New Year’s Eve of 2016 was one of the strangest and most eventful days of my life. I woke up at 4:00 am in Riviera Maya, Mexico. I took a cab to the Cancun airport and flew to Detroit. From there I flew to New York City — arguably the most exciting city to visit on New Year’s Eve, although I was only passing through. While at JFK, I met up with two strangers who graciously let me shower and order room service in their airport hotel. At midnight, the three of us popped champagne and threw confetti in JFK’s international terminal to celebrate the new year.
We then flew 14 hours together to Seoul. After a three-hour layover at the world’s nicest airport, we flew 7 more hours to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. That concluded my longest travel day ever and the 48-hour pilgrimage I made to visit my friend Kevin. If he was with me right now he would want me to tell you that he’s worth every mile. I would agree, but I’m afraid it will go to his head.
At the time, Kevin was teaching English at a university in Can Tho , Vietnam as a Fulbright fellow. I traveled to see him with my new friends Kait and Alex, both of whom I met for the first time at the JFK airport hours before we took off to visit our mutual friend, Kevin. It was during this unforgettable trip that I experienced thorough culture shock for the first time in my life.
The word culture “shock” tends to carry a negative connotation when presented without context. For the sake of this story, it’s important to understand that I was shocked by how graciously the Vietnamese people treated us considering we were clearly short-term visitors. Despite a significant language barrier between us (save for Kevin who is outstanding at Vietnamese), the locals we interacted with were happy to share meals with us, offer us rides on their motorbikes, lend us bicycles, and generally do everything they could to make us comfortable during our short time in their country. I was truly shocked by this. We were strangers from the other side of the world and yet they treated us like old friends.
his experience was difficult to explain to people back home upon my return. The way we were treated extended beyond hospitality. It was not exactly generosity either. For years I struggled to find a word that explained how we were treated during our time in Vietnam.
Then I moved to Korea and the word found me.
During my second week at my Korean school, some of the homeroom teachers invited me to play volleyball with them after school. While playing, the teachers all did their best to speak English, not just to me, but to each other, so I was able to keep up with the banter during the game. While I really appreciated this gesture, it was certainly not necessary. As the one non-Korean person working at my school, I fully acknowledge that the onus of overcoming the language barrier lies on my shoulders. I am the guest English teacher after all. Regardless, the teachers stuck with their varying levels of English and all went out of their way to make sure I understood what was going on during the two hours we played volleyball together
After the game, some of the teachers remarked that I did not have the proper volleyball attire. While they were all wearing volleyball sneakers, jerseys, and knee pads, the best I could throw together from my small closet was a pair of gym shorts, a t-shirt, and some worn-out Allbirds. The next week the same teachers came to my office with a gift bag. I couldn’t imagine what they could possibly have for me or what the occasion was. When I opened the bag, I was astonished to find a brand new volleyball jersey and matching shorts. I lacked the Korean language skills to explain how grateful I felt for the gift so I said thank you in Korean about a dozen times before they left. This experience reminded me of that feeling I had in Vietnam. To put it simply, I felt cared for without having done anything to deserve it.
Once again, I couldn’t think of a word in English that fully summed that feeling up.
That same week, I visited my co-teacher’s classroom to ask if I could boil some water in her electric kettle to make coffee. I even offered to make her a cup because she often shares her coffee with me when we teach classes together (by often I mean every single time, so I owed her). Flash forward 5 minutes and she had given me the kettle to keep in my office along with various other small things that she insisted I take with me.
I assure you, while making sure she knew I was grateful for these offers, I initially gave some resistance to taking these items. After all, I didn’t want her to think I expected her to give me so many of her own things. I was only trying to boil some water. But she insisted over and over — it seemed like I would offend her if I didn’t take it all and it would make her happy to see me off with all of these items in tow. So again, I told her thank you about twelve times and brought it all back to my office.
No more than 2 minutes later she knocked on my door, straining her back with the weight of a microwave in her arms. She said, “This is for you also” and went to work setting it up. I could think of no reason why I would need a microwave in my office seeing as we all eat school lunch together and especially now that she had given me her electric kettle. Nonetheless, she insisted I needed one and she had tracked it down for me. Once again, I felt so cared for, so overwhelmed by generosity, and so completely at a loss for a word that could sufficiently encapsulate my feelings.
I shared a quick Instagram story about this experience and my friend Tae Woo responded with a simple question: Have you heard the term “Jeong” or 정?
After years of lacking a word to describe what I had experienced in Vietnam and my similar experiences in Korea, I realized I was looking in the wrong language. Of course Korean has a word for this because it’s something Koreans do. 정 is not something I have ever experienced in America so it shouldn’t have been surprising that there isn’t an English word for it. I’ve experienced hospitality and generosity in America many times, but never 정. 정 doesn’t feel at all obligatory, yet it feels unbelievably sincere. 정 is given without hesitation or the expectation that it will come back around. When a Korean person extends 정 they seem to derive satisfaction from seeing the recipient happy and cared for. The most incredible part of 정 in my opinion, is that it is not conditional on a pre-existing relationship. That bit is why 정 is so powerful and why there is no word for it in English.
Let me share with you one last example of 정 in action.
One day after school as I was walking to the bus stop, one of my co-workers waved me over. She and I don’t speak each other’s native languages particularly well, so she simply pointed to me and said the name of my neighborhood. I nodded my head and said the name back to her. She then knocked on the window of the car idling next to us at a red light and said a few things to the woman driving. The driver looked up at me, smiled, said the name of my neighborhood, and gestured for me to get in the car with her. I did not recognize this woman so it took me a few confused seconds to understand what was going on. After a moment, I guessed that this was another person who worked at my school who must live in the same neighborhood as me. Without thinking too much about it, I thanked my co-worker who flagged me down, offered a very simple but genuine greeting in Korean to the woman who had offered her passenger seat to me, and got in the car.
It did not take long for us to realize the significant language barrier between us. Through a combination of my broken Korean, her broken English (that was better than she gave herself credit for), and a translation app, we spent the next 30 minutes getting to know each other. I learned that she works in the assistant principal’s office as an office administrator and lives very close to me with her husband and two sons. As we arrived outside of my apartment, I thanked her many times for the ride. Through the app, she told me it was no problem and she was happy to help me. As I was about to exit the car she interjected and said in English “Tomorrow. 7 and 40?” I was unsure what she meant, so I asked if she could say it again. “Tomorrow. Morning. 7 and 40.” She pointed to the spot we were parked. “Here?” I realized she was offering to drive me to work with her in the morning.
Let me take a step back so you can put yourself in her shoes.
Imagine if you were given one red light’s notice to decide if you would drive 30 minutes with a new co-worker you had never met, who is a foreigner and doesn’t speak your language, who apparently lives somewhere in your neighborhood, and who can easily get home by himself. Then on top of that, imagine offering to go out of your way to pick him up the next morning to drive him back to work? In full honesty, I would not have taken all of that on. But that’s exactly what 상희 (Sang Hee) did.
We’re now going on 4 weeks of carpooling to and from school, making conversation in increasingly better Korean and English, and building a friendship that wouldn’t have existed if she hadn’t embodied 정 so selflessly. Let me quickly give you a rundown of some of the other things Sang Hee has done for me since we first met 4 weeks ago.
- One time on our drive home, she asked me what I was doing after work. I mentioned that I needed to mail a document back to the U.S. for my taxes. Without hesitation, she changed course, drove me to the post office, and spent 15 minutes there with me talking with the employees to make sure I was able to get the document where it needed to go.
- One day we had spent a car ride home talking about some of our favorite Korean foods. A few days later she surprised me with a giant bag filled with dumplings, pork, chocolate, and fruit — all of which we had talked about a few days prior.
- On one of the Korean national holidays, Sang Hee kindly invited me to go out to lunch with her, her son, and her husband. After sharing a nice meal together, she took her son and I bowling. While her son and I bowled together, she went to a nearby market and returned with some groceries for her weekend. In addition to insisting to pay for my game of bowling, she had a bag full of freshly baked bread and jam which she told me was a gift for spending time with her. I told her that the fact that she was willing to spend time with me was a gift enough and that, if anything, I should be giving her a gift.
- Just last week, Sang Hee invited my girlfriend Catherine and I over for dinner. Despite telling me many times that she cannot cook well, she had prepared the best meal that either Catherine or I have eaten in Korea. She went out of her way to cook vegetarian food for Catherine (something I now know is often expensive, difficult, or both in Korea), she opened her home to us, and her husband took us out for drinks afterwards. During this meal, she and her husband both made sure we knew that we could come to them with anything during our time in Korea. They insisted that we can think of them like parents or family away from home. Let me say this again. I’ve known her for less than one month.
It’s rare that we meet someone during our life who fundamentally changes the way we see our role in the world. I have been fortunate to develop a few relationships with friends who have done this for me. I have been impacted by certain professors and mentors who have been major difference makers in my life. But I have never met someone who has had this effect on me with their actions in such a short time. After knowing Sang Hee for less than a month, she has given me a clear definition what 정 is. I cannot describe it in words (it has taken me about 2,500 words here to attempt just that), but I have a vivid idea of what it feels like. And it is a feeling that I will spend the rest of my life trying to give to others.
I will end this story with the words I wrote to Sang Hee in a note the other day. I’m sure the note wasn’t perfectly composed, as I had to rely on a translation app for most of what I wanted to say in Korean. Regardless, I wanted her to know that she has genuinely changed my outlook on my role in the world through her expression of 정. I spent quite a while writing the note in Hangul so she could simply read it when she opened it. It was a small sacrifice compared to all she has done for me.
지난 한 달 동안 당신의 환대에 감사드립니다. 저는 당신이 한국에서 제 삶을 편안하게 해주기 위해 한 모든 것을 당연하게 여기지 않습니다. 당신은 나에게 다른 사람들을 돌보는 법을 가르쳐 주었어요. 당신이 나를 여기서 어떻게 느끼게 했는지 절대 잊지 않을 거예요. 나중에 새로운 곳에서 누군가를 편안하게 해 줄 기회가 생기면, 여기서 당신이 해준 모든 일을 기억할 거예요. 당신의 행동이 제 인생을 바꿔 놓았어요.
Thank you for your hospitality over the past month. I don’t take for granted everything you’ve done to make my life comfortable in Korea. You have taught me how to care for other people even when they are not family or friends. I will never forget how you made me feel here. When I have an opportunity to help someone feel comfortable in a new place, I’ll remember everything you’ve done for me. Your actions have truly changed my life.