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IIRY Podcast: 20. Korean Love: The Untranslatable Concept of “Jung”
A micro-essay/love letter to my Korean mother.

On the Mother’s Day in the pandemic, many of us are far away from our mothers. Here is a micro-essay/love letter to my mother about why, for many Koreans, “I love you” doesn’t always mean having to say the words out loud.

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I’ve been writing cards to my grandmother and I mail them every other day, on my walks to the corner mailbox down the street. I write to her in my baby korean: Grandma, I love you. Grandma, I miss you. Grandma, be healthy and brave, we will see each other again soon. Happy Mother’s Day, Grandma. 

My grandmother’s daughter is my mother. I miss my mother, too. She is also far away. I sent her a card, using the same baby Korean:  I miss you, Mommy. Stay healthy. Happy Mother’s Day. We will see each other again soon. I’m sorry we can’t be together today. Salanghaeyo. I love you.

Once, in the long ago, I helped my grandmother wash her hands. Our hands entwined under the warm water, I remembered when she used to wash mine. Her hands are so frail. Very soft and fragile. She beams up at me and I have to lean down to smile widely, bringing my face very close to hers, swallowing my tears. She sighs, gazing at me through wide open eyes that no longer really see. Oh, our granddaughter. So beautiful. How is it that you never change, my lovely granddaughter? 

I’ve only seen my parents kiss once in my whole life. It was just a peck, really, but they might as well as have been French kissing, that’s how shocking it was. I gasped – gasp – and then they turned and gasped – gasp! – and they leapt apart as if they were on fire as we stood staring at each other from opposite ends of the hallway in my childhood home. I slowly closed the door to my bedroom door as they walked down the stairs. We never ever talked about. Ever. Never ever. 

Korean people don’t say “I love you.” Korean people don’t show affection. I mean, sure, when you’re a kid, there’s lots of affection: hugging, and hand holding, and kissing, and nicknames and approving pats on the bottom. We’re not monsters. But that all ends pretty early. Age 8 or so seems to be the cutoff. 

There’s this Korean word, Jung. There’s no direct translation into English but the closest translation is: affection, closeness, attachment, loyalty. None of these words are exactly right but it’s like if you rolled these all into one, buried them deep into the ground, watered and tended to them and then they sprouted into the most magnificant gigantic tree of deep, unspoken, love that is non-verbal but demonstrated. Not through the cheap, Hollywood, American gestures of the hug, or the kiss, or the inadequate words, I love you. Jung is the generosity of the old women at the street market who ply you with food because you remind them of their grandchildren and they delight in the fact that you speak Korean because their grandchildren don’t understand anything they say and they watch you carefully as you eat and they stuff your bags overful of oranges, or dried fish, or soft red bean cakes. Jung is the parent who pays for your college education, all of it no questions asked, even if it means working overtime and relentless self-sacrifice and going without. Jung is a full refrigerator, clean laundry, new sheets on your bed, even though you are a grown-ass woman. Thank you Umma, I say, and she says, what thank you? You don’t ever need to thank me. Everything I have is yours. And the words that fall from my mouth are endlessly inadequate.

Through a white American lens, a Korean mother’s love can seem withholding. Stingy. Absent. Through a different lens, a Korean mother’s love is profound and bottomless and words are not only insufficient, but almost a perversion, ill-fitting and embarrassing. Because my mother loves me in a way that cannot be trivialized with words, minimized through theatrical gesture and cheapened by love songs and Hollywood rom coms and the bullshit of the pervasive American falsehood. This is what love should look like, the American movies and TV and songs tell us. But that’s not the only way love looks.

Once, in the long ago, I went to the market with my mother. We wandered the rows of technicolor produce – apples, dragonfruit, ginger, dandelion leaves. Steam rising from sample tables of fishcakes, BBQ beef, scallion pancakes. Try these noodles, sonneem, the woman in uniform calls out in sing song Korean. So easy to make and on sale today. 3 dollars off!

My mother passes a small plastic cup to me before picking one up for herself. It’s a little hot, she says, blow on it first and initially, I feel a rise of  resentment. I want to tell her “I’m not a baby!”, as I stomp my foot.  Is it too spicy for you? She asks, watching me carefully as she chews. No, I say until the spice blooms on my tongue and oh, yeah. A little. I wave a hand in front of my mouth. Yes, it’s spicy isn’t it, she says taking the plastic cup from me to throw it away with hers. She hands me a napkin and through the napkin, I feel her hand linger, grasping my fingers. I haven’t held my mother’s hand in 35 years. They are smaller than mine now and her skin feels thin, the bones fragile. 

I wait for her to let go but she doesn’t. 

 

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