Korea explained

I was only in Korea for two years and didn’t learn the language so have even less chance of understanding Korea than I do of understanding Japan, but I read all the books I could and started writing this, so thought I may as well do something with it…

Why do Korean girls have such low and straight fringes?

It is supposed to make them look like they have a “small face”, which is even more of an obsession in Japan than it is in Korea.

Why do Koreans try to get to the back of group photos?

See above (although I never actually saw this happening, it was just something my students mentioned all the time)

Why are there so many anti-American demonstrations in Korea?

Tom Coyner in the JoongAng Daily 6 April 2009 had the intriguing theory that it started as a way of demonstrating against their own government in times when direct protests were impossible (as it sometimes is now in China and Iran), and that got people into the habit of using anti-American protests as a way of bringing everyone together to protest against the government even when there was much more freedom to demonstrate. That certainly seems true for the anti-US beef protests of last year, and is a useful tactic in a country where the opposition is as split as Korea.

Why do so many Koreans have similar names?

 One factor is that “when a newly-born boy is named, one of the characters in the forename will be dictated by rules designed to show how many generations from the common [clan] ancestor the boy is.”

Why ear muffs?

Don’t mess up your hair?

Why hand lotion everywhere and in such big containers?

Don’t know, but I had horribly cracked knuckles for the first time in my life during winter there, so must be something about the water, weather or detergents in Korea

Why is tanabata so popular?

It started in China and spread to Korea (where it is called Ch’ilsok) and Japan, and is the only Chinese holiday apart from Chinese New Year that is still celebrated in both of those countries (cherry blossom viewing, although not part of a holiday, has a similar history). It’s quite a cute story (lovers separated and then immortalized in the stars, similar to some Western fairytales), but it’s still strange to me that it has lasted and spread so much. Was it perhaps part of the Chinese classics studied by kids in Confucian schools? And if so, why did it stand out more than the many other stories in there???

Why do Koreans all have their birthdays on the same day?

Traditionally, and also mainly now, Koreans consider that their age changes when the lunar year changes rather than one year after they are born. As the nine months of conception are counted as a year and so you are born aged one, you can have a Korean age of two a couple of days after you are born! Haven’t found any explanations of how this happened so far, but as status and the dangers of jealousy are very important in Korean society there might have been a need to avoid too fine status distinctions of age and to avoid treating one person specially for one day, especially someone who was lower status than the people whose birthday it was not??

Why do Korean churches almost all still look like Western ones?

It’s the same in Japan, but in Japan I think it is mainly because they are used more as places for weddings of dubious religiosity than as places of worship. It could be, also somewhat like Japan, that despite its history in the country most recent converts still see Christianity as a modern and therefore Western thing to be connected with, and therefore are still attracted to the concept of a Western-style church. There are also fairly restricted traditions of domestic religious architecture, with very few modernist Buddhist temples. During the colonial period Christianity was also attractive for people who were pro-Western because they were anti-Japanese, so a form of architecture that was very distinct from temples and Shinto shrines is perhaps understandable.

Why do some people still spit inside?

“Any place where shoes are worn is unconsciously considered to be like the streets outside. In modern buildings where the shoes are worn, the floors are considered to be like the streets. This presents a problem in public buildings, hospitals, schools, trains and buses where people spit or throw trash on the floor without a second thought” Korean Patterns by Paul S. Crane pg 64

Why are business cards treated so carefully?

It’s a superstition, and the same care has to be taken with any written name. “A name is something to be honoured and respected, and should not be used casually. In [Korean] Shamanism, to write a name calls up the spirit world and is bad luck” Korean Patterns by Paul S. Crane pg 57

Why is there an e in Seoul?

 o and eo are used to represent two different (but similar) Korean sounds.

Why do you have to write a soundless consonant before an initial vowel sound?

“The [soundless] letter/symbol represents the circular shape of heaven…This is the Yin-Yang notion seen in the written language… it is meant to maintain harmony [between] heaven and earth” Korean for Foreigners Student Book 1 pg 3

Why is Hangeul combined in squares?

It was originally to look like Chinese, which was both the only writing system they knew and very high status.

Why is Korean beer so rank?

It’s the American influence, plus unrestrictive laws on what can be put in and still call it beer (in Japan, much of it would be classified as “happoshu”)

Why hot water in restaurants?

Because it proved that it had been boiled when such things were a major concern????????

Why envelopes rather than paper cups?

Probably because paper is expensive (see below)

Why are paper goods (toilet paper etc) so expensive?

I’m guessing restrictive policies on imports to save local foresters. I also read that the Japanese stripped much of the country bare so there was a real emphasis on reforestation once they were defeated in WWII.

Why do Koreans eat kimchi with everything?

It’s addictive and is supposed to be healthy.

Why do some houses have pots on their roofs?

It’s for making kimchi.

Why do department stores sell chest fridges and why do so many Koreans buy a second fridge?

It’s for making kimchi.

Why stone beds?


Why is bedding so expensive?

It’s usually part of their wedding gifts.

Why is kid’s stuff so expensive?

The grandparents buy it.

Why the obsession with ginkyo nuts?

They are pretty nice, but not worth scrambling around on the ground in their smelliness for, so no idea…


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