Wednesday, June 7, 2017

#33. 왕따 -- Bullied and ostricized

Here's a heavy topic. Korean schools are a pretty dangerous place.

Let me start by saying that there is no such word that describes a place like Korean schools in English. The word bullying just doesn't cut it. The only other language that I know of that has a word with a similar nuance is Japanese. They call it ijime (苛め/虐め). A quick look around Wikipedia seems to suggest that some European cultures such as the French, Italians, and the Germans are aware of it, but they also do not have words to describe what I am about to tell you.

Not this Carrie, but I find most screenshots of the movie Carrie to be too disturbing.

If I absolutely had to find something in the English-speaking world that is similar to the the bullying culture of Korea, I would maybe recommend that you read Stephen King's horror novel, Carrie (yes, it's that horrifying that it would get categorized as a horror novel if it were written). This is a huge social problem in Korea, because it's so widespread. A huge number of people experience what we call "왕따" at some point in their lives, sometimes leading to drastic consequences like suicide. As you can imagine, the Koreans take a very strong stance against it (but somehow, they have not been able to get rid of it). Because so many people experience this personally, if a celebrity is involved in a 왕따 scandal where he/she was the bully, it can effectively end your career in Korea.

The word "왕따" came into being in the 90s-00s when I was a student in South Korea Although the word is relatively new, the concept must be fairly old, as it is featured in some of the older literature, as well as throughout the history going as far back as the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392 A.D.). It is composed of two Korean words:
  1.  "왕," which means "king"; and
  2.  "따," short for "따돌림," which means "exclusion."
So the word literally means the "king of exclusion," or "the worst kind of exclusion," which I suppose is a form of bullying. The concept of 왕따 includes several specific forms of bullying under it. Some examples are:
  1. 전따, the first word comes from 전교생, which means all the students in the school (the letter "전" means "every," as in "전부," "전체," etc.) It means that you are excluded by everyone in the school.
  2. 은따, the first word of which comes from "은근히", which means "subtle." It means that you are being excluded in subtle ways.
  3. 카따, the first word of which comes from "Kakaotalk," or "카카오톡" which is a Korean messaging system that almost everyone uses. It means that you are bullied and excluded on Kakaotalk.
You could use these words in a pretty straightforward way:
쟤는 잘난척하더니 결국 왕따가 됐네 (He became a 왕따 because he was so arrogant.)
소영이는 전교에 친구가 하나도 없는 전따야. (Soyoung is a 전따 who doesn't have any friends in the entire school.)
As you may imagine, there are countless other sub-types of 왕따 that exist. These types are evolving too. Children with boundless imaginations are unfortunately always coming up with new ways to bully someone. As a student before the Kakaotalk era, I saw the first two types of 왕따 first-hand, but the third type came into being long after I left Korea.

I went to school in Korea, Canada, and the US. In my experience, there was bullying in all countries, but the bullying in Korea just seemed to be the worst.

The thing about Korea is that groups are very, very valued. You are expected to fit into a group. People often stare at you if you eat alone in a restaurant. Going to see a movie or a performance alone is pretty weird in the Korean culture (actually, it's getting better now, and some brave people will go out and do these things alone, take pictures, and share it with their friends for the bragging rights. But it's that rare.) As a schoolgirl, you don't even go to the bathroom alone. A good friend will wait for you outside the stalls while you pee. Whatever it is that you are doing, you do it with a few other of your friends.  So, as a student, if you don't have any friends, you have to endure the stares and whispers of everyone in the school while you eat, while you go to the bathroom, while you walk alone in the halls, during the breaks, and during classes when team participation is expected. That's a pretty huge part of your school life.

Technically, all of these things could happen in the western world too (okay, minus the bathroom thing. I don't think anyone looks at you funny if you go to the bathroom by yourself). But the thing that makes the act of 왕따 truly devastating is that it often ends up involving everyone in the school (and often, even if you change schools, the rumour will eventually follow you.) Once you are labeled as a 왕따, the rumor spreads very quickly. Everyone knows that you are friendless, and no one wants to be near you, because to befriend 왕따 is to risk becoming a 왕따 yourself. As being in a group is more valued in Korea, no one wants to go against the majority and rescue you from your misery.

What's more is that most Koreans are fearful that they would one day become the 왕따. Korean school system assigns everyone to a classroom at the beginning of the school year, and you take all of your classes together with your classmates. When I was a student in Korea, it seemed that every class had a 왕따 or two (usually at least one of each gender). Since each class had about 30 students each, you had about one in fifteen chance of becoming a 왕따. And the reasons are so varied. You could become a 왕따 or any of the following reasons:
  1. your friend group outed you, and once you were labelled, no one wanted to be your friend.
  2. you were the smallest and the weakest of the class.
  3. you were different in some way (Koreans don't like it when you stick out).
  4. you had a different religion from everyone else in the class.
  5. you liked a different boy band from everyone else in the class (I guess that's basically religion at that age)
  6. your grades were too low and people started looking down on you.
  7. your grades were too high and people got jealous.
  8. you were too ugly.
  9. you were too pretty.
  10. they were afraid of becoming a 왕따 so they decided to strike first.
  11. your friends' parents didn't like your parents and told their kids to not play with you.
  12. just because.
You can pretty much become a 왕따 for hundreds of reasons. And it is so widespread. According to a Korean survey, 53.9% of college students in Korea responded that they have been the victim or an active instigator of 왕따, and it starts in elementary school. Things don't get much better when you are older, as 45% of the people in the workforce responded that they still have 왕따 at their work. The majority, 61%, of these people responded that the bullying and the exclusion is very serious. 75% of the total responds said that when they see a 왕따, they just remain as bystanders, because they don't believe that it would change anything (52.8%), and because they are afraid of becoming 왕따 themselves (12.3%).

Most Koreans have some latent fear that they will one day say some wrong thing, and become a 왕따. People who have experienced 왕따 (not surprisingly) report psychological effects, such as suicidal thoughts, depression, continuing difficulty in forming interpersonal relationships based on trust, and so on. There are even some cases where some students drove their peers to suicide. Whenever there is a public 왕따 scandal, the Koreans come down with full force and condemn the bullies. This is totally understandable since it's an issue that is relevant to their daily lives. But at the same time, most Koreans probably have experience not stepping up to help a 왕따. How do you reconcile the two? How do you fix something this toxic, yet this widespread?


  1. 안녕하세요~ 고퀄리티 콘텐츠 많이 올려주셔서 감사합니다~ 매일매일 봐서 많이 배우고있어요^^
    제가 좀 물어볼 게 있는데요. 한국어 배우기 거의 4년 됐는데 "전따"는 한번도 안 들어봤지만 "찐따"라는 말 많이 들어봤죠. 아마도 비슷한 표현일까? 무엇이 다른가요?

    1. 안녕하세요! 방문해주셔서 감사해요 ^^ "전따"는 학교에서만 쓰이는 말이기 때문에 많이 못 들어보셨을거에요 ("전교생" means "all the students in the school"). 신기하게도 "찐따"는 뜻은 비슷하지만 어원은 완전히 달라요. 제안해주신대로 오늘의 포스팅은 "찐따"에 대해 할 예정이에요. 10pm EDT 에 올라갈 예정이니 링크 확인해주세요:

      다시한번 감사드립니다 ^^ 앞으로도 자주 방문해주세요!