Yesterday was one for the books, as I experienced one of the most surreal and unique cultural episodes of my life.  I’m not sure I’ll be able to explain it very well, as it was definitely a Korean experience, and one that might not translate to someone who doesn’t know the culture.

On Thursday after the 5-6 class had English, 석준 (Seok-joon), who is a very intelligent student, told us he was moving over the weekend and that it would be his last class.  His classmates frolicked around the room after class, making sure I knew: “Teacher, 석준’s last day!”  “Teacher, 석준 move Saturday!” Seemingly this was a situation they had all digested and come to terms with.

On Friday, I was sitting at my desk during a free period when I heard shuffling and voices in the hall outside my classroom.  I looked over to the window on my door, and saw the 5-6 class standing outside of my co-teacher’s classroom.  I went out and asked the first student I saw, 효정(Hyo-jeong), what was happening.

“It’s 석준’s last day, teacher.”

I looked around and realized that almost every single student was crying.  No, not just crying: weeping.  Bawling.  Gnashing their little teeth.  One boy had his head in his arm, pressed against the wall, beating the wall with his fist.  Besides about 4 students, all of them – boys and girls – were sobbing.  The way they were carrying on was as if someone had been murdered.  Seeing all of my kids crying like that brought tears to my eyes; they were taking the farewell very terribly.

My co-teacher, 지은 (Ji-eun), came out with 석준, who was trying to hold on to a brave face, and said he came to school to say goodbye to all of his teachers.  We bid him farewell, and then 석준 lead his friends and classmates down the hallway, disappearing from sight.  But we could still hear them grieving and wailing until they went down to the second floor.

I turned to my co-teacher and said, “That was VERY INTENSE.”

She said, “Do you know 정 (jeong)?”  I said I did not.

Jeong is a special Korean emotion,” she explained.  “You grow attached to people in your life – they are a part of you, like a piece of your family – and even if you don’t like them, you take on their feelings and emotions.  You feel jeong for them.  석준 is sad today, so they are all sad with him. Even the students who don’t like him feel jeong for him.”

She assured me they would be fine by the time they came to class an hour later.  And in fact, they all showed up chipper, upbeat, and totally uninterested in commenting on 석준’s now vacant seat in the classroom.  One of the girls who had been crying with the rest came up to me and said, “석준 is gone now.  I don’t like 석준.  He talk too much.”

[Here is an article about jeong.  Actually, I think it’s a little cynical and don’t totally agree with the author’s conclusion that jeong isn’t simply another form of affection/kindness that we all feel.  I think it is very unique to this culture – all of our emotions and the way we display them are flavored by our own cultural identities, and jeong is an example of Korea’s version of attachment that is unique to this culture.]