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Korean Culture

Here is a collection of links on various aspects of Korean culture. Most of these resources come from an external perspective, either from non-Asians living in Korea, or from Korean-Americans living in the U.S. I’d prefer information from Koreans living in Korea, but it’s hard to find in English. Government or business-sponsored culture pages that have been prepared in English for “foreign” consumption tends to gloss over anything embarrassing or controversial. So take all of the content here with a grain of salt!

GENERAL CULTURAL INFO AND TOURIST ADVICE
ANALYSIS OF KOREAN CULTURE
KOREA AS SEEN FROM OTHER COUNTRIES IN ASIA
DRINKING IN KOREA

GENERAL CULTURAL INFO AND TOURIST ADVICE ^

Korean Names, Marriage Customs, and Incest Laws – About half of the South Korean population shares one of three family names. These names are usually Romanized as Kim, Lee and Park, though there are variations on all of them. Family name comes first in a Korean name. This is not just a variation of positioning, but speaks volumes about Korean culture.

Due to extremely rapid modernization, rural Korea retains much more of its traditional clan culture than other industrialized countries. Families are sub-divided into location-based clans. Until 15 years ago, it was illegal to marry someone with the same last name from the same location clan, even in a clan of thousands, when the degree of blood relationship was extremely distant. Modernized incest laws are still relatively restrictive. For instance, first cousin marriage is prohibited in Korea, while it is legal in some US states, and in many other regions around the world.

Also, due to a strong concern with lineage, adoption is much less accepted in Korea than in many other cultures. This has resulted in many, many Korean children being adopted overseas – 100,000 in the U.S. alone. Since the adoptions were usually blind, and adoptees often return to Korea as adults to explore their heritage, it’s not impossible that a stranger may be your relative. This may explain why the incest theme is so prevalent in Korean drama – something any new fan of Kdrama is bound to wonder about!

I also have a theory that incest comes up so often in Korean drama plots because of the concept of reincarnation that is widespread in Asia. Reincarnation places the same collection of souls together, in varying relationships, across multiple lifetimes. 21st century urban Koreans may not take this literally, but an underlying assumption that you are connected with important people in your life beyond your current identities and relationships turns an incest scare into a karmic error.

Note that incest in Korean drama typically appears as a consensual relationship between apparent half-siblings who are unaware of their relatedness (and usually turn out not to be related after all). I haven’t seen enough Korean movies to comment on the presence of parent-child incest in film (though of the dozen Korean films I’ve seen, two hinted at it), but in Korean TV dramas, it’s rare.

Korean personal names traditionally consist of a syllable which is shared by all siblings and cousins of the same generation, plus a syllable unique to the individual. The generational syllable may come before or after the personal syllable (though it will be in the same position for all family members). Some families do this only with boys, while others do it with all of the children.

Most traditional personal names are not gender-specific. However, sexism can gender a name that means something like “strength,” for example (not seen as a positive quality in women!). Name syllables are based on the adopted Chinese characters (Hanja) that used to be used to write Korean. This means there are a lot of names that sound the same, and are spelled the same in the Korean alphabet (Hangeul), but mean entirely different things.

Women do not take their husband’s name upon marriage, but children take their father’s family name. It is common to address a person in terms of a family relationship (e.g., so-and-so’s mother, father or spouse). You hear this a lot in Korean drama teacher-parent romances. Though the lovers may be young adults of the same age, the teacher will still address the student’s parent as “father” or “mother,” even when they are dating.

There is a special word for persons doubly related by marriage: 겹사돈 gyeobsadon. I couldn’t find any information on whether marriage between in-laws was ever illegal in Korea. However, this kind of relationship is still somewhat stigmatized among more traditional Koreans. Marriage is regarded as a uniting of families. Therefore, any subsequent marriage between the same two families seems incestuous. Gyeobsadon marriages can also complicate the traditional hierarchy of relationships in a traditional household. In the KBS drama Wonderful Days, for example, sisters-in-law who are also sisters struggle with conflicting roles.

Traditional marriages involve a significant exchange of money gifts, and contributions towards setting the couple up in a home (2007 NY Times article). If the families can’t agree on these arrangements, it may be impossible for the couple to marry. The most internationally famous example of this is probably the break-up of actors Lee Seo Jin and Kim Jung Eun in 2008, for which Lee Seo Jin was widely pilloried when Kim Jung Eun announced that he had dumped her without publicizing the reason. However, bowing to family pressure in such situations is common in Korea.

DramaBeans honorifics article – If you are a drama fan and only have time to read one article about Korean culture, start with this one. The Korean language has formality levels that are highly significant in interpersonal dynamics, and difficult to translate in subtitles. Understanding this one thing about Korean culture will vastly enhance your drama viewing experience. The author’s Korean background makes this in-depth article far more illuminating than explanations you will find elsewhere. Also check out this very detailed honorifics article (with Kdrama examples) on the now-dormant Electric Ground blog.

KoreanAmericanStory.org – This website offers a the unique perspective of Korean Americans, usually first generation Americans with Korean parents. Be sure to check out the videos.

Ask a Korean – The “Korean” of this blog actually lives in the U.S., and has since he was 16, so bear that in mind when applying anything he says to Koreans living in Korea (aka Korean-Koreans). Most of the Korean-Americans I’ve met, even when they came here as young adults, are highly Americanized. I’d go so far as to say that they are inclined to distance themselves from Korean culture, especially any aspects that may seem odd or troubling to Americans. This is pretty typical of new arrivals – no doubt my ancestors were the same way, which is why (sadly) I don’t speak Gaelic. Koreans (and perhaps central and east Asians in general) may be even more assimilation prone than American immigrants from other parts of the world, since their cultures are heavily group-identified and place a high value on group harmony. I have noticed that Korean-American perceptions of Korean culture can be substantially outdated, since they often bolster their own memories of Korea with those of their parents.

That said, the “Ask a Korean” blog is extensive and fascinating. If you don’t find the answer you were looking for, you’ll probably forget all about it as you stumble across answers on a dozen other topics. But if, by chance, you still remember your question when you come up for air, you can always ask him. I have asked him a couple of things, and he always responded.

Conscription in South Korea – All young Korean men are required to spend about 2 years in military service. The requirement does not extend to women, but there is growing interest among women in ROTC training. In 2014, multiple instances of injury, suicide or violent death associated with military bullying have come to light, and prompted a re-examination of both the culture within the military, and whether universal conscription of ground troops even makes sense in the context of modern weaponry.

10 Korean Customs to Know Before You Visit Korea – Quick tourist advice. Addresses a couple of sensitive cultural issues that other sites avoid. Rather disturbing page on Korean beauty may also be of interest.

Korean Etiquette and Table Manners – Not just meal-related etiquette – there is also some advice about etiquette in business relationships. The definitions of kibun and nunchi are especially noteworthy, as nunchi (consciousness of another’s mood or state of mind) is often actively avoided in the U.S. Maybe this is an expression of different attitudes about privacy, but I think we’ve taken it several steps too far.

Elsewhere on this blog, you can find virtual tours of Korean historical sites, although it is not always easy to navigate between posts. It’s not clear whether the material is original (or even whether the blogger has personally visited Korea), but the pictures are nice, and the descriptions are lyrical.

An American Teaching English in South Korea – This website is primarily aimed at Americans who are thinking about supporting a visit to Korea by teaching English there. It is written by the husband of a woman who spent a year doing that about a decade ago. That said, he writes well, continues to update the site, and goes into far greater depth about Korean culture than many other websites written for western English teachers. The link is to a lengthy culture page, but other parts of the website may also be of interest.

EatYourKimchi or their page on YouTube. Simon and Martina Stawski are a Canadian couple who went to Korea as English teachers and lived there for seven years. They eventually became video artists, popular for their entertaining videos on Kpop and life in Korea. They also became progressively more Koreanized, which was interesting to see. However, they never became fluent in Korean, and are probably not a reliable source on complex Korean cultural issues.

In December of 2015 they announced that they would be moving to Japan, where they will continue to make videos under the “EatYourKimchi” brand, but will shift their focus to Japan and other countries. Martina has Ehlers Danlos syndrome, a heriditary condition which causes chronic pain and increased risk of injury during ordinary activities.

The Korea Society – This New York non-profit has been around for decades. They updated their website in 2013, and added a lot of new podcasts on Korean economics, politics and culture. Scroll down to see the list. In my browser, the logo at the top is ginormous. I haven’t had a chance to explore the new website – there is probably more good stuff. If you visit and have comments, please share.

ANALYSIS OF KOREAN CULTURE ^

The Grand Narrative is a cultural analysis blog by James Turnbull, a Briton (married to a Korean) who has lived in and reported upon Korea for many years. The blog’s subtitle is “Korean Sociology Through Advertising, Gender, and Popular Culture,” and it consists of articles about the cultural realities behind Kdrama and Kpop, as well as links to relevant news stories.

Korean drama may seem comfortably familiar to American viewers who have no other contact with Korea – it’s easy to assume Korea isn’t much different from the U.S., except that maybe family is a bigger deal for Koreans. Reading this blog is an eyeopener. To me, the most fascinating thing about Korean drama is how it does – and doesn’t – reflect Korean culture, and the significance of US influence, which is essentially what The Grand Narrative is about. But prepare yourself – reality is not always as attractive as fantasy.

Kpop as “Cultural Technology” – This October 2012 article from the New Yorker magazine gives an in-depth and fascinating account of the development of the Kpop industry. The founder of the largest management company was trained as an engineer, and there is actually a manual (which explains a lot). Consciously tailoring Kpop groups, dances and songs for specific international markets may seem like sophisticated modern marketing (and it is that too), but it’s also a very traditional Korean custom. The practice of meticulously planning and documenting every aspect of Korean ceremonial occasions in illustrated books called uigwe (의궤) goes back hundreds of years.

The author of this article has an obviously limited acquaintance with Kpop and Koreans, which leads him to make some ludicrously inaccurate generalizations (including a seriously offensive stereotype about Asian appearance – how did the New Yorker let that slip by??). However, the rest of the article is still interesting enough that I post the link, with reservations.

Education vs. Dating – Pressures on Korean children and teens to study hard and score well on college admission and other tests are extremely high, and private after-school training can run late into the night. Naturally this has an affect on dating in an environment that’s already sexually conservative, but it was news to me that romantic relationships are actually prohibited and punishable in most middle and high schools until I read this Korea Times article. And it doesn’t stop there. In this article from the Three Wise Monkeys blog, a Korean college student compares her expectations with the realities of college life. And her analysis doesn’t end with dating. Her 10 survival tips paint a pretty grim picture of college social life, and question whether the cultural obsession with education is really accomplishing its goals.

KOREA AS SEEN FROM OTHER COUNTRIES IN ASIA ^

Hallyu, yeah! – 2010 article from The Economist on the success of Korean cultural exports in other Asian countries.

Japanese Women Catch the ‘Korean Wave’ – 2006 Washington Post article. Cautionary tale on not taking Kdrama too literally!

DRINKING IN KOREA ^

Drinking (alcohol) is a central activity in Korean culture, not only in social and family life, but in professional life.

Drinking in Korea Requires Etiquette and Endurance – An article for tourists on drinking etiquette and what to expect.

Soju and drinking etiquette – (Wikipedia article). Wikipedia also has pages on other Korean alcoholic beverages.

Drinking Culture in Korea (mp3 file) – This is a download link for a “Culture Talk” from Talk to Me in Korean, a website devoted to Korean language lessons, created by Koreans living in Korea.

Corporate Korea Corks the Bottle as Women Rise – 2007 New York Times article about a Korean woman who successfully sued her employer after quitting her job due to pressure to drink. As more women enter the workforce, mandatory company drinking parties are coming under fire. As of 2016, the connection between drinking and sexual assault, especially in an employment context, is finally beginning to be discussed in South Korea, where the word for rape is literally unspeakable.

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10 comments to Korean Culture

  • Reading WP article “Japanese Women Catch the ‘Korean Wave’” and thoroughly enjoying it.

    [Full disclosure: I caught Bae Yong Jun fever when I first started watching k-drama and still adore him :-) ]

    Some side-splittingly humorous pearls:
    “Winter Sonata” star Bae Yong Jun — whose character stood by his first love through 10 years of car accidents and amnesia…
    …young South Korean men [are] among the buffest in Asia. Most important, however, has been the South Korean entertainment industry’s perfection of the strong, silent type on screen — typically rich, kind men with coincidentally striking looks and a tendency to shower women with unconditional love.
    “But to tell you the truth,” she said. “I still haven’t met a real one who fits that description.” (Kim Ok Hyun, director of Star M, a major star management company in Seoul.)

    A very enjoyable read!

    • Mihansa

      Re: Bae Yong Jun – I have noticed many Hallyu blogs are inspired by a particularly delicious muse :)

      Oddly enough, the description in italics is more representative of the alternate suitor than the hero. You know, the one who really should get the girl, but never does?

    • Mihansa

      I think non-Korean Asian-American men are feeling the heat. When I was checking out books from the library’s Chinatown branch, the young Asian-American librarian made a comment about my collection of Korean books. I asked whether he was Korean, and he said “not yet.”

      He then launched into a tirade about women only wanting to date a Korean man, right in the middle of the library (which is mostly used by seniors, and parents with young kids). That segued into a pretty homophobic account of the visiting friend of a friend, a young Korean guy, who wore (gasp) makeup! He couldn’t grasp why any woman could prefer a man who wore makeup to him.

      I confess I found the whole experience hilarious, though I did my best to hide my grin.

  • HAHA! That is hilarious. “Not yet. Priceless!

    Funny thing is, he could have chosen to go the other way after the “not yet.” But I guess in his case he just can’t handle the heat. Pobrecito…!

    • Mihansa

      Yeah, doesn’t it just break your heart when men have to wonder if their appearance is good enough for us, for a change?

      The irony is, I don’t think the beauty of Korean male entertainers is the primary attraction. It’s AN attraction, for sure, but I suspect it’s the emotional expressiveness that really captures the interest of women across cultures.

      Not that entertainers are any indication of how actual people behave in their culture. Since Kpop and Kdrama are targeted first and foremost for Korean audiences, I’m thinking Korean men are probably not all that, or Korean women wouldn’t be looking for it in their fantasy lives.

      I read about a public outdoor singles event a couple of months back, where thousands of men showed up in the cold, and no women. Men are frustrated that women want well-heeled professionals. There’s a lot of pressure on Korean women to lower their standards, as the birth rate plummets (though Korea is very densely populated, so it seems to me that’s a good thing). Rural Korean men are marrying foreign women in droves because they can’t find Korean women who want to live a life of hardship in the boonies. Everybody’s freaking out that the average age of marriage has risen to the 30s.

      One solution would be to get more women into professional-level jobs, so they don’t have to count on their husband’s income to live comfortably. I think Korean men (who are notoriously slow to mature) could also work on their personalities to appeal to women even if they aren’t rich and handsome. Strangely, I don’t hear anyone calling on Korean men to look within for reasons Korean women aren’t flocking to them.

      Korea is at such an interesting point in its development of gender dynamics. It’s kind of like the 60s, but with 21st century media, which makes a huge difference. I see a lot of transitional themes in drama. Cross-dressing and cross-gender body-switching, for example, were a lot more common in U.S. movies from the 50s through the 80s. It’s a safe way to explore expanding gender roles without actually exceeding them. Once gender roles become less differentiated, the use of those plot devices in entertainment really drops.

      In the next phase, women and men inhabit new roles as themselves, but do it badly, and ultimately need to be rescued (the bumbling househusband, or sexually repressed professional woman, for example). Coming soon, to a Kdrama near you, I suspect.

      Sexism is just one facet of the larger Confucian hierarchism, and tendency to define people as “us” or “them” that is so strong in Korean culture. Since there’s also a strong drive in everyday life towards integrating everyone into the group, it’ll be interesting to see how (or if) they resolve that contradiction.

      I personally think there’s a lot of value in Korean group-identification. If they can eliminate some of the darker facets of it (like bullying and conformity), it’s something the west could use more of.

  • Hi Mihansa, 오랜만입니다!

    I have been slowly, painstakingly learning Korean via KDrama and rather enjoying it. I hope you have been well.

    I have been wondering about something in KDrama for quite a while – I’ve fished around the interwebs but I cannot find an answer so I thought I might ask for your help.

    The trope in question: “Child Abandonment.” WHY is this trope soooo prevalent in kdrama? I’ve seen nearly 150 dramas (I keep a list) and in at least 2/3rd of them so far, (that’s like 100, yo! I checked) there is an abandoned child and the issues arising from that abandonment drives their story.

    If the adage “write what you know” has any bearing in KDrama, then this must be a significant psycho-social issue on the peninsula and I would like to know if anyone has any cultural or historical insight on it.

    In the 100 or so iterations of the trope that I’ve seen in kdrama, the children are abandoned primarily because the parents have financial difficulties (‘Hotelier’, ‘Shut Up Flower Boy Band’, ‘That Winter the Wind Blows’, etc.) or they are just plain narcissists (‘You Are Beautiful’, etc.) or ot remains unexplained (‘I’m sorry I love you’ etc.) The abandoned child gets adopted abroad (US and Australia are popular destinations – although the sageuk include Chinese/Qing adoptions.) The foreign adoption also applies to bona fide orphans (see, for example, ‘Doctor Stranger’s resident Harvard-educated adoptee Jae-joon…)

    So what gives? Any historical or anthropological insight to shine a light on this particular issue. Please…?

    • Mihansa

      Hi Curioser. I suspect one major factor is the fact that Korea was continuously in a state of disruption from the 1880s into the 1990s, beginning with the Japanese occupation, followed by WWII, the Korean War, the authoritarian economic development boom period, and finished off by the IMF crisis that devastated Asia in the late 1990s. This caused massive and repeated displacement, separation of families, immigration for political or economic reasons, and never-explained disappearances (those scenes we’ve seen in dramas of random people being picked up off the street and prosecuted as communists are unfortunately true). In an extremely family-identified (and formerly also location-identified) culture like Korea, this had to have created enormous grief, anxiety, identity crisis, and nothing being reliably as it seemed.

      Add to that a frequent presence of foreign armies and interracial rapes and relationships. Even today, unmarried motherhood is stigmatized, and mixed race children are bullied (though hopefully the massive influx of foreign women into rural Korea, where Korean men have had a hard time finding willing Korean wives, will moderate the notion of what a “Korean” can look like over time).

      Marriage is still strongly tied to economic considerations for Koreans. The economy is considerably depressed, and the unemployment rate is astronomical, so although women may now train for professional careers, their prospects for employment are not good. Economic considerations are at least as important as romantic considerations in marriage, and sometimes the economic interests of the whole family must be taken into consideration.

      Modern urban sexual mores have been introduced to Korean youth, but discussion thereof is still pretty taboo, with the result that adult Korean knowledge of sexual matters and contraception is woefully inaccurate and inadequate. Abortion is technically illegal in most cases, though it is widely practiced. It is, however, expensive by Korean standards, and doubtless beyond the reach of many couples who are most likely to need it. All of this adds up to a high chance of unwanted pregnancies that result in the birth of a child that cannot be raised by his/her parents.

      However, adoption is not popular, as there is a strong consciousness of bloodlines. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, huge numbers of Korean children have been adopted overseas – 100,000 to the U.S. alone.

      I’ve seen fewer complete drams than you have, and while I agree that birth secrets abound, I wouldn’t categorize all of the displaced children as abandoned by any means. I’ve seen children of marriage who are lost, intentionally or otherwise, children of infidelity who are accepted by their father’s wife and raised in their father’s household (I really wonder about this one), unacknowledged sons who nevertheless participate in their father’s business, etc. In these stories, I think the issue is as much the confusion of the family position of the children as anything else. Lots of scope for drama in that.

      If you haven’t, you should check out the current KBS drama, Wonderful Days. It is exploring multiple cases of abandonment by both mothers and fathers, and how they impact succeeding generations. Since KBS is the most directly government-owned of the Korean TV networks (and probably the most conscious of international opinion, due to its KBS World branch), it’s always interesting to see the evolution of KBS drama themes. Some of the scenarios in Wonderful Days are pretty unlikely (abandoned wife takes in abandoned mistress – of the same man!), but other factors are thought provoking. The mistress character was given to a bar owner as payment of a bill at the age of 10. She is apparently in her 50s, so that would put the transaction in the 70s. Possibly another wrinkle in the child abandonment trope, no?

      As always, thanks for the thoughtful discussion!

      • I hope you are having a great summer!

        Thank you so much for your response to my question. There is so much in it to digest and I have been meaning to express my heartfelt gratitude to you for giving me so much food for thought but so far I’ve been getting interrupted or prevented from following through by one circumstance or another.

        Ever since I read what you wrote I see so many more things in KDrama in a slightly brighter, slightly harsher light – in short, experiencing a more empathic sense of fraternity with the characters in these stories and seeing these stories less as merely a medium for abstract escapism. And I don’t really mind the evolution in my perspective, mostly because for me storytelling is about building bridges that allow us to connect with one another as human beings in unexpected and enriching ways.

        So anyway, before I let any more time pass, let me thank you very much. I hope that when I am able, I can return and express myself more fully.

        -Curio

        PS. As I was proof reading what I wrote above, it occurred to me that Walt Whitman would not mind my borrowing his words to convey some of how I’ve been feeling about storytelling, a feeling that intensified after I read your response to my question about the myriad social issues surrounding the significance of stories about child abandonment, family and adoption in KDrama. Here it is:

        A Noiseless Patient Spider

        A NOISELESS, patient spider,
        I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
        Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
        It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
        Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

        And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
        Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
        Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
        Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
        Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

        Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Leaves of Grass. 1900.

        Thank you, Mihansa!

        • Mihansa

          Great quote! Korean culture is fascinating, rich and complex, and full of passions & contradictions. When I first started watching Kdrama, it was hard to find any other window into Korea for an English speaker – I pictured the language barrier as the Great Wall of Korea.

          The reality of drama was hard to estimate – after all, how realistic is US entertainment television? A visiting Korean student once told me that he thought Americans families were “mean,” an impression that he based entirely on US sit-coms. After getting over my initial shock (seriously? when whole families routinely gang up on and shout abuse at one member in Kdrama?), I realized it was a perfectly reasonable conclusion from the information he had. Friends and families in US sit-coms ARE mean. We can laugh at things on TV that would never be funny in real life because we instinctively know where behavior is exaggerated in our own culture’s TV, but how can we tell what to take literally in TV from another culture with which we are unfamiliar?

          Over the years, I’ve found other windows into Korean culture besides Kdrama, and become more familiar with Kdrama conventions that don’t reflect real life. I am not mystified by the behavior of Kdrama characters nearly so often as I used to be. Still, it is when characters do something incomprehensible that Kdrama interests me most (assuming it is not just a case of bad scripting). That’s when I know I’m going to learn something new about Korea.

          The real Korea is a lot rougher in many respects than we see on TV. Sexism and xenophobia are high, the country has been economically depressed for years, corruption and elitism are endemic (though there’s been a lot of backlash against both since the Sewol ferry disaster), there are major issues with drinking and violence, and people are way too concerned with appearances. And always, there are looming, potentially hostile giants to the east and west, and a violent disaffected family member to the north, keeping the pressure on.

          It’s pretty remarkable that Koreans are able to sustain any energy, creativity or hope in the midst of all that. I can’t say I’m a Koreaphile. There are a lot of things about Korea that aren’t as they should be, to my mind. But I have respect and empathy for the people of Korea. They deserve the chance to feel safe that people in many other parts of the world, including mine, can take for granted. If visibility and credibility on the world stage can give them that, I’m more than happy to contribute to it in my small way. I continue to watch Korean culture with great interest.

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