When I was learning the Japanese language one of the peripheral if intended consequences was gaining an understanding of the culture which sat behind it. Singular words such as tatemae and honne speak to a far greater psychology and collective experience than a simple dictionary definition can provide. Understanding that, while I have served other masters from time to time, I fundamentally gravitate towards a ronin existence - and this is before I got exiled by my government - allows me to stick a label on my subconscious motivations and understand the potential consequences; the realities of which are far removed from any romanticised notions.
In truth I've barely scratched the surface of the Korean language and the only word I've encountered so far similarly loaded with meaning is 기분 ('kibun'), which a dictionary will tell you translates as 'feelings/mood/humor' but which in reality means much more. Like tatemae and honne, it can explain a lot to a confused Westerner about why people here sometimes behave the way they do.
I had quite a number of Japanese friends to help me with my studies, and I soaked up everything I could about Japan, but I was hardly surrounded by material, and it was tough. I watched NHK news which used to broadcast its news programme unscrambled in Europe, and I read the Asahi and Yomiuri Shimbun web sites regularly. My language studies eventually stalled with a vocabulary of around 1,400 words - but I did learn a lot about Japanese politics.
When I came to Korea, I had the opposite of my Japanese experience - the quantity of material was overwhelming, and it was all I could do to make sense of that between trying to juggle my virtual life on the London Stock Exchange and running around Korea in a generally confused or bemused state. I had little time to take an interest in what was happening in wider Korean society beyond my own sphere of existence, but it would also be true to say that part of me was afraid to know; Korea can often project an image of being angry - angry at Japan, angry at China, angry at Americans, angry at the rest of the world, angry at foreign teachers, angry at history itself, which to be fair often hasn't really dealt the Korean people a good hand, although with no apparent statute of limitations on things that go back hundreds of years one wonders how justice can ever be seen to be done. There are times when ignorance is bliss, and I didn't want too many of my comfortable illusions about my temporary home shattered by the reality of the hatred that is out there bubbling away under the surface.
As I have slowly got my bearings though the time came when I had to start taking an interest in wider Korean society and developments, and in a sense, no study of the language - something which I've been taking more seriously of late - can be complete without this understanding. To this end I now read the English-language newspapers here every day and bookmark the stories I find interesting using Delicious.com, which should help me to build up a better picture of this society.
The Korea Herald has recently started a thirty part series on huge topic of social change in Korea. Here are parts one and two. Amongst other things part two discusses the 'psychology of han', which I think bears quoting here, because it speaks to so much of the Korean experience:
"The psychology of 'han': One aspect of the human element that cannot be omitted in the discussion of Korean behavior relative to modernization and economic growth is the psychologically motivating factors. Outstanding and unique in Korea is the psychology of han. This word cannot be literally translated into English, but it involves a sense of frustration, remorse, and revenge which are caused by certain unjustified deeds. When such feelings are accumulated in the psyche, one has to release the tension in some way, and, if unleashed in a negative way, this can cause "frost even in the middle of summer," especially for women, as the old saying goes. Channeled in a positive direction, this psychic force can lead to very productive results. The Korean nation has historically accumulated a strong sense of han, owing to so much bashing by powerful neighbors. Yet we have retained a unitary national identity so relentlessly that when this han feeling was directed into the positive channels of economic growth and modernization, it was able to lead to miraculous development in a short period of time, and has played a central role in restoring Koreans` national pride."
- Korea Herald, 2007-10-26
Korean tags: 신문, 언어, 공부, 기분, 심리학