Jeong: The Love That Binds Us

And in a world as chaotic as the one we are currently living in, jeong and family-like community are essential. 

I’m living in a haunted city, one dripping in nightmarish memories both living and inanimate, and it’s my hometown. For the better part of 12 years —  and the entirety of my adulthood — I was abroad. Then, bam — suddenly I moved back home.

Moving back to your hometown uncovers a lot of memories. I knew I had changed, but I was not expecting the things I left behind to change, too.  For me, my hometown was firmly rooted in the past, especially with friends and former relationships. Australian singer Goyte seemed to capture it best with his lyric, “Now you’re just somebody that I used to know.”

When perusing through Pinterest one idle day, I saw a definition of the word “jeong:” a Korean concept that is a form of love and affection, among other things, that permeate everyday society and the way you interact with others.

Lightbulb moment?! Was how I felt toward past people in my life “jeong?” 

What is it about people you used to know and love?  You didn’t end badly with them, but suddenly they became nothing in your life. Do I even say hello if I see them across a crowded supermarket? Most people dread the random supermarket chat following the tried and true reflex: sunglasses on, head down, avert your eyes. Past relationships meant something once, but what now? 

Jeong, which can be defined as a particular state of mind that arises from family-like relationships, is a cultural norm that governs social interaction in Korea.  

One thing about the concept is that it is not a feeling just towards exes; instead, it’s a general notion applicable to all kinds of human relationships. Yet, for me, it rang true for matters of the heart. 

With many meanings that are intrinsically rooted within a culture, jeong can be hard to define in words. Perhaps it’s simply more of a feeling of goodwill and affection. 

Korean linguist Dr. Sunyoung Oh from The University of Melbourne helps break it down. “Jeong is Korean emotion similar to kindness and affection,” she says. “It is an emotion broadly defined as warm-heartedness equally towards strangers and people we know.”

 The community hall, where I now take my toddler for gymnastic class, is haunted by images of me roller skating after my crush at a party. The party had had a ’70s theme, and I had had the not-so-bright notion of wearing roller skates. Now, I chase my toddler down the halls with the same enthusiasm.

The first time I saw my old crush in that hall, I collected myself and said “hello” with an immediate realization that yes my heart still raced a little, but it was also the same excitement I had to see many old friends. Jeong permeates me*. I wish them well and nothing else.

We are simply drawn to some people more than others, romantic or not. “In love and hate relationships, we often excuse our (regrettable or contradictory) action for Jeong’s sake,”  says Dr. Oh.

 My other hometown flame began as a friend and has remained as such due to the high school friendship circle we share. He was my first kiss at age 14.

We were sitting next to each other on a shared bench at a pub for a mutual best friend’s birthday drinks. It was the first night out for me since moving back to my hometown. It was a normal night with old friends, laced in the kind of direct humor and tough love conversations that only come from knowing people since childhood. 

To any observers, it was a casual Friday night drink scene; yet, for me, it felt like a time warp, and I had been transported back to my teenage days. We had dated in those years, a tumultuous three year stretch of teenage passion and pain that left each with broken hearts. These days, we are friends with each other’s respective partners, children, and each other. 

“I still feel the same about you as I did back then,” he said over the drinks. I turned to him and lightly punched his arm.

It was an open conversation with our other friends, yet somehow this friend had confidently declared and somehow also denounced any feelings simultaneously with a matter of fact line. 

It was a poignant comment in a lighthearted situation that made me think perhaps our feelings don’t dissipate when we move — or run — away, but they likely wouldn’t disappear if we stayed, either. An ex was a romantic interest for a reason, and they became exes for better reasons. We learn to evolve and grow with this hard truth of life.  

They may not be a part of our lives anymore, but they are a part of who we are. This is jeong, I wonder.

Jessamine Price explains this in her  Gwangju News article: “Close friends are bound by jeong. A warm-hearted person has a lot of jeong. And old enemies can have a soft spot for each other known as hate-jeong.” 

People move away for a myriad of reasons; love, work, adventure, lifestyle, escapism — the list continues. But what is it that almost inevitably draws us home? 

According to the US Census, young adults in the United States have the highest rate of migration compared with other age groups. Overly complex city lives — traffic, commutes, high costs of living — are all contributors for the homecomings of those that departed small towns in their youth.  

Living away or abroad is an emancipation of sorts where you’re able to dust off preconceived expectations of who you were and discover who you are going to be. This move away often coincides with a transition to adulthood, when we are on the verge of discovering who we are. Studies show the migration rate declines after young adulthood as more people have completed the markers of adulthood transitions like completing education, getting a job, getting married, and buying a home.

Needless to say, it’s not only Koreans that feel warmth towards people. So what is it about jeong that is so uniquely Korean? 

“Jeong lacks in a society where individual lifestyle and independent space are of the priority,” says Dr. Oh. “While jeong-like community-based bondage can be present in the U.S., it could be less manifest[ed] in urban and western society.”

No matter if you live in your hometown, or away, you can find jeong in social structures. 

“Jeong provides unity, solidarity, and collective support and comfort to people in the community as well as [the] anonymous population,” says Dr. Oh. 

And in a world as chaotic as the one we are currently living in, jeong and family-like community are essential. 

* Koreans say “jeong permates me,” not “I have the feeling of jeong” or “I feel jeong.”

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