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Bernard Rowan

Bernard Rowan

Posted: July 6, 2010 02:07 PM

Hallyu and Haan

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Today, I read about the suicide of another Korean actor, Park Yong-Ha, another star of the Korean wave or hallyu, which stands for the spread of Korean culture to Asia and the world. Over the last decade, too many of Korea's most successful and promising people are choosing to take their lives, all too soon. There even is a Wikipedia page that lists many of those who committed suicide.

Last year, former president Roh committed suicide. Statistics are that the Korean suicide rate is among the higher rates in the world. I also have learned that the suicide rate among the elderly in Korea is very high.

There is an outflowing of haan or inward, downcast, and repressed feelings at work in many of these situations. Financial scandals, indebtedness, isolation of fame, divorce, the death of parents, sexual self-expression and identity issues, victimization, self-victimization -- the whole gamut of negative life contexts seem to be at play in the backgrounds of recent famous Korean suicides. There are countless other stories that are not told of the many grandmothers and grandfathers, halmeoni and harabeogi, who have ended their lives. Korea's family structure has left many of Korea's most deserving people by themselves with their illnesses, poverty, and loneliness.

I am not an expert about haan. And I think many of these same problems are true in America and elsewhere. I think the concept is not the same as Western equivalents such as depression or angst or repression, though there must be some parallels. South Koreans have accomplished so much, so quickly. Their nation is a success story of untold proportions, by anyone's standards. Koreans have very high self-expectations, and they demand of themselves educational attainments that would rival and surpass most other peoples. Korea has modernized, industrialized, digitized, Internet-revolutionized, and it embodies a dynamism that should be emulated to some extent.

But haan is a perennial possibility. The Korean War is long over, but the division of the Korean peoples is still very real, very dangerous, and very saddening. Korea's standard of living has improved, but many of the elderly live in isolation, without adequate pensions or healthcare or family supports. The Korean family structure has changed, but it has consequences. Korean entertainment, including its historical dramas and music, are mass consumption products and processes of choice, but the young adults and pre-adults who are its subjects participate in a chaos of marketing and promotion that has its share of corruptions (not unlike the entertainment industry elsewhere). The competition of Korean youth to enter the best universities or to obtain a salaried position is objectively difficult. Just as in many places in our world, the best and brightest "do it all," only to find even more barriers to success in the job world. Korean culture is not static, and change is not easy for those who are different, who choose to live their difference, and who suffer because of prejudice and malice.

Individuals may absorb more of life than they can stand on their own. It also is true that there may be more acceptance of suicide in Korea than elsewhere. The Western prejudice against it is at least as old as St. Augustine's diatribes against Lucretia. Asian cultures have their own understandings, which would not view all suicides as sinful or shameful. I am not a judge, but my bias is that suicides are a sign of deep suffering more often than not, and we should work to mitigate the incidence of suffering unceasingly.

I think Korean culture should face the situation of suicide squarely, and it should seek to build injeong or empathy in ever widening circles, true to what I take to be some of its deepest traditions as a people. We all can learn from Koreans in turn. What can be done to help the elderly? That ought to be a platform statement for upcoming elections, for national change, and for the next level of Korean social development. No person of the Korean War generation should go without the means of sustenance and survival.

What can be done for the young adults of the entertainment world? Agents should have to register with the government and abusive practices should be criminalized. There should be training through official entertainment industries of young performers as to life skills and signs of psychological trauma. Entertainers must never lose sight of the fact that they will, sooner or later, not be famous. Their "normal" lives are ultimately more important, and they should not conflate their careers with them.

I believe that there will be a unification of the two Koreas in the future. The unmet wishes of millions cannot forever be forestalled. There are many constructive mechanisms that already are in motion and will be set in motion as historical circumstances change.

One of the great insights of Confucian thinking is the prohibition on scapegoating, and its holism. One should not do to those above you what you would not want done to you by someone below you, and one should not do to those below you what you would not want done to you by someone above you. Of course 'above' and 'below' are vulgar words. The injunction applies to those "next" to oneself," "all around oneself," and various other terminologies.

If there must be haan in life, then there must also be injeong, and we must be quick to notice the need to tend to those around us who are suffering. Wellness has many meanings. It may mean understanding one's own limitations, it may mean thinking that our parents or loved ones want us to continue on in life in love for them, it may mean saying "No!" to a condition of a contract or exchange and losing fame or fortune. It may mean building more universities. It may mean instituting a new conception of work and time to change behaviors. It may mean requiring more corporate responsibility. It cannot be exhaustively described.

When I see the faces of those who are no longer here, I think of the countless others whose faces few, if anyone, will see. May Korea's people and their leaders, from the highest levels, speak to the phenomenon of suicide in present-day Korea. You will only benefit from doing so. And may the rest of the world do the same, starting with me.