Category: Culture & History

새해 복 많이 받으세요!

Happy Lunar New Year, readers!

Good grief, January just flew by, but luckily 설날 gives me another chance to wish you all a very prosperous new year.  How are you all doing?

A lot of things have happened since the last time I blogged and many of them, I’m happy to say, are good things.  My life is more balanced these days.  I’m happier than I have been in a long while.  Yes, there are still challenges but instead of letting them swallow me, I feel like I can take them on.  Everyday I marvel at how I’m lucky to have such a wonderful support system both online and in real life.

My goals for the New Year?  I’d say it’s to sustain this positivity.  To appreciate myself and others more.  To achieve balance in my life.

As for my language goals for the New Year:  Get back to Korean.  Make it a part of my daily life again.  The two-month hiatus was nice, but now I’m ready to start again.  Also further my Japanese.  I bought a couple novels in Japantown a few months ago and I’m eager to get started on them (keep an eye out for a future post on it!).

In other news, I found a really awesome vegetarian 떡국 (ddeokguk) recipe via @ZenKimchi earlier today!  (This makes me happy because I’m vegetarian and often cannot enjoy Korean cuisine.)


Find the recipe (and more yummy photos) HERE.

For those of you who may not know, 떡국 is a dish that is traditionally consumed on Lunar New Year (설날) in Korea.  Curious as I am about traditions, I used Naver’s 지식iN to find out why.  One of the most common answers I found has to do with age.  Given that Koreans usually add +1 to their age on New Year’s day, traditionally, it was said that one can only grow a year older if one ate 떡국 on 설날 – so this was one way to convince children they could grow up faster if they ate this on New Year’s.  The other explanations I saw had to do with the 떡 itself.

(image source)

가래떡 – the type of 떡 used in 떡국 –  is long and white in appearance (see above).  Because of its length, people say eating 떡국 will give you a long life.  And, because it is pure white in color, people say it symbolizes the bright, new beginnings associated with the new year.

Gah my mouth is watering now.

Wishing you all a wonderful new year!  Here’s to more blog posts in 2014.

‘돌 속의 별’

돌의 내부가 암흑이라고 맏는 사람은
돌을 부딪쳐 본 적이 없는 사람이다
돌 속에 별이 갇혀 있다는 것을 모르는 사람이다
돌이 노래할 줄 모른다고 여기는 사람은
저물녘 강의 물살이 부르는 돌들의 노래를
들어 본 적이 없는 사람이다
그 노래를 들으며 울어 본 적이 없는 사람이다
돌 속으로 들어가기 위해서는 물이 되어야 한다는 것을
아직 모르는 사람이다
돌이 차갑다고 말하는 사람은
돌에서 울음을 꺼내 본 적이 없는 사람이다
그 냉정이 한때 불이었다는 것을 잊은 사람이다
돌이 무표정하다고 무시하는 사람은
돌의 얼굴을 가만히 들여다본 적이 없는 사람이다
안으로 소용돌이치는 파문을 이해하지 못하는 사람이다
그 무표정의 모순어법을

-류시화 시집 <나의 상처는 돌 너의 상처는 꽃>



Another tidbit I learned from my language partner.

We were talking about names and such and she said that her own name was rather unusual by Korean standards.  When my language partner was born, her father legally named her this somewhat odd name without consulting her mother, which upset her mother so much that she called my language partner an entirely different (more common) name  for most of her early childhood.  The reason her father named her thus was because of 태몽.

태몽[胎夢] breaks down to 胎 (아이를 배다 태) and 夢(꿈 몽).  The definition is easy to figure out from the Hanja – 태몽 is a dream about a child that is about to be born.  This dream is sometimes dreamt by the mother herself but can be dreamt by close family members as well – the father, grandparents, aunt, uncle, etc.  Traditionally, the content of the dream is supposed to tell you something about the gender, nature, and/or future successes of the child.  Sometimes, as in the case of my language partner, parents name their child based off 태몽.

For example, suppose one dreams about a dragon.  Supposedly, if one sees the horns or head of the dragon, the child will be a handsome boy; if one sees the tail, the child will be a beautiful girl.  Regardless of the child’s gender, a dream containing a dragon is considered very auspicious since dragons symbolize power and authority.  Dreams about tigers are also considered very auspicious.  Since tigers are considered companions of the Mountain God, these types of 태몽 indicate that the child will be very noble and mighty in nature.  Dreams about riding tigers, being bitten by tigers, or being embraced by one supposedly indicate the child will be a boy whereas dreams about tigers entering your home indicate the child will be a girl (source).

This was just a sampling, but there are tons of stuff about 태몽 interpretations out there.  If you’re curious, just type in ‘태몽 풀이’ into your favorite search engine and read away.  It’s quite interesting and will give you insight into what certain animals, fruits, etc. symbolize in Korean culture.

I’m not sure if there’s anything similar to this in American culture and I’m fairly certain there isn’t anything like this in Indian culture.  Interestingly, my family believes in something like the opposite of 태몽.  My parents and grandparents often say that when a person passes away, his/her spirits says its final farewell by visiting close family members’ dreams.  A rather interesting, unexpected parallel!

마의 16세

This is the funniest piece of Korean slang I have learned EVER.  It’s pure gold.

So here’s the context.  The phrase is 마의 16세.  마(魔) comes from 마귀 마, where 마귀 means ‘evil spirit’ or ‘demon.’  It’s the same 마 that’s in 악마 (‘demon’, ‘devil’), 마술 and 마법 (‘witchcraft’, ‘magic’), and 마녀 (‘witch’).  So not a good thing, right?  16세 is sixteen years old, in Korean age (so 14/15 Western age), and this is significant because it is the age when students finish middle school and enter high school.

Basically, 마의 16세 refers to one’s transition from an adorable child to an awkward young adult.  Puberty hits and, bam, so does the acne, the growth spurts (either vertically or horizontally), the braces, the glasses – all the physical and emotional changes that made the transition from child to teenager oh-so painful.  This phrase covers the latter part of puberty – the transition into adulthood – and, interestingly, it seems to apply mostly to boys, whose physical appearance changes more dramatically in a short period of time (in some instances), than girls.  Regardless, I don’t miss those days.

It’s possible that sixteen-year-olds might say something like ‘마의 16세만 넘기면 된다,’ but the really funny thing is that this phrase doesn’t seem to be commonly used to refer to Koreans themselves.  It seems that some Koreans believe that the physical features of Asians do not change significantly between  adolescence and adulthood, or that they make that transition smoothly without an ‘ugly’ period (e.g. look at 유승호 and 여진구!).  In fact, this phrase might be used almost exclusively for Westerners.  

The funniest thing about all this is that the origins of this phrase, according to my Language Partner 언니, comes from Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame)’s shocking transformation from adorable 10-year-old to… less-than-adorable* teenager?  Oh dear.  Of course, I don’t know how true this is but some snooping around on the interwebs has informed me that a lot of people associate this phrase with Dan’s post-puberty transformation.  Face-palm.

*Not my personal opinion, just reporting the general consensus.  We all have our ideas of what is attractive and what is not, but I don’t like throwing around words like ‘ugly’ at anybody.

A peach a day keeps the ghosts away?

If you’ve watched Arang and the Magistrate, you might remember how excited Arang was to eat peaches once she came back to life. I didn’t know this but in Korean (also Chinese and Japanese, I think) mythology/culture, peaches are thought to have special supernatural properties:  They keep ghosts away!

There are a lot of different variations on how and why this story came about, but the general consensus seems to be that peaches symbolize the warmth and vitality of springtime; hence, they repel ghosts which prefer just the opposite.  In fact, one of the ways to exorcise a person thought to be possessed by a spirit is by whacking him with the branch of a peach tree!  The superstition carries so deeply that people don’t serve peaches during 제사, because it scares off ancestral spirits.

Moreover, peaches are considered divine fruits, consumed by the King of Heaven and other immortals to keep them ageless.  They are thought to be a potent ingredient for elixirs and charms for eternal youth, good health, and warding off demons.  Supposedly people used to make everything from bows and arrows to clubs from the wood of peach trees, believing that their weapons too would possess the special powers of the tree from which it was carved.

There are tons more interesting folktales out there about peaches and their “special powers.”  Check them out if you have time!  Personally, I wouldn’t mind some peach cobbler right about now. *sob*

Book Review: 옛것에 대한 그리움

Before I start, an extra special shout-out goes out to my loveliest of lovelies, Jeannie, who sent this book along with a stash of other goodies from Korea.  She’s forever spoiling me with gifts.  I am so lucky to know you, dear – and not just because you’re my Sugar Daddy.  Haha.

I have to admit, I distanced myself from Korean culture and history during my first year of studying the language because a part of me felt that if I learned too much about it, I might come across as a Korean “wannabe.”  As it is, I still keep my passion for Korean a bit under the wraps, but I’ve come to realize that one cannot divorce a language from its culture.  The better I get at Korean, the more I want to know about Korea itself.

And on that topic, a few weeks ago while I was watching 아랑 사또전, I decided I wanted to know more about 고수레, or food that Koreans put out to appease ghosts.  I googled it, browsed  few websites, and eventually came across an excerpt from a book called 옛것에 대한 그리움.  The same site had posted other excerpts from this book and all of them seemed to be about certain aspects of Korean culture.  It looked really interesting and informative!

Author Kim Jong-tae’s primary aim in writing this book is to preserve Korean history and tradition in the current day and age.  In the face of rapidly evolving technology, our fast-paced, modernized selves often forget the religious or cultural traditions of our parents and grandparents – which means they will be equally missing in our children’s and children’s children’s lives as well, perhaps gone for posterity.  This book means to save that on the behalf of present day Koreans.  In fact, the whole book can be summarized succinctly by the its tagline:  잊혀져 가는 거의 모든것의 아름다운 풍경.

The book is divided into five sections, each having a certain theme, and each section contains several different Korean cultural/traditional points.

Each topic gets about a four-page passage dedicated to it, explaining what it is, where it originated from, and what its significance is.  Below is a snapshot of the pages describing 고수레.

Some topics even have photographs accompanying them.  This one was from the passage describing 쪽 (a woman’s chignon).

Other passages include 장승, 소리 (an entire section about onomatopoeia!), 바구니, 봉숭아, 놋그릇, plus tons more.

This is such a lovely little book.  A good, informative read, and definitely a good way to spruce up one’s vocabulary.  I definitely recommend it to anyone who has an interest in Korean traditions.

성질 급한… 한국사람?

So I just learned this expression from Jeannie today.  Let’s break it down!

  1. 성질:  temper
  2. 급하다:  to be urgent, pressing, in a hurry

Together, we get 성질(이) 급하다 = to be quick-tempered or to be impatient.   I’ve heard a lot about Koreans being impatient and wanting things to be fast, fast, fast all the time.  Though I can’t say this is all too unique to Korea; it seems like most people around the world are beginning to value their time a little too much, a little too unreasonably.  This is certainly the mentality shared by a lot of Americans.

But what are 성질 급한 한국사람들 like?  You might get a sense of it from last year’s rather hilarious Olleh CF.  (Thanks for sharing this with me, Jeannie!)

The tagline might be specific to Koreans but I certainly find myself relating to a couple of these situations!  Especially the printer and nailpolish cuts.  Haha!


I get the sense that words in Korea come and go like fashion statements.  Obviously, since I don’t live in Korea and I don’t hear Korean around me all the time, it’s hard to pick up on current slang; when I do encounter one inadvertently in a variety show or drama, it usually requires a bit of sleuthing before I can piece together its meaning.

Let me tell you about this word though.  멘붕.

So graduate school and life has kept me really busy, but I do try to squeeze in a little bit of Korean exposure everyday.  Granted, I don’t read or listen to nearly as much Korean as  I used to a year ago, and yet – and yet – I managed to encounter this word about five times in the course of three days and twice in the same drama.

멘붕 is a 신조어 (newly-coined word) or, as my friend Yekyung likes to call it, a 외계어 (a meaningless, made-up word) which stands for 멘탈 붕괴.  Let’s break it down.

  1. 멘탈:  mental
  2. 붕괴:  무너짐 (collapse, breakdown)

Together, we have 멘붕 = mental breakdown.

You might also recognize it as being yet another example of 준말, or an abbreviated word, which I talked about in some detail over at selfstudykorean.

I think I first heard this word sometime around late 2011 but the fact that I heard it so many times in such a short duration made me sit up.  Words like these are merciless to the unwary language learner!  It doesn’t help that Korean youth seem to be using more and more such words in their daily language, to the extent that even some native speakers struggle to understand their meaning.

My advice if Korean slang has you stumped:  Google the word followed by “무슨 뜻.”  Chances are, if it’s a newly coined word, there are Koreans out there who are probably wondering what it means too.  I can certainly admit to not knowing all the English internet slang out there.  Good thing I have my resources.


I can’t adequately express how much I’m loving 해를 품은 달 (The Moon That Embraces the Sun) these days.  It’s been a really, really long time since I’ve been this emotionally invested in a story of any kind and it feels refreshingly good.  Although I’d say I’m enjoying the novel a tiny smidgen more than the drama at the moment, the first few episodes of the drama really swept me off my feet.  The child actors are so precious and talented; I just want to keep them in my pocket forever and ever!  This scene from episode four is one of my favorites:

: 가만. 설마 너 나와 그 아이를 질투하는 것이냐?
연우: 예? 아님니다.
: 이거 큰일이구나. 투기는 여인의 칠거지악 중 하나거늘…  나의 비가 될 아이가 이리 투기심이 많아서야…
연우: 아니라는데 왜 자꾸 그러십니- 예?
: 세자빈 간택이 시작된다는 말이다.  너도 처녀단제를 올릴테지? 기다리겠다.  너라면 분명 세자빈이 될 수 있을 것이다.

칠거지악 is a curious little word that I wasn’t familiar with.  I’ve seen it translated as “The Seven Deadly Sins” but that’s not what it literally means.

칠거지악 [명사]조선 시대, 아내를 내쫓을 수 있는 이유가 되는 일곱 가지의 허물. 곧 시부모에게 순종하지 아니하는 것(不順舅姑), 자식을 낳지 못하는 것(無子), 행실이 음탕한 것(淫), 질투하는 것(妬), 나쁜 병이 있는 것(惡症), 말이 많은 것(多言), 도둑질을 하는 것(盜) 등을 이른다. (source)

During the Joseon era, these were seven reasons for divorcing a wife:  Disobedience to her in-laws.  Inability to bear children.  Promiscuity.  Jealousy.  Having an incurable disease.  Talking too much.  Stealing.  

I did a bit more research into 칠거지악 and learned that it is a Confucius teaching found in 대학(大學) or The Great Learning, one of the 사서(四書) or Four Books which, along with the The Three Classics, make up the definitive texts of Confucianism.  Collectively, they are called 사서삼경(四書三經) or the Four Books and Three Classics.

Unsurprisingly, there is no equivalent for a woman wanting to divorce a man.  However, I did read that there are three exceptional situations in which a man cannot divorce his wife, even if she commits one of the seven faults under 칠거지악:

  1. If she has no other place to go.
  2. If she has mourned his parents for three years.  (i.e. She demonstrates filial piety.)
  3. If she was at first poor and then became rich after getting married.  (i.e. She raised her family’s social status through marriage.)

I remember learning a little bit about Confucianism forever ago in high school but not terribly in depth.  I wouldn’t say I’m… completely interested in learning about it but in the context of sageuk dramas, it definitely helps to understand Confucianism to understand certain plot points and bits of dialogue.  It’s also a novel experience (no pun intended)  trying to read up on Confucianism in Korean… yeah… I think I’ll stick to English for now.

새해 복 많이 받으세요.

Happy new year to my friends, readers, and fellow language enthusiasts!  새해 복 많이 받으시고 올해도 건강들 하세요.  좋은 일만 생기길 바랍니다.

I still have a lot to learn about Korean culture, but I do know that one of the major New Year’s traditions in Korea is to watch the first sunrise of the new year.

My friend (the same one I skyped with a while back) told me that he and his father would be going to 강원도 to see the sun rise by the beach.  I told him to take lots of pictures and Kakaotalk with me if he was bored of waiting, and he did exactly that (photo credits go to him).  He arrived at 3:00 AM and had to wait five full hours (in the cold!) for the sunrise.  I asked him why he couldn’t just wait inside somewhere but, clearly, I had no idea about how many people actually did this every year.

He complained that it was so cloudy that you could barely see anything, but his dad managed to take a rather beautiful photo.

They also climbed to the top of a very slippery mountain.  I can’t imagine doing this in warm weather, let alone freezing winter weather.

It was a lot fun Kakaotalking with him while he was there!  It made me feel like I was there too.  Although, if I were ever in Korea during New Year’s, this is probably one tradition I would shy away from.  I prefer waking up warm, cozy, and sober on New Year’s Day.

Best wishes for 2012, everyone.