Saturday, March 13, 2010

Han, solo

A word you see an awful lot of in Korea is han. South Koreans call their country Hanguk, the language Hangungmal, and the alphabet Hangeul. The Han River flows through the middle of Seoul; South Korea's astonishing economic rise is called "The Miracle on the Han River". In the Korean-derived number system you use for counting items (as opposed to the Chinese numbers you use for bus numbers, money, and such), hana means "one", but you drop the second syllable when it precedes the item you're counting: han sagwa, for example, means "one apple."

Han generally means "great" or "leader", as in the country's name. But it also is universally used to mean a basic component of the Korean character that is hard to explain clearly in English, a kind of permanent melancholy, a sadness mixed with touches of both resentment and perseverance. Some say it comes from the numerous invasions, forced subservience, and crushing occupations the country's endured over the centuries. Others believe it stems from literally millennia of a strict class structure in which the mass of people lived short lives of hunger and backbreaking toil.

Either way, book after book says that han is a cornerstone of the Korean mind. In general, to my eye Koreans seem rather glum. They may be given to loud bursts of anger or celebration, but the default mood (as much as 50 million people can have a default mood) seems to be a certain stolid resignation. That's certainly an overgeneralization, but that doesn't mean it's not valid. Hanguk, then, could be read as "One Country", "Great Country" or "Melancholy Country".

This blog is called "SJCintheROK", and I realize that the "SJC" part (that's me) has become more and more my topic; I guess that sometimes I write it as much to give myself emotional therapy as I do to tell you what I see here in Hanguk. I know that's self-centered, but, hey, that's nothing new for me. Thanks for reading it and for the kind words I've received about my writing here. (Send more! Will Write for Praise.)

Anyway, when I wrote the recent blog entry about the Sunday in which I went to the veggie lunch and Dongdaemun Market, I forgot to mention that I decided to walk across the Han River in the heart of Seoul. I took the subway to Apgujeong, the last stop on the south side of the river, and walked across one of the many bridges to Oksu Station on the north bank. I had crossed the river many times on the subway, which comes above ground and shares the bridges with a whole lot of automobile traffic, but I wanted a better feel for the river and the city, and I had time before the lunch, so I footed it.

It was a gray, chilly, damp day (darker than in this file photo) with a strong headwind; by the time I got a hundred yards onto the half-mile bridge, I was ready to turn around. I'm a total wimp about heights and I kept wondering how old the bridge was and how much those trains going by weighed. The wind kept trying to blow me backward or, in my mind, over the edge. I was the only pedestrian on the whole span. But I kept going.

Along with my nervousness, though, I felt han on the Han. (On the other han...) I felt small and alone. But, if I understand han correctly, it also entails an odd satisfaction with that sadness, a sort of "it's okay" that's hard to explain. I love Robert Frost's "Acquainted With the Night", about long, lonely, nighttime walks. My favorite word, I guess is "solace"; I love the sound of it, I love Scott Joplin's slow ragtime song, I get solace in some strange way from the solitude that isn't far from isolation.

(Melodramatic, much, Steve?) Sorry... this entry is more for me, I guess, but I need a reader or two for the self-therapy to work; if you've read this far, thanks again.

Anyway, the worst thing that my circumstances sometimes bring out is the feeling of being really alone. Tug isn't enough; for one thing, he's more self-centered than I am, and that's not easy. A couple of years ago, I was diagnosed with dysthymia, chronic (lifelong, I guess) mild depression. Overall, I really am better than I've ever been; I have fewer moments of melancholy, more self-confidence, a more philosophic frame of mind. I'm always okay; I'm usually fine. The han is there, lurking in the background, but it doesn't run my life anymore.

I'm good.

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