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.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

#91. 나물 -- a uniquely Korean dish (and hipsters will be all over it in 10 years)

It's been a busy few weeks for me. I spent the past three weeks on the road for some work trips before the semester starts up again, and I'm now writing this post from my parents' house, where I spent the past couple of days before going back to work. As you might have guessed, the semester starting means that I will probably no longer update this blog on a daily basis, although I will aim for 2-3 updates a week, and more when I am less busy with work. The best way to stay connected might be to subscribe, or to follow my Twitter account, which updates automatically when I post something.

I'll admit that I was fairly ignorant of the Korean culture until a few years ago, and never appreciated many aspects of my own culture. After having started this blog, I am often struck by the mundane things that I used to take for granted.

나물 is one of these things that I always took for granted. I am not even sure if there is a word for this type of dish in English -- running them through various Korean-English dictionary just returns "herbs," which is a gross underestimation and a terrible description of these dishes that I am about to tell you about.

Let me start by giving you a recipe of one of my favourite dishes that my mom makes every time I come home. It's called "시금치 나물," or "spinach 나물." Note that I am not giving any measurements of the ingredients -- this is kind of intentional. Although every Korean eats this dish, it tastes differently in every household. You should feel free to add/take away any ingredients and adjust the amount so that it tastes good to you!

This isn't the picture of my mom's dish, unfortunately. I meant to take a photo but I had already eaten too much of it by the time I remembered!

- spinach leaves
- minced garlic
- chopped scallions
- sesame seeds (if they're not already roasted, you should roast them in an ungreased pan to increase flavour)
- soy sauce
- sesame oil
- salt & pepper
- Boil water in a pot, and add a pinch of salt.
- Blanch the spinach leaves in the boiling water, just until the leaves don't have the crunchy feel to them anymore (Koreans call this state of vegetables "숨이 죽다" or "no longer breathing -- the more literal translation would be that their breaths have died.") Koreans say that it's important to leave the lid open while you do this, otherwise the colour of the spinach will not be as green, and also destroy some vitamins that are in the spinach (although I can't find anything credible that backs up this claim.)
-Drop the blanched spinach leaves into cold water to stop cooking. Wring out any excess water by squeezing them hard with your hands. You should only have a small handful of spinach leaves left at this point!
- Season the spinach leaves with the garlic, scallion and soy sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste (My mom prefers to season with soy sauce, because it's supposed to add the umami taste that is present in many Asian foods. But too much soy sauce ruins the look of the food sometimes, at which point she starts using salt.)
-Finally, drizzle sesame oil and decorate with roasted sesame seeds. Serve with rice and other 반찬. Use the sesame oil sparingly, as it has a fairly strong taste.
This is a typical recipe of a 나물. The word 나물 has two meanings. It can refer to all edible herbs/leaves/stem (not all vegetables are 나물, though! For examples, potatoes are definitely not 나물), but it an also refer to the blanched and seasoned herbes/leaves/stem.

Many traditional Korean markets will sell all kinds of 나물, and there are hundreds of different kinds! Not even Koreans would know all of these.

시금치 (spinach), 콩나물 (soybean sprouts; these are more common in Korea than bean sprouts and they are less crunchy), 숙주나물 (bean sprouts), and 미나리 (Korean parsley) are among the most popular kinds of 나물 that appear in the Koreans' dinner tables frequently.

The 나물 are not rich men's food. But meat of any kind was generally very expensive for the Koreans throughout our history, and so they needed ways to make their tables more interesting, not to mention that droughts and ensuing famine was a frequent occurrence. As Korea is home to hundreds of mountains, the easiest way to do this was to go into one of these mountains and scavenge for edible things.

A typical Korean table back in these days would often consist of a bowl of rice, a soup of some kind (called "국", also often made with some of these 나물), some kind of kimchi (김치, there are also hundreds of variety of this), and some 나물, as well as some kind of sauce such as 간장 (soy sauce), 된장 (soybean paste), or 고추장 (hot pepper paste) so that you can adjust the flavours yourself.

It still hasn't changed much. Now that food is abundant in Korea, people would often add a meat 반찬 to their tables, but still the 나물 are consumed on a daily basis. They are cheap, healthy, and easy to make. And depending on what kind of 나물 you use, the taste is amazingly varied! So, it is totally possible to set up a fancy dinner table with just the 나물, see for yourself:

This table is set with the spring herbs, or 봄나물 in Korean.
While I am glad that many Korean dishes such as 돌솥비빔밥, 불고기, and 잡채 are gaining popularity in the Western culture, I wonder whether people realize that these are not something that Koreans eat on a daily basis. They would have been a huge treat back in the day, and you would have gotten a taste of it if your village was having a festival of some sort.

The 나물, on the other hand, is what kept the Koreans alive through the difficult times, and I feel that it is uniquely Korean (and at some point, I hope that enough people will pick up on it for it to gain popularity!)

So, I hope you try out this humble yet delicious Korean dish in your kitchen. You can vary the seasoning as you wish -- that's exactly what our Korean forefathers would have done, when they got tired of eating the same 나물 over and over again. Of course, to get the authentic taste, you'd want to use some of the more Korean seasonings such as 간장, 된장, or 고추장 (and also sometimes vinegar), but really, 나물 is about making use of edible things that are otherwise not very interesting, and I don't think the Korean forefathers would be picky.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

#90. 박쥐 -- You're an opportunist

Browsing the Korean internet, and not having contact with real Koreans often always puts me under the impression that the Koreans are the most vulgar, foul-mouthed human beings that ever graced the surface of the earth. But then I meet the Koreans in person, and they are pretty much the polar opposite of what you expect from your interactions with them online.

In particular, the one thing that always shocks me is that the Koreans are amazingly literate. People often quote a random piece of literature as a part of their everyday conversation, and they are not always well-known from the anglophone point of view.

This past weekend, I was spending time with a good Korean friend who lives in New York City. The city traffic is always crazy, but we had a number of annoying situations where the cyclists refused to stop for pedestrians while our light was green. After we had one too many of these run-ins with the cyclists, my friend exclaimed in exasperation,
"진짜 박쥐가 따로 없네" (I'm having a hard time telling them apart from the bats!)

The Korean word for "bat" is "박쥐." It is said that this word originates from "박 (comes from "밝" as in "눈이 밝다" which means "to have sharp eyes," which makes sense since they fly around at night)" + "쥐 (rat)." So "박쥐" literally means "rats that can see well" in Korean.
This reference, which most Koreans will immediately get, comes from one of the stories in Aesop's Fables. The story goes that there was a huge war between the birds and the beasts. The bat, not wanting to get stuck with the losing side, watched the progress of the battles and eventually decided that the beasts were likely to win. So he folded up his wings and joined the beasts, convincing them that they were cousins of rats.

But then the situation turned and the birds began gaining major advantage. So the bat abandoned the beasts and went over to the birds, convincing them that since he had wings, he was one of the birds. Unfortunately for the bat, the war ended in a truce, and the animals found out that the bat had been attaching himself to the winning side. As a result, the bat was shunned by both beasts and the birds, and was forced to go into hiding, only coming out at night when everyone is asleep.

So, as this story stuck in many Koreans' minds, they began calling someone who changes sides based on what he can gain from it a "박쥐." For example, if your friend ditches your group and joins another group that has the smartest person in your class, you could call him
"박쥐같은 놈" (A bastard who acts like a bat.)
While this is certainly an insult, it lacks vulgarity! I mean, it's hard to bring vulgarity into speech when you're quoting literature, and the listener won't be as offended as he could be -- as long as it's not a direct insult, it could be used even in polite company.

So, why do the Koreans end up referencing literature so much? I think it's because of the Korean education system. As there is exactly one standardized exam each year that gets you into college, the school curriculum is extremely standardized. This means that the Koreans grow up reading the same books. Koreans also tend to emphasize studying a lot more than most other countries, so the amount of these books read is a lot more than other countries (for example, my Canadian high school required us to read two books together, and two books individually each year -- but even the recommended books varied by teachers.)

I suppose if you're confident that your listener also read the book that you're about to reference, then there is no reason to do it! And Korea's centralized education seems to have succeeded in injecting a little bit of class into the Koreans' everyday life.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Listening exercise with transcript #15 -- Introducing a Korean cartoon series

When I was just starting out in French, I watched a large number of cartoon series dubbed in French. I found that the dialogues were fairly repetitive and clearly enunciated (as they were made for children for the most part), and the vocabulary was at a very manageable level. Plus, it was more fun than poring over grammar books and vocabulary builders!

If you are asked to name a cartoon series, chances are, you are thinking of a series that were made in America (such as the Simpsons, South Park, and so on) or the ones made in Japan (such as Pokémon, or Sailor Moon). But Korea also has a number of fantastic cartoon series, one of which I hope to introduce in this post.

"아기공룡 둘리" (Baby Dinosaur Dooly) is a classic Korean cartoon which began airing in 1987, and new and old series continued to show up on Korean TV for many decades after that. The premise of the cartoon series is that a baby dinosaur, which was preserved in a piece of glacier, finds himself stranded in Seoul, and inserts himself into a family (interestingly, the original manhwa series appeared in 1983, Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park was published in 1990! I guess the interest in dinosaurs was very high in the 80s!) The series deals with various chaos that ensues from it.

Find below the first episode of this cartoon series. I have typed out the transcripts from 0:00-7:00 here (the entire episode is about 22 minutes, so I have transcribed about a third of it). My goal in these listening exercises is to provide access to diverse Korean media, but for sake of completeness, if there is a large interest, I am also considering finishing the transcription in the next two listening exercises. If you feel strongly either way, let me know in the comments or via email!

(Dialogue begins at 1:45)
Penguin 1: 쟨 뚱보? (It's the fat one?)
Penguin 2: 걔잖아? (It's him?)
Penguin 3: 이제 나오는거야? (He's coming out now?)

Grandpa penguin: 아이고, 그놈 살좀 빼야겠다. (Geez, he should lose some weight.)

Sailor: 저게 뭐야? (What's that?)
Sailors: 빙하다! 충돌한다! (It's glacier! We're going to collide!)

News anchor: 정체 불명의 빙산이 서울의 한복판 한강에 나타났습니다. 전문가들은 이 빙산이 남극으로부터 흘러들어왔으며 지구 온난화가 가지고 온 재앙이라고 합니다. 하지만 이 빙산이 무공해 웰빙 얼음이라는 소문이 나면서 생선조합, 냉면연합, 팥빙수협회, 주부 연합등 아저씨 아줌마들이 양동이를 들고 나타나 캐가는 바람에 얼음은 순식간에 그만 뼈만 남았다고 합니다.

(A piece of glacier of unknown origin appeared in the Han river, in the middle of Seoul. Experts call it a disaster from the South Pole resulting from global warming. However, due to rumours that this glacier is pollution-free (무공해) well-being (웰빙; means "organic" in English) ice, many ajussis and ajummas from the "fish union," "the naengmyun association," "the society of bingsoo," and "the association of housewives" showed up with buckets and took the glacier pieces home. So there was only the skeleton of the glacier left in a heartbeat.)

Boy: 아이 깜짝이야! (You startled me!)
Girl: 오빠, 빨리 가봐. 개천에 강아지가 있어. (Oppa, hurry. There's a puppy in the banks of the stream.)
Boy: 왜? (Why?)
Girl: 아직 안죽었어. (It's alive.)
Boy: 그게 뭐? (So what?)
Girl: 근데 그게... 녹색 강아지야! (Well, it's a green puppy!)
Boy: 어, 녹색 강아지? (What? A green puppy?)
Girl: 여기야. 어... 없네? 어디로 갔지? 거짓말 아냐 뭐! 누가 주워갔나? (It was here. Hmm.. it's gone? Where did it go? I wasn't lying! Maybe someone already took him?)

Boy: 영희야, 머리 치워! 머리 치우라니까? 영희야, 귀찮대도? (Young-hee, don't put your head there. Stop! Young-hee, you're bothering me! Here, we learn that the name of the girl is 영희.)
        으아! 이게 뭐야? (Aaah, what is this?)
영희: 그 강아지야 오빠! 얘가 내 뒤를 따라왔나봐! (It's that puppy, oppa! He must have followed me home!)
 And thus, the main character of this cartoon series is introduced. The characters then try to guess exactly what kind of animal Dooly is, until he looks at the dinosaurs on TV and cries, "Mommy!"

Friday, August 11, 2017

#89. Letter from a Korean king

This picture went viral on the Korean internet a couple of days ago:

This letter (which you are supposed to read from right to left, and top-down), is interesting for several reasons.

The first is that this was written by 정조, one of the kings of Joseon, when he was about five years old. And although the letter is hard to decipher even for a native Korean, you can see all the markings of a child's writing.

This is actually why this letter went viral in Korea -- regardless of the meaning, you can see that the child starts on the top right with quite impressive calligraphy. Then as he continues to write, his writing gets fainter (meaning that he wasn't dipping his brush into the ink often enough), and also larger (probably he was getting tired of writing this letter!) Koreans found this letter adorable.

This is 정조, who was a colorful character, and a good king, comparable to King Sejong.
Not only that, it is interesting that the letter was written in 한글 instead of Chinese characters. Ever since King Sejong made the unique Korean alphabets, the upper class, who saw China as the fashionable and powerful neighbour of Korea, objected to the popularization of 한글. Chinese was the language of the intellectuals (since each character has a meaning, and you need to study for quite a long time before becoming proficient at it), and 한글 was for the common folks who did not know Chinese.

However, here you see the next king of Korea writing a letter to his aunt in 한글! This letter was written in 1757, while 한글 was invented in 1446, so between these three hundred years, you can see that much has changed in the Joseonian society.

As for the contents of the letter, it says the following (the old Korean had some characters that we do not use anymore, so I have re-written it to today's standards, still using old expressions that you might hear in historical dramas):
"문안 아뢰고 기후 무사하신지 알고자 합니다. 이 족건은 저에게 작사오니 수대를 신기옵소서. -- 질"
 If you try to translate it to a more mundane language, it goes like this: 

문안 (greetings) 아뢰고 (asking) 기후 (the status of the body and mind) 무사 (no troubles) 하신지 알고자 (to know) 합니다 (want). 이 (this) 족건은 (pair of traditional Korean socks, called 버선 now) 저에게 (for me) 작사오니 (small) 수대를 신기옵소서 (give them to 수대, the name of his cousin). --질 (nephew)

These are the traditional Korean socks, called 버선. This pair is for men, and women often wore an embroidered version.
Putting these together:

I am hoping that you are well and want to know that nothing troubles you in mind and body. These socks are now too small for me, so please give them to 수대. - Your nephew.

Adorable, and kind of surprising that even the royals wore hand-me-downs!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

#88. 하드캐리 -- Playing the hero

When people start introducing foreign language into their own language, mistakes invariably happen. For example, apple pie à la mode should mean "fashionable apple pie" but we use it to mean "apple pie with ice cream." And what about words like maître d' which makes no sense in French?

When I hear the Korean word "하드캐리," I feel that this is a bunch of mistranslations rolled into a single word. This word is often used in gaming communities (it is said that this word originated from League of Legends), to describe someone who played a crucial role in leading the team to victory. Its verb form is "하드캐리하다."

So for example, you can say:
"이번 게임은 니가 하드캐리했다." (You pretty much won this game for us.)
 This usage within a game has been expanded into various other situations in life. For example, if a particular comedian is full of hilarious 드립 and makes an entire episode of the entertainment clip alive, then you can also say:
"이번회는 그 코메디언이 완전 하드캐리했네." (That comedian really made this episode.)
The origins of this word is admittedly a bit random. It seems that this word has English as its origin, as in "hard carry." The word "carry" comes from the newspaper articles that sound like this:

While the word "carry" is not an essential part of headlines such as this, it seems that the Korean gamers decided to focus on the word, and brought it over to Korean. So in the Korean gamer language, it means "to lead to victory."

There are a couple of hypotheses about the word "hard." One says that it is supposed to be an adjective to "carry" to emphasize it, so "hard carry" should mean that someone really lead the team to victory. Another hypothesis says that this used to refer to the team members who were weak at the beginning, but became stronger (=hard in the Korean mistranslation... oops!)

As far as its usage goes, it seems that most young-ish people tend to understand it, as it sometimes even makes an appearance as the subtitles of entertainment shows. With the older generation, however, it may just lose its meaning, although it is in no way offensive.