I promised a Waeguk Mini-essay, and here it is :
Kibeun (variously romanized, roughly pronounced ‘Kee-boon’) has been translated into English as ‘mood’ or ‘state of mind’, but this a very pale concept compared to the Korean one. Kibeun is regarded as much more important a matter than most westerners would regard mood. In another of those seeming contradictions of Korea, Koreans have a tendency to dwell, involute, on their more delicate feelings, despite their rough-and-ready, earthy exteriors. The degree to which they can focus on their emotional states can seem almost effete to a westerner, particularly one who, like me, grew up in a rough, tough northern town. Kibeun is of overarching importance in social relations, is constantly discussed, and attempts are always made to ensure kibeun is preserved.
It might be described as the part of you that goes beyond your physical presence, that not only permeates your being but surrounds you, invisibly, like a cloud. But it can be damaged, by unhappiness or disrespect, by losing face, by thoughtlessness or humiliation, by anything that’s disruptive to the harmony you feel with other people. Damage to your kibeun is damage to your essence, and can have negative effects both mentally and physically.
It is this consciousness of an inner life, one that is molded by the degree of harmony one achieves in one’s relationships with other people to whom one feels any degree of responsibility, that gives Koreans their almost preternatural ability to sense peoples’ mood, and their character, and modify their own behaviour to lubricate the social gears. That’s the nice part. The infuriating flip side of that, though, for many foreigners, is the tendency to dance elegantly away from any potential confrontation. An angry waeguk-in, until they understand what’s happening, is likely to become angrier when the Korean with whom they have a bone to pick says ‘Maybe’ when they mean ‘No’, or ‘tomorrow’ when they mean ‘never’, in order to try and re-establish harmonious dealings. The accompanying, ever-present potential too, is when someone is pushed too far, and they lose face, in which case ‘social harmony’ can take a flying leap, and the only way to regain face and salvage personal kibeun is to blow up and stomp and yell. This happens a lot, too.
In this consciousness of the relationships between people and its effect on your own wellbeing, rather than the ‘correctness’, ‘objective truth’, or self-interest of an individual or his arguments, there is a minefield of potential misunderstanding. Most foreigners to Korea trip through it over and over again, myself included, before they realize that putting the kibeun of the people around you first, even in a situation of confrontation, will bring results.
(As an aside, this is what Bush and the Americans do not seem to understand, or care to, when they deal with North Korea in ways that I’ve discussed earlier)
The importance of kibeun for Korean people should never be underestimated. It’s not merely convention, it’s baked-in. Koreans can make crucial, important decisions based on kibeun. Business decisions, choice of a mate, career and employment choices, all may be taken on the basis of what feels right, or what will result in the most socially harmonious outcome for all concerned. Koreans will discuss kibeun, but rarely attempt to analyze it in this way. To do so would perhaps damage their kibeun.
This is not to say that decisions, important or otherwise, are made strictly on a non-rational, intuitive basis. Things like love and marriage, about which westerners can be decidedly irrational, are approached with a combination of cold, rational analysis and intuitive leaps here, for example. It is another of the contradictions that drive me to drink.
Well, actually, I’d be drinking anyway.