Words by Jessamine Price
I hate zombies. They have bad skin and deliver bad dialogue – my least favorite variety of villain. But they are everywhere in American pop culture the past decade, from World War Z to The Walking Dead. I sometimes joke that I left the USA to escape the American passion for all things zombie.
So I felt cheated when Korea’s big blockbuster movie last summer was Train to Busan, a zombie movie. The zombies followed me here to Korea. Is nowhere safe?
But when I finally sat down and watched Train to Busan recently, I enjoyed it. Despite the zombies, Train to Busan has that “special sauce” I see again and again in Korean entertainment: a stew of heart-warming feelings that Koreans call “jeong.”
“Jeong” is hard to translate. At its simplest, it means caring and affection. But jeong appears in myriad Korean expressions. It can mean hospitality, generosity, connection, or soulfulness.
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.” Jeong is bigger than mere kindness, and it appears everywhere in Korean culture – even among the heroes in a zombie movie.
Jeong differs from the individualistic idea of caring that I grew up with in the United States. Jeong is not something you feel alone by yourself. It is something that happens between people. Supposedly, jeong explains why we eat out of the same pot at a restaurant in Korea, and why we go on those boozy “team building” weekends with co-workers – even co-workers we might not really like.
Every culture in the world values compassion. But Koreans say jeong is different. For one thing, jeong imposes an obligation. Journalist Daniel Tudor offers an explanation in Korea: The Impossible Country. Jeong is like “a cord linking people to each other,” making it hard to turn your back on a family member or friend who needs a loan or a job.
Some people might even blame President Park’s recent downfall on jeong. Too much generosity to an old friend can cross the line into corruption. Nevertheless, Tudor concludes that jeong is “the most attractive aspect of Korean culture, for it encourages warmth and generosity.”
Jeong is not just about Koreans helping each other. It can also inspire generosity to strangers.
Before I came to Korea, I read warnings that Korea is very homogeneous, and people might have prejudices against foreigners. But the hospitality I have seen since coming to Gwangju has surprised me again and again.
One time on a trip to Haenam with fellow English teachers, my friends and I got a dinner invitation from the manager of the small hotel where we were staying. We worried he would ask nosy personal questions or make indecent proposals. When I was backpacking across the Middle East years ago, one overly friendly hotel manager asked me to marry him. Was that going to happen to my young friend with the striking blond hair? Would we have to trade her for samgyeopsal?
When we arrived for dinner, we found a couple barbecue grills fired up on the deck overlooking Seongho Beach. Our new friend handed us a pile of meat and tutored us on grilling technique. We knew a couple words of Korean, and he knew a couple words of English. As the sun was setting over the water, we poured the beer and soju we had brought and toasted each other in two languages. Marriage never came up. We did not even have to talk. We just enjoyed the pleasure of eating.
It was a tasty, peaceful, companionable meal. It was also shocking for a cynical foreigner like me. Why was a stranger feeding me meat for no reason?
I call this “jeong shock” – the disorientation you feel when a Korean overwhelms you with unexpected, above-and-beyond kindness that you can never repay.
I experienced jeong shock again this summer when friends of mine – a family of four – came to visit from Israel. We were sightseeing on a hot day in August when my friend’s 13-year-old daughter had a sudden-onset fashion crisis. The strap on one of her sandals broke. We needed a replacement shoe ASAP.
We spotted a shop selling simple rubber shower shoes. My friend pointed them out. “If we get a pair of those, you can have something on your feet while we look for some real shoes,” she said.
But the thirteen-year-old was reluctant to wear anything ugly, even temporarily.
As we stood in the heat talking about what to do, someone tapped on my arm. It was a young Korean couple, and the woman handed me a pair of sandals. They looked brand new, and they had cute sparkly flowers on them. Just the thing for a 13-year-old girl.
We did not know what to say. The couple quickly bowed and walked away, leaving behind five foreigners in a state of jeong shock.
People in Seoul say that Jeolla people “have a lot of jeong,” and maybe these stories confirm it. But the idea of jeong is strong overall in Korean pop culture. Variety shows revolve around people being convivial together. Popular plot-lines revolve around romance and family bonds. K-dramas particularly love to tell stories about cold-hearted characters who develop compassion for others. Pop stars live and die by their ability to sing soulful ballads.
And so it should be no surprise that jeong appears even in a movie about killing zombies. Train to Busan balances its action sequences with sub-plots about the emotional connections between characters. And the movie depicts jeong in all its forms, not only as self-sacrifice and heroism, but also as self-serving favoritism. The film’s edge of social critique comes from showing both the noble and hurtful aspects of jeong.
I still dislike zombies. But maybe I will have to make an exception for Korean zombies. Last week, Netflix announced an upcoming Korean–American joint production about zombies in the Joseon Era. Is this good news or bad news? I will reserve judgement – until I see if the show has jeong.