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Kim Yuna and the Korean art of suffering

SEOUL, South Korea — Call it the gasp heard round the world.

Olympic fans were aghast when Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova took the figure skating gold medal over South Korean uber-star Kim Yuna. You could almost imagine the collective shock measuring on the Richter scale.

To virtually everyone who wasn’t Russian or a figure skating judge, the Korean heartthrob’s flawless performance clearly outshined that of her Russian rival, who at one point even stumbled. On Saturday, the International Olympic Committee said it received a protest letter from South Korea, and some 2 million people have signed an online petition objecting to the result.

But the outpouring of global emotion pales compared to what South Koreans are enduring.

Back home, a throng of Korean writers have proclaimed that Kim Yuna’s tears have triggered a kind of collective national mourning called “Han.”

Han is a feeling of unresolved sorrow, torment and resignation in the face of injustice. It is culturally unique, unfathomable to outsiders, some Koreans say, although a few scholars believe it has Indian or East Asian roots.

So powerful is this force that medical anthropologists have noted it can be accompanied by dizziness and a weight in the gut. The affliction can be brought about by the death of a loved one or a terrible divorce.

Kim Yuna “is essentially the nation’s daughter,” explains Daniel Tudor, author of Korea: The Impossible Country. “If people think she has been cheated or bullied, then the whole nation has been cheated or bullied.”

“Korea is changing, but there are still plenty of people who feel this way,” he said. “There will be a sense among such people that this is just another example of Korea being pushed around by bigger powers, and in that way, I suppose we can relate it to Han.”

“One of the chief sources of Han is being mistreated by the powerful,” he said.

With its kitschy gadgets and K-pop dance moves, South Korea doesn’t seem from afar like a place where people would wallow in sadness. But Han has strong roots here, helping Koreans make sense of a history of war and suffering at the hands of larger powers, writes Michael Breen in his book The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies.

“The sadness gets so bad in your life that, if you die with too much Han, we believe you will become a ghost,” said Lee Hee-kyeong, a psychiatrist in Gyeonggi province. “This is different from Western psychiatry but it is not entirely unique to Korea. Here, the suffering becomes a part of you, a part of your blood, and there is a big emphasis on the sadness more than Western countries.”

Koreans have endured their share of sorrow. Early in the 20th century, their mountainous peninsula was poor and war-tattered, under vicious Japanese occupation. Beginning in the 1940s came a Cold War division into the communist North and dictatorial South and, starting in 1950, the devastation ofthe Korean War. Even South Korea’s swift industrial build-up in the 1960s and ’70s carried enormous social costs, adding to a sense of helplessness for some.

The cries and wails of traditional Korean music carry the sounds of Han, as do shamanistic rituals called Musok that are still popular today. Still, Han wasn’t identified as a national characteristic until the 1970s, a result of the traumas of the previous century, writes Breen.

Even in the US, Korean American communities have occasionally embraced Han. During the 1992 Los Angeles race riots, Korean migrants felt Han when their family-run shops were burned to the ground and their voices were sidelined to those of whites and blacks, part of the infamous event known to Koreans as “sa-i-gu,” writes the literary scholar Elaine Kim of the University of California at Berkeley.

But any sense of Han, even this one, cannot be avenged, but only overcome with finding joy in the sorrow and embracing it. In an article called “The way to resolve Yuna’s Han,” one Korean writer opines that resolving the emotional knot of Han surrounding Yuna’s loss will require taking on the sadness and becoming content afterward.

Joonhyun Cho contributed reporting.

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