Sunday, April 29, 2018

#124. 불 -- The Korean dollar (Hanja 5)

Being a hobbyist blogger and also a perfectionist, sometimes it becomes really hard to focus on writing a post. On one hand, I really love blogging and want to be writing a post every day, but on the other hand, I should really focus on my career and work on my projects. Of course, I end up being overwhelmed and usually end up not accomplishing either of these.

Anyway, I'm trying to push a project to its end and ran into several snags, and I was mostly obsessing over those for the past couple of weeks (still not resolved). As writing a blog post and doing sufficient research for these posts takes up an entire evening of maybe 6 hours, I have been too intimidated to start writing a new post. But I don't want to put off posting forever, and here's a quick post.

In Czech Republic, there is a town named Jáchymov. Pre-WWII, the town was occupied by mostly German speakers (after 1945, the German population was driven away), and it had the German name of Joachimsthal. Going nuts on etymology today, Joachim is the father of the Virgin Mary (this makes him the grandfather of Jesus!) and "thal" in German means "valley."

Joachimsthal in the 19th century.
Nowadays, Jáchymov is a spa town, thanks to the radioactive thermal springs near the former Uranium mines. Even prior to the mining of Uranium (which is no longer done, since 1964), Joachimsthal had its fame as the silver mining town since the early 1500s.

Silver mined from this town was used to make currency for the Kingdom of Bohemia, of which Joachimsthal was a part of. This currency was called "Joachimsthaler" (a thing from Joachim's valley). Soon, many other silver mining towns were producing their own "thalers," and coins became known as "thalers." The thaler was used all throughout Europe for about four hundred years since its conception in the early 1500s. Of course, as you might be able to guess from here, this is the origin of our word "dollar."
Here is one of the earliest Joachimsthalers, in which Joachim is pictured on the front.

However, the Spanish Empire, instead of using the German thaler, made their own currency called "Peso de Ocho" (piece of eight, the eight comes from the fact that one peso de ocho was worth eight Spanish reales). One peso de ocho corresponded roughly to one German thaler, as they were both silver coins of similar size. Many people believe that the shorthand for "peso de ocho," written as pˢ, is what gives rise to our symbol for the dollar sign "$".

Weirdly enough, the story does not end here. If you have interacted with Koreans of any age, you might have noticed that Koreans rarely use the word "dollar (달러)" in their conversations. Instead, you will hear confusing expressions such as:
"야, 저 카페는 커피 한잔에 2불밖에 안해!" (Hey, that cafe sells coffees at 2 dollars!)
Even the young Koreans (myself included) often substitute the word "불" for "달러," and the reason for this is somewhat interesting. The Hanja for negation of verbs is the following:

This Hanja is called 아닐 , which means that it is pronounced as "" and means "아닐 (not)."
Perhaps you can guess where I am going with this already -- this Hanja looks a lot like the dollar sign "$" if you squint your eyes. So instead of calling the foreign currency "dollar," which is admittedly very different from the Korean phonics, the Koreans decided that they would use the more familiar word "불," and it stuck to this date. Maybe because of its predominant usage to denote the foreign currency, this Hanja is used almost nowhere else (yet every Korean knows this Hanja!)

It is difficult to find out when this usage started, or whether it was actually the Koreans who started this (it could very well be the Chinese, for example, and the Koreans could have just followed suit), but this usage is interesting to me for many reasons.

First, this usage feels incredibly old-fashioned -- even in the 90s, it was common to see Hanja characters in newspapers and literature to clarify certain words, but this has gradually fallen out of fashion nowadays. The fact that the Koreans are voluntarily bringing Hanja back to everyday conversation almost feels anachronistic, although the usage is so widespread.

Secondly, I feel that substituting the foreign word "달러" for the familiar word "불" shows the Koreans' aversion to change (to be fair, many nations and cultures dislike change; I'm not trying to single out Korea here, just that the Koreans are one of them!) and their struggle to fit in something they have never seen before into their world views. To me, this fits in with the foreign policies of the late Joseon dynasty, where the monarchs tried to shut the entire country against the foreign explorers, for the fear of the unknown.

This is 흥선대원군, the father of the last king of Joseon. Instead of his very young son, he ruled Joseon for many years. There are so many stories to tell on this guy, and I hope I'll eventually return to him one day!

In any case, I love it when I see a recognizable piece of history in our everyday language, and I like to think that this bizarre mutation of the word "달러" into "불" counts as one of these instances!

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

#123. 송유근, 맥도날드할머니, 스티브유 -- Three Koreans that accidentally became iconic

I have a good friend named Tony (not his real name). He moved to the US in his adulthood from South America, and his linguistic talents are so great that he picked up the language in no time. He speaks without any accents, and his vocabulary is better than that of an average American; we often race to finish the New York Times crossword against each other, and he wins almost every time -- except when the clues refer to silly things like the Sesame Street. Not having grown up in an anglophone country, Sesame Street was not a regular staple of his childhood, and so he still confuses Elmo and Cookie Monster. And on those occasions, I am reminded that he is not an American, despite his perfect (and admittedly, better than my) English.

Those good ol' days!
Similarly, although my French is quite good, to the point where I don't need a dictionary to read a novel, I am often confused when I am talking to mes amis français, when they start making references to Brice de Nice (cassé!) or Charles Aznavour. I doubt that I will ever feel completely fluent in the language, because I learn something new every time I talk to them. (And a clip for my French readers: here is the completely adorable anglophone hockey player Carey Price, titled "Price de Nice").

Perhaps because of these experiences, I am a firm believer of the idea that perfect linguistic fluency doesn't simply come from the vocabulary and grammar. In order to converse fluently with the native speakers, one needs to be able to recognize the cultural references.

So, this post is dedicated to the three "iconic" Koreans who get referenced often in conversations. Every Korean knows them, but you won't find them in any textbooks.

1. 송유근: the icon of human brilliance (and later, fraud)

Koreans care a lot about academic achievements, because an average Korean's life gets determined by what university he graduates from. This means that even the young students who show a lot of promise are doted on by the adults.

송유근 (Yoogeun Song) was an extreme case of this: he made an appearance in a Korean TV documentary at age 7, and demonstrated that he was capable of solving calculus problems and deriving equations in physics (he derived the Schrödinger equation in front of the camera). 

Many Koreans in their 20s and 30s remember being compared to this genius child by their parents in their childhood.
His parents pushed for the reformation of educational policies, so that their genius child of age 7 could skip all pre-university education and enroll in university-level physics courses. They succeeded in doing exactly this through a lawsuit against the educational board, and gained admission to Inha University (usually not considered top tier in the Korean university hierarchy, and many people wondered why places like Harvard or MIT did not take this genius child).

Although the media occasionally reported on 송유근's progress (he was getting all A's in his classes except one B), he eventually dropped out of Inha University claiming that the lecture-style classes made him lose interest in scientific research, and convinced his local government to provide him with a small lab, so that he could do independent research. Up until this point, the name "송유근" was synonymous with "genius," and it was common to hear people say things like:
"와, 얘 완전 송유근인데?" (Wow, this kid is like Yoogeun Song, i.e. he is really smart.)
In 2008, he was admitted to the University of Science & Technology (a bit of a 지잡대, unfortunately, as most people had not heard of this university prior to 송유근 gaining admission) for their PhD program, and dropped out of the eyes of the media for a while. However, in 2015, his advisor announced that 송유근 had published a paper and that he would be gaining his PhD degree in 2016 (at age 18, no less!) and this is when all hell broke loose.

Making headlines were not new to Yoogeun Song, but never in such a context. The headlines screamed that the genius (천재) boy (소년) had plagiarized (표절) his thesis (논문), and that he would not be receiving his doctorate degree (박사학위) after all.

The Korean internet users found out that his paper was essentially plagiarized from another paper that his advisor wrote (but never published) in 2002, and people started wondering whether this genius had done anything in the past seven years that he was a PhD student. 송유근 himself made the controversy worse, by stating in an interview that he was proud that his paper had an exceptionally high download rate (because the Koreans wanted to check whether he had plagiarized!), and that regardless of whether he received a PhD degree or not, he already felt that the public had bestowed him with a doctorate degree.

This extremely arrogant interview threw the nation in shock, and earned him a nickname of 국준박 (국민이 준 박사; a doctorate bestowed by the citizens). He published another preprint the following year, which was also found to be heavily plagiarized. Furthermore, it was found that he had misused the funding given to him by the government, by going on bizarre trips to physics institutes around the world with his parents, just to have a look. Now, the majority of the Koreans believe that he and his parents had been putting on a show. Now, the name 송유근 gets used in contexts like:
"쟤도 그냥 송유근 아냐?" (Isn't he just another Yoogeun Song?)
where people feel that someone is over-rated compared to his natural abilities.

The media had loved portraying the genius boy; unfortunately, too much attention was not good for him.
In any case, I think his story serves as a warning to overzealous parents trying to put their children too far ahead.

2. 맥도날드 할머니: the icon of solitude and abandonment

For an English speaker, there is a wide range of channels that you can choose from a TV. You could choose American channels like the CNN or ABC; or maybe you'd prefer some Canadian or British channels, or the recently-rising Netflix or Amazon Prime. However, Korea is the only country that speaks Korean; this means that your TV channel choices are very limited.

So sometimes it happens that almost every Korean has watched the same very interesting documentary the previous evening. And the ones who haven't watched it are brought up-to-date by those who did watch it. 송유근's documentary is one of these instances. Another instance is that of 맥도날드 할머니 (McDonald's grandmother).

Some people tipped off the producers of a documentary that an old woman seemed to be spending all her nights huddled at 24-hour McDonald's restaurants.
Curious about her story, the producers approached the woman, and they were able to get the full story. Having majored in French literature, and being fluent in English and French (it is extremely rare for the elderly to be fluent in languages other than Korean and Japanese, because they grew up in the Japanese occupation era, and went through the Korean War), she worked as a diplomat for the Korean government.

However, she seemed to have had a narcissistic streak; she spent all of her earnings on luxury items, stayed at luxury hotels and ate out at expensive restaurants, and her parents encouraged her to find someone better every time a suitor appeared. Until her dying moments, she apparently believed that her spouse should be a leader of a country. Her arrogance estranged her from her siblings and friends, and her extravagant lifestyle brought financial ruin.

The documentary said that she was a beautiful and popular woman.
Eventually homeless, she spent her nights at 24-hour McDonald's locations. However, she never let go of her past, carrying around English and French newspapers and reading them all night. When the producers offered to buy her dinner, she refused to go unless they took her to a fancy restaurant. After the episode aired, people from her past appeared to try to help her, but she refused all help, saying that her prince will come.

The reaction to this documentary was mixed. Some were offended at having aired such a private story to an entire nation; some were angry at 맥도날드 할머니's rude attitude towards the producers; some felt pity and offered to help; and most were shocked that someone who led such an elite lifestyle could fall this far.

People continued to report online that they saw 맥도날드 할머니 at various 24-hour restaurants in Seoul. Eventually a Canadian woman (reported as "Stephanie Cesario") befriended her, and took care of her in various ways until she passed away in 2013.

This is a disturbing story, to say the least, and I cannot explain what triggered this nationwide morbid fascination that made her so famous. I think it put a bit of fear in all Koreans' hearts, as we are all afraid to some degree the solitude and the ensuing loneliness, especially in our later years. In any case, her story still gets mentioned once in a while, and certainly every Korean will know this reference.

3. 스티브유: the icon of treason

Steve Yoo (스티브 유) was actually an extremely popular Korean celebrity of the late 90s and early 2000s. He released albums under his Korean name 유승준 (Seungjun Yoo) and he was talented in singing and dancing (back in the 90s, most groups lip-synced, and he stood out very clearly.) His songs were major hits, and here is the song that put him in stardom, called "가위" (most Koreans in their late 20s probably remember 1:20 and onward quite clearly).

He kept a very straight-laced image, insisting on a clean-cut hairstyle, a polite and humble demeanor, and a healthy lifestyle. Combined with his musical talents, he was beloved by the Koreans of all ages. True to his image, he declared that, although he had a permanent residency in the US (which could be turned into a US citizenship at any time), he would serve in the Korean army like any other Korean men when the time came for him to enlist. 

(Note: Korean men are all required to serve in the military, due to Korea's situation with North Korea. Of course, all men hate it; here are some articles that deal with this issue of military draft: (삽질) (까방권))

At the physical examination prior to enlisting, he gave an interview that he would of course follow the rules and enlist.
In fact, due to his dancing career, he was showing symptoms of herniated disc, and he was assigned to menial desk jobs in the military (called "공익근무요원" or "공익" for short, meaning "agents working for the public well-being). As these jobs are much easier than serving in infantry (where most men get assigned to), being a "공익" was something that every Korean men wanted.

Despite this, 유승준 left for Los Angeles just before his enlistment date, where his family was, received his US citizenship, and denounced his Korean one. This act relieved him from military duty, and he justified this action by saying that "by the time I am discharged, I will be 30, and my life as a dancer will be over."

The entire nation was in shock; this straight-laced singer, who was the idol to the young people of Korea, had just deceived all Koreans (in Korean, he had "통수쳤다"). The Military Manpower Administration (병무청 in Korean) sprang to action almost immediately, and decided that the American 유승준 would be denied entry into Korea forever.

유승준 tried to enter Korea soon after having denounced his citizenship, but he was turned back at the border, and the process was broadcast live to all of Korea.
He must have thought that after the anger died down, he would be able to come back and continue his career. But the Koreans are very sensitive about the military duty evasion (as it is seen as a crime of privilege that only the super-rich can afford to commit).

As it happens, he is still not allowed entry into Korea. And more than fifteen years after the event, the Koreans still hate him. They refuse to acknowledge that he is Korean, and they no longer call him by his Korean name "유승준." As his name on his American passport is "Steven," the Koreans now refer to him as "스티브 유" (Steve Yoo). Unlike the English stage names of many entertainers nowadays, calling him by his American name is the ultimate insult from the Koreans, for having refused the basic duty that must be carried out by all Koreans.

For whatever reason, 스티브 유 has been making repeated efforts to come back to Korea; he was involved in several lawsuits against the Korean government, and he also did an Afreeca emission where he apologized to the Koreans on his knees. Unfortunately, the Korean reaction was cold.
Now, whenever a celebrity of another citizenship commits an act that offends the Korean psyche, the Koreans would write:
"스티브유 꼴 나고싶어?" (Do you want to be the second Steve Yoo?)
and his story serves as a cautionary tale to many celebrities (Koreans are sensitive to celebrities of another citizenship, as they believe that they earn the Korean money and spend it on another country.) All things considered, I'm of the opinion that Steve Yoo probably got what he deserved, although what a huge loss for the Korean music industry! His songs are still pleasant to the ears almost twenty years later, and here is one last clip of his other hit song "나나나."

Friday, April 13, 2018

#122. 갑질 -- Introducing the most entitled Korean family of 2018

As a Korean child, you grow up hearing about the importance of ethics. You are constantly educated on saying please and thank you, being polite to your elders, giving up your seats, helping the elders carry their heavy luggages, and so on.

Not following these social norms is not a crime. However, if you are sitting down in a crowded subway listening to music and minding your own business while an elderly grandmother is standing in front of you (swaying with the crowd and carrying a heavy 보따리), you can be assured of the fact that half of the people in the subway are silently judging you and your parents, who probably didn't raise you properly (in Korean, the phrase is "가정교육을 못받았네," or "he did not receive home education.")

You should probably give up your seat at this point.

With social climates such as these, the public figures of Korea are held to an especially high standard. They are expected to behave in an absolutely exemplary way, so that the young people of Korea can look at them and learn how to behave. If they fail to do so, they are subject to harsh internet criticism. For example, if an idol group is found to have bullied a member, then

1. The public will curse them out in comments to major internet news articles (we're talking about hundreds of thousands of hate comments), as well as on their personal social media accounts;
2. Their fans will have become disappointed in them, and they will leave the fandom (in Korea, just declaring that "I quit" doesn't count; most of these people will post proof on the internet that they've left the fandom by destroying all the fan merchandise they have accumulated over the years and posting a picture);
3. The general public will start boycotting any brands that this idol group models for, leading to their advertising contracts being terminated early. These groups are then often sued for having defamed the image of the products, and they will be ordered to pay for damages.

That is, engaging in a behaviour that goes against the Korean ethics can lead to huge financial ruin for these public figures. The Korean celebrities are not kidding when they say that their jobs are stressful!

The Korean speed skater 김보름, having accused of ostracizing her teammate in the Pyeongchang Olympics, had to apologize to the Koreans on her knees on her next game; she lost her contracts from her sponsors, and lost many fans over the incident.

The job of being a public figure is not limited to just the celebrities -- various members of high-profile political and entrepreneurial families are also expected to act in this way, as their success is also highly dependent on the public support. On top of being flawless in terms of the Korean ethics, these people are also expected to act according to the principles of noblesse oblige, which generally means being kind to even the people of the lowest social status, and donating to good causes.

Despite this, celebrities are not perfect, and these kinds of ethical scandals of national scale seem to explode in the Korean internet every couple of months or so. The most recent scandal that has the Koreans' blood boiling has to do with the family that founded Korean Air (대한항공 in Korean). As a quick background on how the Korean businesses work, most businesses are passed down within the family, forming their own small dynasties called 재벌 (chaebol, entrepreneurial dynasty).

The current CEO of Korean Air is a son of the founder of the company. He has three children, two daughters and one son. His two daughters, named 조현아 (age 43) and 조현민 (age 34), will take the centre stage of this article.

This is 조양호, the son of the founder of Korean Air.
As you can imagine, being born in a very rich family, knowing that you will one day become the CEO of one of the largest corporations of the country, can really shape your childhood. Whatever the truth of their upbringing was, in the popular Korean imagination, the children of the 재벌 family grow up never lacking anything, while everyone around them waits on them hand and foot. They probably have no empathy for the common folks, and they are probably rude and spoiled.

Many of the times, these speculations are proved wrong as many of these 재벌 families engage in volunteer work and donate to many good causes, but the current turn of events have made the Koreans suspect that the Korean Air family is probably exactly how they imagine how a 재벌 family is. And here is why:

The younger daughter, 조현민, has been making the headlines in the past few days for her entitled behaviour towards her employees. According to reports, an external advertisement agency for Korean Air was having a meeting with her to discuss the advertisement strategies for the British destinations for Korean Air. 조현민 asked some questions to one of the presenters, and it seems that the answer of the employee was not satisfactory.

This is 조현민, the third child of the Korean Air 재벌 family.

Being upset at the low-quality answer, 조현민 exploded in anger, throwing her glass of water in the direction of the employee; while the glass did not hit the employee, it is said that the water spilled from the glass splashed on the employee.

This instance by itself does not seem too scandalous to me (albeit humiliating to the employee). The reason it made headlines is because she and her family had been involved in several ethical scandals of similar nuance before -- they are rich and powerful, so everyone should bend to their will, right?

For example, her older sister 조현아 made international headlines for her entitled behaviour on a flight from New York to Incheon, where she got upset at the flight attendants for having served macadamia nuts in its original packaging (as opposed to serving them on a plate), and ordered the flight around back to New York to throw out the offending flight attendant from the plane (here is a Wikipedia article on the incident). As a result, having obstructed aviation safety, 조현아 served about three months in prison. It is said that their brother was also involved in scandals of similar nature, having cussed out an elderly lady in her 70s after a car accident.

This is 조현아, the oldest daughter of the Korean Air family.
There are many rude people in this world; however, when the rude people also happen to have a lot of power over you, the amount of humiliation that one might feel on the receiving end becomes exponential. And this is probably why the Cho sisters received so much online hate -- as powerful public figures, they did not behave appropriately at all.

And sadly enough, this kind of rudeness, where the offending party holds much more power than the other side, happens so frequently that the Koreans have invented a word for this. The act of rudeness, or humiliating someone socially weaker than you, is called "갑질" in Korean slang.

The suffix "-질" has appeared in this blog a few times. It denotes the act of doing something shameful. It can be spoken in irony, so for example, a teacher can say something like:
"선생질 하고있어요." (I do that embarrassing/inferior thing called teaching)
to demean themselves (presumably mostly in jest), or if you spend cash in games, you can say:
"게임하면서 현질해요." (I spend cash "현금" in games).

The word "갑" comes from an old Korean way of keeping track of time. The Koreans used ten Hanja characters to keep track of year, month, day, and hour (along with twelve more Hanja characters corresponding to animals, but we won't get into that in this post). The ten Hanja characters, called "십간" are as follows:


In any case, note that the first letter of these ten characters is "갑."

These letters also came to be used in legal contracts -- these contracts tend to not refer to the two parties in a contract by their proper names (think of all the search-and-replace the lawyers must go through, if this were the case!) So for example, in English rent contracts, instead of names, one uses "lessor" and the "lessee."

By convention, the Korean legal contracts tend to refer to the party with more power as "갑" and the other party by "을," the second letter of 십간. So your landlord would be written as "갑" and you would be "을" in your contract. If you were performing for a party, the party host would be "갑" as they would be the ones paying you, and you, the performer, would be "을," and so on.

So by the word "갑질," the Koreans are saying that you're doing that shameful thing that the people with more power (갑) do. This extremely appropriate slang came into being in around 2013, and has been used extensively even in media since then.

For example, if a customer from a clothing store comes back with an obviously worn dress and demands a return (of course, customer is king, and hence the customer is 갑), the store clerk might mutter under his breath:
"갑질고객 한분 또 나타나셨네" (Another power-tripping customer.)

Or in the case of the Cho sisters of the Korean Air, one of the most common comments you will see online might be:
"슈퍼갑질 제대로다." (I guess that's how you super-power-trip.)
Perhaps taking a hint from these 재벌 families, small-scale 갑질 are quite common in the Korean society as well; many people feel that they are in power when they are paying customers. Some Koreans would take extreme offense when the store clerks are not behaving to their satisfaction, and would go as far as getting the clerks to ask for their forgiveness on their knees. Another common instance is professors using their powers to manipulate the students into doing what they want.

Based on the Korean tendency to become submissive to their superiors, 갑질 carries a nuance that is a bit more serious than power-tripping. While most people are deriding those who are power-tripping, the word 갑질 is often spoken with an underlying empathy for those in the position of "을," as they probably just went through a very humiliating experience.

In closing, here is a bit of a Korean humour making fun of the Korean Air situation:

The poster says that he learned a life lesson that he will always sieve out (거른다) anyone with the last name of Cho "조씨." And on this list are a bunch of people with last name "조," who have been featured in national news for criminal activities. Here you might recognize:

- 제너럴 조승희: the shooter at Virginia Tech named Cho Seung-Hee (the Koreans have dubbed him "the general," which is a story for another day);
- 성추행 조민기, 나쁜남자 조재현: these two actors, known for being loving fathers to their daughters, were recently in the headlines for having sexually harassed and assaulted numerous women;
- 땅콩리턴 조현아, 물투척 조현민: the Korean Air family;
- 고담시티 조커: here is a bit of a Korea joke, where they include Joker from Gotham City, because in the Korean alphabets, Joker is spelled 조커, which makes it sound like he has the last name "조" in Korean!

The other names on this list are more Korea-specific, but each of these people have made national headlines at some point, and I must admit that as of late, the people with last name Cho have been in the news a lot.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

#121. 도화살 -- Fated to be attractive (Shamanism 11, feat. Sulli, IU)

My mom was just in Korea for a visit, and on her way back, she brought back some Korean cosmetics for me (if you ever visit Korea, remember that these make the best souvenir gifts!) She excitedly told me that she chatted to the store clerk, and got some of the most popular cosmetics items for me, including these eyeshadows in the photo below. Alas, the Korean popularity does not necessarily translate to something that is wearable as a daily makeup in North America.

Thanks, mom! Believe it or not, I'm sincere.

While I was a little taken aback by these colours, I was willing to give it a try. And I knew exactly what kind of look I would be aiming for. One of the most popular makeup trends today is called "도화살 메이크업" (makeup "메이크업" in the style of "도화살," which honestly has no translation in English.) Long story short, the Korean women are trying to imitate the looks of the popular celebrity Sulli (설리) by using red or pink coloured makeup items. Yet, it's not that they are trying to be Sulli (who has had her share of scandals, and many Koreans do not look kindly upon her).

Sulli is one of my favourite Korean celebrities! She is so beautiful, and so interesting (although she has her faults).

Let's start at the very beginning.

Many Koreans believe in what we call "사주팔자." Most Koreans take this word to mean "fate," and they believe in it with a reserved respect. While almost no one puts a blind faith in 사주팔자, people generally don't mind having their 사주팔자 told every once in a while (traditionally, people want to hear their 사주팔자 on New Year's Day, and before their wedding, or other big life events). In Korean, you say:
"나 내일 사주보러 가려고" (I'm going to get my 사주팔자 told tomorrow -- you often shorten it to just "사주".)
The way 사주팔자 works is very mysterious to me; the idea is that based on when you're born (the year, month, day, as well as the time of your birth -- these four (사) data points are the pillars (주) of your purpose on earth, by which you are assigned a role in life -- you are assigned eight (팔) Hanja characters (자). In this age of technology, you can find these eight Hanja characters by an online calculator, for example, here (fill in the first line only; these are your birth year, month, date, hour, minute, and location (You probably want to enter the time of your birth in Korean time, but I'm not sure.) Then click "만세력 (Manse calendar)").

These eight Hanja letters written in four columns (from left to right, time, day, month, and year), if interpreted correctly, supposedly tells you of your course of life, and the role you were given by the skies.
Of course, actually interpreting them correctly is said to take decades of learning and practice. As a result, of all the shamanistic beliefs that exist in Korea, the people who engage in the interpretation of 사주팔자 are probably one of the most socially accepted (some people don't even include them in the category of shamans, preferring to view them as "the wise," if you will; some people learn how to interpret these as a hobby).

By interpreting these columns correctly, you can perceive your good fortunes (called "신"), and your misfortunes ("살"). So Koreans would often talk about "신살," which are your good and bad fortunes. As you might have guessed, the word "도화살" is a type of "살", a bad fortune. 

So, why would the Korean women try to look like they have a 도화살, a bad fortune?

This is because 도화살 is an interesting bad fortune. The word "도화" literally means "peach blossoms" in Hanja. The word "도" means "peach" (for example, one type of peaches is called "천도" or sky peach), and "화" means "flower" (as in "국화" meaning chrysanthemum, or "화관" meaning flower crown). In pure Korean, one might instead say "복숭아꽃", where "복숭아" means "peach." So why would peach blossoms signify bad fortune?

Peach blossom, or 도화 in Korean

Peach blossoms are not necessarily known for their beauty (unlike roses, for example). Nonetheless, they have their own charms, and they have such delicious smell that entices the insects to flock to it. The insects (not just the bees and butterflies, but all sorts of terrible insects, too) apparently become addicted to the aroma of peach blossoms eventually, and they will die around the peach blossoms after pining for it for days (to be honest, I have no idea if this is true or not, but this is what the wise people of 사주팔자 say!)

In the olden-day Korea, where sex was viewed as a negative thing, it was said that if a woman has a 도화살 in her 사주팔자, then she would not be able to satisfy her needs with just one man, and that she would end up prostituting herself, or become a 기생 (Korean version of Geisha -- notice the similarities in the pronunciation!) If a man married a woman with a 도화살, he would lose all of his chi ("기," life energy) and die early. 

If a man had a 도화살, then he would eventually become enticed by drinking and women, and eventually lead his family into destruction. For this reason, whether someone had a 도화살 or not was an important question to ask each other before a marriage.

In Korean, if you have a 도화살, you say:
"나 도화살 있어." (I have 도화살).
However, times have changed. Sexuality is not so stigmatized anymore, and being attractive and charming is now a positive thing. For example, for celebrities, who make their living by attracting love and admiration from many people, it would be advantageous to have a 도화살 in their 사주팔자 (in fact, you can even have more than one!) and even the average Koreans started wishing for a 도화살.

현아, of the Gangnam Style fame, is another celebrity who is said to have 도화살.

People who are born with a strong 도화살 are said to have a certain look (remember that the Koreans believe that one can guess certain aspects of a person based on how they look!) -- in short, the people with a 도화살 have a certain pinkish sheen in their face that makes them look very attractive. Here is how the people with 도화살 supposedly look like:

- softly arched eyebrows, like the crescent moon
- light brown and moist eyes
- the "inner V" part of your eye should be sharp
- white and soft skin
- round nose
- long eyelashes
- red and plump lips
- brown hair (as opposed to jet black that is typical of Koreans)
- flushed cheeks

In particular, Koreans place a particular emphasis on how your eyes should look -- they should look like you had just cried, looking moist and red around the rim -- it's supposed to evoke the "instinct to protect" from men, "보호본능" in Korean. The upper lashline does not go up as they travel towards the outside of your eye, and maybe there is a beauty spot around your eye.

And this is why the pink and burgundy eyeshadows are popular in Korea! The Koreans try to use these reddish shades to create the look of the women with a 도화살, in the hopes that this look will bring them popularity.

It is mostly understood and accepted among the Koreans that 설리's face is more or less the textbook definition of how a woman with a 도화살 should look. Interestingly, in the early 1900's, there was a very famous 기생 (Geisha) of the Joseon Dynasty named 이난향 -- she must have had very strong 도화살, given her occupation. And she looks almost identical to 설리!

When this photo first surfaced, this freaked a lot of people out, and surely it contributed to the popularity of the 도화살 makeup.
And this is why 설리's nickname among the Koreans (fans and non-fans alike) is "인간복숭아," or "human peach." Not only does she remind people of a peach, people are also referring to the fact that it almost looks like she was fated to be a successful celebrity, and they are acknowledging the fact that 설리's 사주팔자 probably contains multiple 도화살s (the maximum number that you can have is four). You might say something like:
"설리는 도화살이 적어도 서너개는 될듯" (Sulli probably has 3-4 도화살s.)
Interestingly, the popular singer IU, who is good friends with 설리, wrote a song for 설리, titled "복숭아 (Peach)." The lyrics tell the irresistible charm of 설리, and you can pick up some descriptions of the 도화살 there.

To close this long post, let me explain how to tell if you have a 도화살. Go back to your Manse calendar, enter your birth data, and look at the bottom row of the eight Hanja characters.

- If the second character from the left (子 in the above example), or the last character (辰 in the above example) in the bottom row is one of 寅,午, or 戌, then you have a 도화살 if you can find the character "卯" in your set of eight Hanja characters.

-  If the second character from the left or the last character of the bottom row is one of 申,子, or 辰, then you have a 도화살 if you can find the character "酉" in your set of eight Hanja characters.

- If the second character from the left or the last character of the bottom row is one of 巳, 酉, or 丑, then you have a 도화살 if you can find the character "午" in your set of eight Hanja characters.

- If the second character from the left or the last character of the bottom row is one of 亥, 卯, or 未, then you have a 도화살 if you can find the character "子" in your set of eight Hanja characters.

There can be at most four 도화살, and the more 도화살 you have, the more of a femme (or homme) fatale you are. I have never seen 설리's 사주팔자, but I definitely wonder how many 도화살 she has! As for my attempt at the 도화살 makeup, while it didn't turn out too terribly, I decided to reserve it for the occasional days when I feel like trying something new.

Friday, March 30, 2018

#120. 틀딱충 -- Shut up, gramps!

What kind of classes were you taking when you were a grade 9 student? In Canada, where I spent my grade 9 years, I took the core classes (English, French, math, science, physical education), and some electives (business studies, fine arts, and music).

While it did not immediately strike me as odd, I realized over the years that there was one core class that the Canadian education system was missing, that the Koreans thought were important. And that class was called "도덕 (ethics)." It is a core class starting in around grade 3 in Korea, and you take this class every year, well into your high school years.

These classes go by different names; "생활의 길잡이 (guide to everyday living) or 바른생활 (righteous living)" for the elementary school students, "도덕 (ethics/morals)" for middle school students, and "윤리 (ethics)" for high school students. Look at the textbook covers, which supposedly illustrates the ethical way of living.

Honestly speaking, the 도덕 classes were giveaways. They mostly taught you a slightly idealized version of common sense (at least, they should be common sense, if you grew up with good Korean values). While it was an annoying class to be in, I don't remember ever stressing out about the class material. However, looking at it from the perspective of a grown-up in a North American society, some of the values taught in a 도덕 class are pretty strange.

Here is a test question from a 도덕 class: Which of the following people have the most desirable attitude towards being in a relationship as an adolescent?
1. Smoke to look cool.
2. Ask to touch their body to satisfy their needs.
3. Make sure that the time and place of your dates are public.
4. Make it a deep relationship just between the two of you.
5. Meet privately, rather than meeting alongside many other friends.
The correct answer is 3 (not obvious at all, unless you're Korean!)
But in general, these classes teach you to be considerate of the others, and to be courageous in standing up for your morals and values. For example, it teaches you to be courteous and respectful to the elders in the society, and to listen to what they say, since they have years of wisdom; it also teaches you to give up your seats in public transit, if an elderly person gets on board; it also tells you never to raise your voices with an elder -- even if they make a mistake, you should be considerate, don't make them lose face, and privately point out their errors.

An ethical question might be: If you were not seated in a priority seating, and an old man with a cane hobbles in; do you give up your seat, or not?

Be considerate, respectful, and courteous, these ethics classes say. When you respect your elders, you will be respected when it is your turn to be the elderly of the society.

All of these things are, of course, completely reasonable to a Korean, especially considering that Korea is a country built upon Confucian values. However, with the development of the internet, and the ease of cultural exchange that comes with it, the Korean society is facing a fair bit of conflict in its ethical values.

The elderly, as they were taught, expect a certain level of respect and consideration from the younger generation. They expect that they will be given a seat by the younger Koreans whenever they board a public bus or a subway. They expect a certain degree of respect from the young. They expect all this, because they had given up their seats when they were young, and now it's their turn to reap the rewards of an ethical society.

If you're a Korean, you have likely seen pictures like this in your 도덕책 (ethics textbook).

However, the younger generation of Korea feels differently. While being over the age of 65 legally classifies you as an elder who should be respected, nowadays, 65-year-olds barely even have wrinkles, and they can certainly make a few stops on the bus while standing. There is no reason for them to give up their seats to these healthy-looking people, since they got there first. And the younger generation is not shy about speaking up. To the young of Korea, the expectations of the elders feel like entitlement.

So, the scenarios like the following are fairly common in Korea:


A young Korean is dozing off in her seat on the subway. The subway is fairly empty, with open seats scattered throughout the car. The door opens, and an elderly man strolls in, leaning on his cane. Evidently deciding that hobbling over to an empty seat is too long of a trek, the man stands in front of the young Korean and expectantly stares at her.

The young woman, mostly asleep, doesn't notice the elderly man, who grows impatient and starts conspicuously muttering to himself:
"아휴, 오늘 다리가 참 많이 아프네." (Ugh, my leg really hurts today.)
When the young woman still doesn't notice, the man starts tapping the young woman's leg with his cane, escalating the force with each tap. When the young woman finally looks up, the old man explodes in fury, saying:
"요즘 젊은것들은 버릇이 없어요." (The young ones these days have no manners.)
Flustered, the young woman gets off at the next stop, while the people around the two are trying to calm down the man.


The consensus among the younger generation of Korea is that these elders have too much entitlement. And so there is a certain degree of enmity between the younger Koreans and the older Koreans. Although many Koreans won't usually raise their voices to an elder, just like how they were taught in their 도덕 classes, they might whisper in their anger:

"와 저 틀딱충 진짜 너무하네." (Wow, that denture-clicking insect is just too much.)
"요즘은 틀딱이 벼슬이야." (Nowadays, clicking your dentures is a status symbol or something -- "벼슬" used to mean the status as a government official in Joseon Dynasty, but it makes more sense to translate this as a status symbol instead!)

As you can see, the word "틀딱" or "틀딱충" is an extremely derogatory term that refers to the elderly people (who behave in an entitled manner, or, in some annoying manner.) It comes from two Korean words "틀니" (dentures) and "딱딱" (onomatopoeia for click-clacking sounds).

Quite literally, the young Koreans are being derisive towards these older Koreans, who are often loud and vocal about not getting the treatment that they feel are entitled to, by evoking the imagery of dentures opening and closing, and making those clicking noises. And often, they add the suffix "-충," meaning "insect" (you can also say things like "맘충," those insects of mothers who don't take the time to educate their children.)

So, by calling an older person a "틀딱" or a "틀딱충," you are both making fun of the fact that they are old and obsolete (since they wear dentures), and the fact that they talk too much (since their dentures are making clicking noises).

You can even use this word to insult people even just a few years older than you (when they try to act like they are your elder), as a way of exaggerating, although if you use this word to someone in their twenties, say, it is no longer mortally offensive, as it would be if you said this word to a 70-year-old!

This means that you need to be very, very careful if you're using this word in real life. Sometimes, the older people do act terribly, and perhaps you feel that this is the only word you can use to insult them; however, you should brace yourself for the consequences, as it may very well backfire -- the bystanders might feel that you went too far, and side with the rude elderly person (such public humiliation!)

Unfortunately, judging by the viciousness of this word, all those ethics classes have done very little to the young generation of Koreans!

Monday, March 26, 2018

#119. 주작 -- God of lies

It is still snowing where I live. It has been a really long winter, and although I try, it is difficult to look upon the winter season with kindness when it has been dragging on for nearly six months. Save for the Christmas season, winter is the depressing time of the year where the land is barren and the weather harsh. It is something that you must prepare for during the happy and plentiful seasons of spring, summer, and autumn.

Did you ever stop to think that the House Stark is perhaps being a little unfair to winter?
Having lived in Korea, I can tell you that the winter in Korea is just as unpleasant as the winters anywhere else. However, the Koreans seemed to have made a valiant effort against the (well-deserved) notion of "winter sucks," and here is how:

The central idea behind the Daoist philosophy (in Korean, this is called the "도가 (Daoist) 사상 (philosophy)"), which is one of the ingredients that shaped the traditional Korean shamanistic beliefs, is that one must not struggle against what is natural. For example, getting old, dying, as well as the winter, is just a natural way ("도" in Korean) of life, and it is pointless to resist. Furthermore, by enduring and obeying the natural way, one eventually arrives at something positive, such as birth (many Koreans believe in the past life and rebirth to some degree!) or maybe even spring.

The Daoists presumably needed to come up with a simpler way to explain this idea to the laypeople (Daoism was born around 400 BC, by the way!) Their idea seems to have been that they would correspond a "mascot" to each of these ideas, and there won't be a preconceived positive or negative notions attached to these mascots.

They began by assigning a god to each direction. They assigned:

- "청룡", or a blue ("청", as in "청바지" meaning blue jeans) dragon ("룡", as in "공룡" meaning dinosaur) to the east;
- "백호", or a white ("백", as in "백조" meaning swan) tiger ("호", as in "호랑이" meaning tiger) to the west;
- "주작", or a red ("주", as in "주황색" meaning orange colour) bird ("작", as in "공작" meaning a peacock) to the south; and
- "현무", or a black turtle-snake (this imaginary animal is said to have the body of a turtle, and the face and the tail of a snake), to the north.

These mural paintings of the four gods are often found in the ruins and tombs of Goguryeo -- it is said that the Tang Dynasty sent some of its Daoist priests to Goguryeo as part of their diplomatic efforts.
These are called 사방신 in Korean, or four (사) gods (신) of directions (방) if you translate it. These gods not only guard the evils coming in from these directions, but they are also in charge of various other elements of life. For example:

- the 청룡, or the blue dragon (east), is in charge of spring, childhood, and the feeling of anger;
- the 백호, or the white tiger (west), is in charge of autumn, elderliness, and the feeling of sadness;
- the 주작, or the red bird (south), is in charge of summer, youth, and the feeling of happiness;
- the 현무, or the black turtle-snake (north), is in charge of winter, death, and the feeling of fear.

By using these imaginary animals, the Daoists tried to place the everyday occurrences on an equal footing, and emphasized that one is not superior than the other. Living through things as they come may have been easier with this analogy.

It is not a coincidence that the Korean flag is made up of the four colours of the four gods -- red, blue, black, and white.

You can find these gods everywhere in the Korean history. You may find some artwork that draws its motives from these four directional gods, or you may find some ornaments in the Korean architecture (almost like gargoyles) in their shapes. The people of Goguryeo used to paint these gods in the appropriate directions in their houses, in hopes that they protect their houses from all bad things that lurk outside.

However, in this age of the internet, the four gods are no longer on an equal footing. Instead, the 주작, the red bird of the south, the summer, and the youth, is more popular and better-known compared to the other gods, thanks to none other than StarCraft.

StarCraft, of course, could be the game that built the reputation of Korean gamers on the international stage. It was the game that everyone played since the 2000s, and the Korean gamers were the best in the world. Korea even had some betting sites, where you could bet on the outcomes of StarCraft games in the professional league.

In 2010, there was a huge scandal in the Korean gamers' community, where several professional gamers were bribed to rig the outcomes of the games (it seems that they were paid around $5000 USD per game). When this scandal, called "승부 (outcome) 조작 (rigging) 사건 (scandal)," came to light, it shook the Korean gamer community to the core. Several professional gamers were expelled from the gamers league on top of being indicted, at least eight professional teams disbanded, and StarCraft never regained its high level of popularity.

This is 마재윤 (Jaeyoon Ma), one of the professional StarCraft players who was involved in the 승부조작 scandal.
The expelled gamers received an unprecedented amount of hate from the Korean gamers, and it seemed unlikely that they will ever become professional again in any game whatsoever. However, one of the expelled gamers, 마재윤 (Jaeyoon Ma), shocked the Koreans by becoming a streamer via Afreeca (think of it as a precursor to YouTube streaming, as covered in a previous post).

When he started his streaming, the chatrooms were full of the words "조작 (rigging)," designed to insult him. For example, you could type something like
"이것도 조작이냐?" (Are you rigging this, too?)
whenever he did or said something.

Thankfully, as the streamer, he had some control of the chatroom, and he set the word "조작" as a "금지어" (forbidden "금지" word "어"), meaning that you would be banned from entering the chatroom again if you ever type this word.

So his viewers started coming up with clever ways to insult 마재윤. Instead of saying "조작," they started looking for words that sound similar to "조작." For example, a birch tree ("자작") was a popular choice, and one might have said something like:
"이것도 자작이냐?" (Is this a birch tree, too? -- meaning "are you rigging this, too?" with an intentional typo)
to avoid the auto-filter from booting you out of the chatroom. You might be even more roundabout by saying things such as:
"어디서 자작나무 타는 냄새가 나는것 같은데?" (I think I smell a birch tree burning? -- meaning "I think he's rigging this.")

Birch trees

When this caught on among his viewers, 마재윤 also set "자작" as a forbidden word. And thus began the game of hide-and-seek. 마재윤 sets a new forbidden word, and his viewers come up with yet another word that evoke the word "조작" in some way.

The most popular of these was "주작," the red bird of the south and the summer. In particular, the phrase
"날아오르라 주작이여" (Rise, O the red bird of the south -- meaning "lol, he definitely rigged this.")
became wildly popular on the internet, to the point where this phrase migrated beyond the chatroom of 마재윤's personal stream, into the general region of the Korean internet. Nowadays, it is actually more rare to see the word "조작" than "주작" when accusing someone of having made something up, or rigged something!

The font in this picture definitely has to be in 궁서체 -- see this post if you don't get the reference!

For example, if someone posts a tear-jerking story of their childhood, where they were raised by tigers and carried home by a stork when they were sixteen, people might type:
"주작을 하려면 좀 티가 안나게해라." (If you're going to make something up, at least make it less noticeable.)
or just simply:
"주작" (Red bird of the south, although it simply means "fake" in context.)
or, if you want to be particularly sarcastic:
"날아오르라 주작이여."
Interestingly, "주작" is a homonym -- it can mean a red bird (朱雀), but it can also mean "making something up" (做作), although the latter was a very old usage that was barely used prior to 마재윤's internet streaming! So, it is not incorrect to use the word "주작" for something that is fake, and this may be one of the reasons this expression caught on (but in this expression, the word "주작" definitely came from the red bird!)

The nuance of this word is definitely one of sarcastic humour. Not only are you accusing someone of having faked something, you are making fun of them by invoking the name of one of the four directional gods. Yet, as someone who spends way too much time on the Korean internet, the word "주작" almost feels more natural than "조작," and I always have to stop for a second to ensure that I am using the correct word ("조작") when I am speaking in a formal setting. I think that many Koreans would not even bother to stop and think, and just use the word "주작" in most settings!

Finally, to finish off the story of 마재윤, he also eventually set the word "주작" as a forbidden word. The Korean internet users continued to come up with new words (although none of them caught on quite like 주작), such as:

- 저작권 (copyright), 조직 (organization), for sounding similar to "조작 (rigging)";
-  백호 (white tiger), 청룡 (blue dragon), 현무 (black turtle-snake), for being the other three directional gods, and for reminding the viewers of the word "주작";
- 불사조 (phoenix), because a phoenix is another mythical bird;
- 여자친구 (girlfriend), because a girlfriend is also a mythical being among the Korean gamers;
- 전현무 (Hyunmoo Jeon, an anchorman whose first name is "현무", which reminds people of the black turtle-snake, and consequently of 주작), 노무현 (Roh Moo-hyun, a previous president of Korea, whose first name "무현" backwards "현무" is the black turtle-snake);
- 아나운서 (anchorman), because 전현무 was an anchorman, and he reminds people of "현무," which reminds them of "주작," which sounds like "조작."

This is 전현무, an ex-anchorman who now freelances as an entertainer.

All of these words were eventually set as forbidden words in 마재윤's streaming. He never gained popularity as a streamer anyway (as you can tell from the fact that his Instagram account has just 894 followers!) and he probably deserved that, first from his involvement in the rigging scandal, then from his ruthless filtering of his chatroom (although it ended up producing one of the most popular internet neologisms of this day!)

Anyway, that's the story of an ancient Korean god, whose name is still uttered by the Koreans millions of times each day. Does that please him? I am not sure, but I hope that he might be amused by the wittiness of the Korean internauts, and that he does not succumb to anger, in the true Daoist fashion where you just let things happen without fighting them.