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Korean Kindness

Posted on the 29 December 2012 by Smudger @ChristopherSm73
Korean KindnessIf you speak to Koreans about kindness they will say that Korea is the most warm-hearted of all the countries in it's vicinity.  Now we all know that Koreans never really like to blow their own trumpet about their culture so this must be true.
Seriously though, I have experienced many examples of great kindness from Korean people.  The instances which have been the most touching, and indeed helpful, have been acts of kindness from strangers when I or my friends have been most in need of help. 
Korean people will have an explanation for this kindness and it is the concept of '정' (Jeong).  This roughly translates to a warm-heartedness, affection, care, and sentiment.  People who live in the countryside will often display '정' to complete strangers with tender acts of kindness such as allowing them a place to sleep.  Indeed one of the co-teachers at my school traveled all over Korea and stayed mostly in strangers houses because he said he had a very pleasant attitude towards people which made them want to be kind to him (although this man sounds almost as big a cheap-skate as me, he is indeed very amiable).
It is in the countryside that most of my fondest memories of Korean people are situated.  I go hiking regularly, and not just to the national parks and well-known mountains but all over the place and sometimes well off the beaten track.  This means that I have got lost countless times, ended up in odd little villages, and had no way of getting home sometimes because of a lack of knowledge of the local public transport system.
It is in these situations where Korean people really have been great.  My friends and I have received a number of lifts to local bus stations from drivers who pass us by when we were looking very lost.  Each time we have been visibly muddy, sweaty, and smelly but that has not deterred them.
While hiking, Korean people regularly offer us food and drink and are ready to help us out whenever they can.  Just last week we were helped out with our cooking equipment on top of Jirisan mountain.  We had a rather dated gas burner and rather tiny pot for our noodles so a man gave us a bigger pot and a better burner to cook on and we experienced similar little gestures throughout the trip.
Generally, I find that when I am outside of the cities, whether it be in the country or on top of a mountain Koreans are friendly, kind, helpful, and often interested in a pleasant chat with you.  When I traveled to Japan for hiking I did not find this so much.  The Japanese were super-polite and very considerate on the mountain by letting me through on tight trails (unlike the Korean freight train storming through) but they seemed far less inclined to stop and be friendly or offer food and assistance.
Korean KindnessEven in the city Koreans have on occasion ran across the road to share an umbrella with me when it is raining when I did not have one, or even just given me an umbrella without any expectation of anything in return.  This is what I find so nice about the kindness of strangers and is key to my warm feelings of this part of their culture, it is a genuine act of kindness with no want of reciprocation.
I become far less comfortable with Korean kindness when it is with Korean people I know, i.e. co-workers, family, or acquaintances.  This is when I feel that their kindness is either forced out of duty or that they have have expectations of kindness in return.
This all sounds a little like I just want to receive acts of kindness without having to give out any myself, but that is not the point.  The reciprocal nature of gift buying here makes me a tad uncomfortable sometimes as on many occasions I don't even want a gift or help in something but I receive it anyway.  This then obligates me in some way to return the favour and indeed I have often felt pressure because of it.
Kindness can even turn into a problem with my Korean family who are so hospitable and so sweet that I just do not know what to do with myself, I have too much to feel grateful for and again all of their tendernesses are, it pains me to say, unwelcome.  I hate to say that because it sounds dreadfully horrible to such kind people.  The reason for it, however, is that there affection is based on duties of kindness and tradition and the sort of things they would like and not what I would like.
Here is a brief example of what I am talking about, which I had mentioned in a previous blog, but it worth repeating here: having seen a couple of weeks previously that I had greatly enjoyed eating chicken and kimchi round their house (to be fair I eat almost anything with enthusiasm but my mother in-law's kimchi is something rather special) my father in-law decided he would buy two chickens and slaughter them himself and starve them for 3 days tied up in a bag beforehand to improve the flavour, all just for my benefit.
Where my problem lies with this sort of kindness is the lack of empathy involved in it.  Eating a starved chicken is something that he would enjoy or a Korean might enjoy.  He did know, however, that I had been a vegetarian for most of my adult life and knew that my reasons had been because of the cruelty of intensive farming practices.  He knew that I only ate meat in Korea because of an effort to fit in with the culture both at work and with his family. 
There will be those that will say that this was just a well-meaning gesture and I am being too harsh, but this sort of thing happens too much in Korea.  All too often I have been given gifts and had favours done for me by a wide range of people that they must have known that I would not like.
I have one teacher at my school who always insists on buying a bottle of the strongest alcohol to share with me at staff dinners despite me having told him numerous times that I dislike drinking alcoholic beverages.
Even if all of this is caused by simple ignorance I still wonder at how little they are listening to us or have learned about people from Western cultures.
Their acts of kindness are very situational, very specific, and very duty bound in my experience.  I am not sure how much empathy is being displayed.  I would love to know what is going on inside of people's heads at the time of an act of kindness, are they thinking 'if I was this person I would really appreciate some help, so I will help them' or are they thinking 'this situation means I am duty-bound to offer assistance or give a gift.'
The answer is probably a subtle mixture of both, but I suspect most Westerners will err towards the first line of thought more often than Korean people.
Either way it is a kind act, I hear you say, so who cares?  But the troubling effect placing more importance on number 2 is that it is possible to ignore those in need (indeed those in most need) who are outside the traditional situations where duty-bound kindness is necessary.  I see this in Korea with people in lower positions at work, younger people, foreigners, and animals.  In the case of foreigners, they are wonderfully kind most of the time but regularly in ways that make us uncomfortable and ignore the times when we really could do with a bit of help but don't get any.
There is a positive to train of thought number 2, however, and that is that gestures of kindness may become more frequent when they are a set moral duty.  In my country we tend to let people suffer minor inconveniences because, after-all, it is no big deal and it is difficult to feel so strongly as to act about someone who has merely an inferior gas stove to me when cooking noodles.  I cannot imagine an English person doing the kind deed of that Korean fellow on the mountain that I mentioned earlier.  So it is for these reasons that acts of kindness really are more frequent here than back home.
I think this may be the reason I experience the odd paradox of so much kindness in Korea whilst at the same time seem to notice so much heartlessness.  I, personally, am not a very unfortunate guy and a very self-reliant one who doesn't need gifts and doesn't need help but receive it in Korea anyway.  I feel saturated by kindness every day.
Korean KindnessHowever, I can then see a poor old woman whose cardboard cart has fallen over trying to correct it and with all passers-by ignoring her, an emaciated dog chained up outside in the freezing cold, see the tears roll down my wife's face having been bullied at work for simply being one of the younger nurses, my students suffering with unnecessary workloads of study, and notice the extreme discomfort of younger teachers when they are forced to get drunk and tag along with the older teachers at staff dinners.  These are just the simple matters of everyday living with people and animals that fall outside the call of duty.
I think Westerners notice these sort of instances more because we more readily put ourselves in the place of these people or animals.  We imagine how we would feel if we were in each situation, whether it be outside in the cold, being forced to do things we don't want, being stressed from too much work, or being old and vulnerable and in need of some help.  We envision these things despite the social status of the individual or indeed the species of the individual concerned.
Surely Korean people do feel this way too, but I have to say that it appears less ingrained into their way of thinking as a whole.
In practice it appears as though our societies run very similarly, even allowing big differences in thinking.  Crime rates are similar, for example, (only in America is violent crime more prevalent) and on charity South Korea come out generally lower than Western countries but not all of them, so maybe it doesn't make a great deal of difference how you think about morals and kind deeds - whether they are done because of duty and social cohesion or out of an empathetic urge to not see suffering of others.
Perhaps the West could follow the Korean way a little more and make acts of kindness and morals more regular and set in stone in certain situations and Koreans be more empathetic, maybe this way society would be better for everyone concerned.
Korea has certainly left me with many great examples of kindness that I do not find in England and create a warm fuzzy glow in my heart but at the same time has also shown me some horrible examples of misdeeds that I would also never see in my country, leaving me cold and over-shadowing some of the sweeter moments of my Korean experience.

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