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 ^
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.
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.