May 2, 2017

Love, Loan Sharks and Lee Seo Jin

Loan sharks are as necessary to Korean drama as water is to fish. They are cupids with brass knuckles, traumatizing Kdrama heroines into sketchy arrangements, where – after misunderstandings, humiliation, heavy labor, and disheartening setbacks – they ultimately find love and economic security. At least, that is the typical scenario.

The loan shark has been as necessary to Lee Seo Jin’s dramas as to anyone else’s, but with a difference. Check out the twists on the loan shark/love/LSJ triangle in his last three romance dramas.

Marriage Contract

A loan shark grabs Uee by the collar and threatens to sell her young daughter for sex if she doesn't pay her debtWith a contemptuous expression on his face, Lee Seo Jin summons Uee with a gesture used only for animals
The hero is as mean as the loan sharks. I guess you could say LSJ rescues our heroine from the loan sharks. But he doesn’t do it for love (at least, not for love of her). There’s a steep price indeed! Maybe she should’ve just gotten herself a lawyer.


Wonderful Days

Debt collector Kim Hee Sun badgers violent loan shark Ok Taecyon
The heroine is a loan shark. Sort of. LSJ’s childhood sweetheart works for loan sharks. She is such an effective persuader that their rougher tactics are rarely called for. She has her reasons for this unconventional career choice, but since Lee Seo Jin is a prosecutor… awkward!

Alas, her bravado, quick thinking and stellar negotiation skills are dust in the wind once she abandons her unwomanly calling to assume her “rightful” role as wife and daughter-in-law. In fact, for the second half of the drama, she creates one mess after another by impulsively acting on misperceptions. This is utterly inconsistent with her previous street smarts. She’s not really cut out for Korean family life – she was better at debt collecting!


Lovers

Kim Gyu Ri stares at the fist Lee Seo Jin has just pounded on her desk after breaking up her father's shop
LSJ is the loan shark. In one of LSJ’s most popular dramas, we see in flashbacks that he used to be a loan shark. He has moved on to more exalted gang roles and then to rehabilitation by the time we meet him, but his girlfriend remains as a reminder of the bad old days – they met when he was shaking down her father!


Loan Sharks in Real Life

On a more serious note, loan sharks are not just a humorous Kdrama plot device. Predatory lending is an actual and serious problem in South Korea. This 2009 article shows loan sharking complaints steadily climbing, and it is clear from this 2016 article describing a crackdown by Seoul’s metropolitan police that the situation has continued to worsen. The U.S. State Department draws a connection between loan sharking and human trafficking. Let’s hope the next Korean President will make predatory lending a priority on a national scale (improving women’s rights and the economy would also help).


See all reviews of Dramas with Lee Seo Jin

March 31, 2016

Ilbon? The Hallyu say!

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.

The flag of Japan, with the white viki logo across the red circle in the centerBut 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.

March 29, 2016

KDrama Word of the Day: Bison (Hand Rubbing)

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.

In episode 7 of Marriage Contract Uee kneels before Ji Hoon's father and rubs her hands together in prayer position as she begs him to allow the surgery

A photograph of an American Bison with the red slashed NOT circle overlaying it 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):

A page from the Encyclopedia of Korean Folk Beliefs describing details of the bison hand rubbing rite, which also includes offerinsg of clear water and simple foods

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.

January 13, 2016

Lee Seo Jin to Star in Upcoming Drama - Poll

Lee Seo Jin fan? Me, too. Annoyed by “reality” TV? Me, too. For the likes of us, the year and a half since Wonderful Days wrapped up has been long and weary.

But rejoice, relief is in sight! LSJ has signed up for a new weekend drama on MBC. Many of LSJ’s most popular roles have been in MBC dramas (Hon, Damo, Yi San, & Gye Baek), along with some of his less known work.

MBC is really stepping up their outreach to English-speaking U.S. audiences these days – check out their MBC America page. Don’t miss the VOD tab, where you can view previous MBC series via embedded Hulu. Move over, KBS!

English home page for MBC AmericaHome page of
Kim Yu Jin, better known as UEE of the girl group After School, has been confirmed as oppa’s significantly younger leading lady. Hmm.

But she’s not just another pretty face. Acting was her original ambition before she took a detour into K-pop. She has appeared in a number of dramas, beginning with Queen Seonduk in 2009 (which was my intro to Kdrama and Korea), working her way up to leading roles, and receiving awards.

The new drama, with the working title of Hundred-Day Wife but now being referred to as Marriage Contract, is scheduled to start airing in Korea on Saturday & Sunday nights in late February. I’m psyched that it only has 20 episodes, which means more airtime for LSJ to do what he does best.

I’ll be watching on a local MBC broadcast station. Yes, I do know how lucky I am! But MBC has broadcast stations in several US markets, as well as availability through various broadband providers, so check their map before you hunker down to disconsolately wait for one of the streaming services to get it.

GirlFriday, my favorite bean, translates the description of Marriage Contract as “a warm, cheerful series” about a widowed single mom with a terminal illness. Only in Korea!

They won’t really kill off the leading lady at the end, of course. Or will they? You never can tell with Kdrama. Place your bets, people….

How will they save her?
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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November 24, 2014

KDrama Word of the Day: Yeoreum (Summer)

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).
Bright green rice grass leaves

RICE PLANTS

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.


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November 23, 2014

KDrama Word of the Day: Bom (Spring)

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.”
A twig of cherry blossoms
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.


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November 22, 2014

KDrama Word of the Day: Winter (Kyeoul)

Kyeoul (겨울), winter is our KDrama word for today. Does that string of vowels look familiar? You have seen it before in the name of South Korea’s capital and largest city, Seoul (서울).
Stacked kimchi jars in a snowy valley next to a sign in Korean
You’ll see that the second letter is similar but different in these two words. The ㅓ in Seoul has only one left-facing flag on the vertical, while the ㅕin kyeoul has two. A second flag on a vowel, whether on a horizontal or vertical bar, gives it a Y sound at the beginning. So ㅓ (in Seoul) is pronounced uh or aw, while ㅕ(in kyeoul) is pronounced yuh or yaw. Many Korean vowels have these two forms, which are considered to be two separate letters.

Moving on to the second syllable, in both words, it begins with ㅜ, the “oo” U-letter we talked about in the last post. Kyeoul is pronounced kyuh-ool or kyaw-ool, while Seoul is pronounced suh-ool or saw-ool (NOT “sole,” as most Americans pronounce it). Even though both words have two syllables, the syllables are blended together rather than enunciated separately, so it sounds more like a syllable-and-a-half. You can hear the pronunciation for kyeoul and many other winter-related words on this page.

But wait, you may be thinking. The second syllable doesn’t begin with ㅜ, it begins with ㅇ. Well, yes and no. ㅇ has a dual nature. In theory, Korean syllables must begin with a consonant. When they don’t, ㅇ stands in for the consonant, as a placeholder with no sound. At the end of a syllable, however, ㅇ has an “ng” sound.

Have you learned Hangeul yet? You may have some free time next week, so check out these games:


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November 20, 2014

KDrama Word of the Day: Fall (Kaeul)

Fall (가을) is 우리 Kdrama Word for today. Korea is definitely a 4-season country, with chilly winters, monsoon summers, fall color, and spring blossoms. You may also see 가을 Romanized as gaeul, but kaeul is a better phonetic spelling. The vowel syllable is partly absorbed into the first syllable, so kah-eul sounds like one syllable with a dragged-out first vowel, rather than two distinct syllables.
Close up photo of oak leaves turned red in fall
Note that the Hangeul letters ㅡ and ㅜ have different U-sounds.
ㅡ is usually Romanized as “eu,” but it is not, strictly speaking, an English-language sound, so it is difficult to Romanize accurately. The English words “eu” appears in are typically loan words from French. The “eu” is often pronounced “oo” in the English version (which is the sound of Hangeul letter ㅜ). Example: entrepreneur. The “eu” sound is formed just inside the lips, while “oo” comes from further back.

What’s a loan word, you may ask? A loan word is a word borrowed from another language (and usually changed a bit along the way). English is full of French loan words and phrases. Some are obviously French, such as deja vu, faux pas, cachet, nouveau riche, hors d’oeuvre, fait accompli, coup d’etat, dossier, memoir, rapport and restaurant. Others are everday words we may not think of as French – mayonnaise, unique, ambulance, denim, pioneer, detour, corduroy, menu, dentist, portrait, route, soup, zest, bicycle, publicity, and salvage, to name just a few. Watch out for words in Korean that seem like loan words of English words that are themselves loan words from another language. Sometimes the Korean word is a loan word of the original word, not the English version.

Somewhere between 50-70% of Korean words are loan words from Chinese, due to a long history of military and economic domination from the west. For this reason, Chinese speakers may be able to understand a great deal of Korean without studying the language. Korean also has many English loan words, especially for technology (like 핸드폰), and other aspects of modern urban life (like 뉴스).

And then there are cognates. Cognates are similar-sounding words in related languages that come from the same root. For example, I am able to understand quite a lot of words in Spanish that I have never studied, because they sound similar to the English words. You have to watch out though, because cognates have sometimes evolved different meanings in different languages, even though they sound similar and came from the same parent word.

And finally, there is Konglish. These days, the term is generally used to describe Korean loan words from English. However, I have read that it originally referred to the clever use of Korean words that sounded like English words to convey a double meaning in English and Korean.


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November 19, 2014

KDrama Words of the Day: Hanok | Hanbok | Haengbok

Hanok (한옥) begins our trio of somewhat similar-sounding KDrama words for today. A 한옥 is a traditional Korean house, as we have all seen in sageuk. The pronunciation of the first syllable is hah, and the o sounds like oak, so “hah-noke” rhymes with awoke.
A well-kept hanok house in the country with a rocky mountain wall behind itThis might be a good time to talk about final consonants in Korean words. English speakers enunciate last consonants completely, often finishing up with a little puff of air (while paying attention to the inside of your mouth, say: cat. Feel it?). For Koreans, on the other hand, the final consonant is barely hinted at, and sometimes not audible at all, unless the next word begins with a vowel.

A hanok house has sliding doors, heated floors, compact bedrooms and is usually all on one story. You can read more about regional differences in hanok design here.

A man and woman wearing Joseon hanbok stand under a tree talkingOur next word, hanbok (한복) is also related to Korean traditions, of dress. We have all seen hanbok in drama, whether historical or set in the present. They turn up on men, women and children, at weddings, at bowing ceremonies (because managing that in a full length skirt shows you really mean it!), and on children at birthday parties. We also see hanbok on pansori singers and traditional Korean dancers. Korean modern styles have been influenced by hanbok in obvious ways (short sweaters with long sleeves, for example), and the influence is beginning to circulate outside of Korea.

Last but not least is haengbok (행복), which is Korean for happy. Haengbok is pronounced pretty much the way it is Romanized, for once! As with 사랑, 결혼, and 이혼, add 하다 to 행복 for the verb form 행복하다 (haengbokhada), “to be happy.”

To top off our post today, we have a charming video of 해피 young Koreans dancing to the Pharrell Williams song, “Happy.”


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