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?!!
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.
Check out this fascinating interview with Hyunwoo Sun (선현우).
Sun is the founder of Talk to Me in Korean, an ever-expanding Korean-language-learning site produced by Koreans living in Korea. In addition to podcast lessons and pdfs, which are free, the site offers videos, books, and every other language aid or service you can think of. Sun also opened a cafe in Seoul in 2014.
I started listening to the TTMIK podcasts about three years ago. The lesson topics seemed somewhat randomly ordered, and I listened to the first couple of levels repeatedly without retaining much, since I had no Korean speakers to talk to. However, when I had a Korean email partner for awhile, I found the downloadable pdfs that go with each lesson to be extremely useful.
Sun is interviewed by Colin Marshall, an American (as far as I can tell) with a website of his own on international urban cultures, who has visited Korea several times.
During the free ranging hour long podcast, Sun describes the way his personality shifts depending on the language he is thinking and speaking in, explains why Koreans avoid conversations with native English-speakers, and reflects on events in the Gwangju area around the time of his birth, an unsettled era of government repression and civil unrest which crops up in many dramas (the opening episodes of Love Rain, for instance, or the 4-part KBS Drama Special Amore Mio).
Sun also explains how Koreans become English teachers without actually being able to speak English. His examples of English as it is taught in Korea by these teachers are illuminating.
In fact, I was reminded of this interview when I was watching an appearance by Korean-American singer Ailee on Yu Huiyeol’s Sketchbook last night. She said something in English with her typical American accent at the host’s request, and when he looked blank, lapsed into a version of the same English phrase as English is commonly (mis)pronounced by Koreans, thanks to the above-mentioned inadequately trained Korean English teachers. I thought it was interesting that Ailee – who moved from the U.S. to Korea in 2010 – had evidently heard so much of this form of English that she shifted into it automatically, as if it was a third language.
Political support for English instruction in Korean schools fluctuates, but high scores on English certification exams have long been considered advantageous in a highly competitive job market. This assumption has come under question in recent years, but a great deal of money and time is still spent on lessons that don’t prepare students to communicate effectively in English, Sun points out.
But returning to the podcast: How Korean vs. American concepts of time impact conversation, high school elites, the progression of Korean friendships, and the impact of Korean group identification on elections are a few more of the topics it covers. Both host and guest e·nun·ci·ate ver·y dis·tinct·ly throughout the interview (for different reasons, I suspect, but the result is amusing, since the precision of the speech is at odds with the informality of the conversation).
I found this podcast on XiiaLive Pro, an internationally popular music app based in China, on a station called KoreaFM1. I haven’t figured out exactly what is going on with the station, but I think it broadcasts the same podcast nonstop for days (or weeks?), then rotates to another one. English-language resources about Korea from a Korean point of view are still few and far between, so in-depth, candid discussions like this one are a real treasure trove. Don’t miss it!
The international community hears a lot about the excesses of North Korea, whether it be the executions of former administration favorites, or candy bar economics. But an ongoing story we hear less about is how reunions between family members separated by the division of Korea in 1953 have become a political football.
A typical scenario is that North Korea starts making conciliatory overtures a few months before the annual South Korean – U.S. military exercises, which opens the door to scheduling family reunions. However, once preparations are underway, North Korea threatens to cancel them unless the military exercises are called off.
They have to know perfectly well by this time that the exercises will not be canceled, so the the whole call for reunions is a sham from beginning to end. But families who have been separated for half a century can’t help but hope. Surely this is the cruelest thing one set of Koreans can do to another, given the strength and importance of family ties.
Reunions are scheduled once again for next week. I am keeping my fingers crossed that the families will not be disappointed at this late date. Many of the participants are very elderly, and have not seen their relatives since they were children.
To give you some idea of the scale of the schism caused by the Korean division, there are 66,000 South Koreans on the waiting list for family reunions. 600 were selected by lottery for this round of reunions, and screened down to 100, with those who are least likely to survive to the next reunion taking precedence. Two of the South Koreans selected are 98 years old. More details.
This real life wound to the heart of Korea (the whole Korea) may shed some light on why the theme of lost relatives is so common in Korean drama. It’s an everyday truth etched into the family history of many, many Koreans, on both sides of the DMZ.
Getting back to the term for the reunions, regular visitors will recognize 가족 (kajok, family) from my earlier post. 상봉 (sahng-boeng) means reunion or reunited. Another word for reunion, 재회 (jay-wheh) is also sometimes used, so family reunion is 가족상봉 or 가족재회. Thanks to 귀선 for helping me with these terms.
The Korean term for “computer hacker” is such an obvious loanword from English that I just had to share it with you. If you have learned the Hangeul alphabet, you’ll know that 컴퓨터 해커 is pronounced kum (or kawm) pyoo tuh (or taw) heh kuh (or kaw).
A “loanword” is a word one language has “borrowed” from another, that sounds a lot like the word in the original language. English is full of them, especially loanwords from French. Korean has a very high percentage (estimates vary) of loanwords from Chinese, but when you start getting into terms for technology and popular culture, you find more English loanwords. Korean also has English loanwords for things that don’t have an exactly equivalent Asian concept, like 뱀파이어 (vampire).
Some Korean words that sound like loanwords from English are actually loanwords from the same language that English borrowed it from (for example, 레스토랑 – restaurant, which is, of course, a French word).
You may be wondering what the difference is between the three Korean g/k-ish letters, ㄱ, ㄲ, and ㅋ. You are not alone! Here’s the best explanation I’ve found, not only for hearing the differences, but for speaking them.
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.
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 (장마 jangma – rainy season), with heavy rain and high humidity. There is nothing comparable in the U.S. For specifics, check out this page. For those of us in the still-non-metric U.S., it’s nice to have temperature charts that include a Fahrenheit column.
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.