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[Kim Seong-kon] Koreans never rest but work and play

In his essay, “Work and Play,” George Santayana discusses the Western concept of work and play. He writes, “We may call everything play which is useless activity, exercise that springs from the physiological impulse to discharge the energy which the exigencies of life have not called out. Work will then be all action that is necessary or useful for life.” Although he proposes the importance of play at the end, Santayana goes on nonetheless: “Play, in this sense, is a sign of imperfect adaptation. It is proper to childhood, when the body and mind are not yet fit to cope with the environment, but it is unseemly in manhood and pitiable in old age. ... Play is thus essentially frivolous.” 

In Western society, indeed, work always overrides and precedes play. For example, the English maxim, “Business before pleasure,” implies that work is more important than play. In the West, indeed, the term “play” is a disparaging word in contrast to the noble word, “work,” to which Westerners attach moral value. In Western eyes, the relationship between work and play, therefore, is like the relationship between reason and emotion in many respects.

Koreans, however, do not attach any stigma to the word “play.” In Korean society, play is as equally important as work. For Koreans, even work can be considered play, dramatically increasing efficiency during work. If we are inspired by the spirit of play called “shinbaram,” for example, we can maximize our energy to complete our work incredibly fast. Perhaps that is why we have so many campaigns in our workplace and society, because campaigns imbue in us a community spirit that inspires us to do our jobs more efficiently. And perhaps that is why there are so many workaholics in Korea, who enjoy working day and night, and even on the weekends, for they think work is play.

Even when work is distinguished from play, Koreans think that they are supposed to play, not rest, when not working. That is why the antonym of “work” in the Korean language is “play,” not “rest.” Indeed, Koreans call holidays “no-neun-nal (play day),” instead of “shi-neun-nal (rest day).” Currently in Korea, Saturday is a holiday for government offices, but secondary schools and private companies consider every other Saturday a holiday. So Koreans often ask, “Is today ‘ilto’ (work Saturday) or ‘nolto’ (play Saturday)?” calling the opposite of work day “play day,” not “rest day” or “holiday.” Koreans tend to identify “rest” with “play,” hence, they do not need to literally rest while not working; they rest while playing games or watching sports. When you ask a jobless Korean, “What do you do?” he will also reply, “Nolgo isseoyo (I’m playing now), instead of “I am out of work.”

Santayana suggests that “play” can be associated with immature childhood. It is undeniable that Koreans, too, often act childishly and emotionally when it comes to “play,” such as during a soccer or baseball game. For example, during the Olympic Games and the World Cup, which were held in Korea in 1988 and 2002 respectively, ultra-nationalism spread to every nook and cranny of the country, and as a result, every Korean seemed to have become a patriot. Even Korean poets, who were supposed to be aloof from such national frenzy, published a book of poems celebrating the Korean soccer team which reached fourth place in the 2002 World Cup.

Traditionally, the Korean people gravitate toward public gatherings to play together. In fact, many traditional Korean games require a stage, a group of players and a cheering crowd: yunnori, hwatu, sireum, to name but a few. The stage or playground is called “pan.” And Koreans always hate those who “break or overthrow the pan” and thus spoil the mood. Koreans call such people “mat removers,” for they spoil the mood by removing the mat on which people play together in an exhilarating spirit.

To Koreans, mobile phones and computers also belong in the domain of “play,” just like soccer or baseball games. Thus Koreans are enormously fond of playing with such electronic gadgets. As a result, Korea has become a leading developer of mobile phones, computer games and internet resources. Koreans are not only good at cheering during a soccer game, but also extremely good at multiplayer Internet games. Naturally, Koreans do not like to play solitary games as much on machines like the Nintendo Wii or Playstation 3, which usually require only one or two players.

Koreans never seem to rest, for they only work and play. To most Koreans, to rest is to play, and sometimes to work is to play. That may be the reason why Koreans are so diligent and seem to enjoy working. Unlike Westerners who exit their cubicles at five o’clock sharp to return to home, Korean workers are willing to work into the evening, as long as it is fun and pleasurable. Perhaps Koreans should consider rewriting the English maxims to: “Business can be a pleasure” or even “Pleasure before business.”

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is president of the Association of Korean University Presses. ― Ed.
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