The A – Z of Korea

A is for anjou … anjou, oh anjou, I don’t really want to eat you because I’ve just had dinner and the idea of having to eat more really doesn’t make me want to stay drinking here. To add insult to injury, eating is cheating.

B is for booze … booze, yes booze. Korea is infamous for its alcohol consumption rate. Korea has one of the highest alcohol consumption rates in the OECD. You won’t here too many over in KNTO towers (or whatever the Korean tourism crowd is called now) sharing such interesting facts with you. What’s interesting about drink culture here is, even though there is so much alcohol consumed, drinking has so many social rules, it’s a wonder that anyone bothers with it at all.

C is for Corea … Korea gets its name from the Goryeo Dynasty apparently. The use of Korea or Corea is a relatively modern phenomenon though and is linked to the colonial period. However, before the Japanese ruled Korea, Korea was commonly referred to as Chosun after the dynastic rule at the time. Corea and Korea were used regularly before the turn of the twentieth century, but the ‘K’ apparently became standardised the more around the time that Japanese rule was enforced. The theory behind is so that Korea would appear behind Japan in international ordering. To some this might sound bizzare, but this is Asia folks and stuff like that matters, especially when you are supposed to be ruling them. However, the evidence to support an official Japanese dictate enforcing this is merely circumstantial for now. You’ll come across Corea quite a bit at international football games, and often you will hear some school students repeating what their primary school teacher has been preaching. You can read a good article about the Corea/Korea history here.

D is for driving … there are lots of cars in Korea, and I drive here too, but it’s mad. You will hear many people complain in certain circumstances about the lack of concern for other individuals’ personal space as they bang into you, or stand very close to you when there is plenty of room elsewhere. Driving presents a similar experience. There is a lot I could complain about but I will just say that driving here is both testing and terrifying. I’m about to go off now, must calm down. Deep breaths and repeat, “be nice and don’t rant, be nice and don’t rant”. But yes, driving in Korea, it’s an experience (click for an old post of mine).

E is for East Sea … So there’s a lot of people out there who don’t know where the East Sea is, but if you tell them where the Sea of Japan is, they do know. It’s beside Japan right? Where beside Japan? Well the east coast is the Pacific Ocean, right, so it must be the west coast, which would mean the big patch of water between Japan and Korea. In Korea, this is called the East Sea. There are plenty of arguments against the naming of the East Sea as the Sea of Japan, but outside of Korea I’m pretty sure most people couldn’t care much. I call it the East Sea because that’s what it is; it’s a name for a sea which everyone knows. If it was recognised as the Sea of Japan in Korea, I’d probably say I’m going to the east coast, which is what I say half of the time anyway. I don’t see people getting their knickers in a twist over the Yellow Sea. It’s only a name. Perhaps all that is required is some Google Earth diplomacy.

F is for film festivals … Korea at the moment is overflowing with film festivals, which is no surprise in the movie obsessed country. There used to be thousands of small cinemas around too, but a lot of them seem to have closed down, probably victims of Megabox and CGV. On wikipedia there is an incomplete list highlighting fifty, yes fifty, film festivals in KoreaMy mate Jim wanted to try and go to all of them once, he gave up after about three.

G is for gizzards … Fried chicken gizzards once appeared on top of my fried chicken. I was shocked. How could I eat gizzards? Aren’t they disgusting? Well, no they’re not I found out, and now I’m not afraid of them, and I am now quite partial to a gizzard. In fact, Korea is a hotbed of odd foods that you wouldn’t find on your regular western dinner table. Ever eaten jellyfish? How about garlic stalks? Surely you like live octopus, sea cucumber, and seaweed? Pig intestines? While, admittedly I’m not a fan of many of these, they are all regularly dined on here and enjoyed by many people. Makes you wonder what it is you’re missing out on doesn’t it?

H is for han … Have you ever wondered why so many songs in Korean sound like as if all the misery in the world has been rolled into a ball and has been forced onto the shoulders of the singer? That’s han. It is a cultural trait which goes back centuries and is built into everything that Korean people do, or so you can be led to believe. It explains a lot about the character of the country which is always striving to achieve above its equals and to overcome its hardships. I’m no expert, so expect a few generalisations and rough guesses here: you can explain a lot of Korea’s ‘isms, and its steadfast belief in said ‘isms, through han. Need more of an explanation, try this quote on for size:

feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined.

I is for Lee … I am not sure how important a person’s name is in Korea, but for some reason the importance they put in naming seas and spelling their country isn’t given to the way that names are anglicised. Take 이, or iee, or ee, which is anglicised as Lee. Why? Yeah, I’ve no answer either. While I’m here, Choi, Park, Rim also need special mention. There’s probably more.

J us for Japan … yes, Japan features heavily in Korean history and is a source for a lot of vitirol. But, at the same time a lot of the cultural phenomena you can observe in Korea started in Japan. Plenty of Konglish started off in Japan, while if you watch any of the Korean cartoon channels it’s likely that it’s a Japanese cartoon. While I’m there, all those serialised graphic novels and karaoke rooms, to name a few other cultural influences, all started off in Japan.

K is for Kraze… Kraze, or as it’s pronounced by the popular burger chain, crah-zay, and not actually craze as you may have imagined. There’s a whole pile of manufactured English, or I should Romanised, words and phrases that people pick from a dictionary and design a brand or slogan behind it. Frequently, it can be plain ridiculous, but at the same time a lot of it is quite clever. For example, ‘Kraze’ sticks out and you remember it. I used to complain about it a bit, but then I found myself making similar unexplainable and mad phrases from Korean.

L is for love … love is done differently here. Marriage doesn’t imply love exists between a couple, however to record a chart topping K-pop hit, love is essential. Explaining the concept of love is difficult enough, but trying to understand its existence in Korea can be fraught with many obstacles, including explaining the lack of love involved in love motels…

M is for medical conundrums … When you go through Incheon International Airport these days, there are a lot of posters advertising Korea as a destination for medical tourism. Frankly, I would avoid getting treated in a place where it is commonly felt that, among other eyebrow raising phenomena, leaving a fan on in a room with the windows and doors closed will kill you. That being said, medical treatment here is alright; it’s quick, efficient, but not without its faults. I’ve heard horror stories about malpractice law suits in Korea, granted it was a lawyer who was telling me these stories…

N is for nigga … Before you go shouting things about racism and what have you, I’m referring to the black guy on the bus incident which happened last year. A young, black, north American individual got quite upset on a bus. There was a whole furore. You might recall it. For starters, this incident doesn’t define Korea, but the example it presents does, which is essentially linguistic and cultural miscommunication. Korea is completely different from any western culture and it is very hard to understand and adapt to all of these differences that function within it all at once, especially when all you want to do is eat your dinner or walk home from work. Of course you point fingers at people for confusing or not respecting western culture, but it’s a little more complicated than that. Likewise, people who don’t understand or fail to respect Korean culture really do present problems for the thousands of visitors who come to Korea and do their best to fit in with as little trouble as possible. Communicating culturally is not a one-way or two-way process; it’s more like Spaghetti Junction.

O is for order … Not only is Korea legislated for everything, and it is believe it or not, what defines Korea more is the strict social order which defines the way people operate and interact in society. There is age, and then after that there is social status defined by the job that you have. This even matters for foreigners who are here too. I’ve experienced it on plenty of times when I have explained that I teach in a university and the person I have been talking to dramatically changes their attitude almost automatically. This social order is everywhere, from the way you treat normal people in the street to how you drink in a bar with people. I think the only time the little guy gets a chance is when a car is involved (See D)!

P is for politics … For starters, it’s election season here in Korea, so if you’re here look out your window. I used to think that the person who won the election was the person who could get the most women to dance on the corner of the street in a t-shirt with the candidate’s number on it to a theme tune that ripped off a popular chart song. Being able to stand on the back of a truck waving for several hours on a busy intersection also had something to do with it, too. Of course, there’s also the craic they have when the opposition are trying to prevent the majority from passing legislation; physically restraining and barring entry into the parliamentary chamber. It’s mad. Great news, but mad! If you think I’m being elitist, please, Google Bertie Ahern, and you’ll see what Irish people have had to deal with.

Q is for quirky … there’s plenty about Korea that is ordinary and also inexplicable. There’s an equally large amount that, for the most part, can only be described as quirky. I mean this in a positive way. Just funky and funny things you find everywhere, from Hello Kitty cafes in Hongdae, to a teddy bear museum and Loveland in Jeju, Korea has so many quirky things that just work. For example, there is the bell for ordering on the table (fantastic), or the little mascots everywhere, and more. Korea is full of wonderful little quirks that make day-to-day doing things a little bit more interesting.

R is for rocks that look like things … there are rocks, and then there are rocks that bear a resemblance to things, and then there are tours that take you around islands and spend most of the time pointing out these rocks. I wouldn’t say this if I hadn’t experienced it. I’m not saying everyone enjoyed it or thought it was value for money, but it happened. It was baffling. Often these rocks will have a plaque explaining these resemblances. Perhaps this should have been filed under ‘Q’…

S is for specs … What are yours? Your specs are things like what university you attended, your current job or employer, where you live, do you own your own home, whether or not you’ve studied abroad, what your parents do, your religion … basically everything about you is added up and can be used when promoting yourself as marriageable material. I’ve pretty good ones apparently. Except people don’t really pay attention to mine because (a) I’m married (b) I’m a foreigner (c) I don’t really care enough about them. But they matter a lot for plenty of other people.

T is for technology … You can now shop at TECSO from a wall in the subway stations in Korea. This country has the fastest internet speeds in the world. You can pay for practically every bus, subway, and taxi by swiping a little plastic card over a scanner. It has the fastest regular train service in the world. Some kids take robot making as a subject in elementary school… all that being said, two years ago when I was buying a new car, my father-in-law was concerned as there was no tape deck.

U is for underwear … while I could go on about how uncomfortable and ugly some of the underwear is here, I won’t. I will say that if you show your underwear, accidentally of course, then people will be very embarrassed and shocked. Underwear is something very private, and you practically never see simple accidental flashes of either male of female underwear (not that I’m looking). It’s almost considered sexual I think. I think people are very vigilant about not flashing their undies. I can’t imagine what they think of me. However, you can walk into a sexy bar in Gangnam and find women walking around in high heels and attired only in lingerie or less (I’ve been told this). I’ve also been told other things. Sex is something that is rarely spoken about but is very prominent, albeit down dark alleys or behind very darkened windows.

V is for visual … One thing I have always advocated about Korea, regardless of my mood, is that Korea is somewhere that you just have to see, because otherwise you’ll never believe it. Sounds a bit cliché, but it’s the truth. Korea is a feast for the eyes! From downtown Seoul with the world of streets lit by neon, or markets bustling late into the night selling what seems to be everything, to sleepy mountain villages that don’t seem to have changed for years, or those expressways that wind through the country as if they have just been laid down like a piece of string winding through valley after valley. I could go on and on. Visually, Korea is amazing, or if you will, sparkling (sorry).

 W is for WTF

X is for xenophobic … (here comes a rant) xenophobia is the fear of foreigners or strangers, or anything that is strange or foreign, which I think most people are aware of. In terms of your average person on the street, I don’t think most people in Korea are xenophobic, I think they might be a little concerned or confused as how is the best way to approach something strange or foreign, but generally I think people are pretty open-minded. The institutions that govern are a different story. I am sure those who purport to the theory that Korea is open to foreign investment and interaction may look at this differently. I don’t think Korea, as a country, is open to foreignness. Many of the international events are there to show how great Korea is. I think that this example is best shown by looking at the economy. The protectionism employed in the Korean market is there because foreign products, for whatever reason, are perceived as a threat. And yes, of course if you can’t get access to something as simple as a different brand of aftershave without it being excessively taxed, you are going to go out of your way to obtain it differently, be it through duty free or online. By making products appear more exclusive, it creates the impression of superior quality. One way of doing this is through price. If you want another example, why not take a look at agricultural products; Korean products are more expensive (because there are so many loops that have to take their cut) so it might appear that the food is better quality, and this is even more the case when the 국내산 (homegrown) tag is placed on it. Whereas imported products are cheaper. You know, I think some food in Korea tastes great because it’s naturally from here, but trying to grow everything here in season distorts the price and quality, especially when there’s such a high demand. People want strawberries and watermelon so the producers are forced to grow it out of season, which means it doesn’t taste as good, and the growing of other food is put off to satisfy demand. This demand can be easily quelled by importing. If food, especially fruit and vegetables, was imported, farmers could focus on growing higher quality produce which could compete on the international markets and they wouldn’t have to worry about domestic or international competition, and this would give people a good reason to choose 국내산. Instead, producers try to grow everything but bananas and pineapples, and the prices are extortionate. Take a look at Ireland (a small country similar in size to Korea), which imports most of its fruit and vegetables. It is one of the largest beef and dairy exporters in the world, with an excellent reputation for high quality produce. Now, while I’m on the subject of beef, the reason imported beef is cheaper in Korea is not because of its quality, it’s because it’s a lot cheaper to produce. Countries like the US and Australia have plenty of land, so rearing cattle in fields or as ranch animals is more cost effective than keeping them locked up in sheds all the time living off nuts and feed. The cattle are healthier, and the meat is tenderer, allowing for a superior taste, marbling or no marbling. Of course people don’t know this because they are poorly informed by over-zealous nationalists, so they can’t make informed decisions. As you can imagine from the length of this, I’ve been waiting to get that off my chest for a while.

Y is for Yeosu! … another international event that no one has ever really heard about, nor will they hear about it if they are in any other country but their own, is coming to Korea! I am quite interested in visiting Yeosu this summer, I haven’t been in years, and I imagine it will be nice. Of course, Yeosu is something to be proud of, as are all the international events in any country. However, is advertising international events, specifically government forums which have no bearing on the day-to-day life of yourself and myself really necessary? Like the nuclear summit that was on…really, advertisements on the telly because we are all in a position to head down to COEX and join in a discussion on the pros and cons of nuclear disarmament with Dmitry Medvedev, Hu Jintao, and Yukiya Amano (yeah I had to search for him, you can too!), and then head out for fried chicken followed by the craic (no pun intended) in Ferrari Massage (if it’s still open). This kind of marketing is merely propaganda and it annoys me. But then again, it is election year… (maybe this should be filed under ‘P’)

Z is for zeal … if it’s going to be done here, it’s going to be done with 100% enthusiasm! This is one of the endearing features of this country, which is my home, and possibly as the theme of this entire post. Korea is full of zeal; zeal to achieve the highest position possible, to have its way, to go where no Korean has gone before, to be seen as the best, among other things. This driving force is what makes Korea stand out, and it’s the reason Korea has gone from being one of the poorest countries in the world in the 1950s to being one of the largest, wealthiest and most influential. It’s is probably the main reason that Korea, as a country, is one to be respected and admired. This didn’t happen overnight, but took many years of sweat, death, bankruptcy, and failure. Not without its faults, Korea has come a long way and it will go further, no doubt, and I hope that it uses its zeal to continue to make positive impacts on the world.

4 thoughts on “The A – Z of Korea

  1. On a good day South Korea is a great place to be an ex-pat.

    On my occasional bad ones, I find myself wondering — for people who are generally quite smart and hard-working, why is it so hard to plan things (school schedules, vacation days, contingency plans) more than one day in advance?

    The ad hoc/”last second”-ism of this place is probably my personal biggest WTF when it comes to 대한민국. It throws a randomness into a culture that is, 90% of the time, completely structured and hierarchical. I don’t get it one bit.

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    • Ooh ooh I love when that happens too, and especially when essentially the same mistake is made over and over again!

      But yeah, Korea is alright to live in, and you know you’re always going to have problems with wherever it is you live :)

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  2. Lee is NOT anglicised one. 리(Lee) is original sound of the word itself. Even though Lee is used as surname, it origins from a word which means a plum.

    South Korea has “initial law” linguistically, for example, 로동 →노동 (which means “labor”), 리치 → 이치(reason, logic) Like above, a word starts with ㄹ sound changes ㄴ or ㄹ.

    It has been a controversial issue because some people do NOT think that a name is a word. Since they don’t consider their name as a word, people who has 류Ryu as their surname don’t take initial law on their name. At the same time, some people who has the same surname 류 changes their surname to applied one “유yu”.

    North Korea doesn’t apply this law, so they use their surname “리” as it is. There are some surnames which have the same problems such as “라Ra → 나Na”, “류Ryu → 유Yu”, “로Ro →노 No”. If the former president “No Muhyun” was born in North Korea, he would be “Ro Mu-hyun” there.

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    • As far as I know, the names are written in English differently than they are pronounced in Korean. This is my experience, although I know that some people Anglicise their names specifically different.

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