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  • Writer's pictureCharlene Holkenbrink-Monk

Using han, Finding jeong

Updated: May 18

This is the final reflection I shared in my dissertation. I reflect on my Korean culture and heritage, and the process of using the Korean concept of han to find jeong.

I was working as a secondary humanities teacher when I first started thinking about my dissertation, starting with my pilot study. I taught history and English to grades 8-12 through a global pandemic, and I saw hope throughout all those diverse grades and ages, their imaginations active and engaged but slowly being squashed between standardized tests, restrictive curriculum, the trauma of systemic oppression, and of course personal conditions we could not alleviate as teachers. I knew that because of my dialogic practices as a secondary teacher and college instructor, collaboration and participatory methods would be central to my research. Even before this dissertation, though, I knew my personal statement for my application to the joint doctoral program in 2017 stated my desire to use community-engaged research, specifically participatory action research, well before this dissertation was conceptualized. It just so happened that my career trajectory changed while in the program, which resulted in adding “youth” before my initial plan. It is interesting how, when you do not waver in your philosophical identity, one’s ontological truths, and in turn epistemological foundation, things seem to come around “full circle,” which leads me to my final thoughts.

My educational journey has played a significant role in the reclaiming of my identity, which is ironic considering my early educational journey was a huge factor in the shattering of it. I bring this up because many of the research team members discussed how they discovered more about themselves in this study than they had in other educational settings, so it is only fitting that I bring up my self-discovery, to be as vulnerable as they were and connected in the same way my research members were. One thing I touched upon briefly in the prologue is my identity as a white Korean woman and how I have grappled with this throughout my life.

In Korean culture, there are two concepts: han and jeong. There is no direct translation of han, but the closest idea that can be equated to it is that of resentment, sorrow, anger, and other deeply intense negative emotions like these, feelings that are believed to run deep in our hearts and veins. This is not something surprising of a people who have faced the major consequences and attempts at stripping their collective cultural identities due to imperialism, and centuries of colonization and occupation, (and are still experiencing tremendous heartache and turmoil in 2023, like many other minoritized peoples nationally and globally). I have felt han to my core for as long as I can remember, whether it was as a child having my identity shaken, my brain aneurysm caused by a genetic mutation dominant in Korean and Japanese people, or just knowing that my grandmother, and mother, have navigated the murky waters of being “American” in a country that did not see them as such. I also believe han has contributed to the way I question the systems and structures that resulted in my existence but also attempted to take the small part of “Korean-ness” I still maintain, and why I hope for my students to question things in similar, yet personal ways.

But, there is a big push to recognize that han should not define the entire Korean people, even with the years of occupation and anguish, so there is another concept that is just as important to discuss, that of jeong. Jeong can best be understood as loyalty, connection, a deep emotional bond with others, solidarity, and camaraderie between people. These two concepts have been embodied through this research, something that I did not realize until later in my personal reflections. My structural analysis and systemic thinking absolutely stem from those feelings of han and influence my drive for critical analysis. Meanwhile, jeong is at the core of how, and more importantly, why, I engage dialogically and connect with people as deeply as I do, including my students and in this case, my research team. In many ways, this study allowed me to process and use those feelings of han to design this study and emerge instead with an intense feeling of jeong through the findings, goals, and outcomes.

While perhaps idealistic, we can realize that only through progressive and big ideas can we make change and maintain hope.

With that said, I designed this research with hope in mind, and to push educational initiatives beyond reform, but toward a transformation, so we can hopefully dismantle oppressive systems through collaborative and dialogical means for a more just and liberated world. I did this to use similar feelings, individually and collectively, of han to challenge systems, to eventually develop and foster a collective and systemic jeong. While perhaps idealistic, we can realize that only through progressive and big ideas, we can make change and hold onto hope.

[If you’d like to read the entire dissertation, you can read that here: Disruption, Dissent, and Dialogue: YPAR as a Pedagogical and Institutional Tool.

Korean woman looking at camera

Photo of my grandmother, Bok, born in Busan, Korea.

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