Korean Literature
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Korean Literature

“The hallmark of a Nunchi-deficient person” — Review of Euny Hong’s ‘The Power of Nunchi’

When you walk into the room, everyone is laughing a bit too hard at the not-particularly-funny joke of an older woman you’ve never seen before. Do you:

A) Step in with a really funny joke, definitely much better than the one you just heard. Your new colleagues are going to love this!

B) Laugh along with the others, even though it’s not very amusing.

C) Find a tactful moment to introduce yourself to the older woman, who you’ve correctly assumed must be the head of the company.

If you chose A, you seriously need to work on your nunchi. If you chose B, good work, you read the room correctly and picked up the right cues from your new colleagues. If you chose C, congratulations,

But if you happen to be a normal-enough, socially functioning adult, then you didn’t choose A, B, or C. And the rest of this circular ‘book’, full of similarly false choices and unashamed orientalism, is not for you either!

Nunchi, as Koreans will tell you, is the ability to understand people and situations with a fast and instinctive radar. It is there within the DNA of every Korean (literally), and coursing through the blood of the nation; all stretching back to the first Korean — and mythical demi-god — Tangun.

From this fairy story our ‘author’, Euny Hong, does not miss a beat… nor an opportunity. Nunchi was there helping Koreans to “overcome more than 5000 years’ worth of slings and arrows.” It was there inside “Confucian principles” helping to build “a harmonious society”. And it was there within “semiconductors and smartphones” as Korea manufactured its way to wealth.

Just how the rest of the world managed to achieve all these things — and often much more quickly — without access to this superpower is anyone’s guess! But don’t hangout for an explanation, a look into those fantastical claims, and a scouring of the detail; Hong is not that type of ‘author’. As an example of her disinterest in her own arguments, only a few pages after talking about those semiconductors and smartphones as the embodiment of modern Nunchi, she is — with neither irony nor memory — proclaiming “Nunchi’s worst enemy: the smartphone.”

Just how Nunchi-infused economics and development produces its own worst enemy, we’ll never know; because again, Hong doesn’t care to tell us. But in her absence, it is worth running the loop in your head and seeing how far your credulity will stretch: a society where everyone has an enemy in their hand, and who, through Samsung, are the world’s largest manufacturer of the enemy, are still somehow the clean-skinned gallant heroes, riding-in with purpose to save the rest of us!

The better instincts of the reader soon become a problem here. Accidental tautologies like this beg for clarity, beg for the ‘author’ to offer something, anything that shows her to be engaged in her own writing. Instead The Power of Nunchi wanders from thought-to-thought with the erratic indifference of an escaped mental patient.

A few breaths later Hong is re-asking and re-answering the same question, “where did Koreans get their Nunchi?” But this time the answer is Hong Gildong! A real life thug turned pre-modern folk-hero; and apparently someone oozing at the pores with a rich Nunchi. Which, we are told, helped him to avoid assassination and to rise from illegitimate cast-off to become king.

A lesson for all: when you use a reference of any kind, it is first helpful to read the bloody thing… in full. If Hong Gildong should be looked back upon as a paragon of Nunchi, then there are a few quick complications which need addressing: why didn’t it deter him from committing mass murder, from theft, from ritual executions, from dynasty-wide terrorism, and from owning sexual slaves. Read just slightly beyond the title, and Gildong was a nasty little character… in both official documents and in popular fiction.

So where to from here? “A Nunchi self-assessment quiz” and little gems like this:

Here, “yes” answers indicate high nunchi levels:

• I feel awkward saying something without knowing the other person’s mood/mental state.

• Even if someone is saying something indirectly, I still comprehend the subtext.

• I am good at quickly discerning the other person’s mood and inner state.

• I do not make other people uncomfortable.

• At a social gathering, I am able to distinguish easily between when it’s time to leave and when it’s not time to leave.

And this:

You are a tourist in a former Iron Curtain country. You are awakened one morning by a loud siren. You stick your head out of the window and hear an announcement from giant loudspeakers, left over from the martial-law era. You notice people on the street are scurrying. Do you:

A. Say to yourself, “Oh, those alarms are so annoying. I guess you can take the nation out of communism, but you can’t take communism out of the nation.”

B. Scream at everyone on the street to chill the hell out because you’re trying to sleep.

C. Go back to bed

D. Start packing your bags.

Correct answer: D. This one’s obvious in theory… this exact situation happened to me.

Just what the insight is here, again no-one knows and it’s not explained in any serious detail; except perhaps that we now recognize that our ‘author’ considers her own Nunchi to be in good standing. Next it’s “The Eight Rules for Nunchi”, a guide for slipping Nunchi into your dating life, and another guide to “Survive the Holidays”

Soon you are expecting the next page to have a Nunchi jigsaw puzzle, followed by a Nunchi colouring page, then a Nunchi advent calendar, a Nunchi collage, a Nunchi stamp collection, and finally a few empty pages for you to fill-in yourself with the beginnings of a Nunchi diary.

The Power of Nunchi is a ‘book’ in desperate search of content, and Euny Hong is an ‘author’ with nothing to say. When she contrasts Nunchi-rich Korea with Nunchi-poor “Western culture” it is with statements like this: “Empathy is valued over understanding”. Confused? I bet you are! Which is the supposed bad side in this split, the empathy or the understanding? Which side is the good side? Aren’t they both fairly positive things? Aren’t they essentially the same? How is it possible to empathise without also having understanding? How can you have understanding of someone without also empathising with them?

But don’t bother looking back at Hong for help with this — she doesn’t know either!

This money-grabbing embarrassment of ink and paper ends with a casual attempt at reflection: “One reason I wrote this book is that many other advice books seem to offer “help” that I don’t consider helpful.” Now with that as her goal, and with the hollow nonsense that she sent away for publication, I challenge anyone not to ask aloud the obvious question: is this not “the hallmark of a Nunchi-deficient person”?

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