Category Archives: Korean Insight

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Korean Culture is More Than Just Kimchi

Korean culture is more than just Kimchi. Whenever I watch Korean dramas or movies, I can’t help but wonder why the girls like to address the older men as “Oppa”? Oppa means big brother in Korean. I can somehow accept it when the couples are not married, but even after marriage, the wife still continues to address the husband as oppa is something which I really cannot comprehend.

Koreans are a very group oriented people. The reason for saying that is because when a wife is talking about her own husband or house to others, she does not say my husband or my house, but she says “uri” meaning ours in Korean. This is a complete opposite from my culture as I will never say my room to be our room as it is clearly my room. You know what I mean?

Knowing another person’s age is somehow a very important aspect of Korean culture as well. They will ask your age even on the first day of meeting. This I guess is because in Korean culture, the younger person has to show respect to the older person and the language that they use will also be different because of this. Although I am able to understand where all these are coming from, but I still think how tiring it must be for someone to be wary about such things all the time. Take drinking for example. The younger ones have to pour drinks for the older ones and they are not allowed to drink facing the older ones, but have to turn their head to the side and drink. I sometimes wonder whether close relationships can actually be built up this way.

When dining in Korean restaurant, have you noticed that they are very fast? Once seated, they will begin to serve all kinds of Kimchi and water. And without much waiting, your order will be served piping hot. Koreans are notorious for wanting everything to be done fast. It is very common to hear them say Pari Pari meaning hurry hurry all the time. And in Korea, there have food deliveries that will deliver all kinds of food to your home and office within mere 30 minutes. Now, that is what I call service.

Have you ever attended a Korean child’s first birthday party? It is both interesting and amusing. In the birthday party, the parents will put about 4 things on the table such as money, thread, rice and pen and have the child pick one. The one thing that the child picks will represent the child`s future. If the child picks money, that means he/she will be rich. Can you guess what the other items mean?

Korean culture is indeed interesting and at the same time difficult to comprehend. I guess this is the same for any culture in that there are certain things that are done naturally and so innate in your culture that you are not able to explain it in details to people outside of the culture. For example, Koreans like to ask the question, “Have you eaten?” When you bump into a Korean friend, it does not matter what time of the day it is, the first question that would ask will be, “Have you eaten?” I tried asking a Korean friend about this and she could not explain it to me. She said it is just a form of greeting, like “How are you?” in English, and does not have any profound meaning attached to it. I guess the best way to understand another country’s culture is to accept the difference and to respect it rather than trying to make sense out of it.

This article was written by Carolyn Tan.

Field of Flower Boys

A while back, I posted the MV of Korean boy group Super Junior’s “Sorry Sorry” on my Facebook page to celebrate SuJu’s end of year reign on top of the South Korean and other pan-Asian music charts. The comments and subsequent posts I received for it was completely not what I expected. Instead of “nice video,” “great song”, or “I like the dance choreography”, what poured in were “I enjoyed watching those girls dance…”and “what pretty faces…(and)…prettier frames they have” which pretty much sum up that post thread.

Growing up watching lots of Hong Kong and various other Asian dramas, I guess I got used to and became immune to the girlie boy stature of those East Asian men who paraded across my tv screen through the years. So it wasn’t a long stretch for me to accept this new breed of prettier than flower boys (translation: prettier than most females) who has saturated, been imitated, and drooled over in Korea, and then been exported to Japan, Southeast Asia , Hong Kong, and mainland China spawning, defining and dressing  a new breed of acceptable and celebrated men-looking-like-feminine-prepubescents preference.

In all seriousness, one has to wonder after gaping and awing at how these full grown twentysomething heterosexual men can look soooo pretty. The usual reflex reactions of admiring ‘so cute,’ ‘so hawt’, etc take a back seat to envying streams of ‘how could they have such beautiful pearly skin!’, ‘how could they be so slim!’, ‘I want his skin or at least the name of his aesthetician!’, and ‘look at those perfectly manicured nails and long fingers!’ Of course there  are also sufficient equilibriating eye-rollings and (shallow) critiques over the varying degrees of ridiculousness in these guys signature über coiffed hair of cascading waves or perfect ringlets, and ensembles of multi-graphic or flowing pastelly and bright colored tops complete with, more often than not, girlie legs touting skin tight pants.  As if people aren’t opionated enough as it is, if you walk out of the house dressed in that fashion, you’re just asking for the claws to come out.

Feminine looking men have always been around but never as celebrated and strong in numbers on screen as they are now. In fact, Korean audiences and Korean drama fans can’t seem to get enough of them. Almost every single trendy drama these recent years stars at least one flower boy. The ultimate one is probably the self-crown titled Boys Over Flowers 꽃보다 남자(2008) with not one, not two, but four prettier than flowers, heck, prettier than supermodels not-boys-but-not-yet-men male leads. Even discounting the fact that the female lead is suppose to be a below average plain Jane character, the juxtaposition of her and them are like comparing Apollo’s radiant charge on an August summer with a flickering incandescent light bulb. It was too sad to watch.

Other flower boy drama show pieces include You’re Beautiful 미남이시네요(2009), Baker King, Kim Tak Goo 제빵왕 김탁구 (2010), Tamra, the Island 탐나는 도다(2010), Sungkyunkwan Scandal 성균관 스캔들(2010), Playful Kiss 장난스런 키스(2010), and Mary Stayed Out All Night 장난스런 키스 (2010). The general stew of reigning and rising flower boys include Lee Jun Ki (The King and the Clown 왕의 남자 2005, My Girl 마이걸2005), Kim Hyun Joong and his cohorts of SS501, Jung Il Woo (Return of Iljimae 돌아온 일지매2009, Take Care of the Young Lady 아가씨를 부탁해 2009), Jang Geun Seok (Beethoven’s Virus, You’re Beautiful 미남이시네요2009), Song Joong Ki (Sungkyunkwan Scandal 성균관 스캔들 2010, Will It Snow At Christmas 크리스마스에 눈이 올까요 2009), and Noh Min Woo (My Girlfriend is a Gumiho 내 여자친구는 구미호 2010).

There are so many more eligible for this list, but since the subject is on looks, I reckon it’ll be more effective for my point to post pictures of these pretty, dainty looking boys/men. You can be sure that there are plenty of other candidates I haven’t mentioned or missed.

Prettier than flowers (plus most females) boys

Why do so many Korean girls and Korean drama fans like or accept this traditionally ridiculed look so much? Although I no longer have the one-note aesthetic and perspective of some of my western raised friends and emote shock, giggles, and sarcasm at the sight of these boys, personally I’m not attractive to them either per se, being steeped too many impressionable years in the school of it’s unmasculine, wimpy, and it’s-wrong-that-the boy-is-prettier-than-the-girl thoughts. I can’t even offer a non-statistical, unscientific guess on the mass attraction. Noticeably bizarre is that the younger generations of Korean girls (in Korea) are getting taller, bigger boned, and more statuesque these days right in stride with the guys. Could be all the mineral enriched and extra-amped up products they’ve regularly been feeding on since birth i.e DHA omega fortified dairy, well-being foods. One would think they would prefer men with even bigger not slighter stature than them. I can understand the attraction to the characters some of these pretty boys portray in their movies or dramas, but the look itself- no, not really.

Just to follow up on the Super Junior “Sorry Sorry” post story, I posted a comparatively more masculine looking MV of “Mirotic” by TVXQ/DBSK/Tohoshinki/東方神起 (the group goes by so many different monikers) to man and muscle up the Korean men’s image and offer some balance. Yeah, that calmed the giggles.

Makgeolli- The Other Korean Drink

When I was watching Fantasy Couple 환상의 커플 (2006), it gave me several itches:  an itch to eat chajjang myeon (Koreanized Chinese black bean noodles), an itch to learn the Go Stop card game, and an itch to drink makgeolli. The last was the strongest and most impossible itch to satisfy. The drama made makgeolli look so appealing I had to replay many scenes  over again because I just couldn’t pay attention to what the actors were saying being so absorbed with what they were drinking and how they were drinking it! It was the first time I saw alcohol stored in a giant kettle, drank from a bowl, and appreciated so much in the way that Han Ye-seul’s character appreciated it.

Of course, I subsequently searched for makgeolli in all the Korean supermarkets I could find, but apparently makgeolli was not exported to the States back then! It was complete torture watching the rest of that drama seeing Oh Ji Ho and company lounging around in their rural seaside town, summer breeze caressing their faces, downing bowl after bowl of refreshing homemade makgeolli.

Traditional makgeolli, from its basic and sparse ingredients to its brewing technique all the way to the drinking experience epitomizes the image of Korean country lifestyle – resourcefulness, localization, patience, cheerfulness, and practicality. Makgeolli uses local grains, is inexpensive to make and purchase, quenches the thirst and hunger, and revives one’s sapping strength. These qualities are not surprising given the origin of makgeolli. This distinctively Korean alcohol was also called nanju or ‘farmer’s liquor’ which hints at its origin. Made from boiled rice or other grains and water, then fermented, makgeolli has a creamy off-white appearance, tickles going down from its slight carbonation, and can be consumed in huge volume before the 6-10% alcohol content sneak attacks. It used to be brewed and consumed primarily by country folks and peasants, but nowadays not only has it been embraced by all Koreans regardless of geography and trade, but because it’s now exported, first to Japan and Australia and beginning of 2010 to the US, it is also copiously enjoyed by those abroad .

In fact, as part of the Korean government’s ambitious campaign to culturally export hanshik (Korean food) as part of the greater hallyu (Korean Wave) phenomenon, makgeolli was given an integral role to play. It has been selected and promoted as the representative alcoholic drink of Korea.  To that end, Asiana Airline has started serving makgeolli during its in-flight services throughout its trans-Asian flights. Additionally, to increase makgeolli’s popularity with the younger generation, makgeolli cocktails which add fresh fruits such as pineapple, peaches, and raspberries to the brew, are being served in bars and fine establishments all over Seoul. It’s arguable that Korean dramas – hallyu’s rice and kimchi – are also participating in this campaign. Apart from historical saeguk dramas, which aptly features this traditional drink of the people, modern dramas are also starting to inject makgeolli into the storyline, whether as background setting, cursory prop, or context.

In the drama Gourmet 식객 (2008), Korean food and food culture are showcased through the protagonist Sung Chan’s journey to improve his culinary knowledge and skills in order to save his family’s restaurant a.k.a. Korea’s authoritative showcase of hanshik from becoming another commercial restaurant chain. That mouthwatering journey wouldn’t be complete if makgeolli wasn’t part of the course and education.

Then there is Cinderella’s Sister 신데렐라 언니 (2010), a reinterpretation of the familiar Cinderella story told from a sympathetic stepsister’s point of view. The story is set at a makgeolli making factory owned by Cinderella’s father. Consequently, makgeolli metaphors, makgeolli related anecdotes, and makgeolli transposed moral lessons abound i.e. ‘the yeast of life’ and ‘honest ingredients produces characters’. The quiet, temperature-stable brewery also serves as a haven for the characters in their rocky times of trouble and sadness.

With such compounded effort and support behind makgeolli, it’s not unlikely that future k-drama heroes and heroines will be clinking bowls of makgeolli instead of shots of soju in the near small screen as a reflection of the pop culture. It can happen! In the meantime, for anyone (of drinking age) who hasn’t had the pleasure of sampling a fresh bowl of makgeolli (expiration date crucially important), I highly recommend acclimating oneself to this hearty elixir.

The Price of Adultery

“Woman Faces Jail For Adulterous Affair”

No, this didn’t happen to some lucky woman in some Taliban-infested village of Afghanistan (an unlucky one would’ve been stoned to death or buried alive). This happened and is still happening in modern day South Korea. The same South Korea that has leapt to the forefront of stem cell research, is leading the pack in broadband saturation, and is impressing international audience with original gems like Old Boy, No Regret, Portrait of a Beauty, and Mother, but to date is still enforcing a 1953 law that criminalizes adultery punishable up to two years in jail. Although the number of cases where adulterers are thrown in jail is occurring significantly less these days, the number of lawsuits against cheating spouses filed in court is still shockingly high. For all who are interested in Korean culture, being aware and understanding this draconian remnant from post war Korea will shed light on many befuddling k-drama and k-film plot lines. How many unsuspecting casual k-drama viewers got stumped when the heroine In Sung in Bad Love 못된 사랑 (2007-2008) was thrown in jail for adultery? Hence, let’s delve a moment into the modern Korean psyche which grafts centuries old patriarch-dominant Confucian morality with progressive ideals of a young generation nursed on DHA-fortified milk, educated en mass at hagwons, brought up on the Internet, and fertile for global assimilation.

The stubborn refusal by the Korean Constitutional Court to overturn this law seems glaringly paradoxal and archaic to the aspirations of a continuously progressing modern Korea. The stale argument that decriminalizing it would weaken social morality is laughable in the face of all the conspicuously cheap and convenient ‘sex motels’ thriving in throes in Seoul. Plus, isn’t it an irrefutable fact that making something forbidden only fuels its allure, so the law inadvertently is propagating what it seeks to ban?

If popular culture is the lens into a society’s psyche, then the overused recurring k-drama scene of unmarried couples, cheating husbands and bored wives, horny teenagers, or anyone with a libido slinking off to do the horizontal mambo is telling of the futility of criminalizing adultery as an effort to protect and sanctify the marriage institution and stabilize society. Cheating does not necessarily stem from a desire to divorce or leads to divorce, especially in the cases of the wandering husbands, which statistically the courts have been hypocritically lenient with. People have and will cheat despite their vows of undying love and fidelity at the altar and laws punishing cheaters will not stop this behavior. Only the individual can enforce him/herself not to behave as such. Of course, sadly, it doesn’t help that the sex-trade is so rampant and accessible in Korea despite tougher crackdowns and punishments to date. The only seemingly utilitarian function this outdated law serves is contributing to twisted plot lines in every other k-drama and movie.

Would it have been as funny in Its a Good Day to Have an Affair 바람피기 좋은날 (2007) if Dew’s husband had tried to catch her in the act unaccompanied by a squadron of policemen in toe? What better catalyst for revenge in Bad Boy 나쁜남자 (2010) than Madame Shin’s calculated cruelty towards little Tae Sung for being an illegitimate child of her cuckolding husband? Just making a character an illegitimate child carries enough implications to illicit heart attack inducing reactions that are loudly and over-dramatically acted out in the dramas. The Korean audience understands why. And now, so do you.