To any Korean, the word “nunchi” rings familiar bells. Its literal translation in English is “eye-measure” and can be likened to reading the room, but more specifically to gauging the sentiments and interests of another and then acting in accordance with Korean manners and customs.
So, for example, a friend that heads out to the car to turn on the AC in the heat of the summer before others get in has “quick nunchi” because that person’s senses and intuition are ahead of the situation. For the youngest person seated at a dining table, nunchi is second nature because they wait respectfully until the elders begin to eat first. When my mom returns home at 8 a.m. from the gym, ready to take over the world and knock down anyone in her path, my nunchi urges me to get out of bed, open up the windows and match her energy before she throws me a dirty look. Admittedly, I heard the word used most often growing up when my mom reprimanded me for having “no nunchi.”
There is a Korean adage, “half of social life is nunchi,” and thus nunchi is instilled in children from a young age. But as a Korean growing up in America, I became bitter at my culture’s high esteem for nunchi. I called for family meetings where I demanded that we instead learn from the latter of my Asian American identity and value clear communication and conversation. To ask directly, “How are you today?” “How are you feeling?” “Is something wrong?” rather than chastise one another for not being a mind-reading telepathist. I was burdened by the miscommunication that arose from the emphasis on reading the room, and my mind felt tortured, always calculating whether I had missed a nuance from someone’s ambiguous glance.
It turned out that I had missed the nuances of nunchi. The Korean drama series “Reply 1988” is set in South Korea in its progression into a socially, culturally and economically flourishing state. As I watched the beautiful, hilarious, heartwarming and tear-jerking story of five families sharing struggles, laughter, cries, intimate moments, kinship and love in a small alley in Seoul, my poor appetite for nunchi changed as I refined my palate to the deeper undertones behind the art.
I often found myself in tears as nunchi wove tighter threads in relationships: One late night, when Lee Il-hwa falters and fails to muster her strength and ask her wealthier friend Mi-ran for support to pay her daughter’s school fees, she heads back home with tears in her eyes and her head hung in shame in her inability to support her daughter. Later that night, Mi-ran hands Il-hwa an unassuming bowl of corn; to her surprise, underneath it is an envelope containing money and a kind letter. In another episode, I watched the quiet and distant son of Ra Mi-ran sense his mother’s witty and charming persona disappear into the darkness of menopause despite his mother assuring him that nothing was wrong. In a gesture beyond his comfort, he plans a surprise wedding anniversary in the neighborhood for his parents, rekindling his mother’s spirit.
Nunchi tugs on your heartstrings in ways direct communication and blatant requests cannot. Nunchi is the serendipitous act of kindness that depends on another’s quick senses, building kinship between families and communities.
Euny Hong, Korean American journalist and author, writes that nunchi is more than quaint Korean customs in “The Power of Nunchi: The Korean Secret to Happiness and Success.” Nunchi is the secret behind Korea’s progression from one of the world’s poorest to now one of the richest and most technologically advanced nations. It fosters trust and connection in a way that opens doors in all areas of life — also explaining the unlikely modern rise of K-pop to the global stage.
The world of “Reply 1988” is an antithesis of American culture and values. In America, the individual comes before all else — even sometimes to a fault. We hear it today in the riotous cacophonies of anti-mask protests that fight for the individual’s choice to wear a mask and in anti-vaxxers’ dismissals of collective safety and well-being.
In the vast regions, cultures and backgrounds that constitute America, we have difficulty relating to and understanding people who seem to share different beliefs and values from ourselves, and cynicism about their intentions often stops us from trying. The recent devastation on women’s rights by Texas’ abortion law, in which other people forced decisions on women’s bodies, exemplifies this.
But John Locke, one of the greatest advocates for individual rights and freedom, still affirmed that the equality of man demands obligation to mutual love and duties among men. In the “Second Treatise of Civil Government,” Locke quotes political theorist Richard Hooker: “It is no less their duty, to love others than themselves … If I cannot but wish to receive good … how should I look to have any part of my desire herein satisfied, unless myself by careful to satisfy the like desire?” This is an echo of the Golden Rule.
In “Inventing Human Rights,” Lynn Hunt, UCLA professor of modern European history, argues that the concept of natural rights was born in history through empathy. As humans began to learn in the late 1700s that we were all in some way fundamentally alike, we began to empathize with one another and thus expanded natural rights to other groups of people. Empathy’s fists knocked down the walls of even the longest-held prejudices of the time: In 1791, Jews were granted equal rights by the French revolutionary government; in 1792, men without property were enfranchised; and in 1794, slavery was abolished by the French government.
Hunt contends that human rights depend both on self-possession and the recognition that everyone else is equally as self-possessed, and “it is the incomplete development of the latter that vies rise to all the inequalities of rights that have preoccupied us throughout all history.”
“Empathy requires a leap of faith, of imagining that someone else is like you,” Hunt continues. And it constructs a community based on autonomous yet empathetic individuals that can relate beyond the bounds of localities, affiliations, immediate family and nations.
America can learn something from Korea’s concept of nunchi because empathy is at the core of nunchi. Nunchi values the collective community and requires the pursuit to understand others on a deeper level. It involves inherent care and respect for people and teaches you to be selfless, to sometimes act in favor of another’s needs and feelings rather than imposing yourself as the main character. Let’s take up some nunchi for others — before we all tumble down into the deepening divides between us.
Lily Kwak is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.