Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 24, 2020

My summer in Korean proverbs

By JAE CHOI | September 26, 2020

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COURTESY OF JAE CHOI Choi spent many summer nights gardening with his mother, who taught him several Korean proverbs.

Each night around 8:00 p.m. this past summer, I would walk out into the backyard with my mom to water the plants in our garden. I usually started around the squash plants and then worked my way over to the lavender and rosemary before misting the flowers at the right edge of the bed. This was often my favorite part of the day. There is something ineffably comforting about providing nourishment to flowers and herbs after long hours of studying and running errands. 

This garden is still very young. I helped my mom start the garden in the backyard after I returned home in the spring, using old shovels and trowels that hadn’t seen the light of day in years. At the tail end of April, we set about the arduous task of planning out the perimeter of the bed, preparing the soil and planting seeds. Although the nutrient-poor and clay-laden north Texas soil isn’t exactly ideal for growth, flower buds and saplings still somehow managed to emerge from the ground. As we revisited the garden day by day, we watched the buds grow more and more.

In many ways, my evenings in the garden were just as instructive as they were therapeutic, helping me come to grips with much of the uncertainty that clouded my otherwise sunny summer months in Dallas. While we watered the plants, my mom would sometimes sprinkle a Korean proverb or two into our conversations, like a breath of fresh air that you didn’t quite know that you needed, or would need.

A handful really stuck with me. One of the first she taught me was il-hui il-bi, which roughly means that joy and sorrow follow each other closely, usually in rapid, unpredictable alternation. Sometimes, I would think about this when plants occasionally died and we would have to remove the roots. It was disheartening to see them begin to wilt and fail to recover, despite the fact that so many others around them flourished or were beginning to flourish.

Connected to this proverb is another one she taught me, jung-yong eul jikyeo-ra, which states that the key to happiness is moderation in all things, achieved through cultivating an attitude of balance in action and thought. Another memorable one was Oeyunaegang, which is based on the idea that you have an inner strength that persists despite outer weakness. 

Such were my days spent in quarantine at home this summer: studying for the MCAT, running errands and working on various projects during the day, watering the garden and learning new proverbs by night. 

But the summer months weren’t exactly tranquil for me, and they certainly weren’t tranquil for a lot of other people either. As I watched cases proliferate throughout the country, questions of “when will I see my friends again?” or “when will this pandemic blow over?” slowly began turning into questions starting with “will.” And as I followed the news reports that emerged around the end of May, these feelings of uncertainty mingled with feelings of futility and horror. 

Keeping myself occupied with activities to fill the temporal crater left by the cancellation of my summer internship had its own challenges. Again, questions surfaced: “will my MCAT be cancelled?” “Am I using my time wisely?” “How many times can I walk around the park until I lose my mind?”

A lot of days, it was hard for me to stay optimistic. 

But in the midst of these uncertainties, the proverbs from the garden seemed to take on new significance. 

I often found myself thinking about what it meant to cultivate balance in action and thought, or what it meant to be at peace with the unknown while moving forward. Is it possible to find joy in a journey with no clear destination? It was strange how a small set of symbols could generate so many questions and interpretations.

Perhaps one productive way of thinking about these proverbs was finding ways in which they worked together. If il-hui il-bi posits that life is mercurial and unpredictable, maybe jung-yong eul jikyeo-ra suggests a way forward — balancing how we think and act becomes a way to navigate successfully into an unknown future. It’s finding ways to balance moments of stillness with moments of active striving, all the while avoiding an excess of either. 

In a broader sense, I think it’s also about finding a happy medium between working through things we believe we can change and being at peace with things that we can’t. And maybe a proverb like Oeyunaegang teaches us that we must place confidence in our latent faculties and believe that we’re capable of meeting those challenges that come our way. 

But I think it’s also important to be kind and patient with ourselves as we try to achieve this sense of balance, and not get too discouraged if we struggle and fail. As an admitted workaholic, it’s sometimes hard for me to justify taking breaks. So this summer, I tried to prioritize more time off by painting and waxing furniture, watching TV or reading in the evenings. 

Of course, spending time in the garden was also part of that. Balancing work with rest was a challenging process of getting to know how my body processes stress and noticing when I was pushing myself too far, but it made me happier. I also tried to get into the habit of not stressing as much over how the school year was going to turn out or whether I would see my friends again. 

Instead, I told myself that I would try my best regardless of whether school was in-person or not and that there were plenty of ways to continue hanging with friends without seeing them physically. In this view, happiness becomes a consistent habit that we must practice — a well-oiled system of weights and measures lubricated by habit. It’s a kind of stunted forward motion.

I think the garden is a good illustration of these principles. You’re never completely sure which plants will grow and which plants will perish. But through daily habits of pulling weeds and also spending quiet moments in the evening standing by, sprinkling water over the bed, some buds are bound to break through the soil. 

Finding balance is something that I’m definitely still working on, and I think it will only come to play a more important role as this unusual semester continues rolling forward. But it’s comforting to think that happiness doesn’t have to be some arbitrary destination in the future; it’s available to us in the everyday, through active habits and patient persistence. 

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