Have you ever had a great love? I have, and its name is Montreal. I only lived in the city for two years, but I was infatuated. And when you are deeply in love – when you are over your head and completely submersed in love’s sweet addictive nectar – nothing is rational. It didn’t matter that the snow was at times higher than the parked cars on the one way narrow streets. It didn’t matter that -30 was an unremarkable winter temperature. It didn’t matter that there were moments where I instinctively knew not to open my mouth and betray my anglo-ness. And it certainly didn’t matter that I was in a place where many people hated the fact that the country on their passport started with a ‘C’ instead of a ‘Q.’ I was in love – head-over-heels-forever- honeymoon-phase-love. The city’s cafes were where we dated – and the terraces sipping sangria on a hot summer day – and the park near my house which had free ballet/theatre/music/poetry readings/art exhibitions every night for months during the spring and summer. I lounged on my lavender staircase on the Plateau and felt like no other city in the world could understand me better. The city was my lover and because I was single during my time there – Montreal was the entity I poured my soul out to.
But as in most great love affairs, it was not to be forever. But we didn’t break up because of a torrid affair – or a referendum ballot – or a bitter feud. We parted amicably on account of me finishing my education, not having a job, and needing someone else to house me while I got on my post-grad school feet. But because we parted for such practical reasons, Montreal will always be that ‘but what if things had been just a little different’ relationship. No place will ever really be as sweet as that fine city simply because our relationship ended with an unfinished parting…and nostalgia is a bitch.
One of the first textbooks I used in Korea asked the question ‘do you think marriage should be based on love or jeong?’ Jeong is a very complicated and multifaceted word, but in this question but in many conversations I’ve been a part of over my years here, there seems to be a suggestion that ‘love’ and ‘jeong’ are diametrically opposed. ‘Love’ seems to represent passion, lust, intoxication, and lovers blind to all else while ‘jeong’ seems to represent filial piety, devotion even under duress, unconditional loyalty, and commitment. I personally think that ‘love’ is a far more complex word than this bifurcated understanding recognizes. And I think that my personal experience with love for my husband contains a great deal of the things the above definition of jeong includes completely separate from our Korean context. And above all, I honestly think that healthy (balanced) relationships require both ‘love’ and ‘jeong’.
But for a moment, I want to use this perceived split between ‘love’ and ‘jeong’ to examine my feelings for Seoul. And when I think about Seoul and ‘love’…there’s no love here. I believe that my problem with loving Seoul is that I have been ruined by my one great love (Montreal). After you’ve had that deep connection with a place, it’s hard to love like that again. Part of the problem is the space itself. Seoul is not a pretty city. It’s concrete. It’s chaotic. It’s crowded. It’s polluted. It’s hussel and bussle all the time. The new buildings and areas are soulless, and the older parts are intriguing but frustrating. Seoul is not endearing. It’s missing the je ne sais quoi that I immediately felt so drawn to in Montreal. And above all, it is not romantic – at least not to me.
But Seoul gave me my husband. It gave me a job – nay a career. This city helped me to understand that I really am a teacher no matter how much I tried to deny it and run away from the fact that all my experiences, education, and talents had always shown me that I was supposed to be a teacher. The streets of Seoul have given me my two lovely felines. The challenges of living here have changed my perspective and helped me grow as a person. And there is an energy – a dynamic pulse here that both drives me crazy and propels me forward in a way that forces me to push myself and become something more than the limited vision I have for myself. And so, I think what I feel for Seoul is jeong.
At the very foundation, I have jeong because by virtue of just being here I feel that I must have some loyalty to the place where I reside. But jeong is something that has grown – or perhaps more accurately something that has been cultivated in me through my ever deepening experiences with this place. The more it gives me, the more indebted I am. Jeong is also a tethering – a leather strap that binds people to each other through relationship or relation to each other/each thing. And so with every experience and every gift, I am further bound to this city. Jeong can be a great burden – the duties and demands one party makes on another can cause frustration and resentment – but burden can sometimes be a joyful thing if you know that jeong relationships are long term rather than momentary connections. The burden may be difficult now, but the long term relationship is reciprocal and even the deepness of the connection is meaningful over time. I often find myself defining jeong as ‘obligatory love’ without the necessary negative connotations of ‘obligation’. Jeong is the obligations I must fulfill, but in fulfilling the obligations, a meaningful connection is made.
I find myself travelling this city these days feeling a deep sense of affection for Seoul. I am constantly reminded of the things this city – this country have given me – and in remembering what I have gained, I feel an increasing loyalty and respect for the place where I am. Seoul is not a beautiful city, but we’ve been through battles together and that means that I acknowledge my obligations to Seoul. I must say that I do not feel that our jeong means that I can’t meaningfully and faithfully criticize Seoul or that this place can’t do the same thing to me. It is because I am loyal – it is because I feel such deep affection that I will point to the failings in this city’s relationships with its residents
Seoul is no Montreal, but then again, maybe that’s a good thing…and maybe I would never really have understood the fullness of love had I only lived in one place. Perhaps both relationships have helped me to understand my obligations to place, and the way in which place informs who I am.