Tuesday, August 8, 2017

#86. 의문의 1승 -- How Koreans do sarcasm

Let me begin this post by talking about one of the Korean soccer heroes.

The name of this dreamy man is 안정환 (Jung-Hwan Ahn). He scored the most number of goals (3) in the Korean history during World Cup over his career. And he is considered to be one of the most good-looking soccer players in Korea. Despite looking like he grew up like a prince, his family was very poor and dysfunctional, so his grandmother raised him (he was so poor that he begged on the streets when he was young, and had never tasted an orange before he was selected to the national youth soccer team.) Even after his debut as a professional soccer player, his team manager was greedy and did not give him a good salary.

Despite all the trials and tribulations of his life, he still managed to be an extremely successful soccer player, who holds an iron-clad 까방권, and a hero of many Koreans.

안정환 often appears on TV shows after his retirement. Times have flown, but he is still a good-natured 아저씨 with a great sense of humour!
Then there is your friend, who just openly cheated in her exams. She talks about how poor her family is, how she would lose her scholarship if she failed this exam, and so on. You soon get sick of listening to her self-justifying excuses.

While you'd love to say something, unfortunately you are currently in Korea. It turns out that the Koreans are incredibly polite. Sure, they may push and shove strangers in the subway, but between the people who are actually acquaintances, you see almost no displays of rudeness. Most Koreans prefer to avoid confrontations and take a small personal loss, and standing up for oneself seems rarer than in North American culture.

So, you don't want to say things like:
"그래도 컨닝은 나쁜거야." (But cheating is wrong nonetheless -- Koreans say 컨닝 (cunning) for cheating.)
This makes you sound like you are engaging in a bit of 선비질, which Koreans generally don't appreciate. You also don't want to say things like:
"이세상에 너만 있냐?" (Do you think you're the only one living in the world?)
This is far too direct for most Koreans' tastes. As the Koreans tend to walk away from fights (often saying that both sides are terrible), this attitude won't win you any friends, either.

It seems frustrating, but there are probably many reasons for doing this. They probably don't want to be the subject of gossip -- Koreans really hate to stand out as the community is valued above the individual. The consequences of confrontations could be greater in the Korean culture as well -- stand up to your manager who wants you to put in an extra hour's work tonight? You might become a 왕따 in your company. Between losing an hour's sleep and having none of your coworkers speak to you, I would probably choose to not stand up for myself and just do that hour's work, too.

As a result, any behaviour that could result in burned bridges or social repercussions is highly discouraged in the Korean society (and many people would make these choices by themselves without pressure, because they have probably seen the consequences of the alternative).

This doesn't mean that the Koreans aren't sarcastic people. In order to create good sarcasm, you need it to be more obscure, and you need a lot more humour. 

So what is the best course of action for venting your frustration? I think a reasonable action taken by many Koreans is to first walk away from the girl (creating the setup for 왕따), then making a light and obscure about her online. Don't vent all of your anger, don't obsess, just say it once and move on, people will remember. Here is a lighthearted remark that gets used often online:
"안정환 의문의 1승이네 ㅋㅋ" (It looks like a mysterious score 1 for Jung-Hwan Ahn).
Basically, you pulled out the obscure fact that 안정환 had a childhood even more difficult than your friend; either this reference will lose some people, or it will evoke such strong comparison that it will convince your listeners that your friend is complaining about nothing.

Furthermore, it is a humorous remark, as you are randomly entering your friend into a match against the Korean soccer god. As it's funny, most Koreans won't feel so uncomfortable at this, they will laugh and move on, secretly harboring their discontent deep inside them, taking solace in the knowledge that someone else also hates her for cheating.

There are other instances where you can use this slang. In K-pop, idol groups have a fairly short lifespan. They sign a contract for seven years, and by the time seven years are up, they are either fed up with the entertainment industry, their company, or with themselves. Most of them are ready to disband, and they do.

This is the K-Pop group called 신화, Shinhwa.

In this case, you could make a remark such as:
"신화 의문의 1승" (It looks like a mysterious score one for Shinhwa)
 The K-Pop group Shinhwa (신화) debuted in 1998 and they are still going strong, setting a great example that most other groups fail to follow. So every time some group fails to follow in their footsteps, Koreans like to say that Shinhwa has yet again triumphed.

As this is getting to be a pretty long post already, I will return to this post in the near future to talk about a few more funny examples, but feel free to experiment and pull out some obscure references! It will be cool if someone gets it, and if no one gets it, it'll be a conversation starter.


  1. Very interesting post, as usual. Among the large numbers of blogs talking about Korean language, you're one of the few where I try to read each post when it comes out. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thank you! It makes me really happy to read it :) Please let me know if you have any questions or requests!