By David A. Tizzard
This week I received a request from a friend and professor in the United States: “Can I please explain the concept of ‘han,’ particularly how it manifests in contemporary society and the benefits it provides to the community.” Korea clearly continues to fascinate many people around the world and a lot of them are looking for the secret code or key to understanding why Korean people are the way they are, why their K-dramas resonate the way they do, and why their favourite idol’s eyes linger on screen a little more than is comfortable. Could it be than this is all due to ‘han’? Certainly we are no strangers to articles and YouTube videos declaring “How Squid Game Reflects Korean People’s Unique Sense of Han” or “Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite Shows the Economic Han of Modern Korea.”
In the United States, where race and identity are incredibly important topics for many people, han seems to hold a particular attraction. Many Korean-Americans speak frequently of han as a way of connecting with their grandparents’ home. That while they might not really like kimchi that much and the language is still difficult, they nevertheless feel han. Deep in their bones, they are Korean because they understand that sense of connectedness through generations. They are part of a story of suffering, triumph, and resilience. They are, irrespective of a passport, Korean. They are characters in “Pachinko,” they have cried in “H-Mart.” They know what it is to have “Beef.”
This article is not designed to disprove or reject any of those important experiences. It does not discount the identity or the values and character of any people around the world. What it does intend to do, however, is try and demonstrate how young people today in Korea see and understand the concept of han. To show that culture is real, lived, and, despite our wishes, always changing.
Culture is life
We often think of culture as something that other countries have. Particularly less developed regions or ones that have not modernized. Culture is the “other.” It is something that deviates from the norm of contemporary life. In a sense it is also mystical. A sacred way of doing things that shows a deep and unbroken connection to a time before, when spirits moved us, dragons came and went, and the skies opened to the cries of deities. Culture is something to be preserved and respected.
And when we take this perspective, we do not think of ourselves as having culture. What is modern British culture? What is American culture? My students have openly asked each other, “Do Australian people have culture?” This often comes about because we are hesitant to see culture in modern life. But culture is that which is lived, performed, and carried out day-to-day. Culture is a solution to a problem and modern life gives us many challenges. We respond to these challenges (economic, social, political) by creating new cultures.
Korean culture is no longer a hanbok: it is a hoody, a pair of cons, and possibly a crop top as the weather gets warmer. Korean culture is no longer a hanok: it is an apartment with an elevator and a speaker inside that the security guard likes to talk over, particularly on the weekends very early in the morning when your kids are trying to sleep. Korean culture is that which is lived and experienced by the 50-odd million people here today. We might not see it as such right now, but in 100 years, people will look back at us and study our particular ways of being and find it fascinating because it will appear so different and weird to them. They will call it culture. We simply call it life.
And so I asked a young 19-year old Korean woman who regularly appears on my podcast, “What do you think of han, Yunseo? Do you have han?” She looked at me and with a characteristic Gen Z wry grin and said, “Ah! You mean that thing we have to study for our tests?” Han for her was something taught in school. It was like me growing up and learning about Maypole Dancing and how the Saxons made swords. I could kind of vaguely understand the concepts behind them, but it was nothing to do with me and my need to go to football, and play Tetris on my Gameboy.
She continued: “I think if I asked 100 of my friends, they would all say the same thing. Han is something we have to study for our university test. And, if you asked 100 people to define it, they would all give a different answer because it’s taught in such an abstract way. And, personally, I don’t think han is a Korean concept. If people from all over the world have the same hard times, they will have the same feelings.”
Though it was just the idea of one young individual, the last part was particularly revealing to me. Some Korean people today don’t want to be seen as a distinct or special identity. They instead want to be seen as part of the global community. They don’t want to be othered or viewed as different. They want to be accepted and seen. They don’t want to self-orientalize. They don’t come from a country where people have these special feelings no-one else can understand. They come from a place where they watch Netflix, go to the dentist, pay their taxes, fall in love, and worry about their next haircut. They are like everyone else. It’s just up to us to find the strange in the familiar and the familiar in the strange.
The death of han?
So are we witnessing the death of han? Has it become something akin to the hanbok and games featured in Squid Game? We speak about it on special occasions and marvel at how people used to do things? It amazes me how the west is moving more and more towards concepts such as intergenerational trauma as a reality, something that most university students will know and hear about, while, at the same time, Korean students are seemingly moving away from that idea of secondary trauma being passed down through generations. One group is embracing collective identity and shared experiences while the other is focusing on autonomy and hyper-individualism. The textbooks we have which tell us about Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions and the like are maybe getting things wrong now. It wouldn’t surprise me if in the next 20-30 years, some of the most hyper-individualized people in the world are from East Asia. Birthrates and mental health are probably connected to that as well. And this is not them becoming westernized. It is them becoming new Koreans.
Of course, there are challenges to the idea of the death of han. My Korean teacher and a few others I spoke to told me that han still definitely exists. They believe that Yunseo and her generation are still too young to understand han. Wait until they are in their forties. Then they will really know what han is and, by extension, what it means to be Korean. Another replied that if I wanted to see if han still exists, have a look at the crowd when Korea play Japan in the football. You’ll see it there.
So han means different things to different people. For some, it is part of their identity, their story and a way of making sense of this world. For others, it is a means to an end: a way to pass a test. I think, therefore, Yunseo was right when she said that 100 people would all have different definitions of han. As long as some people believe in it, han will still exist. And when they no longer tell each other those stories, it will fade away. Becoming but a fragment of a memory of a time no one really remembers.
Dr. David A. Tizzard (email@example.com) has a Ph.D. in Korean Studies and lectures at Seoul Women’s University and Hanyang University. He is a social-cultural commentator and musician who has lived in Korea for nearly two decades. He is also the host of the “Korea Deconstructed” podcast, which can be found online.