Despite varied interpretations, this chapter deals with Han affect through the trope of a palimpsest, where multiple meanings and interpretations are infused with agentive, corporeal, symbolic and performative workings of social and cultural memory. Paradoxically however, it is “not really” Han that drives them to social demonstrations or protests, but the emotions accumulated through Han. Moreover, Han, or at least the meaning of Han whether personally claimed or collectively felt, is embodied by a sense of belonging at times we suffer (personal communication, July 12; 2019).
Remnants of past lived experiences in the ordinary of daily life, mutual feelings of exclusion, anger, sorrow, shame build up by a system of ongoing corruption and historical injustice as it highlights a continuity of the past, a question that goes beyond whether or not “‘democracy’ really works”. Nevertheless it is the association with Han as a felt experience that highlights South Korea’s changed social fiber:
I witnessed the anger, shame, sorrow of our people….for whatever reason it might have been, for me this moment made me realize the meaning of Han.
This country has been messed up for too many years…. Gwanghwamun…..words can’t describe how I felt that time… blurting out whatever we thought went wrong in this country, whatever injustice we had witnessed. Personally I felt anguish too, because of Sewol . The disappointment, the ragewe were free to let them all out….People truly come together when we suffer. I think that’s probably why I…well, my friends and I went.
You know we have a name for that right…it’s called Han. It is like there is a lot of inequality and misery. At some point people just need to transcend a sadness to go beyond that. (Personal conversation, Kim, Y.B. April 20, 2019
Han indeed works as a palimpsestic affect that is bound by or constituted of an embodied dynamic of remembrance and forgetting, albeit exactly due to the fact that it metaphorically becomes an expression of multifaceted emotions. Nonetheless, the vocality Han-narratives of shame and sorrow within the political and socio-cultural spectrum of everyday life in South Korea are contemplating an invisible itness, that has etched itself onto one’s heart and soul. It did and does and probably will affect people in ways, and thus makes people do individual actions at times collective experiences become too much to bear. I have mentioned before that Han as an affect reflects a certain felt experience of sorrow, shame that is remembered collectively, but internalized individually. As such, I argue Han is agentive, perfomative, corporeal and symbolic.
On pragmatic level, and to a certain extent, to avoid overextension on collective and personal Han, or at least how the meaning of Han has been consolidated, I elaborate its role on the politics of belonging, social suffering and intimacy exactly because Han narratives evoke both a personal and a collective sense of ‘identity’. As such, Han embodies how people experience and negotiate their own identity vis-?-vis socio-political movements, further exacerbated due to, what seems the widening gap between have and have not’s (Holsbeek, 2018; Holsbeek, 2019a).
In this, I reference to Huyssen who although from a different perspective stated that memories are “called upon to provide a bulwark against obsolescence and disappearance and to counter a deep anxiety about a speed of change and the ever-shrinking horizons of time and space (Huyssen, 2003; 22). As such, Han as an affect has an agentive potency because it urges them to participate in something that has affected them on daily basis. Yet Han in a similar vein works through the body, because it makes them feel like they have to do something about it, in terms postulated by Huyssen, “we are pushed into a global future that does not inspire confidence, the stronger we feel the desire to slow down” (Huyssen, 2003; 25). The interviews I conducted highlights a certain anxiety, sorrow and shame about what has been done, but also about what will become. Thus, on a general level one can interpret Han theoretically as it emanates modes of painful personal, collective and shared experiences. Yet from a different perspective, being intrigued by what my interlocutors and informants mean with modes of collectively remembering and internalizing individually, I turn my attention to Francesca Polletta and James M. Jasper who stated that: ” collective identity as an individuals cognitive, moral, and emotional connection” aligns the individual at least symbolically “with a broader community, category, practice, or institution” (Polletta & Jasper, 2001; 285).
As Kim elucidates in her article that dealing with “Korean Han and the Postcolonial Afterlives of ”The Beauty of Sorrow””, that scholars should move beyond the usual interpretations and discussions of Han being “a social or colonial construct”, “as a collective feeling of unresolved resentment, pain, grief, and anger that runs in the blood of all Koreans” (Kim, 2017; 253). Although I agree with Kim in a similar vein, that Han more or less goes beyond something that constitutes a sense of biologically shared Koreanness. Han for most of my younger informants however, interconnects with a cruel haunting, caused by shared political and cultural experiences and simultaneously transgenerationally accumulated issues of colonialism, war and authoritarian political leaders. Han is surely deeply bound by collective identity, yet more in terms of searching of a sense of belonging, as something that mobilizes people toward social movement and makes them feel new forms of intimacy within a politically aware community at times of utter division influenced by the workings of social memory. Although Han has multiple meanings, it is its complexity in praxis that urges the re-deployment of symbols, to re-negotiate a sense of self and subjectivity in the 21st century. Similarly, As political theorist and cultural commentator Daniel Serge eloquently puts it, Han deals with a deep “sense of pain”, an unresolved “longing lodged in the heart of Korea’s society” (Serge, 2014).
The four individuals I introduce in this section of the paper organized themselves during the candlelit vigils of 2016 and 2017 at Kwanghwamun square, whether or not based on political awareness or not, they describe their personal attachment to the months of protest in various ways. I met sisters Shin S.Y and Shin H.W., and university students Kim Y.W. and Shim H.K. at one of Ikseon-dong’s Hanok Village’s many coffee shops. As they knew the complex nature of this thesis, I recollect how S.Y. with a wry smile said: “let’s get coffee first, then fill our bellies and then drink wine”. S.Y., being the eldest of the group, was the most talkative during our conversations, immediately giving off a vibe of openness. As soon as we sat down at the table, it was S.Y. passionately told me about her own uncertainties. S.Y. graduated a few years ago from one of Seoul’s bigger universities, but was facing difficulties landing a stable job. As a result of this and because she needed to make a living, she was forced to move back into her parental home in Daegu. Unlike her sister, who had immediately landed a good job in Seoul, S.Y. felt that she could not talk about her issue. She now works for a Daegu-based company, but still vividly remembers those days filled with shame and sadness. The afternoon the five of us spoke, was filled with paradoxical and often complex stories. As it appeared to me, ‘being filled with shame and sadness’ implied her personal attachment to Han that morphed itself into bigger issues. She began with her personal story, but ended up connecting it to bigger issues Korea’s society is faced with these days: the content of the memories they shared were deeply entwined with a sense of belonging while participating in Seoul’s candlelight vigil of 2016-2017.
“[…] You need to understand, in Korea, many of my age are career-driven, we all want the best positions and live happily. But it’s not really like we like that …it’s because of pressure. Pressure to be or become the best. I have never complained about this, because it’s not done…you see,…[we]… all have that feeling, When I was studying the competition was hard,…but I guess it’s hard too for the others… It’s not that I alone face this….we all do… each and every one of us. At times I felt so sad…that I could not explain what it is…I felt excluded from something I studied hard for, you know? I felt like I didn’t do enough. You asked me about Han right? …well Han for me is this personal thing, it is about desperation I personally had..but I can imagine that others would see Han differently… I grew up already being accustomed to Han (giggles)… you see we learn it from our parents, from movies, from school, from readings books or from listening to a certain type of music…. that’s what makes it more complicated to understand. It is more than a sense of grief or a hollow feeling…Well I think mainly about grief and sorrow but it’s also about transcending those feelings. So it’s like a mix….let me put it this way…my grandparents generation would refer to Han when they remember Japan ….you know about Japan right? I don’t think I can imagine what happened then, but the feel of it that has been termed Han. Han is what makes all of us experience something…a shared moment of sorrow..like there are some who witnessed war…it’s about that hardship, of loosing someone…those memories of sadness stick with you….something that is experienced together, or personally witnessed…. hmmm you need to watch S?p’y?nje if you want to understand what Han feels like. That is to say, some relate to it, some don’t…. but those who do, there are no words for it to describe how it feels…I know one thing though…. Han is applicable to all generations…despite of what the old say (loud laughter) (Personal communication, Shin, S.Y. April, 2019)
Maybe it was the atmosphere, or the mutual feeling that all of us could connect to it, or maybe it was just my own imagination at that specific time, but, as I notice that H.W. and Y.W. looked at each other doubtfully, I asked whether or not they agree with S.Y.’s vision, and if not, if they would be willing to share their opinion. Another reason for delving deeper, is because I was intrigued by her statement “despite of what the old says” Although H.W., working and living in Seoul for the past four years, rather seemed reluctant to talk about it, after hearing her sisters’ story she decided to talk about her own Han-experiences.
I agree there is something shared through Han….but I don’t know if it’s a feeling or a reality. When I think about Han for me..I can’t even express what it means…Han can be applied to a deep longing for something lost. For some Han might imply sadness yes, or maybe nostalgia? For me it means something totally different.. Han makes people go insane at times of huge events….as I remember it are these events that cause Han to many people. … some people also gather because of Han, though not all will… I did however… because I too felt suppressed by something I couldn’t tolerate anymore. As a young person people told me to “study hard for a good life”…but as I look around me.. man, it’s not what it appears to be. For example…the shared sorrow my sister refers too, well…. it is applicable to a lot of events. I think these days…well….there is the Sewol ferry incident…did you know there is a rumor that the parents of those children lost all their hair….and some of them got cancer too? …. because of grief of losing their child…it is insufferable. … because it happened at a time politics were not good…. the whole country was suffering from this…Maybe Han is what urges people to social movement, because Han makes us feel a certain way?[ …] (Personal communication with Shin H.W., April 2019)
In similar vein, when the conversation turned to hardship, politics and recent social demonstrations, most of my informants would explain that their utter disappointment in an unfair system, anger, and feeling a sense of shame or sorrow had led them to participate in demonstrations. From “I am ashamed because” “I voted for her” to “It has led me to participate in the demonstrations”, it certainly evokes the image of Han being agentive, performative and symbolic. This part of the thesis was especially difficult since many of my informants did not directly referred to it as Han, rather, they used very specific words such as “haunting”, “burden in the heart”, “intimately connected at times of hardship”. Therefore, I argue that it’s exactly because of its manifold interpretability, these exact same multiple meanings are noticeably alluding to how semantic ‘values’ of meaning can be transmogrified. Nevertheless, their statements were utterly poetic at times they explained their own attachments to participating in social demonstrations.