Jeong: A Korean Guest Comes to Call

I’ve been sitting on this post for nearly 4 months. What follows was such a unique experience that every time I thought about writing it down, all I came up with was:

There are no words.

Gotcha. Of course there are words. I love storytelling. It is practically in my genes to tell stories, something I inherited from my dad and my Grandma Betty. So there are words, but I wanted to be careful about how I shared it because most of you, being American, may initially be as flabbergasted as I was by the events that took place.
Sometime around the beginning of December, Kevin and I bought an area rug for our living room. We arrived home in the rain with 2 sleeping boys and 2 hungry girls, ready to unload said carpet from the roof of our van. As we exited our car in the parking area of our apartment complex, I was approached by a Korean neighbor.

I had met this older woman several times at the playground. She was, by my deduction, a halmoni, Korean grandmother, caring for her grandchildren presumably while their parents were at work. (Gotta give props where props are due: I learned this term from my friend Cari’s incredible blog, who in turn got the term from a photo submitted by Roxy, who also has an amazing blog. Blog love all around. Peace to the bloggers.)

Anyway, this neighbor was always very friendly. She gave us our first taste of Korean persimmons, she picked Gabe up when he fell down near the swings… you get the idea. This lady was nice. But honestly, I could understand about 1 word in 50, even though she loved to chatter in a friendly way every time we ran into each other at the playground.

Back to that rainy day… she approaches me as I’m trying to get Ezekiel out of his car seat. I politely bow and whisper hello. She comes and peeks in the car. She begins speaking Hangul in what we’ll call her “outside voice.” She points to her bag, which has a whole fish in it. I nod and smile, probably beginning to look a little freaked out. (I reeeeeally want Zeke to stay asleep.) I can tell she is asking me something, but I have no idea what. So after an agonizing minute or so, I hear the blessed 50th word: kimchi.

I latch on to that word like a lifeline! “Kimchi!” I whisper back at her with a big silly grin on my face. I nod knowingly! We like this! We eat this! She asks me something else to which I nod and brilliantly reply, “Kimchi!” She nods and walks away, heading towards the open air market right outside our gate. Success!

Except of course, that Ezekiel is now awake. Oh, well.

Back to the task at hand. Kids are unloaded, carpet is unloaded, Gabriel (asleep) is put to bed, snacks are doled out, furniture is moved, doorbell is rung.


In comes my favorite neighbor, bearing her 2 grandchildren, approximately aged 2 and 6, and a massive bag of… kimchi!

I take the bag and smile, unsure of how we got to this point. (Who am I kidding? I know how we got here. My spectacular lack of Hangul skills coupled with my insane desire to avoid offending any stranger at any time, which when combined manifests itself by me nodding crazily even when I have no idea what is going on.)

And then she comes into my entry way. She takes off her shoes. She takes the toddler off her back. She proceeds right on in.

At this point, I become very conflicted. My American sensibilities of privacy are at war with my desire to be a good ambassador of hospitality. I have no idea what to do. So I do the only thing I know to do. I sort of follow her around, awkwardly smiling and nodding, nodding and smiling. Because, you know, that worked out so well before.

She and her adorable grandkids proceed right on in. She chatters away. 50 words later, I hear another word I know… aeghi. I smile! The aeghi is sleeping, I pantomime heartily and point to Gabe’s closed door.

She walks to his door. Opens it. Turns on the light. I gasp, I hope inaudibly.

At this point I figure I better take a picture. No one is going to believe this.

Kevin and I are speechless.

After nodding in approval, she turns off the light and closes the door. Phewsh. Crisis averted.

After that moment it’s pretty much a blur. I somehow garner that she doesn’t expect us to sit down and eat the kimchi right at that moment. She picks up Zeke and sits on one of the wayward couches.

Kevin and I, unsure of what to do, continue the process of preparing to lay the new area rug. She talks to us. We listen and smile. I attempt to become fluent in Hangul just by listening to her talk. Alas, it doesn’t work. I am not the linguistic genius I thought I was.

Her grandson plays sweetly with Gabe’s toys. Her granddaughter teaches the girls origami. This lesson is very slightly more successful than my attempts at language acquisition.

Time passes. We get the rug in place, vacuum, replace the furniture. She continues to talk.

My brain is fried.

Do you know how hard it is trying to learn a language? Now imagine trying to learn a new language in an hour and a half.

Yes, I said an hour and a half. She stays for at least that long, never seeming uncomfortable at all that we don’t understand her. God bless her, she persists in my failing language lessons. Even when I prove myself to be a terrible student.

Sometime during this escapade, Gabe wakes up and Kevin escapes to his room, ostensibly to keep Gabe asleep for a little while longer. I’m not fooled, though. I know AWOL when I see it.

Finally Zeke falls apart. His interrupted nap is really beginning to show. I pantomime that he needs to sleep. She smiles and nods, apparently understanding.

But she doesn’t leave. I wait a few more minutes.

At this point, I am embarrassed to say, my American sensibilities are outweighing my hospitality. I sort of, somehow, kind of, try to indicate that maybe, just perhaps, it um, might be a good time for her to leave. Possibly. If it’s not too much trouble. (Please refer to the aforementioned insane desire to avoid offending strangers under any circumstances.)

Somehow she gets it. She gathers her grandchildren and leaves. I don’t think she was offended… much.

If you are an American, you are probably shaking your head right now. Believe me, I did a lot of head-shaking whenever I thought about that seemingly crazy experience. I’m really really glad I waited until now to write about it, though, because it took me this long to get an explanation.  Thanks to some new Korean friends we have made (of which I will have to write about later since this is already way too long of a post) I have come to understand what happened a little more clearly.

I now know that Koreans operate under a cultural premise known as jeong. This term is a little hard to define in English, but it has something to do with love, respect for elders, honor, hospitality, obligation, and friendship. OK, make that beyond hard to define in English.  Basically, what jeong means to me is that what happened on that rainy December day is totally normal. The only abnormal part was… me.

At least that last part comes as no surprise.


  1. This is my favorite post.
    I would have responded exactly the same way as you did, and suffered the same agony of conflict over hospitality and privacy.

    If I ever find myself in Korea, I’m so glad I know about jeong now.
    But it still won’t make it any less excruciating.

    • Thanks, Cari. Yes, this was a great cultural experience, but really truly excruciating for me. Apparently, however, I’m going to keep getting this lesson until it sinks in. Another older neighbor did the same thing, to a lesser degree, about a month later. The nodding and smiling on my part still hadn’t diminished much. Sigh.

  2. I think “jeong” is only between close friends, it’s loyal friendship, where friends do anything for each other. i don’t think this situation is really “jeong”.

    I think what you experienced is “elderly korean rudeness” and lack of “nun-chi” (intuitive interpersonal awareness). some elderly koreans are rude to younger people, and do whatever they feel like and expect others to accomodate to them. i find it rude! one time at church, a harmeni pushed me from my chair so that she could sit down. urgh! other koreans will find it rude as well, but many will still bear with it b/c it’s part of the culture. now nun-chi is a very important cultural virtue, where one reads another’s feelings and needs. an in this case, i’d say this harmeni didn’t have this nun-chi.

    just wanted to clarify a bit. it does happen with some elderly people w/ lack of manners, but i wouldn’t say it’s a “normal” cultural thing.

    • Wow, thanks for the insight, Judy! (I appreciate having my own in-house culture expert.)

      I will have to explore this a little more. When I shared the story with our new Korean friends, they seemed pretty sure this was normal. It seemed to be a difference between American ideas of privacy and independence versus Korean ideas of being hospitable at all costs.

      That said, while their English is good, it is far from perfect. It may be that something got lost in my explanation. Maybe they thought she was a friend, etc.

      Whatever it was, it was certainly a new experience for us! And that’s almost always fun, even if it’s just in the re-telling. 🙂

  3. and it sounds like you did the proper thing, do some indirect communication that the kids are tired but too bad she didn’t pick it up. and when indirect communication doesn’t work, then you do direct communication.

  4. Parts of this post in order of what made me chuckle to erupt in a straight up hyena laugh:

    – whole fish in bag
    – AWOL husband
    – “outside voice”
    – photo proof of the halmoni barging in on your napping baby

    Shame on me for waiting 6 days to read this hysterical post and big thanks to you for the shout out! I just might break my blogging hiatus and post about how Korean halmonies’ outside voices are one in the same as their cell phone voices.

    • OB, Roxy! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I still get a giggle over it. And guess who I saw the day after I posted this? The same neighbor! And guess what she did? Walked up to our car as we were getting in and talked in her “cell phone voice” again. She is quite a character.

    • Uh, that should have read “Oh, Roxy.” darn you iPad!