Omnes Sancti et Sanctæ Coreæ, orate pro nobis.

Now Blogging Afresh at Ad Orientem 西儒 - The Western Confucian

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Forgiveness and Han

About a year ago, the day after my wife and I were accepted into the Catholic Church in fact, we attended mass at a Catholic church in my wife’s hometown of Ulsan [For pictures of the church, click here.] The mass was celebrated by a visiting priest, Father Mateo. [Korean Catholics take Latin baptismal names and use them in ecclesial contexts.] He introduced himself as a priest who ministered to foreign guest workers in the nearby city of Busan.

After mass, Father Mateo said that he had some comments to make. He saw me, the sole foreign face in the congregation, and asked where I was from. I answered that I was from America and he asked how long I had lived in Korea. I answered five years, to which he responded, “Oh, shit!” While a bit taken aback from this use of the expletive in the house of God, I attributed it to linguistic ignorance. [The equivalent Korean word, ddong, is by no means a profanity, nor would are the equivalent expressions for “excrement” in other languages I am familiar with, which says much about our Anglo-Saxon concepts of the profane.]

Father Mateo then said to me, “Excuse me while I say a few words to my people.” He began an anti-American harangue whose topic was the then recent acquittal by a US military court of two American servicemen charged with homicide in the deaths of two Korean middle school girls in a traffic accident. [See the following articles for background information: Court Finds US Soldier Not Guilty , A Not Guilty Verdict , Students Continue Anti-US Protests , Time to Leave , Rumsfeld apologizes for Korean girls' deaths .]

My wife and I both felt uncomfortable as Father Mateo rallied the masses, I mean parishioners, into anti-American fervor. She suggested we leave, but I told her we should stay out of politeness. While I disagreed with what he was saying, I supported his right to say it and respected him for saving his political comments for after the mass and not including them in his homily. My wife, perhaps suffering a bit from the stigma attached to Korean women married to foreign men and feeling unjustly singled out in what was our second day in the Catholic Church, remained furious with Farther Mateo.

She related the incident to her father, a non-Catholic, who described it to a coworker, a Catholic, who in turn reported it to higher-ups in the Diocese of Busan. Whatever came of the issue never really concerned me, as I had not been offended at all by the whole incident.

More than a year later, last Sunday, my wife and I attended the same church and were both surprised to see Father Mateo preaching again as a visiting priest. He was there to raise funds for a Catholic center for foreign workers he hoped to establish in Ulsan. My wife was very surprised that I pledged some money to his cause and that after mass I sought out Father Mateo to wish him luck. He shook my hand and commented on the cuteness of our six-month-old and said he hoped to see me again. I doubt very much whether he remembered me or the incident of over a year ago.

My wife later good-naturedly said, “That’s what drives me crazy about you Americans; you forgive so easily!”

This lead me to think about the Korean word han, often cited by Koreans as a uniquely Korean concept that has no English equivalent and which my Korean-English dictionary defined variously as “a grudge,” "a feeling of bitterness," or “righteous indignation.” The idea of han related to Koreans’ thinking that their country’s efforts have been continuously thwarted by foreign aggressors (the Chinese, Japanese, Russians, and Americans) for its purported 5000-year history. There is also personal han, for example the resentment of daughters-in-law against unjust mothers-in-law, or of social inferiors against their superiors (something codified in system of honorifics in the Korean language). I recalled a comment once made to me by a university upperclassman, who said, “We don’t like the current crop of Freshmen; they don’t hate Japan enough.” Thus, the unforgiving resentment and even hatred of han can be seen as a patriotic and personal virtue.

Korea can be forgiven for its han. It has had a harsh history, mainly due to its unlucky geographic location between China and Japan. [Think of poor Poland stuck between Germany and Russia.] Korea can also be forgiven because it does not have the 2000-year history of Christianity that we have been fortunate to have in the West, where forgiveness, a core virtue of that religion, is enshrined to such a degree that even non-believing post-Christians recognize its value. Perhaps as the Christianization of Korea continues, the river of han will give way to the healing waters of forgiveness.