Foreigners may never grasp the true meaning of “jeong“, a special love that permeates every part of Korean life, especially since Koreans can’t quite explain it themselves!
Jeong‘s definition is broad and its reach, vast. It includes various facets of other kinds of love, including sympathy, compassion, and affection.
According to Dr. Christopher K. Chung and Dr. Samson Cho of UCLA, “One Korean-English dictionary defines it as ‘feeling, love, sentiment, passion, human nature, sympathy, heart.’ Although it is complicated to introduce a clear definition of jeong, it seems to include all of the above as well as more basic feelings, such as attachment, bond, affection, or even bondage.”
Jeong is both simple and complex. It permeates all levels of life and refers to the bonds, both emotional and psychological, that join Koreans together. Its uniqueness lies in the collective nature of Korean society.
Since jeong is so entrenched in every day Korean life, nearly anything in Korean society can be used to as an example of jeong, even food!
Feelings of jeong can be expressed through Choco Pie. Wanting to grow closer to someone by sharing your Choco Pie with them is, in itself, an act of jeong since generosity is part of what defines jeong.
At a restaurant, two friends may order different meals. Offering each other a taste of their own meals is another example of jeong.
Jeong can be seen when someone offers help to an elderly person. Jeong is carrying their bag. Jeong is offering them a steady arm to hold on to as they walk.
Jeong, at its core, may be defined as unselfish giving: giving without expecting anything in return. It is related to altruism but is not quite the same thing.
Jeong can be a kind gesture toward another person, especially a stranger.
A restaurant owner may show jeong by giving extra portions of food for free because he or she sees the customers as family.
Even a long-time married couple that no longer gets along may stay together, because of jeong.
The bickering parents from Reply 1997 must have had a lot of jeong keeping them together!
Perhaps the most perplexing part of jeong is this: it can apply to both people and inanimate objects. The sentimental attachment to meaningful personal belongings, like a blanket, is also part of jeong.
Jeong is more than love: It is affection, compassion, and sympathy. It is community, selflessness, and attachment. It can be experienced with objects, strangers, loved ones, and between people who have fallen out of love. It is a concept so deeply-ingrained in (and unique to) Korean society, that to truly understand it you’d have to grow up in Korea!