Reyna Lim | Thursday, February 23, 2023
Jeong is cosmic. Jeong is a silhouette. Jeong is an enchantress who follows us, just as much as we follow her — trust in her to guide us, protect us, comfort us.
Jeong is my favorite Korean word, and it’s the one term for which I can never manage to pinpoint an English translation.
I wish I could explain it to you.
When I visit Seoul for break, my mother drives us to a sujebi restaurant in Jongno. It’s a discreet nook, blending into the street corner’s timeworn scenery. Sujebi is a simple meal, soup with noodles handmade from dough. It’s the meal that’s been perfected over decades in the same lively kitchen, the same bowl of warmth and comfort that generations of locals return to. A family-owned business, turned one of the city’s culinary legacies — with signatures covering the wall from celebrities and politicians who seek sujebi on a rainy afternoon, just like us.
As we wait for our order, my mother recalls coming here with her friends when she was around my age, a trusty hangover cure after a night out. The owner gives us extra sides of banchan when she finds out I’m studying abroad, and because she likes my long eyelashes. I have to eat all the real food I can while I’m here, she says, before I return to french fries and pizzas.
No translator or Korean-English dictionary gives a definition of jeong that succeeds in encompassing what it represents. Looking it up, you’ll find an array of words that could potentially give a half-formed idea: affection, heart, sympathy.
Jeong explains itself through experience. It’s more profoundly defined by the moments in which it trickles into our lives than any written definition could — like the kindness of the extra banchan at the restaurant, or the serenity shared by the families, businessmen and college students depositing their umbrellas in the basket by the door as they wander in for lunch.
I like to think of it as an invisible string, attaching us with unbreakable bonds, yet light as a feather. The immediate comfort I feel going up the elevator to my grandmother’s apartment, the photos my mother sends me when she receives the peonies I sent her. It’s more than affection or heart or sympathy. It’s the kind of connection you feel with someone that comes to be over time. The kind that doesn’t come with effort, but saturates your presence when you’re not paying attention, the way a light summer rain seeps into the shoulders of your T-shirt.
Too often, I look into the eyes of someone I adore and wish they spoke Korean, just so we could label it jeong, together. The one-syllable word is always on the tip of my tongue, like a teaspoon of sugar, melting faintly into a sweet and enticing aftertaste. It tints our most subtle hours and is here to stay, and I know the sensation is mutually acknowledged.
It’s at the tip of my tongue when my friend comes into my room crying, and I know that no questions need to be asked — how we’ll sit and listen to our favorite songs until she’ll offer a weak laugh at my stupid joke. Or when I come home after spending the day with a boy I like, recounting his compliments and embrace after he drops me off, lingering by the door for a few extra minutes before saying goodbye. When I’m watching my little cousin go through the rites of passage of a teenager and offering her never-ending, unsolicited advice despite her annoyance.
As many times as I’ve regretted the absence of the perfect English word for jeong, it’s all the more entrancing that we all feel the jeong in our lives, imbued by its warmth and led by its invisible string. If you hadn’t encountered it before, now you have a word for it.
Jeong is the fondness humming through us as we split a dessert, hold hands, exchange knowing glances. Jeong is the contentment in weathering someone else’s turbulence. Jeong is the confirmation you can hear in the silence as you sit together in the back of the cab, the grace you can see in their eyes in the dark.
Jeong. I wish I could explain it to you, but I’ll bet you already know.
Reyna Lim is a sophomore double majoring in finance and English. She enjoys writing about her unsolicited opinions, assessing celebrity homes in Architectural Digest videos and collecting lip gloss. Reach out with coffee bean recommendations and ‘80s playlists at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.