“Our husband is also a teacher,” my co-worker told me as she noisily slurped her soup. She was seated beside another colleague, who was slurping hers, too.
I was confused. Had I misheard her? Were these women married to the same person?
“She’s talking about her husband,” the second co-worker clarified, perhaps noticing my blank stare. “In Korea, we often say ‘our’ or ‘we’ instead of ‘my’ or ‘I’.”
The three of us were in the cramped staff lunchroom of my new workplace, Mae-hyang Girls’ Middle School, getting to know each other between the fourth and fifth periods. Fumbling to take a bite of kimchi, I was struggling to get a grip on my slippery metal chopsticks – and, it seemed, on the Korean language.
It was my first week in Suwon, South Korea, working as an English language teacher. I was fresh out of university from the US state of Wisconsin, on my first international job contract and impossibly excited. I didn’t know it at the time, but South Korea would be my home for the next four years.
Throughout those years, this curious ‘our’ or ‘we’ – in Korean, ‘uri’ – cropped up again and again. Out of all the words explained to me, it was the one to make the biggest impression and leave the deepest, most enduring mark. Because, as it turned out, uri wasn’t a mere grammar point, it was a cultural canon. It captured the very essence of a nation.
“Korean people use ‘uri’ when something is shared by a group or community, or when many members in a group or community possess the same or similar kind of thing,” Beom Lee, a Korean language professor at Columbia University, told me in an interview. “[It’s] based on our collectivist culture.”
South Korea’s communal values are tied to its compact size, ethnically homogenous population and ardent nationalism. Here, a house – even one you pay for – is not yours; it’s ours. Likewise, my company is our company, my school is our school and my family is our family. Just because I might own or belong to something individually doesn’t mean others do not have a similar experience of ownership or belonging. To say ‘my’ is almost egocentric.
“Korean people always use uri nara (our country) instead of nae nara (my country). ‘Nae nara’ sounds weird. It sounds like they own the country,” Lee said. “Nae anae (my wife) sounds like he is the only person who has a wife in Korea.”
Above all, the country’s cultural collectivism is a testament to its long history of Confucianism. While South Korea has outgrown its dynasty-era, class-based hierarchy, it holds onto its Confucian ethics that dictate individuals should approach social contexts – from ordering food and drinks with friends to riding public transport with strangers – with the group in mind. In group networks, the ‘we’ is the collective Korean self, according to Boston University cultural studies professor Hee-an Choi, and it’s indispensable to the ‘I’.
“There is no clear boundary between the word ‘I’ and the word ‘we’,” Choi writes in her book A Postcolonial Self. “As the usage of the words ‘we’ and ‘I’ are often interchangeable, so too is the identity of the ‘we’ often interchangeable with the identity of the ‘I.’ The meanings of ‘we’ and ‘I’ are negotiable not only in colloquial Korean usage but also in the consciousness and unconsciousness of Korean minds.”
Read more: BBC