외국사람 or waeguk-saram is usually translated into English as “foreigner.” 외 means “outsider.” We have encountered the syllable 국 (guk) before in country names: 한국 (hanguk – Korea) or 미국 (miguk- America), for example. We also know that 사람 (saram), means “person.”
So literally, 외국사람 means person from another country. That’s a pretty close match to what English-speakers would mean by “foreigner.” However, the term sounds a little rude when used in English. It comes across as xenophobic to label people by what they aren’t instead of by what they are.
“Foreigner” has a different significance for people of Korean descent living outside of Korea. I first became aware of this last year, when I attended a Korean cultural event. It was held at a large, public outdoor venue located in downtown San Francisco. I first heard about it through a group that was scheduled to perform there. Trying to confirm the details, I could not find any additional information about the event in English, not even on the event calendar for the location.
I was thoroughly puzzled by this, until I saw an ad (in Korean, without subtitles) on the local Korean TV station. Odd as it seemed for a high-profile venue smack dab in the middle of a major shopping district/international tourist destination, the event was being promoted only to Korean-speakers.
This impression was confirmed when I arrived at the event. It was emceed entirely in Korean. The one exception was before the women’s drum dance, which was introduced in English as “a favorite of foreigners.” I realized I was being called a foreigner in my own country, by people who most likely were not themselves born in the U.S. This was startling, but not really offensive. If anything, it seemed funny, and a little surreal.
In this post, a European-Australian man married to a Korean-Australian woman describes a similar experience. I think mihansa readers will find the discussion in the comments on his post highly interesting. Among other things, it reveals the difference of perspectives between Koreans living in Korea, and Korean-hyphenates, not to mention across individuals in both groups. It also reminds us of the hazards of translating words solely for literal meaning, without considering the nuances of cultural context.
A point that isn’t raised however, is that both the blogger and I live in countries where citizens of European descent like ourselves are culturally favored. It’s very easy for us to feel secure in our national identity. So easy that we never have to think about it at all.
I doubt the planners of the San Francisco event had any intention of making non-Koreans feel unwelcome. Rather, I think they were trying to reaffirm a cultural identity that is barely acknowledged, much less supported or valued in their new homeland. If anything, creating an event primarily for themselves in such a conspicuous location was a way of saying “We’re here, we’re Korean, get used to it.” When I found myself perceived as a “foreigner” in my own country, I got a taste of what life is like for them every day.
I attended that event because I love Korean traditional dancing. Happily, I got to see lots of it. A few people were surprised when I turned my brunette head around and showed them my non-Asian face. But no one was even slightly unfriendly to me (nor has anyone ever been, at any Korean event I have attended). It was a far more satisfying glimpse of Korean culture than a Korean-focused event at the Asian Art Museum which I attended around the same time. No doubt this was precisely because it was was targeted for an audience much more knowledgeable about Korea.
But even while the emcee was speaking Korean to Koreans, the American melting pot influence was evident. In between the fan dances, sleeve dances and drum dances, the event featured traditional dancers from many other parts of the world.
And the emcee was right about drum dancers. They are my favorite.
Kdrama fans may have noticed that sometimes all the kids in a Korean family, plus their cousins, share the same generational syllable in their names. I just learned what this Korean names convention is called: 돌림자 (doleemja).
I know this because of an illuminating column I discovered on the Ask a Korean blog. The column answers a burning, well, OK, mildly stinging, question I have had for some time, which is about the location of that generational syllable. Sometimes it’s the second syllable of the name, after the family name and before the personal syllable. Sometimes it’s the last syllable, after the personal syllable. Sometimes it’s both ways in the same family!
If you noticed this too, and were wondering, it’s because the position of the generational syllable is alternated in each generation. That does kind of make sense – one more immediate way to distinguish who belongs in which generation. But I was a little blown away to read that the family doesn’t even get to pick the syllable – rather it is chosen by the family’s clan, based on the elemental associations of the father’s name, according to Chinese astrology.
This is the kind of stuff I love finding out about Korea. It makes me realize how many ways there are to do things that I never even thought about, just taking it for granted that everyone does what I do. We may see a little more variety in the US than in most other countries, since we are almost all the descendants of immigrants from many different places. Even so, there is plenty going on in the world that I haven’t seen, or even considered. I find that reassuring, somehow.
The bowl to the right is filled with 떡 (tteok) – dried rice cakes. They are made from rice flour dough that is pounded a lot, then rolled out into long dough snakes which are cut crosswise, or diagonally, like the ones in the picture.
Rice cakes are used to make tteokguk 떡국 (국 = soup ), the New Year’s soup that you eat to grow a year older. I have never made them into actual soup because you have to soak them for 12 hours first, and I am not that patient. Perhaps Koreans use fresh rice cakes that are still moist. I have seen the long white tubes on sale with other fresh Asian pastas in many stores in Chinatown.
Today (yesterday in Korea) begins a 5-day holiday to celebrate the lunar new year (설날). Much like Thanksgiving in the U.S., this is one of those holidays that everyone gets off from work, and most people travel to spend with 가족 (family). The Korean news this morning was all about heavy traffic and extended drive times all over Korea. Along with lots of food, there is an ancestor-honoring ceremony called charye (차례) – you have doubtless seen young people in 한복 bowing to grandparents in dramas many times.
Here’s a fun fact I just learned. Most of the time, Korean lunar new year is the same as lunar new year in other Asian countries, but not always. If the moment of the new moon falls close to midnight, this can cause Korean lunar new year to be a day later than in countries west of Korea in different time zones, such as China and Viet Nam.
Which reminds me, mihansa.net is three years old on Friday. Mihansa.net’s birthday is so close to the lunar new year (which changes each year) that I have not even attempted to calculate its age in Korean years. We’ll just stick to the calendar for this one!
There were three major news stories in Korea today. North Korea fired some test missiles, the former head of the Korean Intelligence Service was sentenced to three years in prison for meddling with the 2012 presidential election, and a woman taking a nap had her hair eaten by her roomba-equivalent, and had to be extracted by four emergency workers.
Guess which story made the 11 p.m. news in the U.S. tonight?
Kajok (가족) is our KDrama word for today, and a very central word to Korean drama (and life) it is. The first syllable, kah, is pronounced like the “co” in “cot.” The second syllable is closer to “joke” than to “jock,” bearing in mind also that the final vowel is barely touched upon (which is why you may see it Romanized as kajog or gajog).
In spite of the importance of kajok to just about every Korean drama ever made, the word itself is not heard all that often. Maybe this is because dramatic conflicts often revolve around a particular person or persons in the 가족.
I am debating whether to include words for different family members in our KDrama words series. There are many helpful webpages for these terms already. They can be a lot more complicated than their English equivalents. For example, you can’t just speak of your “brother” in Korean, as there are different words for older and younger siblings. In addition, the word for a woman’s brother is different from the word for a man’s brother!
Words for other kajok members are similarly specific. Terms vary depending on whether they refer to father’s or mother’s relatives. Birth order can also be a factor. Here’s a pretty inclusive page on some of the distinctions. Notice how long it is!
Korean screenwriters depend heavily on these terms to identify relationships between characters. Korean-speaking audiences learn immediately who characters are when they call each other “big brother,” “father’s sister,” “mother’s mother,” etc.
However, these crucial identifying titles are often dropped from subtitles and replaced with personal names. This leaves non-Korean-speaking viewers totally in the dark about how characters are related to one other. We figure it out eventually, but may have missed many key nuances in dialogue by that time.
To complicate matters even further, unrelated people may address each other using family terms. We see co-workers calling older colleagues with whom they are friendly hyeong/oppa and noona/eonni all the time. It is even trickier when friends call each other by sibling terms, since the informality of their relationships makes it easy to mistake them for actual siblings.
I was extremely confused by this when I first started watching Korean dramas. I assumed (not unreasonably, right?) that a child who called an adult man 아저씨 (uncle) was in fact his niece. Hah, if only it were so simple! In fact, characters frequently call total strangers mother, father, aunt, uncle, grandfather or grandmother. And don’t even get me started on a woman’s use of the word for big brother to address her boyfriend!
So, drama viewers, arm yourself with a comprehensive list of relationship terms like the one linked above. Keep it handy when characters are making their first appearance. Careful listening at the beginning of a drama can save you a lot of confusion later on!
Yeoreum (여름) brings our Koreans seasons series full circle. You’ll remember the ㅕfrom 겨울. The pronunciation is yuh-room (or yaw-room), with a slightly rolled R (여름 is sometimes Romanized as yeoleum).
Korea has monsoon summers, with heavy rain and high humidity. There is nothing comparable in the U.S. For specifics, check out this page on Korean seasons. They claim the 장마 (jangma – rainy season) only lasts a month, but the rainfall charts on this page tell a different story.
I hope you have enjoyed our season miniseries. Korean seasons appear frequently in Korean drama titles, and in all genres of Korean music, from Kpop to folk to trot, and beyond.
This is Thanksgiving week in the U.S., so I’ll try to keep our word selections for the rest of the week seasonal. About 1/2 of mihansa’s readers are in east and southeast Asia. For their benefit, here is what Thanksgiving week in the U.S. is like: Although Thanksgiving Day isn’t until Thursday, travel has already begun, as people pack airports and highways to spend the holiday with families. Most businesses will be closed on Thanksgiving Day, but many people will have the following day day off work, too, so “Black Friday” becomes a day of major sales and intense Christmas shopping. Bad weather, which is common in late November, can complicate matters as everyone returns home.
Bom (봄) is our next Korean season. It is also Romanized as pom, a closer, but less common, English equivalent to the Korean pronunciation. The Korean word for spring rhymes with “dome.”
KDrama likes to associate bom with cherry blossoms and 애인 (ae-een – lovers). However, the trees are controversial in Korea, due to their association with Japan and the Japanese occupation. Cutting down cherry trees planted during that period was at one time symbolic of taking back Korea. Planting cherry species that are native to Korea has become something of a compromise. You will notice that words for other spring flowers appear on this list of Korean words associated with spring, but no cherry blossoms.
Even less welcome in spring are storms of yellow sand (황사 – hwangsa). These storms blow in from deserts of northern China and Mongolia, picking up a heavy load of toxic pollutants along the way. When inhaled, the dust can be seriously injurious to health. If you see a street scene with pedestrians wearing particle masks during bom, that is probably the reason.
Note ㅁ, the M-ish letter in Korean. In small type or handwriting, this letter can be difficult to distinguish from ㅇ, which we discussed yesterday. Watch for squared corners.
Kyeoul (겨울), winter is our KDrama word for today. Does that string of vowels look familiar? You have seen it before in the name of South Korea’s capital and largest city, Seoul (서울).
You’ll see that the second letter is similar but different in these two words. The ㅓ in Seoul has only one left-facing flag on the vertical, while the ㅕin kyeoul has two. A second flag on a vowel, whether on a horizontal or vertical bar, gives it a Y sound at the beginning. So ㅓ (in Seoul) is pronounced uh or aw, while ㅕ(in kyeoul) is pronounced yuh or yaw. Many Korean vowels have these two forms, which are considered to be two separate letters.
Moving on to the second syllable, in both words, it begins with ㅜ, the “oo” U-letter we talked about in the last post. Kyeoul is pronounced kyuh-ool or kyaw-ool, while Seoul is pronounced suh-ool or saw-ool (NOT “sole,” as most Americans pronounce it). Even though both words have two syllables, the syllables are blended together rather than enunciated separately, so it sounds more like a syllable-and-a-half. You can hear the pronunciation for kyeoul and many other winter-related words on this page.
But wait, you may be thinking. The second syllable doesn’t begin with ㅜ, it begins with ㅇ. Well, yes and no. ㅇ has a dual nature. In theory, Korean syllables must begin with a consonant. When they don’t, ㅇ stands in for the consonant, as a placeholder with no sound. At the end of a syllable, however, ㅇ has an “ng” sound.
Have you learned Hangeul yet? You may have some free time next week, so check out these games: