Wednesday, September 19, 2012

초코파이 - Choco Pie (and 정)

Choco Pie is a Korean chocolate and marshmallow snack cake that is now as ubiquitous as kimchi, since arriving in convenience stories in the mid-1970's. Koreans seem to love it. Almost every Korean-American I know has grown up in love with it (while I don't recall even hearing about it before college...), and to be sure every Korean person in this country knows all about it. Every foreign ESL teacher knows about it, too, because they are cheap ($0.80 for a pack of 6) and we are always tempted to use them as prizes in class, trans fats and high sugar content notwithstanding.

I read briefly that while the original Korean company that made them, Orion, tried to sue another company, Lotte, for using a trademarked name, Lotte argued that by now, Choco Pie has become a common noun. This apparently happened a decade ago, and I guess now I don't need to capitalize the name and can just say that the choco pie craze is still going strong.

At the end of week's Tuesday morning teaching meeting, I brought out boxes of choco pie that I had bought over the weekend and shared them with all of my co-workers, with a smile and a "많이 드세요!". They were pretty stoked, not gonna lie. At first, they wanted to know what the special occasion was. But when it turned out that there was none, all of them had the same reaction: they laughed and cried out, "정!" Aha.

Jeong (情) is a Korean word that loosely translates to "relationship" or "affection". It is a collective emotion felt in a group, and as such has many layers and nuances of meaning that apply to different situations and different people. The Naver Korean dictionary defines it as "느끼어 일어나는 마음" (a feeling arising in the mind?) or "사랑이나 친근감을 느끼는 마음" (a feeling of love or intimacy), which are frankly just as cryptic as the translation attempt.

But as far as we've been educated at Fulbright (during all of those long cultural workshops), jeong is like the combination of a genuine personal and a crucial professional relationship. The emphasis time and again has been on being good cultural ambassadors, proper representatives of the United States. This means: build good relationships with Koreans (all of them). Build good jeong. Be as like-minded as you can. Give small, thoughtful gifts regularly. (In America, we perform random acts of kindness. In Korea, perform random acts of jeong.) Be helpful and enthusiastic and try new things, like karaoke or live octopus with sesame oil. Smile! Make an effort to connect socially, linguistically, and emotionally.

And buy choco pie for all of your co-workers. They'll get it.

P.S. Here is an interesting article on jeong and its relationships to psychotherapy that was one of the first Google hits. It was informative, but I think that for myself, simply being in Korea is a better way to learn. Living, learning, and teaching while immersed in Korean culture and society will teach me more fully what jeong really means.

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