This Reuters photo of Korean demonstrators borrowing “not my president” from American protestors really caught my eye. Of course, since this is Korea, it comes out as oori (our) President. The sign on the left has a photo of President Park Geun Hye riding piggyback on someone. I assume this is her notorious buddy Choi Soon Sil, who wears sunglasses a lot.
I was curious about the Hangeul words on the sign on the right, so I looked them up. Google persisted in translating the first word, 혼이 as “honey.” This annoyed me, since it is wrong in both meaning and pronunciation. 혼 (Romanized “hon”) is pronounced hone (rhymes with phone), not hun.
Luckily, we already know the meaning of 혼 (soul or spirit) from the title of Lee Seo Jin’s 2009 drama by that name. 이 is a subject marking particle. If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry about it. It’s not that significant in a two-word phrase.
The really interesting word is 비정상, which translates as “abnormal,” or has the alternate meaning of “not the summit.” I confirmed these two meanings in several sources. This post to a language blog by a Korean English-learner was especially helpful. Check out the comments.
“Not the Summit”
Even with the help of aforementioned comments, I wasn’t sure I understood the significance of “not the summit.” Then it occurred to me to look up 정상 by itself. It means summit. So apparently 비 has a similar function to 안, which can mean “not” when added to the beginning of a word. Therefore, 비정상 literally means not the top or summit.
But what is the implication of top/summit in Korean? In English, “not the top” might imply that something was unimportant or mediocre. I can’t assume Koreans draw the same association between height and valuableness, though it is a common one in hierarchical societies. In any case, I feel fairly confident that the choice of a word with dual meanings is deliberate. Koreans are big on word play. But we are forgetting 혼, and we shouldn’t. As a phrase, 혼이 비정상 says something like “abnormal (and inferior) spirit.”
If you follow the posts on my Facebook page, you know the current scandal surrounding Park Geun Hye is tied to the recent history of native shamanistic religion in Korea. Such religions were violently suppressed (by Park Geun Hye’s father, among others) in the mid-20th century. Thousands of unique shrines across the country were destroyed, an irretrievable loss.
21st century Korea seems ambivalent about shamanism. It is discounted as superstition unsuited to a modern society. However, the unique Koreanness of it is attracting new attention. Buddhism, Confucianism and Christianity dominate Korean spiritual and moral life. None of them are native to Korea.
But they can’t really have it both ways with Park Geun Hye. If association with shamanism erodes her credibility, doesn’t that also denigrate traditional Korean spirituality?
Korean Demonstrators, Broken Promises and Bruised Kibun
It has puzzled me that tens of thousands of Korean protestors are flooding the streets (in very cold weather) over Park’s latest scandal. Seeking feedback from a non-political friend doesn’t seem that scandalous to me. Blackmailing chaebols into making donations is certainly illegal, but the money went to culture and sports nonprofits, not slush funds. There have been numerous other scandals in Park’s administration to date that were far more serious. For example, the Sewol ferry disaster and manipulation of government-supported TV networks, to name just a couple.
Then I started to wonder who these Korean demonstrators were. Are they opposition party members who voted against Park, or are they the people who elected her? If they are the people who put her in office, the intensity of the reaction suddenly makes more sense. If you know a little about kibun, that is. Broken presidential promises may reflect far more personally on a politician’s supporters in Korea than in the U.S. When Park fails, that failure reflects poorly on them.
Kibun is a complex, and very important factor in Korean life, which is why I haven’t written about it. It doesn’t have a direct western parallel, and I wouldn’t want to get it wrong. If you never heard of kibun before, the beginning of this article covers the basics, and may shed some light on Park’s 5% popularity rating.
미안해요 dear readers, but a wonky update to my mobile site plugin has necessitated switching to another mobile solution until they get the glitches worked out. The temporary mobile site has a very different color scheme, but it gets the job done. Hopefully, everything will be back to normal soon.
Rape in Korea has become a headline topic recently, though this has received little attention in the American press. In late May, a teacher in a remote island village was eating alone at a restaurant. Fathers of her students pressured her into joining them (culturally impossible to refuse), and drinking with them (which she repeatedly but unsuccessfully attempted to decline). When she was too drunk to leave the restaurant on her own, they drove her home and gang-raped her.
Although women are not particularly respected in Korea, teachers are, so there was public outcry over this. Furthermore, this teacher was much younger than the rapists (which made it even more culturally impossible for her to avoid them), who conspired after the fact to destroy evidence. The Ministry of Education was called upon to better protect teachers.
The Ministry’s initial response was to float a policy of not sending female teachers to remote areas. Since 75% of Korean teachers are women, that isn’t practical. More to the point, as Yang Lee Hyun-kyung of the Korean Women’s Association United put it:
How can not sending women to so-called dangerous places be the answer to preventing such crimes against women? What the government is supposed to do is to make a safe environment for women and minorities in society.
Anywhere in Korea can be a “dangerous place” for women and girls. For example, Gyeonggi province. In March, a 14-year-old boy lured a 12-year-old schoolmate to a cheap room where he fed her alcohol, and, along with 5 of his friends, gang-raped her.
And then there was Airdre Mattner, an Australian tourist, whose drink was drugged while she was on a pub crawl in Seoul last year. A group of men then abducted her from her group, took her by taxi to a cheap hotel, and raped her. When police finally acted under international pressure, they only prosecuted her rapists for “sexual harassment,” because “she was unconscious and therefore cannot prove she didn’t consent.” Excuse me??!!! Unconsciousness isn’t proof enough?!!
Every country has cultural myths that are accepted as unquestionable truths, even though they sound ludicrous to outsiders. Korea is no exception. Meet fan death (선풍기 – electric fan, 사망설 – death). According to this widespread Korean belief, spending the night in a closed room with a fan blowing on you can be fatal.
People from anywhere else will never have heard of this notion. Could it possibly be true, yet somehow every other country in the world has overlooked it? Korea does have an extreme and somewhat atypical climate that encompasses both ultra-humid monsoon summers and snowy winters.
Experts say the popular explanations for death by fan are not medically founded. The Ask a Korean blog makes a valiant argument on behalf of fans as a contributing factor to deaths under highly specific and theoretical conditions. However, I’m going with snopes and Wikipedia on this one: There is no scientific basis for fan death.
What makes fan death more interesting than other cultural myths is that it’s regarded as factual by Korean fan manufacturers, news media and even government agencies. Korean fans bear warning labels, urging users to crack a window at bedtime. They are equipped with sleep timers, a safety precaution in case you forget. Fatalities with no other obvious cause are reported in the news in utter seriousness as death by fan. MORE…
There’s an interesting fringe benefit to my exploration of Korean culture. It often makes me more conscious of things about my own culture that I never really thought about before.
I suppose this happens to anyone upon contact with an unfamiliar culture, but I suspect the effect is more pronounced for Americans. We have few close neighbors, and one of the largest is culturally very similar to us. We are rarely reminded of the thousands of daily ways another culture can be different from our own.
The experience of suddenly noticing what was always right under my nose hit me all over again when I discovered YouTube artist KoreanBilly. He has made a series of videos contrasting (among other things) the differences between English dialects in different countries. Of course native English speakers are aware that English is spoken differently in other places. I can tell Australian English from British English. But if you asked me to name the differences, how many could I identify?
Probably not as many as KoreanBilly. Perhaps because ALL versions of English are foreign (literally) to him, he has to get very specific in order to reproduce them. Check out this entertaining video, in which he compares American English and English English, displaying an impressively fluent accent in both. Even though I am a native American English speaker, I learned a lot from it!
If you are wondering about KoreanBilly, he did not grow up in the UK. On the contrary (or TO the contrary, as the Brits would say) Billy has lived in Korea all of his life, except for 6 months in England. You can learn more about him in this bio video on his Facebook page.
Remember that poll I posted when the Marriage Contract plot and casting was first announced?
As you can probably tell, I am a bit cynical about plots that capitalize on extreme situations. However, Marriage Contract has earned honestly every tear and smile it has wrung from me, and there have been plenty of both.
With only 3 episodes left, it’s time to revisit the poll.
How Will They Save Her?
MISDIAGNOSIS. She was never sick in the first place.
SPONTANEOUS RECOVERY. It’s a miracle! Love conquers all!
A DONOR APPEARS. A relative she never knew she had!
THEY WON’T. But we’re OK with it, because she becomes a sympathetic ghost watching over her family.
He makes enough money to send her to Duke University for the new treatment that has cured people with terminal brain cancer.
We can throw out the misdiagnosis option. That ship has sailed.
Ditto for the donor solution. Stop laughing at me – how could I know the affected organ was her brain?! The initial announcements weren’t that specific. And even so, if this was a horror drama… But since it’s melodrama, I think brain transplants are out.
As for resolution number 4, 절대! Don’t ever bring that up again.
Most interesting is the final option on the poll, which was not one of my originals, but was added by a viewer. That’s my favorite, though I wouldn’t say no to a spontaneous remission either.
Going to America is a solution for so many things in Kdrama that it’s an awful cliche, but Marriage Contract has successfully overridden many cliches already. I’m sure they could make it stick. And LSJ just spoke English in episode 11, so there you go.
Here’s some old news that is new – and surprising – to me. Japanese megacorporation SoftBank added DramaFever to its lengthy acquisitions roster in 2014. If DF’s Korean-American co-founders noted the inconsistency (not to mention irony) of handing over the promotion of Hallyu to a Japanese company, they didn’t let it get in the way of their $100 million payday. Revenue dropped after the sale, and 16 months later, SoftBank passed DramaFever on to Warner Brothers at a loss.
But wait – there’s more. Before it acquired Soompi last year, Viki had itself been acquired by Rakuten (also a Japanese company). So for awhile there, DramaFever, Viki and Soompi were all Japanese-owned! UPDATE: Four days after posting this article, I received a proposal from “the largest adnetwork group in Japan” to place advertising on mihansa.net. I declined. Clearly KDrama has become a major moneymaker, and if that’s a mark of its quality and worldwide popularity, I congratulate Korea.
However, this site is about a personal journey of cultural exploration and discovery, which has broadened my perspective on many things, and helped me become more conscious of the influence of my own culture. I love exploring and researching things Korean, and writing about them.
It would be great if the blog produced income so I could spend more time on that, but I have yet to encounter a form of “monetization” (a word I hate) that I feel comfortable with. My posts are my sincere and candid perspective on the things I am writing about. I’m sure I get things wrong sometimes, but you never have to worry that I am pushing anyone’s agenda but my own.
Were you wondering what was up with Uee’s hand rubbing as she begged Kim Yong Geon to reconsider in Episode 7 of Marriage Contract? 저도요 (me, too). I researched and here’s what I found.
Rubbing hands up and down with palms pressed together in prayer position is characteristic of 비손, pronounced bee-sohn (not to be confused with the shaggy North American animal in the photo, which is pronounced by-sun). Bison is a Korean folk rite used to pray for a wish to come true, or for a cure for a disease.
It looks as though it may be a woman’s ritual, though that is not clear – check out this explanation from the Encyclopedia of Korean Folk Beliefs (click to enlarge):
As the article explains, the 비 in 비손 is the verb stem of 빌다 (to pray, beg, or imprecate), and 손 is the word for hand.
I’m continuing to find plenty to like in MBC’s new weekend drama, Marriage Contract. And I’m not alone. As of episode 6, broadcast ratings are holding steady or increasing, and the Viki rating has edged up another tenth of a star to 9.7.
Not only do the tireless volunteer subbers English-caption episodes within hours of receiving them (사랑해요, Mother’s Love team!), but subtitles are also available in 13 other languages as well.
I’ve had some problems with the ads on Viki. They break in to the most intense scenes mid-sentence, repeat the same ad 4 times in a row in one commercial break, or hang and crash the flash plugin so that I have to reload. Talk about killing the mood!
I’m grateful that there are sponsors, and I understand how necessary they are, but regular ads are one thing, and having the whole viewing experience disrupted by broken ads is another. Hopefully Viki will get this straightened out soon.
Meanwhile, I’m seeing no ads on DramaFever, but I have to wait until Monday instead of watching over the weekend. TIP: If the new eps don’t appear to be posted yet on DF on a Monday, check the dropdown episode list in the player.
Marriage Contract is checking all of the mandatory KDrama boxes: Romantic wound-tending, piggyback rides and frequent food porn. Today I’ll give propers to some of the supporting characters, who are often unsung.
Initially, I felt some sympathy for 형 (Kim Young Pil). One day, he’s a rich man’s only son. The next, he’s sharing both of his parents with an illegitimate half-brother who’s brighter, more charming, and looks like Lee Seo Jin. Ouch.
But tough as that might be, and mean as his father is, it’s hard to empathize with a 40 year-old man who throws hissy fits like a toddler at naptime. Are we seeing his ugly side because he’s about to do something nasty?
I’m 4 episodes into Marriage Contract, one quarter of the way through the new MBC drama starring Lee Seo Jin and Uee. It was promoted as a melodrama, not my favorite genre, so my hopes weren’t high. I’m happy to report that it is better than I expected.
Uee is new to me, but she has a long history in Kpop, and quite a few dramas under her belt as well. Therefore, I was surprised by her blank, mannikin-like persona during the drama’s press conference. It was hard to picture her as an expressive actress, or even as a real girl.
However, it turns out that there is much more to Kim Yu Jin than meets the eye. She brings a rare dimensionality to the down-on-her-luck-and-desperate spunky heroine. This is even more of an accomplishment when you consider that the upper half of her face is obscured by her hair in many of her most important scenes.
Uee is a devoted mother to Shin Rin Ah, and their scenes together are touching. Although her luck is relentlessly awful, and she has shell-shocked moments when she receives bad news, we never see Uee surrender to the despair that is so often the precursor to a loveless marriage in Kdrama. She puts up with a lot when she must, but she is no martyr. Push her too far, and she pushes back. Whatever others may think about her life, she never doubts her own values or perceptions. In her introverted, understated way, she holds up and keeps moving under unbelievable stresses.
Lee Seo Jin is in his element, in a role that shows off his impressive range. His character is a major jerk from the opening scene,* leaving plenty of room for transformative growth. It’s risky to start off a drama this way. Without depth and complexity, an unpleasant leading man can turn viewers off. Not a problem with LSJ, though. The underlying humanity of his characters always shines through, no matter how badly they behave.
I’m looking forward to learning more of Ji Hoon’s backstory, particularly about his former life as a musician. MORE…