If you go walking around Seoul at night, there are many tents you can buy some cooked noodles, fish, and assorted dishes. They also serve some beer and soju, a rice wine liquor. In summer these food areas spread out along the sidewalks and into the streets. In winter the tent walls are thin but closed. Inside the heat is on full. People are eating a lot, drinking a lot. It is loud and all in Korean. There is only a little bit of English, and it is translated to me by a friend. They try to speak English but when they do the others laugh. If you stay long enough, you will know everyone in the tent and in the area because you become one of them and not.
These sprawling areas of food and drink are everywhere in Korea. The feeling is closeness as it is a place where people can complain about their work and gossip about others. The closeness grows as more drinks are drunk, and more food is eaten. Korean people say these kinds of experiences bind the people together with common struggles and common ideals. This closeness is not just in these food areas, and it is not brought only out in drinks. It’s throughout Korean society: in restaurants; bars; places of work; places of worship to name a few. In short, it is everywhere. It is something I miss it a lot since I left almost 6 years ago.
A friend of mine tried to explain it to me but he couldn’t. In Korean, it is Jeong (정). I didn’t know about it when I arrived there and only understood it when I left. Some have tried to define Jeong as love. It isn’t because it is more than that it is also affection, compassion, sympathy, community attachment and so on. Jeong is between two or more people. We can feel it towards someone who you fight with so sometimes love is not even part of it. A lot of these connections grow over time as we get to know each other. The key part is time.
I was in Korea from September 2003 to August 2010 and was lucky to have a friend for the whole time. He was a guide, an understanding ear, a tolerant person all wrapped into one. We met before arriving in Korea as I was checking out websites and chat sites trying to find information on living there. The friendship grew over periods of infatuation, friendship, frustrations because of a lack of understanding on my part. It ended poorly with me storming out of the country mostly because I was ‘Done’ with Korea and left in a bitter mood. Looking back on it makes me realize it was this indescribable Jeong (정).
My friend Ben came to visit me here in Hong Kong. We were in a bar and were talking about our mutual time in Korea. He is an American born Korean or Kyopo (교포). For three years, he lived in Seoul at the same time I did. We are both gay and went to the hidden bars in Jongno-Sam Ga (종로3가) part of the city. The feeling was close and odd at the same time because sometimes it was too close. We would enter bars and café’s as strangers as they tried to figure out who we were and what we were doing there. By the end of the evening, we would be at a table with most of them sharing stories and acting as if we were long lost, friends. We both left the country for the same reason; it was hard to be gay there.
Since leaving, I have been back almost every year. When back; it is different. There isn’t the connection there isn’t the closeness mostly since the bars I once went to were gone. The people have changed, and my friends had moved away. Yet I still want to go back to visit, and a part of me wants to go back to live.