Sunday, March 10, 2013

Jeong II

 “And this is the ‘Coram Deo’ sign,” I explained to Will, my cousin, who is visiting me. “In case you’re not up on your Latin it means Before the face of God. It’s Kosin’s motto. Sometimes when students ask each other really personal questions and someone clearly doesn’t want to answer, the first student will say ‘Coram Deo! You can’t lie! Coram Deo!’”

I’ve been doing a lot of talking this week, babbling on about the ins and outs about life in Korea. I wrote earlier that I think I’m becoming more and more Korean as the time goes by. I used to think I’d always be an outsider here, and while I wasn’t wrong about that, I probably wasn’t right either.

When I was in Singapore, Sanna said, “I wonder how you see the city, what it feels like to you. I can’t tell how outsiders see it anymore.” She grew up in Singapore and is probably more in tune with its people than I am with South Koreans, but I understand the sentiment now as my cousin walks around my city, sees my country, interacts with my people. I’m not right about them being mine, but I’m not wrong, either.

Because of jeong.

Biscuit, one of my Malaysian and very talkative students, said, “You know jeong? That is how I feel about Korea. A closeness with—a deep, feeling like—I have jeong with its people.”

Jeong is a Korean concept that reminds me a little of the Portuguese saudade. English tiptoes around the edges of both meanings, saying “fondness” for the former and “homesick” for the latter, neither true to the emotion of the original word. Sometimes it’s as if English is afraid to put on a name on something so personal.

I’m not sure exactly what Will took away from this week’s visit, but he spent the workweek watching me juggle random classes assigned seconds before they occurred, classroom mix-ups, last-minute meetings, and the general chaos that is the first week of the university school year. Sometime between running up and down the eight flights of stairs that make up my teaching environment, this conversation:
My cousin Will at a cozy burger joint in Seoul.  Poor fellow was too
full to finish his complementary soup, so I had to oblige.

Will: So, how many classes do you have today? Two? Three?
Me: Three. Ermmaybe.
Will: Maybe?
Me: I might have two classes at the same time. And I might have to cover someone else’s 10:00.
Will: Maybe. School motto.
Me: No, that’s Coram Deo, remember?
Will: Coram Deo. Right. Latin for ‘…maybe?’
Me: *snort* Latin for ‘what the hell is going on here’ more like.

I've got a golden ticket!
In fact, that might be Korea’s motto: Coram Deo. Chaos. Call it what you want, I both love and hate it. Hate it when my classes are thrust upon me in the form of 60-student class-lists and ripped from my fingers the next day after I’ve warmed the class to me. Love it when my students almost crucify their new teacher because they’ve become so—randomly—attached to me. Hate it when individual initiative gains you nothing but condescension. Love it when Lotte Department store sends me a $100 gift certificate wrapped Willy Wonka-golden-ticket-style. Hate it when responsible preparation never pays off. Love it when the owner of a burger joint randomly serves up two free cups of pumpkin soup.

Love it and hate it, familiarity and fondness: jeong.

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