The Doc Project

There's a uniquely Korean word for rage and regret. So why had I never heard of it?

Eunice Kim came to Canada from Korea when she was five years old, but had never heard of the term 'han,' sometimes referred to as "Korean rage."

Eunice Kim came across the term 'han' only recently. Were her family keeping it from her?

Last summer, Eunice stumbled upon a Korean word she'd never heard of before —han — often described as an internalized feeling of deep sorrow, resentment, grief, regret and anger. (Submitted by Eunice Kim)

Originally published in May 2019

I'm Korean. Well, Korean-Canadian to be more specific.

I was born in Korea and immigrated here when I was five years old. I can speak the language fluently (albeit clumsily), I can make a mean kimchi stew, and noraebang (Korean karaoke) is my religion.

But last summer, I stumbled upon an article that made me question how Korean I really am.

Written by Euny Hong for the now-defunct publication Lenny Letter, the article, called Kimchi Temper, mentioned a Korean word I'd never heard of before: han (한 / 恨).

Korean rage

It said han is a potent form of Korean rage — a type of anger so severe and all-consuming that some believe you can die from it.

When I dug a little deeper, I was surprised to discover that han is not just a word, but an inherent part of being Korean. Some say it runs in our blood and is embedded in our DNA.

[Han] is often described as an internalized feeling of deep sorrow, resentment, grief, regret and anger.

In fact, it's so Korean that there's no equivalent for it in the English language.

Although han is considered indefinable, it is often described as an internalized feeling of deep sorrow, resentment, grief, regret and anger. Scholars say it's a uniquely Korean characteristic borne out of the country's long history of invasion, oppression and suffering.

The more I read about han, the more confused and, frankly, embarrassed I felt. I couldn't believe it had taken me so long to learn about this concept that supposedly affects all Koreans.

Professor Michael Shin says han is frequently explored in Korean literature, art and film, and is casually brought up in conversation. (Submitted by Michael Shin)
Han in popular culture

According to Michael Shin, a professor of Korean history at the University of Cambridge, han is pervasive in pop culture and everyday life. It's frequently explored in Korean literature, art and film, and is casually brought up in conversation.

"People will mention it… in seemingly sort of mundane ways — a parent talking to a child saying, 'If you don't get into a good college, I will have han,'" he explained.

To Shin, han is a symbol of division in Korea, a painful reminder of the border between the North and South that has separated families for over six decades.

The two Koreas have been separated by the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) since 1953, after signing the Korean War armistice agreement. (Associated Press)

"I tend to define it as a situation where you have this overwhelming traumatic experience that causes you to lose your collective identity," he said.

When I asked Shin if han is intergenerational, he said as long as the peninsula remains divided, Koreans will be able to feel it because they "don't feel quite whole in this divided country."

If han can be passed down through generations and is felt by every Korean, I wondered if my family had it.

Could I have it?

Eunice Kim (bottom right) with her mother and brother, newly arrived in Canada. (Submitted by Eunice Kim)

The Korean-Canadian dream

My family immigrated to Canada in 2000. My father, a long-time broadcast journalist, had a lofty vision of starting a radio station for the Korean-Canadian community with a single goal in mind: to remind immigrants of home.

Only two years after our arrival, he and a team of young producers opened RadioSeoul — the first Korean-language radio station in Canada.

I remember my parents working themselves to the bone to keep their dream alive.

Eunice's father, a long-time broadcast journalist, opened the first Korean-language radio station in Canada in 2002, two years after their family emigrated from Korea. (Submitted by Eunice Kim)

But after five years of dealing with declining ad revenue, the radio station was no longer sustainable. They had no choice but to fold it and move on.

My father pursued new opportunities abroad, first in the U.S., and eventually Korea. My mother stayed with me and my brother in Toronto as long as she could. But after my father had several health scares in Korea, she had to make the difficult decision to go back to care for him. She left my 20-year-old brother and me, aged 14, behind in Canada.

"I felt like I had failed as a mother," she told me.

I had thought han was a kind of over-the-top fiery rage. But to my mother, han is the regret she feels, tinged with sadness, from having to live apart from her children.

After Eunice's father had several health scares in Korea, her mother returned there to take care of him in 2009. (Submitted by Eunice Kim)

A solitary adolescence

After my mother returned to Korea in 2009, I kept myself busy with school, sports, clubs and part-time jobs to keep the loneliness at bay.

But I dreaded the holidays, especially my birthday. I became accustomed to spending them with friends and their families, who welcomed me with open arms and without asking too many questions.

Once her mother left, Eunice kept herself busy with extracurriculars like sports, including rugby (Eunice is on the very left wearing black headband). (Submitted by Eunice Kim)

Conversations with my father about our separation — or feelings in general — are few and far between, even though our family has lived on two different continents for over a decade now.

But when I finally asked my father if he thought I had han, his answer caught me off-guard.

He told me we should've spent more time together and made more memories as a family. He said as the years go by, the sadness and regret I feel from our time apart will eventually turn into my own version of han.

The perfect word

When I spoke to Michael Shin, he said han is a term that expresses the pain and trauma of Korean families divided across the border.

It's liberating to be able to put a name to the emotions I've felt for so long.

Maybe now I finally have a word to describe my own parallel experience — of being separated from my family across continents.

It's liberating to be able to put a name to the emotions I've felt for so long.

The Kim family have lived on two different continents for a decade now. (Submitted by Eunice Kim)

A better way of defining han

My father explained that han is an emotion that words can't capture. You can't feel it by reading someone else's article or essay, but rather by watching films and listening to songs, like Arirang — Korea's unofficial national anthem.

He said it's the perfect symbol of what han means to Koreans. If you listen closely to the lyrics, you can hear a mix of Korean emotions: sorrow, joy, yearning.

Arirang was the first Korean song I ever learned and the only one I still know by heart. As a child, I never really understood what it was about.

But now, maybe I do.

Han in Korean popular culture

5 examples of Korean han in pop culture

4 years ago
Duration 3:09
'Han' is often described as an internalized feeling of deep sorrow, resentment, grief, regret and anger, which is felt by all Koreans. CBC Radio's Eunice Kim lists five examples of han in Korean pop culture.

To listen to Eunice's documentary "Me, Myself and Han," click on the Listen link at the top of the page.

About the Producer 

Eunice Kim is a Toronto-based writer and producer with a penchant for multimedia storytelling. Whether it's through text, visuals or sound, she is always looking for compelling ways to tell diverse stories. She started her career in radio as the inaugural intern on Campus, CBC's first original podcast series featuring raw, intimate portraits of college students. Since then, she's worked as an associate producer on award-winning current affairs programs like The Current to high-impact investigative podcasts like Someone Knows Something and Uncover: Escaping NXIVM.

This documentary was produced with, and edited by, Alison Cook, and made through the Doc Mentorship Program.