News & Opinion | November 29, 2021 2:17 pm

South Koreans Are Now Paying to Sit in Places With Absolute Silence

The trend is called "hitting mung." It's actually a pretty good idea.

hitting mung south korea
Silence and solitude come at a premium these days.
Jaida Stewart/Unsplash

There’s a popular trend in Japan called rui-katsu, where groups of adults gather in public places in the hopes of letting out a good cry. Why? Because crying is good for you, and as a nation, Japan often ranks near the bottom in tears shed. The idea is to push back against the country’s stoic base setting and let the emotions flow.

Recently, South Korea has rolled out a somewhat similar concept, colloquially referred to as “hitting mung.” But while rui-katsu is geared towards feeling a lot of something, in order to hit mung one doesn’t have to feel anything at all. “Mung,” in fact, refers to a state of blankness. South Korean adults are now showing up to public places — designated rooms in forest-facing cafes, specifically — to completely unplug from their days.

No phones are allowed. No children, pets or shoes either. Customers are supplied with tea, some writing utensils and parchment if they’re so inclined, along with some some sort of view: trees, a pond, burning logs, or in some cases, a short video depicting a flight through “fluffy clouds.”

Back in 2017, a prominent South Korean novelist wrote an op-ed for The New York Times, pointing out that his country had “the highest suicide rate in the industrialized world for eight consecutive years.” There are various conjectures for how the problem got so bad (one of which hinges on a regional suspicion of psychotherapy), but many point out the speed with which South Korea scaled its economy in the decades following WWII. It transformed itself into a world power, and younger generations feel a crushing duty to continue that capitalist success.

As a piece in the Berkeley Political Review detailed a few years ago, South Korea is now typified by “high-stress professional and educational environments, in which it is customary to work or study long hours into the night.” COVID-19 only brought more chaos to this potent cocktail. According to a survey published in February of this year, 73% of the country reported feeling even more stressed as a result of the pandemic.

Now, as the pandemic (sort of) scales down, South Koreans are left picking up the pieces of their lives. Stuck between conflicting sensations of loneliness and a longing for solitude, against the backdrop of work, they’re embracing the few places that are reminding them to slow down.

It might seem gimmicky — why does someone have to visit a place like Green Lab, a cafe abutting Seoul Forest, for a moment of silence? Can’t you just meditate for a bit at home? That physical separation can work wonders, though. Think about the struggle of working from home, or working out from home. The office and gym represent a place to achieve highly specific goals. In this case, it’s hitting mung. Washing oneself in absolutely nothing, then leaving feeling recharged and ready for the other million things you have to do in a week.

To be clear, this trend hasn’t gone fully mainstream yet. There are only a handful of spaces offering the service throughout South Korea. In the States, you’d only find them unofficially (think “no talking” cabins in trains). But they’re worth seeking out — or even creating, if you can — if only to give yourself a 20-minute respite from the unceasing demands of living in the 2020s.