Hongik Ingan- True Korean Beauty
Date- June 1, 2020
Written by George Balarezo, Intrepid Global Citizen
It was another steamy day in Seoul as sweat trickled down my stomach and left my clothes dark with moisture. Rancid as sewage, ribbons of death waltzed their way through my second-story window screen. Burning toxins emitted a noxious mist in the afternoon air. As I sat in my studio apartment, chomping on my vegetable soup and brown rice, I nearly gagged from the shock to my nostrils. The contrasts between mushroom and bean sprout broth, oozing life and energy with each inhale, and the vile odor left my eyes watering and my fists clenched with rage.
As I slipped on my sandals and stomped down the staircase, I braced myself for confrontation. I couldn’t take it anymore. I thought of the right words to say, analyzed the proper honorific particles and verb conjugations to use in a situation where I would need to come off assertive yet polite, candor yet indirect.
In a land thousands of kilometers from North America, age is everything. My five-day-old beard added at least eight years to my chronological age. If I appeared older, then my words would carry much more weight. If the culprit was a man 50 or above, I risked getting chewed out for being a disrespectful and arrogant youth who shouldn’t question his elders. If I didn’t go down there, my inner conflicts would eat away at me and hurt much more than a slug in the face. There was no way I would back down.
There he was, puffing away with his back turned towards me. Short black hair, white cut-off T-shirt and rail-thin arms and legs. I have never stepped in a boxing ring, tumbled on a jujitsu mat, or thrown fists in the street. I knew size meant nothing, especially after getting thrown around by Mongolians half my size in playful wrestling matches on the steppe where Genghis Khan used to roam. This guy could have been on the Korean national boxing team as a featherweight for all I knew.
My heart thumped and my mid-section tightened as the stench infiltrated my flaring nostrils. I faced him, a guy who appeared to be in his mid-thirties and started with my request.
“Excuse me, sir. See that window up there? That’s my apartment. All of your cigarette smoke is floating up to the window and I am coughing up a storm. I am very sensitive to smoke so do you mind walking about 100 meters in that direction and smoking? I would really appreciate it if you do me that favor.”
His eyes widened, in a surprised expression of intrigue tinged with frustration. He didn’t appear to be offended, but one can never know what another person is thinking. He finished his puff of the cigarette while resting his opposite fist against his waist.
“Oh. I don’t mean to disturb you. I am so sorry about that. I will go over there and smoke instead,” the man muttered while giving a slight forward bow in a signal of apology.
I was pleasantly shocked at the man’s reaction. I expected something along the lines of “I live in the same building and have the right to smoke wherever I want” or “That’s your problem.”
The man stomped off and I returned to my apartment, to enjoy my meal while inhaling smoke-free air.
Several weeks later, I saw the same man in the staircase and he greeted me with a smile of concern.
“I have been smoking over there in that direction. Is it disturbing you?” he asked while pointing in the same direction I requested him to go several weeks before.
“Oh no. I haven’t been able to smell your smoke. Thank you so much for going over there,” I answered, shocked at his concern for my well-being and even remembering my several week old request.
How would this conversation have gone down in North America or other parts of the world? It depends on which two people had interacted, their mood at the time, personal histories, and psychological states. But over the years in South Korea, I have noticed a pattern. People genuinely go out of their way not to disturb others in public. Disrupting the welfare of other people is one of the most shameful things you can do. Over the course of more than ten years, I have had many similar confrontations with smokers in green spaces, people that litter in the street, and senselessly blast their air conditioning inside buildings with the doors wide open, and I have also made my fair share of cultural blunders. Not once have I ever been the recipient of a negative attitude or act of aggression. I am always met with looks of concern or embarrassment and nearly everyone has complied with my request to smoke outside of the park, pick up the trash they threw in the street, or at least close the doors when they use air conditioning. I commend the people here on the Korean peninsula for their sensitivity and consideration for the welfare of others around them.
After pondering the national psyche and speaking to Korean friends about the issue, I have come to realize that this commitment to the devotion to human welfare can be summarized by the original founding philosophy of the Korean peninsula, Hongik Ingan (홍익인간, 弘益人間), which translates to “work for the benefit of humanity.” People consider the welfare of their neighbors before themselves. If we all live in the spirit of hongik ingan, we can resolve any conflict peacefully and communication will naturally flow. If we don’t communicate, then difficulties will naturally arise. The term Hongik Ingan also contains deep spiritual meaning as one who transcends the self and reaches a higher level of consciousness. This may sound difficult to achieve and quite complicated on the surface, but one can do their part in their daily lives by yielding to the needs of others instead of the self, while aiming to eradicate greed and selfishness.
Thanks to my time on the Korean peninsula, as I am sandwiched in between two contrasting cultures, one of hyper-individualism and the other on becoming a better hongik ingan. It is not all about resolving conflicts peacefully without much worry for the consequences, but rather an ideal way to live for all humans across the world in order to make our world a better place to live.
In this time of pandemic, my vision is magnified and I see nothing but hongik ingans all around me in South Korea. It is rare to see anyone without a mask in public, and those who remove their masks inside supermarkets or trains are called out by others for their lack of consideration. Businesses are all open but have a strict policy- no shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service. When enforcing mask-wearing rules, every interaction is always the same. No arguments. No preaching about freedom. Simply an apology and acknowledgment of wrongdoing and compliance with the behavior that is better for their fellow citizens. No one is perfect in a land of people striving to be better hongik ingans, but people here are always concerned about disrupting others’ right to peace, safety, and health.
I am proud to be living in South Korea. In times of crisis, people reveal their true character and South Korea’s true national psyche is shining brightly for the world to learn from.
In a time where our actions could have deadly consequences on others around us, cultivating the hongik ingan spirit has never been as crucial as it is right now. If it means staying home, not going to bars and restaurants, so be it. It is time to become a hongik ingan and strive to eradicate the pandemic and achieve a higher level of realization while tackling humanity’s largest crises as one entire hongik ingan unit.