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My 'Nunchi' is better than yours

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By David Tizzard

Nunchi in the schools. Nunchi in the home. Nunchi in the workplace, the traffic, the factories, the cafes, and the soju tents. Nunchi for me. Nunchi for you. Everyone gets some damn nunchi – even the dogs.

For after all, it's not just kimchi that cures cancer, fish that gives you stamina, and fans that will secretly murder you in your sleep, now nunchi is the secret to all that is successful about Korea.

At least that's what the past fortnight or so on social media would have you believe.

It all seemed to snowball when Euny Hong wrote a piece in the NYT, calling nunchi, "the Korean secret to happiness and success."

It was said to be "as old as Korean civilization itself" and not only unique to this part of the world but "horrifying to the 21st century Western mind".

Sounds bloody amazing, doesn't it?

The author boils it down to being able to speed-read a room and then decide on the appropriate action based on the collective feelings and ambience within.

Erm…that's generally what most people with any social tact would do anyway. You don't normally walk into a funeral home and start cracking jokes and you don't talk divorce at weddings – at least not unless you're a floppy haired English film star or something.

We know that.

Nunchi, in Hong's description, sounds like a very nice way of saying that there are societal standards (ki-joon) as well as accepted modes of behavior and propriety (ye). Of course, these are amplified in a collectivist society such as South Korea. And the dreaded big C-word (Confucianism) has actually affected that to some degree over the centuries.

We also need to be very clear on what verb is used with the word nunchi. The Korean language is based primarily on verbs and this is often what children learn and focus on first, much to the chagrin of the noun-orientated western learners trying to remember whether you "ip-da" or "ss-da" a baseball cap.

Get ready for some more horrible Romanization by the way as I can't use any Korean in here apparently.

Commonly, you can "have" nunchi (nunchi-ga it-da) or you can "see" nunchi (nuchi-rul po-da). The first is more in-line with what you have been reading about situational and social awareness.

The second however, which often seems missing from most recent reports is when you restrict or adjust your actions because you feel the power of others' eyes upon you. A common thing people will say to me is, "Well, I thought about saying something at the time but didn't because of the nunchi."

So what really is this ephemeral thing, akin to han, that exists in the ethno Korean race but remains inaccessible to all those without the vanishing blue Genghis Khan mark above our bums?

Ultimately, it shouldn't be about what some white dude with a computer thinks "nunchi" is versus a female author on Korean culture and self-confessed "banana".

The truth is always a little more complicated than that. It's not always easy to grasp and, moreover, when you do, you don't always get the results you want.

The truth is a bit of a pain in the backside that way – blue mark or not.

Nevertheless, I decided I would ask Koreans what noonchi (does it look better spelt that way?) means. I tasked a whole room of 20-something Korean undergrads, with no priming or preparation, to write down their individual thoughts on what it is.

Moreover, I wrote the question in both English and Korean to ensure that they got what was happening.

The results were rather surprising. Euny Hong was right. But so was I. And we were both wrong. Damn.

Noonchi is essentially everything good and bad. It can be, as claimed, a key to success and happiness. But, at the same time, it can be the cause of depression, sadness, and great frustration.

A common response was that noonchi was "an invisible rule". You can't see it, but it's there. It's not written down, it's not explained to you, but there are certain things you can AND can't do.

There are ways to walk into restaurants, manners in which one should address distant relatives, positions in which one should sit, times when you talk and, more often, times when you shut the hell up.

It's a secret code of behavior. For good and bad. Nunchi was a friend and noonchi was an enemy.

It can cause great alienation to some. Particularly for those who have a more rebellious or cynical streak – and those are growing in number with every passing year spent watching Netflix and surfing the internet.

Some described noonchi as a "prison". A set of iron chains constraining them and preventing true liberation and freedom.

Max Weber previously described modernity as a psychological development more than a technological one. It was when people began to question and challenge authority. Noonchi is not always very compatible with that.

To other students, noonchi was a power-play. An extension of gap-jil.

With most Korean relationships being inherently hierarchical, noonchi was a way in which the "gaps" continued to exercise their domination over the downtrodden "uls".

These, the students said, might be females unwilling to express themselves or speak up in front of their male counterparts, the poor remaining subservient to the wealthier betters, or the young afraid to question the "kkondaes" teaching them vainglorious nationalist myths. All because of noonchi.

It is also thus largely inapplicable with a modern sa-ba-sa (person by person) lifestyle which seems the raison raison d'être of most these days.

There were many, many more answers.

What I derived from this however was that it continues to remain incorrect to see Korea (the country, the people, or the culture) as a monolith. It is far from it.

Korea is not this or that. It is these and those.

Time then, I guess, to put the verbs and nouns away and instead focus on the plural nature of the ideas.

The fault lines and cleavages in society here are very real. They might not be as visible as elsewhere (particularly multicultural states), but Koreans are very divided on a great many number of things – from politics, music, lifestyle, feminism, and a whole host more.

Even noonchi.


  • WTF 1

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