Wednesday, December 13, 2017

#98. 빻다 -- you're f-ugly

A few years ago, a journalist contacted people of various nationalities, and asked them to photoshop her own face to conform to the standards of beauty of their country.

This is the original picture of the journalist.
I suppose that if less photoshop was applied to her face, then the corresponding culture has a less rigid standards of beauty. Here are some examples of the photoshopped results by various nations. To see more photos, you can visit here.




United States
I had an interesting reaction to this experiment. While I felt that all these women were undoubtedly on the pretty side, I felt reluctant to call any of these photoshopped images the ideal standard of beauty.

Except the one from Korea.

One Korean netizen commented: "Wow, we even changed her race."

To me, the Korean beauty very accurately reflected what people consider to be ideal. In fact, I feel confident that nearly every Korean will agree that this woman is beautiful.

I suppose this is because the Koreans tend to have a very rigid standards for beauty. For example, you are required to have snow-white and clear skin; your eyes must be large and double-lidded; your face must be oval-shaped and not too long, nor not too square; your nose should be high (but not too high), and narrow (but not too narrow); your lips must be plump (but not too plump) and curve slightly upwards. I could go on, but you get the idea.

I can more or less understand why the Koreans do this; they are ranked from the first place to the last place on their grades from their early lives. This rank largely determines their life trajectory, and so the Koreans remain sensitive to "where they stand in relation to the others." This attitude does not just apply to your grades in school, or the rank of your university that you attended. They tend to want to rank many different things, from the prestige of your job, to your desirability as a potential spouse, to how beautiful your face is.

This means that the Koreans use the word "ugly" to describe someone's face with more ease than those coming from the Western culture. There is a rigid standard of beauty, which you can use to rank everyone's faces, and if someone's face does not conform to the Korean standards, then they must be ugly. And quite frankly, they can be offensive about it.

The most standard way to say that someone is ugly is:
"준호는 정말 못생겼어." (Junho is really ugly).
"생기다" means "to have an appearance." For example, if something looks like a flower, you can say:
"저건 꽃처럼 생겼네" (That has the appearance of a flower).
So, if you say "못생기다," since "못" means "unable," it means to "unable to have an appearance," which is to say, "ugly." While the connotation is of course rude, this word is standard and nonoffensive (for example, if you want to talk about an ugly but endearing doll, you can say "못생긴 인형.")

Unfortunately, as the concept of "being ugly" is so clearly defined in the Korean culture, the slang for "ugly" also has many variations. When I was a child, I remember the popular choice of word for being ugly was to say:
"내친구는 메주같이 생겼어." (My friend looks like a block of fermented soybeans.) 
"메주" is a block of fermented soybeans, which is the Korean version of the miso paste. The Korean 메주 is a lot thicker in texture; so thick that you can mold them into bricks and hang them up.

You ferment the soybeans for a while, then you hang them up like this to dry them. This way, they get preserved for years. From this, you can make soy sauce (간장) and gochujang (고추장).
The reason for calling someone a "메주" is because a 메주 is everything that you don't want in your face. It has a dark complexion; its surface is rough and uneven, and sometimes you can even see pieces of soybean on it; and its shape is a square instead of oval. If you had any of these attributes on your face, you would be ugly by the Korean standards. Thankfully, it seems that "메주" is no longer in fashion, and I have not heard anyone use it in years.

The current choice of word for being ugly is "빻다." This verb, pronounced "빠타," is a standard verb that you can find in a Korean dictionary. It means to pulverize something using a mortar and pestle. For example, you may dry some hot red peppers, then pulverize them to get the hot pepper flakes (in Korean, you would say "고추를 빻아서 고추가루를 만든다.")

The Korean version of mortar and pestle. (절구 is the bowl in Korean, and 절구공이 is the pestle). 

So, if you say that someone's face is "빻았다" (past tense of "빻다," pronounced "빠았다"), this means that they are so ugly that it looks like their face has been pulverized by the mortar and pestle. For example, you might say:
"은영이 얼굴은 진짜 빻았어." (Eunyoung's face is so ugly that it looks like it's been crushed into a powder.)
When this word was popularized (maybe in 2016 or so), many people understandably felt repulsed by the word. This word was mostly used on the internet, as people tend to be more cruel when they can be anonymous, and strongly shunned in real life. You should also stick to this guideline -- never use this word in real life, as it is highly offensive.

Another theory for the origin of this word is that it comes from the 경상 dialect, which says "빠사지다" or "빠아지다" instead of "부서지다" (broken); while this is slightly less offensive, I think this origin is still plenty offensive!

As of very recent, this word does get used in an endearing way in very specific contexts (however, one should still avoid this word in real life). Below is a photo of a girl named 최유정 (Yoojung Choi), who placed 3rd in the reality show "Produce 101," which aimed to choose eleven beautiful girls to form an idol group (the group debuted under the name of IOI, and became immediately popular; however, under the terms of the contract of the reality show, the group disbanded less than a year after their debut.)

Absolutely adorable!

This adorable and talented girl immediately gained many fans. She could sing, dance, and rap, and most of all, she had a ton of aegyo, which won over many viewers.

Unfortunately, she does not meet the standards for the Korean beauty. Her eyes are a tad too small; her face is a little bit too round; her nose is not high enough; and the list goes on. Her talents were more than enough to compensate for it, though, and the Korean fans found this very amusing that this "ugly" girl had charmed an entire nation.

Her fans therefore gave her the nickname of "빻요미" (here, the ㅎ is silent). This is a combination of "빻다" and "귀요미," meaning "an ugly cutie." I suppose this is Korea's way of admitting that there are beautiful girls out there who do not meet the traditional standards for the Korean beauty. 

This style of nickname found its way to other Korean celebrities who are in the same boat as 최유정, namely, not beautiful enough, yet so charming that you can't help liking them. Another example is the Korean girl group Gfriend ("여자친구" in Korean). They are sometimes called "빻자친구" in the Korean internet.

The Korean reaction to these nicknames varies. Some people find this nickname adorable, and they use it with love and endearment. The others are offended by this nickname, and they will get angry when they hear it.

The fact that there is a clear divide between "beautiful" and "ugly" is one of the most difficult things for me to reconcile, having spent enough time in both the Korean and the Western culture. A huge point of debate for the Koreans is the following: some will insist that the foreigners secretly have an identical standards for beauty, and that whoever is beautiful in Korea is also beautiful abroad; and the others will argue that the foreigners all have different standards for beauty, and some "ugly" Koreans would be a top-notch beauty in other cultures. What do you think?

Friday, December 8, 2017

#97. Pay attention to your dreams (Shamanism 8, Hanja 2)

A popular myth in North Korea goes that Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong Un and the founder of North Korea, had some special powers. He was able to walk incredibly fast by warping the ground and leaping through the folds (in Korean, this is called "축지법.") During the Japanese occupation, he is said to have crossed the Tumen River ("두만강" in Korean) on a single leaf to fight and defeat the Japanese. In this battle, he turned pine cones into grenades and threw it at the Japanese. This sounds crazy!

To the Koreans, this also sounds crazy. But I always maintain that this sounds slightly less crazy to the Koreans than the rest of the world, because we have many other characters in our history who claim to have done similar things (to be fair, there is also Jesus Christ, who walked on water and turned water into wine, but I feel that there are just way more stories like this in Korea!)

The reason for my claim is that the Koreans are really interested in the biographies of the famous historical figures. In fact, you used to be able to buy a set books of 200 (or some other large number) famous historical personalities (I assume you still can, although I'm not sure). Of course, not all of them are actually significant in history, so often myths or legends were inserted into these books to make their lengths approximately equal, and many of these stories became well-known in the general Korean psyche.

One character who is said to have accomplished such fantastical things is a man named 김유신 (Yooshin Kim, if you anglicize it). He was a famous general in the Three Kingdoms Era (삼국시대), which consisted of 고구려 (Goguryeo), 백제 (Baekje), and 신라 (Silla). 김유신 was one of the highest-ranking generals of Silla, and he led the final battles that ended the kingdom of 백제. He was also politically talented, and his political talents ended 고구려 eight years later.

Here is a portrait of 김유신 (595-673 AD).
There are a million myths associated to 김유신. One short myth goes that a soothsayer in 고구려 was about to be executed after being framed. This soothsayer, as his dying words, told the people around him that he will be reincarnated as a fearsome general of Silla, and that he will bring doom to 고구려. Some time later, the king of 고구려 dreamed of the soothsayer, who was in process of entering the body of a Silla woman, of the name 만명부인. When he heard the news that she indeed had a son (김유신, of course!), the king sent an assassin after her son, but it is said that three goddesses appeared and forewarned the general and his mother about this scheme, and 김유신 survived.

You can already tell that dreams occupied an important part of the Korean lives; important enough for a king to act on his dream. The Koreans took their dreams very seriously since the ancient times. As far as the Koreans were concerned, they could tell the future, they served as warnings, and if you acted appropriately, you could avert disaster, or also bring luck into your life. 김유신 had two sisters, and it is said that their fates changed because of one dream.

The older sister, named 보희 (Bohee), had a dream that she climbed the Seoak Mountain (서악산) which overlooks the city of Gyeongju (경주), which was the capital of 신라. In her dream, she urinated at the top of the mountain, and her urine filled the entire city of Gyeongju.

Scandalized and embarrassed, she confided in her younger sister named 문희 (Moonhee) her awful dream. 문희, however, thought that this dream was a positive omen, and that this meant that she would rule over Silla one day. So she asked 보희 to sell the dream to her, to which 보희 gladly and eagerly agreed. For the price for her dream, 문희 paid with a beautiful dress made of silk.

The story of 문희 and 보희 is well-known amongst Koreans!

Just a few days later, 김유신's good friend named 김춘추 (Chunchu Kim) was kicking a ball around with 김유신. While doing so, he ripped his shirt (some say that 김유신 caused this on purpose). As it would not have been proper behaviour for a nobleman to walk around with a ripped shirt, and as they were near 김유신's house, 김유신 brought his friend home, and asked his two sisters to sew the shirt back up. 보희 declined, as she did not want to stay in the same room with an unmarried man as the etiquettes of the time dictated. However, 문희 accepted. And thus 김유신 played a matchmaker to 김춘추 and 문희, and the pair met often and enjoyed a whirlwind of romance.

Alas, while 김춘추 was a nobleman of the highest tier (back in the Silla era, he was a 성골; this meant that he was eligible for the crown), 김유신 was only a nobleman of the second highest tier (진골; while this meant that he had a very high status, he could never be the king). And by law, marriage between different tiers was forbidden. However, 김유신 was not to be deterred. When he found out that his sister was pregnant, he ordered her to be burned to death -- however, her burning was to take place at a very visible place, while he knew that the queen of Silla would be nearby with 김춘추! When the queen found out that 문희 was about to be killed because of 김춘추, she ordered the two to be married despite the difference in their ranks.

It is said that on the day of 문희's marriage, 보희 stayed at home crying and burning her silk dress.

Eventually, 김춘추 unified the three kingdoms and became the first king of the Unified Silla (통일신라), and 문희 was his queen. Their son was the next king of Unified Silla.

Interestingly enough, many Koreans still put a lot of significance into their dreams, and there are many Korean words whose equivalent translations do not exist in English because of this. First, a Hanja:

The Korean name of this Hanja is
As in the previous installation where I introduced Hanja, the meaning of this letter is "dream," while the pronunciation is "몽." So whenever you encounter a Korean word that has the letter "몽" as a part of it, you might guess that this word has something to do with dreams. Some examples of such words include:

(惡夢, nightmare), 유병 (夢遊病, sleepwalking), 환 (夢幻, dreams and fantasies), 정 (夢精, wet dreams), 동상이 (同床異夢, two people dreaming of different things even though they are lying in the same bed; two people who seem to be partners while having a different agenda).

Anyway, in the modern-day Korea, people still pay attention to their dreams. Some of the dreams are widely believed to talk of imminent good fortune. There dreams are called 길몽, or auspicious dreams. If you dream of a dragon (the Korean-style, of course, 용꿈), pigs (돼지꿈), or feces (똥꿈...?!), then this means that you are about to have some financial windfall. Many Koreans react to this dream by going out and buying a lottery ticket, or they might try to sell their auspicious dreams to someone going through hard times (like 문희 and 보희) for a nominal amount of money. At the very least, this is a nice gesture, and possibly has a placebo effect, right?

I can't really tell you why the pigs or feces are considered good dreams. I do have some guesses, though. For pigs, as they are generally chubby, they were believed to be the bringers of good fortune from the olden days. As for the feces, Koreans also often say that
꿈은 반대다 (dreams are opposites of reality)
and since feces are pretty much one of the worst things that can happen, maybe it is a favourable dream. Popular urban myths often say that a lot of lottery winners dreamed of feces before winning the lottery.

There are dreams that are opposites of 길몽 -- they are different from nightmares, as the dreams themselves might not be too bad, but they foreshadow some bad things to come. These dreams are called 흉(as opposed to 악몽, which are the nightmares). One widely believed 흉몽 is the dream of having your tooth (or teeth) come out (이빨 빠지는 꿈). The Koreans say that when you dream of something like this, one of your relatives are about to die. If their dream seems very ominous, some Koreans (obviously, not all!) will pay a visit to a shaman to have their dreams interpreted, and to try to prevent the disaster that is to come.


A final group of dreams that is widely believed by the general population of Korea is called 태. When a woman becomes pregnant, either the woman or family members close to the woman are said to dream a mysterious dream. These dreams are supposed to tell you the gender of the baby, the personality of the baby, and the future of the baby. If you ask, many Koreans will tell you their own 태몽!

These 태몽 feature a lot of objects that are stereo-typically associated to a gender. For example, if you are to have a boy, you might see the sun, the dragon, a thunderbolt, a rock, a rooster, a pig, or a peach (in Asian cultures, peaches are very much associated to the male gender, for some reason.) If your pig was particularly lively, this might signify that your child will be a very outgoing child, whose aptitude is in the sports or in performance. If you are to have a girl, you might dream of a flower, a melon, a cucumber, an apple, a seashell, a half-moon, etc.

For example, 김유신's father is said to have dreamed of two planets coming at him before having his child. It is not entirely clear to me how you tell a 태몽 apart from other dreams, but I suppose these dreams remain with you vividly even after you wake up, and it's all about whether you decide to attribute the significance to the dream or not. At least most Koreans that I talk to seem to have no ambiguity about their own 태몽.

I am not sure about my own 태몽, weirdly enough. When I first asked my mom about it, I think I must have been maybe seven or eight years old. She just told me that she would tell me when I became an adult. However, although I became an adult a decade ago, she still hasn't told me about it. I suspect that she didn't have one (or, my family was never very superstitious, so maybe she just disapproved of me getting sucked into the popular shamanism myths!), and she was just buying time before disappointing me -- I will have to ask her again in the near future.

Monday, December 4, 2017

#96. 오지라퍼 -- your business is my business

The Western society has come a long way.

When I imagine a peaceful medieval town, I imagine a small community of maybe a hundred families. Many of these families probably had children of similar age, and they probably all played together. Their parents probably took turns providing snacks for these children when they got hungry. If one child was not around for a few days, they would be concerned for the child, and also for his parents. They would pay them a visit, and make sure that everything is alright. Maybe they'll bring some bread and soup, just in case. In these towns, everyone would know everyone, and if something happened to one of the families, the news would travel quickly throughout the entire town. If a young couple eloped, the entire town would stop by the parents' house to offer their unsolicited advice.

With time, this familiarity with your neighbours started to fade in the West. Now, the invasion of privacy is a crime. Spreading gossip indiscriminately can be prosecuted as slander. It is impolite to be discussing your neighbours.

The increase of the radius of your personal bubble ensures your privacy. However, with it, you lose the familiarity with your neighbours. You lose the sense of community. And you lose the trust. It's always that if you win some, then you lose some.

The Korean society started out in a very similar way as a Western medieval town.

A very typical imagery for a traditional Korean town. The roof made of hay was extremely common for the middle and lower class families!
While the Koreans grew to value privacy a little bit more, they also clung to the idea that the sense of community, and knowing that your neighbours care about you is still very important. It is still common to have very close neighbours who will stop by unannounced to make sure that your children had snacks while you are out working. They may bring over a portion of their dinner, because they cooked so much and the dinner turned out great. To thank them, you may ask them over to have a bottle of beer. Like the Koreans say, you may get so close to your neighbours that you know how many spoons they have in their household.

But this also means that you are subject to a lot of unsolicited advice. They may have something to add to your spending habits. They might think that your children could do better, if it weren't for your terrible parenting, and take it upon themselves to lecture you on how to raise your children better.

The Koreans have a word for this. When someone sticks their nose in your business one time too many, you can say:
"저사람 정말 오지랖이 넓네." (He has a very wide shirt-front.)
The word "오지랖" doesn't seem to be commonplace in English. We talk about the tail of a shirt, which is the bottom part of the shirt in the back which hangs below the waist. "오지랖" is the corresponding counterpart in the front. If you have a very wide shirt-front, then it will end up covering your pants, leading to an unwise fashion choice. Your shirt is invading the space that rightfully belongs to your pants, just like your annoying neighbour who doesn't know when to leave you alone.

While the grammatically correct idiom is to use it as an adjective "오지랖이 넓다," now "오지랖" itself can be used in many different form. For example, "오지랖" itself can be used as a noun meaning "butting into situations where one is not welcome." For example, in the picture above, the common type of 오지랖s that most Koreans experience are written:

when you're a student, the 오지랖 is whether you're getting good grades;
when you graduate, the 오지랖 is to ask whether you have found a job;
when you're over 30, whether you will marry;
when you marry, that you should have kids;
when you have a son, that you should have a daughter because it's nice;
when you have a daughter, that you should have a son to feel secure;
when you have a son and a daughter, that you should have a third child since two children of different gender (남매) are rarely close to each other;
when you have two sons, that you should have a daughter;
when you have two daughters, that you should have a son;
when you have three kids, that you won't be able to afford having three kids...

It seems incredible, but most Koreans do deal with these kinds of 오지랖! An appropriate response to these unsolicited concerns might be:
"쓸데없는 오지랖이야" (These are useless worries, and none of your business.)
The word "오지랖" itself is completely standard, and you can use it to Koreans of any age (although if you use it to the offending party, they will find it insulting!)

However, the cute neologism popular among the younger Koreans that I have been seeing a lot lately is the word "오지라퍼." And perhaps you can already guess what it means. Well, a "rapper" is a person who "raps," so an "오지라퍼 = 오지랖+er" is a person who doles out generous amounts of "오지랖" to people. As always, the combination of a pure Korean word and an English word has a humorous effect (since it destroys the beautiful Korean language!) so it intensifies the nuance of sarcasm.

It also feels trendy in the sense that the word itself sounds a bit similar to "rapper," almost like "my bro the busybody." This means that you do not want to use this word with your superiors or elders, in case they get offended (although I think most Koreans, except the very elderly who did not have an English education, should understand it). So, if you want to exaggerate your feelings of sarcasm, you could say:
"세호야말로 진정한 오지라퍼야." (Seho is the true busybody, man.)
This has the effect of sounding a bit more vulgar and sarcastic than just saying it in the standard way:
"세호는 오지랖이 참 넓어." (Seho has a very wide shirt-front),
 which sounds relatively polite and almost gentlemanly compared to the slangy sentence using "오지라퍼."

Finally, there is a very similar (and fairly standard) clothing-related slang for "helicopter moms." The helicopter moms tend to hover around their children, and become involved in all of their childrens' businesses. The Koreans call these women "치맛바람," literally meaning "skirt winds." They are so busy chasing their children that their skirts cause wind! :) You can use it in various capacities, such as just as a noun (just like how you would use 오지랖), or you can use it as an adjective by saying "치맛바람이 세다" (her skirt winds are strong), or you can say it as a verb via "치맛바람이 분다." I close this post with three examples:

"요즘 어머니들 치맛바람때문에 못살겠다." (I can't carry on my day-to-day activities these days because of the skirt winds of the helicopter moms.)
"슬기 어머니는 치맛바람이 너무 세서 아이가 불쌍하다." (The skirt winds of Seulgi's mother are too strong that I feel bad for the child.)
"요즘은 학원가에도 치맛바람이 분다." (Nowadays, the skirt winds reach even the hagwons (private academies).) 
If anyone is given the description of "치맛바람" they will of course be annoyed. However, the word itself has become completely standard, appearing in newspapers and other news outlets.

Friday, December 1, 2017

#95. On the traditional Korean marriages and divorces (Hanja 1: "혼")

I learned something interesting today about the marriage customs in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897 AD), so I thought I'd share it in my blog. Just so that this blog doesn't become just a cultural blog, and so that you learn something about the Korean language as well, here is the Chinese letter (hanja, or 한자 in Korean) that means "to wed":

The full Korean name of this letter is:
All full names of hanjas are two words. The first part "혼인할" describes the meaning of the hanja. While this first part does not get read out loud when the hanjas combine to make a word, this first part is very important because it tells us how to interpret the hanja. Since "혼인하다" in Korean means "to wed," this first part signals that whenever this letter gets used in a word, the word will be related to marriages.

The second part "" describes how it sounds when it is used in a word, and this is the part that you read out aloud when they hanjas form a word. This means that every time you see a Korean word which includes the above Chinese character, you read out the character as just "", and not by its full name "혼인할 혼."

So, for example, the word for marriage is "결 (婚)." You see that the second character is "혼인할 혼," so you know that the second syllable of the above word is "." Not only that, even without knowing the first character, you know that this word is related to marriage!

And here is a photo of a traditional Korean wedding ceremony. Notice the crazy balance of yin (the woman, and the colour blue) and yang (the man, and the colour red). Marriage, of course, balances yin and yang :)

Other words that include this hanja "혼인할 " are:

(divorce), 결식 (wedding ceremony), 약 (engagement), 파 (break off engagement), 사 (everything related to wedding), 담 (talk and negotiations of marriage between families) etc.

Even if you didn't know what these words meant, you can make an educated guess by knowing enough hanja. This is why hanja is such an important part of the Korean school curriculum -- it allows you to expand your vocabulary in an exponential way!

Of course, there are other hanjas whose second part is still "", so you cannot make the correct guess every time. But this is just part of life of every Korean, and what counts is that you can still make a guess! (Ironically, the Korean word for "alone" is "혼자," and we can be sure that this "혼" definitely does not come from "혼인할 혼.")

The hanja itself is also interesting. It is comprised of two other hanjas, the one meaning woman (女,  "계집 ") and dusk/darkness (昏, "어두울 "). A woman at dusk/darkness? I will leave that one to your imagination (and don't be offended by the implied sexism, because this letter was probably invented in the time of Jesus Christ.)

Anyway, now that the Korean lesson is out of the way, here is an interesting fact.

As we all know, Koreans are pretty traditional people. The laws against adultery were abolished only a year or so ago, and people are still very traditional about pre-marital sex or being a single parent. So I had always assumed that divorces were a recent development, as a bi-product of having come in contact with the west.

It turns out that this is completely false, and divorces (이혼) were commonplace in the Joseon Dynasty, especially among the common folks (but also among the nobles). According to Arnold Henry Savage Landor, a British explorer who came to Korea in the late 1890s, he said: "if a lower-class Korean woman was left a widow by her 20th husband, she'd probably move right on and find a 21st husband."

As such, the process for obtaining an 이혼 was really simple. In order to obtain an 이혼, all they had to do was agree that they did not want to be married anymore! This is because most of the commoners did not know how to write, so they could not write down an agreement even if they wanted to.

But just agreeing to 이혼 in words leaves so many messy possibilities, and no ways to prove the 이혼 should they want to marry someone else! So the man and the woman cut out a part of their clothes and gave the parts to each other, as a token for having agreed to the 이혼. The part of their clothes that they cut out is called "옷섶," and it is marked in the photo below:

This is a woman's traditional top, but the man's top also had a similar part.

It is the little extraneous piece of cloth that serves to keep the two flaps of the top closed and connected. Without it, the top is much more likely to come apart, leading to indecent exposure. It is also symbolic. By getting rid of the piece that held the two flaps together, it symbolizes the splitting of the union between the couple. And so it served as a token of the broken union.

For illiterate plebeians, I found this to be a shockingly direct yet heartbreaking analogy, so I thought that I would share this with you. I hope you enjoyed it!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

#94. 지리다 -- so awesome that I peed my pants (or worse)

I stared at the blank screen for nearly half an hour, because after such a long hiatus, I have no idea how to start again.

I guess I should start by apologizing. With my full-time job, I realized that writing a blog frequently was going to be harder than I imagined. The prospect of doing something on a schedule scared me and although this blog was on my mind almost every day, I couldn't bring myself back to it. In fact, I was too afraid to sign into my account for months, for some reason. When I finally signed into my email attached to this blog post, I had so many emails and comments from the readers encouraging me to continue, and I decided that I would give it another shot! :) This blog really is something that I cherish, and I would never let it die completely. So, if you're still subscribed, or if you're still reading this blog (I was surprised that I was still getting a ton of visitors even though I didn't write for three months). Sorry for being away for so long.


Here is a word that seems to have become popular on the Korean internet during the past three months that I was gone. It is mostly used among the 급식 of the Korean internet (that is, immature middle schoolers!) to express their admiration.

Say that you are watching a game tournament (as you should, if you're a proper K-lover!) and one gamer seems to be miles above everyone else. No one is able to even put up a fight against this gamer. Usually these one-sided games are boring to watch, of course, but this gamer is just so otherworldly in his skills that you're past the point of being bored -- you're fascinated and you cannot look away.

Then after a particularly awesome gameplay, you might hear some Korean teenager who was watching the game next to you exclaim:
"와, 저사람 지린다" (Holy shit, that person is f-ing awesome)
His friend might agree with his friend by saying:
"진짜 지렸다 ㅋㅋ 나 지릴뻔" (That really was f-ing awesome. I nearly peed my pants)
As you can tell from this dialogue, the verb "지리다" made its way into the teenage vocabulary in the past few months, and it is used to describe something that is seriously awesome.

This word, unlike many of the trendy slang, is actually not a new word at all. As far as I know, even my grandparents would understand this word if they heard it, because it is a dialect of the Jeolla province in the southwestern tip of the Korean peninsula. Its major cities include Gwangju and Jeonju, and it is known for having particularly delicious food (but it is also home to the famous fermented skate, called 삭힌홍어, that sometimes make its way into the Korean entertainment programs).

In Jeolla province, you can order something like this with 30-40 side dishes for yourself for not that much money, around $20-30 USD (tip/taxes included!)
Anyway, Jeolla province is known for its characteristic dialect. I promise to do a listening exercise on it very soon! But for now, the word "지리다" is a long-standing Jeolla dialect that means "to pee or poop." While I am not from the Jeolla province and I am not sure how it is used there, but from a native Seoulite's perspective. this word carries a negative connotation -- to me, it means to pee or poop in a place where you shouldn't have done so.

For example, if you get very very drunk, and decide to pee in an alley, the Koreans might derisively say:
"걔는 술먹고 담벼락에 오줌지리고있더라" (I saw him get drunk and pee on someone's wall.)
More commonly, and related to the current slangy usage of the word, this verb can be used to describe someone soiling one's pants, like this:
"소영이는 너무 놀라서 바지에 오줌을 지렸다." (Sohyoung was so surprised that she peed her pants.)

Usually not actually this.

In fact, the context above is where the modern usage derives. It is commonly accepted and understood in the Korean culture (much more so than in the western culture) that if you're surprised or frightened, then you soil your pants.

And this particular cultural understanding, along with the hilarious fact that there is a separate verb for peeing in one's pants, is where the modern usage of the word comes from. Now the word "지리다" means that someone (or something) is so frighteningly awe-inspiring that it made the speaker pee his/her pants (or worse!)

Of course, as it is currently very popular in Korea, it doesn't have to be actually awe-inspiring to use this word. It is mostly used in exaggeration. For example, you score an 80% in a test, and your friend who only scored 60% might say:
"너 80점이야? 와 지린다!" (You got 80%? That's f-ing awesome!)
Unfortunately, the adults, knowing the meaning of the word, very rarely (if at all) would use this word, and it is popularized only among the very young -- if I had to guess, college students would already view this word to be fairly immature. While it is not a particularly offensive word (as it is ultimately a compliment), I imagine that most people are not excited to evoke the imagery of themselves in soiled pants. However, used in the appropriate situations, it could bring out some explosive reactions -- no pun intended!

Friday, September 8, 2017

#93. 신고식 -- Hazing rituals

I'm sorry for the long silence! I have been traveling once again, this time to a wonderful small town called Trieste in Italy, situated between Slovenia and Venice. So Slavic influences, as well as Byzantine and Asian influences (because Venetians were traders, the most famous one being Marco Polo!) are everywhere in its architecture and furniture. It is also near the sea, so you get pretty amazing and cheap seafood.

One of my closest friends is Italian and he lives in Trieste. Thanks to having a personal local guide, I got to experience some things that you never experience as a tourist. One of such experiences was having dinner with two of his college friends (also Italians) at an amazing seafood restaurant in Trieste.

When we got there, the restaurant was full. A normal person would sigh in disappointment and turn away, but my Italian friend didn't give up. He took me to a side door and spoke to another person in Italian, and we were able to get seated (apparently Italian restaurants will sometimes turn customers away because the cooks don't want to work more).

One of the amazing seafood dishes that I ate while in Trieste (photo was taken from Tripadvisor, because I can't take good photos!)
So, I learned that speaking fluent Italians can do wonders. I vowed to become fluent in Italian by the time I come back to Italy (very unlikely).

Anyway, the dinner topic naturally revolved around comparing our respective cultures. One of the topics that came up was the idea of hazing or initiation.

Being a Korean, I'm not a stranger to hazing. I know that these things often take place in universities, at workplaces, and in the army. In Korean, hazing is called "신고식." The word "신고" means "to report" -- when you see a fire, you call the 911 (119 in Korea!). In Korean, you would say that "소방서에 불이 났다고 신고하다 (Report to the fire department that there is a fire.)" The word "식" means "ceremony." When you get married, you have a "결혼식," or a wedding ceremony. When you win a prize, you attend a "시상식," or a award ceremony.

So the word "신고식" means "reporting ceremony," and you are "reporting" that you are new to the organization, whatever it may be. It is often synonymous with "initiation ceremony." This takes many different forms. For example, the newcomers to a group (such as a student body, army, or a workplace) could be pressured into drinking a large amount of alcohol. They may also be asked uncomfortable questions which are designed to get you off in the wrong foot with some of your seniors in the organization (For example, you may be asked "which of your two bosses is the uglier one?") But these are very tame examples.

A Korean university made national headlines when this picture of the incoming freshmen surfaced on the internet. They were asked to stand in their underwear and sing. When the outraged people wanted to know why they would do such a thing, the seniors replied, "this is the weakest of our hazing rituals." If you refuse, you might be ostracized for your entire time there, or you may get beaten up by your superiors.

In the army, things can be a little bit worse. A fellow soldier of a slightly higher rank may ask you to do really dumb things (for example, play rock-paper-scissors with yourself in the mirror, and continue until you win -- what?!) and because of the structure of the army, where you must obey your superiors, you have to comply. There have also been cases where a new soldier ("신병," or "new (신) soldier (병)") talks wistfully of a certain food, and his superiors would bring this food into the barracks. The new soldier would then be required to eat all of it. The problem is that there would usually be enough food to feed three or four people at least. From time to time, these new soldiers end up getting hospitalized.

When someone new enters a group, they probably dread hearing the phrase:
"신고식 하자!" (Let's have an initiation ceremony!)
  This is obviously illegal. You can be punished by criminal law, and in the army this is a reason for being court-martialed.

Yet this tradition persists in Korea. Psychologists claim that by being initiated into a group, you become more attached to the group (since you went through such trouble to join this group, you won't be leaving anytime soon!) Furthermore, this tradition of initiation reinforces the fact that there is a hierarchy in a group. The ones who have been around longer want to be treated as being senior, and the hazing rituals can assert their superiority.

This unfortunate tradition doesn't seem to be showing any signs of slowing down, despite making frequent headlines. I suppose this is the unfortunate combination of the hierarchy structure in the Korean society, and the Korean dislike for wanting to stand out by saying no. But I still hold out hope that one day all of this will disappear!

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

#92. 삽질 -- killing the time in the worst possible way

Korea is in the state of truce against North Korea. This may sound great, but if you think about it, truce is totally different from peace. It means that a war can break out any day -- given the current climate, it doesn't even seem that unlikely (actually, the Koreans are surprisingly nonchalant about the possibility of war even now, but that's a story for another day.)

Anyway, the possibility of war means that every Korean men bears the responsibility of protecting their country. On their 19th birthday (or thereabouts), the Korean men undergo a physical examination that determines whether they are fit to serve Korea as a soldier. Most Koreans get declared that they are physically and mentally fit, and they serve in the infantry or the marines (for 21 months), the navy (for 22 months), or in the air force (for 24 months). These people are called "현역 병사," or "active duty soldiers." The letter "현" means "present" as in "현재 (right now)," and "역" means "duty" as in "역할 (given role)."

Being in the Korean military sucks, though. So while having been a 현역 병사 is a source of pride for many Korean men, they would probably prefer to have avoided it in the first place. Indeed, many celebrities and the children of Korean politicians get caught up in military duty scandals for having tried to game the system by getting diagnosed with obscure illnesses. If they get caught, it destroys their (or their parents') careers. Yet they continue to do this, so you can imagine how terrible being in the army might be.

Here's a scenario that supposedly happens frequently in the Korean army.

A captain decides that all soldiers will be assigned to a construction within the army base for the day. Every soldier is given a shovel ("삽" in Korean) and is put to work. At the end of the day, his officer stops by to check on the progress, and finds that the work isn't even close to being half-done. Afraid that the captain might find out, the officer calls for a bulldozer, which finishes the remaining work in less than half an hour.

So, why would you do this?

Koreans believe in the art of looking busy. This is true in most cultures. In office environments, you don't just pack up and go home when you're done with your work (well, some innovative companies in North America have started this, but there are still many places where this is not an option.)
Koreans do this even better. Not only do they stay until 5pm, they actually stay glued to their seats until their boss (who also stays later than 5pm to look good to her boss) packs up and leaves. It doesn't matter if they're done with everything; they'll sit there looking busy.

Koreans also joke about underlining and highlighting every word in your textbook. That's the biggest aspect of studying after all, no?

In the military also, since there is no active battles being fought, the soldiers must be kept busy. This is often done in the form of training, or manual labour. If there's snow, send out the soldiers with a shovel to clear the snow from everywhere in town. If a hole needs to be dug, send out the soldiers with a shovel. And so on.

Thus, a neologism "삽질" was born. "삽" means "a shovel," and "-질" means "the act of doing something," and it is often used as a derogatory suffix (for another example, see 선비질). So "삽질" means "the act of shoveling," and with the unsaid nuance, it means "to shovel uselessly." Nowadays, it is used to make fun of the situation where someone is working very hard for no gain at all.

For example, say your friend is courting a girl rather aggressively, but the girl is not interested at all and turns him down despite all his efforts. You might tell him,
"괜한 삽질만 많이 했네." (That was a lot of useless shoveling).
The Korean soldiers whose work got out-done by a bulldozer might use this in a more literal sense and say:
"불도저 앞에서 삽질했네." (That was a lot of useless shoveling in front of a bulldozer.)
 If your younger sister is begging for a ride on your car this evening by doing all of your chores, and you already have a plan so you can't give her a ride, you might say:
"삽질하네." (You're doing some useless shoveling.)
While this expression does have a vulgar nuance, just by the virtue of all Korean men having experienced this, this expression gets used quite a bit, especially among men (but women will also use it from time to time.) This expression is suitable among friends or peers, but because of the inherent sarcasm in the word, you should take care not to say it in front of your seniors.