I just started re-reading Etiquette Guide to Korea, which I bought in the US right before my departure and read on the plane. While describing the character and personality of Koreans, the author described an element to their culture known as Han. I don’t remember being very interested in this concept the first time I read this book, but his time it caught my attention. Now that I’ve been here for almost six months, this phenomenon seems to explain some of my observations of Korean culture.
The direct translation of han is “unrequited resentments,” but there is much more to it that that. “Han can be understood to encompass all of the ambitions, emotions, desires, spirit, and intellectual impulses that were prohibited and oppressed from the beginning of the Chosun Dynasty in 1392 until the 1950s. When South Koreans were freed from political oppression, all of these repressed things were released and provided the energy, power, and passion they devoted to creating a modern economy. The power of han has not yet expended itself, and the ferocity, dedication, and diligence with which the people work must be seen to be believed” (De Mente, Etiquette Guide to Korea, p.24-25).
Han is attributed as being the driving force behind South Korea’s incredibly rapid advancement over the past 50 years. It is a powerful part of South Korean culture, resulting from the domination and suppression that they’ve been subjected to throughout their history. Koreans are known for their work ethic, and this work ethic can at least partially be attributed for their economic miracle. Living and working in South Korea, I witness the diligence and the dedication of South Koreans on a daily basis, and it is indeed astounding.
For example, while the native teachers at my school often times stay at work until 7pm, after starting a little after 9am, the Korean teachers almost always stay longer, and come in on Saturdays. My Kindergarteners, who just turned Korean eight, making them six or seven in “international” age, study English for four or five hours a day, five days a week. In addition, some of them have private tutors that come to their house, and many play an instrument or a sport.
While for the children this is, of course, not a voluntary lifestyle, it reflects the work ethic that is expected of them in this culture. While perhaps not innate, it seems to become ingrained. This is a work ethic that they must learn to adopt, especially in a collectivist society where your successes and failures are a reflection not only of you, but the people you are interconnected with; your family, friends, and country. A work ethic that could be a result of a sudden freedom, or release, after so many years of suppression, a result of han.