To any Korean, the word “nunchi” rings familiar bells. Its literal English translation is “ocular measure” and can be compared to reading the play, but more precisely measuring the feelings and interests of another, and then acting in accordance with Korean mores and customs.
So, for example, a friend who walks over to the car to turn on the air conditioning in the heat of summer before the others enter has a “quick nunchi” because that person’s senses and intuition are in. ahead of the situation. For the youngest sitting at a dining table, nunchi is second nature as they respectfully wait for the elders to start eating first. When my mom comes home at 8am from the gym, ready to take over the world and knock anyone in her way, my nunchi urges me to get out of bed, open the windows, and match her energy before I go. ‘she doesn’t give me a dirty look. Granted, I heard the word most often used growing up when my mom berated me for having ‘no nunchi’.
There is a Korean adage, “half of social life is nunchi”, and therefore nunchi is instilled in children from an early age. But as a Korean growing up in America, I became bitter about my culture’s high regard for nunchi. I called for family reunions where I demanded that we instead learn from him my Asian American identity and value clear communication and conversation. To ask directly, “How are you today?” ” “How are you doing?” “Something is wrong?” rather than berating each other for not being a mind-reading telepath. I was overwhelmed by the communication problem that resulted from the emphasis on reading the play, and my mind felt tortured, still calculating if I had missed a shade of someone’s ambiguous gaze.
It turned out that I had missed the nuances of nunchi. The Korean drama series “Reply 1988” is set in South Korea on its way to a socially, culturally and economically flourishing state. As I watched the hilarious, heartwarming and heartbreaking beautiful story of five families sharing struggles, laughter, crying, intimate moments, kinship and love in a small Seoul alley, my weak appetite for nunchi changed as I refined my palate to the deeper nuances behind the art.
I have often found myself in tears as nunchi wove tighter threads into relationships: one late night, when Lee Il-hwa falters and fails to muster his strength and asks his richer friend Mi-ran from the Helping pay for her daughter’s school fees, she comes home with tears in her eyes and her head bowed in shame at her inability to support her daughter. Later that night, Mi-ran hands Il-hwa a modest bowl of corn; to his surprise, underneath is an envelope containing money and a kind letter. In another episode, I watched Ra Mi-ran’s calm and aloof son feel his mother’s witty and charming character disappear into the darkness of menopause despite his mother reassuring him that everything was fine. . In a move beyond his comfort, he throws a surprise wedding anniversary in the neighborhood for his parents, rekindling his mother’s spirit.
Nunchi pulls on your heartstrings in a way that direct communication and blatant requests cannot. Nunchi is the fortuitous act of kindness that depends on the lively senses of others, creating kinship ties between families and communities.
Korean-American journalist and author Euny Hong writes that nunchi is more than quaint Korean customs in “The Power of Nunchi: The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success”. Nunchi is the secret to Korea’s progression from one of the poorest nations in the world to one of the richest and most technologically advanced nations. It fosters trust and connection in a way that opens doors to all walks of life, also explaining K-pop’s unlikely modern rise to the world stage.
The world of “Reply 1988” is an antithesis of American culture and values. In America, the individual comes first, even sometimes at fault. We hear it today in the tumultuous cacophonies of anti-mask protests fighting for the individual choice to wear a mask and in the anti-vaxxer rejections of collective safety and well-being.
In the vast regions, cultures and origins that make up America, we find it difficult to relate to and understand people who seem to share beliefs and values different from ourselves, and cynicism about their intentions often hinders us. to try. The recent devastation on women’s rights by the Texas abortion law, in which other people have forced decisions on women’s bodies, is one example.
But John Locke, one of the greatest defenders of individual rights and liberty, always asserted that human equality requires the obligation of mutual love and duties between men. In the “Second Treatise of Civil Government”, Locke quotes political theorist Richard Hooker: “It is no less their duty, to love others than themselves… If I can only wish to receive good… how should I seek to have a part of my desire here satisfied, unless I myself have taken care to satisfy the same desire? It is an echo of the Golden Rule.
In “Inventing Human Rights,” Lynn Hunt, professor of modern European history at UCLA, argues that the concept of natural rights was born into history through empathy. When humans began to learn in the late 1700s that we were all fundamentally alike, we began to sympathize with one another and thus extended natural rights to other groups of people. The fists of empathy brought down the walls of even the oldest prejudices of the time: in 1791, the Jews were granted equal rights by the French revolutionary government; in 1792, men without property were freed; and in 1794, slavery was abolished by the French government.
Hunt argues that human rights depend on both self-control and the recognition that everyone is equally in control, and “it is the incomplete development of the latter that rivals all the inequalities of rights that have preoccupied us throughout history. . “
“Empathy takes a leap of faith, to imagine that someone else is like you,” Hunt continues. And it builds a community based on empowered but empathetic individuals who can identify with each other across the boundaries of localities, affiliations, immediate family, and nations.
America can learn something from the Korean concept of nunchi because empathy is at the heart of nunchi. Nunchi values collective community and demands the pursuit of understanding others on a deeper level. It involves an inherent care and respect for people and teaches you to be selfless, sometimes to act in favor of the needs and feelings of others rather than imposing yourself as the main character. Let’s take some nunchi for others – before we all fall into the deepening divisions between us.
Lily Kwak is an opinion columnist and can be contacted at [email protected].