October 15, 2015

Korean Word of the Day: Family Reunion (가족상봉)

Photo of woman embracing crying elderly man
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.


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April 27, 2015

Korean Names - The Generational Syllable

A chart representing a family tree, with blocks a different color at each generational levelKdrama 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.
Colorful lanterns shaped liked sideways drums and decorated with different circular flower patterns

November 25, 2014

KDrama Word of the Day: Kajok (Family)

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).
A Korean kajok consisting of a man, woman and baby sit in a park with a river and city buildings in the background


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!


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April 23, 2014

세월이 가족은

Close up of altar for victims of Sewolo ferry disaster showing photos of 5 students surrounded by floral arrangements

당신은 세계하고 같이 울다습니다

A multilevel altar with hundreds of altar photographs of the dead surrounded by  flowers rises up to the ceiling of the gymnasium

Photos by Channel News Asia & Getty UK

November 27, 2012

Seoyeong My Daughter – Episodes 9-10

SPOILERS — SPOILERS — SPOILERS — AND LOTS OF THEM

Episode 9 – In this episode of Seoyeong My Daughter, everybody gets an education. Mom (Kim Hye Ok) gets a lesson on marrying for money from dad (Choi Jung Woo). Sung Jae (Lee Jung Shin) gets a lesson on acceptance of reality from Seo Yeong (Lee Bo Young). Hah! How ironic is that!?

Fittingly, Lee Seo Yeong gets a lesson on the consequences of fibbing – from everyone. Kang Woo Jae (Lee Sang Yoon) gets a lesson on what parents say versus what they really mean. You’d think a guy as smart and as old as he is would not be so surprised.
Woo Jae sits on mom's bed with a bag of food he has brought to cheer her up; MORE…

November 24, 2012

Seoyeong My Daughter – Episodes 7-8

THIS POST IS ONE BIG SPOILER. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Episode 7 – Seven episodes into Seoyeong My Daughter, the s-word is finally mentioned! But is it Seo Yeong (Lee Bo Young) who calls Woo Jae (Lee Sang Yun) a stalker? No, it is not. Never mind that he shadows her bus on a 4 hour drive, then skulks around in the shrubbery, eavesdropping on an extremely private moment. And how did she not notice his SUV creeping up a deserted country road behind her?? Maybe it was a hybrid in electric mode?
Seoyoung weeps on the bus, while Ujae's SUV hovers just outside her window; MORE…

November 14, 2012

Seoyeong My Daughter – Episodes 1-6

A young man slow dances with his smiling mom in front of a white grand piano;Episode 1 – Seoyeong My Daughter is off to a rip-roaring start! Fractured families, unhappy marriages, financial woes, health emergencies, and a couple of photogenic strangers who somehow keep crossing paths in a city of 10 million. All in the first episode, which ends with them stubbornly glaring at each other. Can romance be far behind?
MORE…

November 10, 2012

Seo Yeong My Daughter – Watch With Me!

Lee Bo Yeong as Seoyeong in functional student dress;The new family drama Seo Yeong My Daughter is airing in the time slot previously occupied by My Husband Got a Family. This is a hard timeslot for me to resist. I did something else for one weekend, but episode 3 caught my eye, and now I’m going back to catch up.

It isn’t just the timing that works for me, however. The title character (Lee Bo Young) is smart as a whip and tough as nails. She’s versatile, too. We’ve already seen her in a red curly wig, gussied up like a clubgirl, and in her more usual outfit of baggy men’s shirt and slacks (such indifference to fashion is downright edgy for a Korean drama heroine) as she works her way through law school. Lee Bo Young is obviously up to whatever challenges the role might throw her way. I’ve seen her before, in the relentlessly histrionic 2006 melodrama, Queen of the Game, but I didn’t recognize her. She actually looks younger in this role.

In case the title didn’t clue you in, this is an all too familiar struggling daughter/loser father tale. However, Seo Yeong has impressed me more with her resilience in one episode than Da Ran did in all 20 episodes of Can Love Become Money. And don’t even get me started on Damo’s fatalistic Chae Ohk (I have not, however, abandoned Damo – it’s just been a busy week. Episode 8 recap is coming soon).

Has this become the KBS feminist drama timeslot? If so, 괜찮아요. It’s about time we see some roles for women that have the depth and development that is usually invested only into the roles for men.

At 50 episodes, I won’t be doing recaps. Instead I’ll post thoughts every few episodes and see how that goes. Check it out, and join me!


Related posts: My Daughter Seoyoung – Episode Reviews

October 26, 2012

My Husband Got a Family – Final Thoughts

My Husband Got a Family (넝쿨째 굴러온 당신 – literally You Who Rolled in Unexpectedly or Unexpected You) wrapped up on KBS World last weekend. The series fulfilled its initial promise of utter predictability from beginning to end. Plot developments to come were not merely hinted at, they were shouted from the rooftops with megaphones. The abrupt timeslip at the end of the second-to-last episode seemed entirely arbitrary, as if the writer suddenly got bored and stopped caring what happened to the characters.
SPOILER ALERT: stop here if you haven’t watched yet.
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August 31, 2012

My Husband Got a Family – Korean drama review

promotional poster for series featuring a wedding photo of Kim Nam Joo and Yu Jun Sang;My Husband Got a Family is airing on KBS America as a weekend drama. The first few episodes were so excruciatingly predictable that I gave it a pass for many weeks. Here’s the opening setup: adult adoptee seeking birth family moves into the same building with wounded family seeking long lost child. Guess what happens next? Ten million Koreans live in Seoul, and 100,000 Korean children have been sent to the US for adoption, but what’s a statistical impossibility to a drama? Dickens. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.

However, for all its faults, My Husband Got a Family inhabits the dinner hour timeslot, where it faces little competition. It’s true what they say about timing being everything. Just when I’m ready to put my feet up and rest my brain, there it is. I drifted back to it, gradually at first, but now, I admit, I make a point of watching it.

Na Young Hee with a very unhappy expression on her face;Yoon Yeo Jung with a very unhappy expression on her face;The family dynamics at the core of this drama are just like every other Korean family drama you ever saw. There’s sibling rivalry, abusive parenting, and a secret that’s too big to keep, yet too horrible to tell. According to my drama sun dial, we’re due for a life-threatening diagnosis or accident any episode now.

Other familiar elements appear in a modified form. As in Love Rain, the incest love-obstacle appears in the form of the in-law relationship taboo, instead of a scare over being half-siblings. Since in-law incest is not even a thing in the US, this substantially reduces the ick-factor. If there were loan sharks, I missed them. Drat. No, really.

Kim Nam Joo and Yu Jun Sang having an emotional conversation;The central couple (Kim Nam Joo and Yu Jun Sang) are annoyingly smug and self-satisfied at the beginning of the series. They’ve had ups and downs since then, matured a little, and lost some of their insufferability.

Yun Hui, a successful professional woman battling sexism at work as well as in her husband’s family, is an unexpectedly sympathetic character. Her deficient housekeeping skills may be more damning to a Korean audience than they are to me, but she sure knows how to navigate the backbiting power dynamics in her entertainment industry workplace (which is in a different universe from the cozy little production company depicted in Sent From Heaven). The developing independence of her sister-in-law (Yang Jeong Ah), everybody’s punching bag, is also refreshing.

A smiling Lee Hee Joon sits close to Jo Yoon Hee, who is holding up a teddy bear;However, my favorite storyline in My Husband Got a Family concerns the budding relationship between two people who are monumentally slow on the uptake about their own feelings. In real life, I’d be unimpressed by that, but for some reason, I find it irresistibly charming in this drama. It’s mostly Lee Hee Joon’s comical dialogues with himself (with a few well-placed jibes at drama conventions) that keep me coming back for more.

Not so funny (through no fault of her own) is Yang Hee Kyeong, a rare (in Korean drama) large woman, as a comic relief character. I wish I could applaud this drama for taking a step forward in diversified casting. Unfortunately, the running joke is that her character audaciously believes she’s a worthwhile and attractive person regardless of her weight. Ha ha. Two steps back.

Despite its lack of originality, there are engaging moments in My Husband Got a Family. Last weekend, I cheered when the family’s women put aside their differences to team up on a man who done one of them wrong. I tittered at Terry’s bemusement when his sophisticated wife and her adult little brother screamed at each other like kindergarteners on the playground. Yes, this is drama with a small d, but there’s a place for that.

[NOTE: After I posted this review, I learned that My Husband Got a Family has received surprisingly high ratings in South Korea, though I suspect this is mostly due to the presence of Kpop idol Kang Min Hyuk of CN Blue in a relatively minor role. His “Code Name” (CN) is “lovely.” ‘Nuff said.]


Related posts:
Final Thoughts review for My Husband Got a Family
10 Obstacles to Love in Korean Drama