her restaurant, we had lunch together with North Korean refugees and non-Koreans alike. After lunch, we toured the traditional hanok village in Jeonju and experienced kimchi making ourselves. An older lady even tore a bit of kimchi and put it in my mouth. Although it felt a bit strange to me, I thanked her deeply. As we rode the bus back to Seoul, a North Korean refugee commented, “Like a family, we ate together and even made kimchi together. Today was a good day, a happy day for us.”
Jeong is the force that binds us all and gives a meaning and inspiration to our lives. Some people say that only great power can change the world. But that’s not what I have seen. Small acts of kindness, love and jeong are what make the world a brighter and warmer place.
by Michael Lammbrau, Seoul bureau chief of the Arirang Institute