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!


  1. Unfortunately this is a widespread phenomenon, here in the Netherlands there are also regularly discussions about the hazing rituals held at student associations.

    1. Also in the United States, if you want to get into a fraternity or a sorority this seems common. I guess people are basically the same everywhere!

  2. Interesting read. So if I understand well, these hazing rituals are not something you can choose not to do in Korea? We've got them too in Belgium at some universities, similar but not equal to American fraternities, but they are completely voluntary. Only a minority decides to do them these days. Most of my friends that went through with it have some nice memories and long-lasting friendships to account for that time.

    1. Yes, I think that refusing to partake in a hazing ritual will label you as an "아싸" which is a shortened form for "outsider" or "아웃싸이더." You will basically be excluded from all social functions, and not have very many friends. I agree that certain hazing rituals can be great memories. But in the case of Korean hazing, there are often physical punishments involved, and sometimes people die from it...