“The feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong — all these combined.”
– Han, Wikipedia
Han is described to me as our heritage. It’s what describes the low smoking point of our blood, the way it seethes in our veins, behind our skin, away from others’ eyes. It makes you understand why so many drunk Korean guys on 8th and New Hampshire burst into flames and throw hands at each other at the slightest sign of disrespect.
Before Ta-Nehisi Coates established the plunder of African-American bodies as American heritage, Koreans had a word for the subjugation they’ve been submerged under for centuries. It goes back to the deference paid to the Chinese in the 1400s. It crested in the Japanese annexation of Korea. Throughout Korean history, bodies weren’t just burned as fuel for the economy like the Transatlantic Slaves, they were broken for sport and impaled for comfort. You can see our Han manifest in the ham-fisted way our parents discipline us, the kimchi-slapstick of our melodramas, or the high-octave heartbreak in our ballads. It feeds into the common joke among Koreans to never date another Korean, because we’re all fucking crazy.
As I’ve read into Han, I’ve concluded that it isn’t a uniquely Korean experience. Like I mentioned before, there’s ample evidence of the African-American experience being much the same. Han is a theorization of bloody heritage rising from the ground to grasp onto its living children. It’s not exclusive to the boiling sanguinity of Korea’s continued survival despite its history. It’s not exclusive to the long dark night of slavery and the grey twilight of redlining and Jim Crow. It’s not exclusive to the smoldering genocide of Europe’s Jews in the name of purity. This historical rage is not exclusive to a singular people. We all bleed the same blood, the only difference is the shade of the skin from our split foreheads.
Ultimately, that’s what piqued my interest in Han. Within its fluid definition lies a statement on history, that it has the power to follow us like a curse.
The shitty thing about history is that people think it’s malleable. You’re all familiar with people mushing historical facts and narrative into the holes of their arguments. Established history is as ironclad as law, but there are those who crop and cut established history to buttress their own narratives. This is not exclusive to any one ethnic group, every group does this. There are those who try to present a bucket of broken facts as historical evidence, and they come in all colors and stripes. But it’s a disservice to ignore crucial elements of history if we are to gain any value from it.
It’s easy to believe that historical events that fall outside of our lifespan have minimal effects on us today. It’s why a common racist argument that’s lobbied against African-Americans is: slavery was centuries ago, and you people still haven’t gotten your shit together since.
But I believe that the biggest issue with all this racial tension is the idea that one history has merit over another. The history of an African-American and an Anglo-American is markedly different, yet African-Americans cite the injustices of their history to ears deafened to the sound. It’s not my history. I can’t understand and empathize with something I don’t know, even if it was taught in half-awake stares in high school history class. So why is it a surprise that some Americans don’t empathize with the African-American struggle? They don’t understand or believe in their history, and they can’t justify their Han…which is the luxury of someone who doesn’t feel any burden from that history.
And for those whose present is still tangibly weighed by that history, like African-Americans or Turkish Kurds or Korean War veterans with long memories, Han makes a ton of sense.
“Han is sorrow caused by heavy suffering, injustice or persecution, a dull lingering ache in the soul. It is a blend of lifelong sorrow and resentment, neither more powerful than the other. Han is imbued with resignation, bitter acceptance and a grim determination to wait until vengeance can at last be achieved.”
– Han, Wikipedia
I used to chafe at the idea that I’m saddled with Han because I have Korean blood. I’ve always said that being Korean affects me the way any ethnicity affects a person. It’s from the outside-in, not the other way around. I don’t want to justify stark irrationality with an easy label or excuse. Han is more than a word used to explain emotion, it can also be an ill-fitted justification for selfish and wild behaviors. I refuse to believe that my destiny is to be an irrational, cynical, and disillusioned asshole because my ancestors were getting pegged by their geopolitical rivals.
I try not to attune an emotional profile to an ethnic group, because it’s that kind of thinking that breeds racist thought. I try to treat everyone on an equal plane, regardless of race or gender. The deeper, underlying core principle of that egalitarian thinking is that we are all human beings, and thus, we are all equal and deserving of respect and dignity. We are all subject to the same primal needs and desires to live, breathe, eat, drink, piss, shit, and succeed by our own individualized terms. We all want to find happiness, and we all want to avoid tragedy. There are things I am better at than other people, but that’s not evidence that makes me a better person than anybody on this Earth.
Maintaining this principle is tough, and it can be disproven in so many ways. There are so many different things that elevate ones over others. As a truth, it doesn’t survive. The evidence can be seen on a stroll through Market Street. You can see how some people are elevated over others, how they’re treated as superior or inferior to others.
Still, it’s my principle. It’s something that nourishes my ego, which helps it prevent the darker engines of my id. I am not better than you, and you are not better than me. I don’t care if you make more money, if you’ve lifted more weights, or if more people on this earth want to fuck you. We are equal, and if we’re on that level, it’s much easier to empathize and be compassionate to each other.
Another origin story for Han was the burdensome resentment of Korean peasants towards the caste system of the times. The yangban ran everything, while the peasants created everything. The daily oppression is bound to ferment the soul until its resultant gases push against the ribs. Again, this caste system and resultant Han is not something that’s unique to Korea. But if heritage has more power over me than I believe it does, it might go some way towards explaining why I have this principle of equality, and why I hate condescension so fucking much.
It feels like a stone is being suspended in your chest. It’s held up by wires that pulls upon your chestplate. It weighs and jiggles every time you take a step. You feel unnatural, like some alien body is inside you. When I have it, I want nothing else but to remove that stone, and it feels like the only way I can is to forcefully expel that stone at the people responsible for putting it there. But I can’t.
That’s what makes it deeper than a simple grudge. Han is specifically painful because of the underlying helplessness to take immediate action to resolve it. You resign yourself to it, you wake up with it, walk with it, feel it against every breath you take. Until one day, maybe one fateful day, it makes sense to unleash it to those responsible.
It’s based on the violation of that equality, that a human being who is subject to the same fragility of life as me, could treat me with such utter disrespect and condescension. And what better way to enforce the purity of that equality than to strike out and punish the person that stepped out of line?
Still, I’m reminded of a key truth before I take up arms against my “oppressors.” What’s fair and unfair to me is only true to me. Fairness and equality can be broadly defined, enough to the point where most of us can agree on what it is as a society. But fairness and equality will always be unique to the perception of the person who doles out the judgment. Think on why the cycle of urban violence is at once understandable yet illogical. Man avenges his friend by killing his killer. The killer’s friend kills the man or the man’s family to avenge the killer. On and on it goes. Each act made in faith towards “making things right.”
And so I have to resolve my Han, and remove my stone, in a way that doesn’t involve vengeance or balancing my personal scale of justice. To let go of this feeling, even as it seizes up my insides like an emotional cramp. To realize that a healthy, happy life is one that allows me to control my emotions regardless of whatever historical weight or cultural conditioning may be behind all this.
Heritage and history can go a long way towards explaining action. But action is the only thing that defines a person, not the heritage and history behind them.