JUNG and VIGOR
One of my colleagues is a young Korean American woman who was explaining a Korean cultural concept to me the other day. She said it was hard to find a word in English to explain this concept called Jung. It refers to older Koreans who can appear to be very mean and unfriendly and then turn around and perform an act of kindness towards the very same person. I was fascinated by this concept and sure enough the next day it presented itself. I went to the pool for my now regular swim. I did what I always do, I paid my money, got my locker key, went to my locker and put on my suit, donned my bathing cap and goggles and then headed to the pool only to be stopped by a woman about my age who was yelling and wildly pointing at me. I didn’t need to speak the language to understand by her expert pantomime that I needed to shower before entering the pool, something I hadn’t been doing. This was not a simple rinse but a full on shower with bathing suit removed. She followed me into the showers yelling and demonstrating what she wanted me to do. She seemed so angry as if I was personally insulting her. I followed her instructions to the tee while several other women looked on, not wanting to interfere with my scolding. After my swim I took my usual, now second, shower and headed into the locker room to get dressed. The same woman who had scolded me was getting dressed. Maybe she won’t notice me, I thought. Fat chance of that! She stared right at me and I wondered what I was now doing wrong, when she smiled, reached out and handed me a piece of hard candy that she insisted I eat. Jung, I understood the meaning.
I am having a ball in my Korean class, although I am the worst student in the class. I assured my classmates, whom I really like, that I am a much better teacher than a student. They always greet me with a warm welcome when I arrive to class. I noticed that a few of them often have a look of surprise. I couldn’t figure it out but so much is lost in translation that I wrote it off as cultural differences. This week after class I was waiting for Steve to finish his, more advanced, class, when a classmate from Nepal and one from India approached me and said. “We so admire your vigor.” YIKES! I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what that meant so I just smiled. The fellow from Nepal went on to say, “In our culture, old people think they can’t learn anything new and we are so impressed that you are coming to class and trying to learn a new language.” OLD PEOPLE? Was he talking to me? I knew there was a compliment in his words but I was too distracted about the fact that I’m old. Maybe not by US standards but certainly by Indian and Nepali and, or sure, Korean standards. What a moment! I thanked them for their “compliment” and luckily Steve came out of his class so I wished them a great weekend and hurried out of the building.
When I decided to come on this adventure I knew I would be challenged in many ways. I also knew that it would be an unforgettable journey. It’s one thing to visit or even live for a while in another country. It’s entirely different to live and work overseas over sixty. I think having some vigor, as my classmates suggested, is not such a bad idea, and a little Jung can’t hurt either.