Saturday, August 25, 2012

Korean Superstitions and Advice

Korean people are a fairly superstituous bunch and have lots of theories about the world and how best to live one's life within it.  The respect culture and confucian values also makes the older generation more emboldened than usual in giving out advice to the young.  Unfortunately, because of the swift ascent of Korea as a nation it is my experience that it is often the case that the older the person in Korea the less enlightened they actually are, as they are regularly a litttle behind the times.  This can make their advice a bit frustrating as well as almost equally strange.

When I am with my Korean in-laws I hear lots of advice coming to me and my wife on a range of topics, including; health, married life, my parents, and our own behaviour.  I think they feel like it is their job to impart all their knowledge they have on us so that we can live a happy and productive life.  The fact that they are so forthcoming with their worldly wisdom is mainly because they genuinely care about us - I realise that - but it really can become quite tiresome sometimes, especially when I know for a fact they do not know what they are talking about.

The advice given by my Korean family members comes from all sides; aunties, uncles, cousins, mother in-law and father in-law and is not always tactfully given.  For example, one day at a restaurant I was sitting next to my wife's 'bad' uncle (I am told that most people in Korea have an uncle they really do not like) when he commented for about ten minutes on the dry skin on my feet while everybody was eating  (my feet are not always the best as I exercise a lot).  He then suggested I take some Chinese medicine (which I am highly sceptical of) and eat special Korean salt because that would cure my dry skin.  Instead of following his advice I went to the pharmacy and got some athletes foot ointment and cleared it up within a week or two, a better option than the high blood pressure from added special salt in my diet on top of Korea's already salt-laden food.

Below: Chinese medicine and acupuncture is still widely believed and practiced in Korea.  My uncle in-law is a great believer in it and I have had some students who wanted to be traditional Chinese medicine doctors.  I am, however, very sceptical and highly dislike its horrible habit of hunting endangered animals to extinction because of spurious tales of the efficacy of certain parts of it for a range of ailments, like tiger penis for impotence and infertility.  They also have a reputation of extracting things from animals cruely, like in bear bile extraction, which can be seen here:

Like I mentioned before in a post about Korean death anniversaries( sometimes the amount of advice, in the guise of caring, is overwhelming when I am with a large group of family members.  Concerning my wife, how I am sitting, what I should eat, what I should drink, and so on.  Here is a mix of the advice and superstitions that often come up between me and my Korean family, of which some of you may of heard of before, and here is a link to The Korea Blog for some other odd and interesting superstitions

Eat lots of chillies, garlic, oysters, meat, fallic looking sea worm things, and generally anything else that even slightly represents a part of the male or female reproductive anatomy.

I have lost count of how many different foods my father in-law tells me are good for a man, as he flexes his bicep, clenches his fist, and looks towards his crotch.  If it is all true then I must be some kind of super-stud and sexual Tyranosaurus by now, as I eat loads of it because he is always pushing it all my way (I think he wants my wife and I to have a baby quite soon).

Fan Death

Often ridiculed as completely ridiculous among the foreigner community in Korea, this is a danger I have been warned about on more than one occasion.  Many Koreans believe that sleeping with the fan on is akin to having a death wish.  How anybody sleeps in the baking mid-summer without the fan on at night, however, I really don't know.

Eat lots of Kimchi

It can cure everything from cancer to the common cold.  It is clear that the best medical minds of the West must take note of this and make Kimchi an everyday part of all our diets, forming the base of the daily food pyramid.

Be cruel to animals before you kill them

This is a bit of a nasty superstition that some Koreans have.  When American soldiers first entered the country hailed as liberators in 1945, having kicked out the Japanese, they commented on their horrific treatment of dogs, in that they tended to string them up and slowly strangle them to death in the belief it would make the meat taste better.  This was just one of the many problems Americans had in understanding a culture very foreign to them and relating to the Korean people.  There are concerns that this practice still goes on, although it must be said on a much smaller scale as fewer and fewer people actually eat dog meat.  Dogs have also been known to be beaten to death as the fear and adrenalin it produces is thought to tenderise the meat.  I was hoping that this sort of treatment wasn't widely practised with other animals but to my horror my father in-law captured two free-range chickens the other day for my benefit, and in the attempt to make the meat as tasty as possible they were in the process of starving the chickens for 3-4 days in a potato sack, with a small opening for air in the middle of a Korean hot summer.  They were very proud to show me the chickens sitting on top of each other tied up in the bag.  Shortly after I said to my wife, 'do you think they would take it the wrong way if I thanked them for thinking of me, but I'd prefer it if they just set them free again', to which she replied, 'yes, they would take it the wrong way'.  I don't eat meat back in England but decided to eat it here for a smooth ride into the culture of my Korean family and Koreans as a whole.  With regard to the chickens, at least they were free range but why couldn't they have just killed them right after they got them?  I am pretty sure that no one would have noticed the difference in the taste.

Changing Names

Recently my brother in-law changed his name from 한태양 (Han Tae Yang) to 한승우 (Han Seung Woo) because it was thought by the family that the name was too 'strong' for him, following advice from a fortune teller.  Apparently many Koreans change their names when they are older and it is not really that big a deal.  I think this is probably to do with the fact that people often don't use someone's name in conversation and therefore it has less importance than in Western culture.  Instead, Koreans mostly refer to people by a title, like older brother, teacher, older sister, job title, etc.  This happens between friends and not just family member, as they will call each other older brother (어빠 'oppa' if the speaker is a girl, 형 'hyeong' if a boy) and older sister (눈나 'nuna' if the speaker is a boy, 언니 'onni' if a girl) even if they are not related.  Younger people in a conversation, though, are usually referred to by name and not younger brother or sister, although some other titles are often used.  I even noticed that my aunties in-law regularly forget my wife's name and my cousin in-law's name because they rarely use it in addressing them.

Visiting a Fortune Teller for Advice on Family Matters

My mother in-law often visits a fortune teller for advice on relationships within her family and the future.  Common questions usually focus on the suitability of her son and daughter's love interests, whether they should move house, and what the future will hold.  I have been told that I have been given the green light and the fortune tellers say good things about me (maybe that is because my mother in-law doesn't mention that I am not Korean) but my brother in-law's potential wife is another matter and she is worried about their future because of the soothsayer's warnings.  What is possibly not a coincidence is that my mother in-law was already worried as my brother in-law's fiance is quite overweight, something they are not afraid of pointing out and complaining about.  I suspect she probably brings into the meetings with the fortune teller an already noticeable dislike of her potential daughter in-law and he picks up on it and tells her what she wants to believe.
Whistling at Night

My wife really hates it when I do this as she thinks it might summon ghosts.  Of course she doesn't really believe it but this cultural superstition has obviously been taught to her from a young age and runs pretty deep.  With all those catchy advert tunes on the TV, however, I find it almost impossible not to whistle quite a lot and therefore get shouted at quite a lot because of this.

Eating Poisonous Soup for Health

This soup is called 옻닭, which is roughly translated as chicken lacquer soup, the lacquer coming from the sap of a tree.  My parents in-law offered me some one night but warned me that is can cause a bad reaction in some people, so with my overly-sensitive stomach and body I didn't touch it.  My father in-law also opted out as it gave him redness and swelling all over his body when he had it before.  I did watch the others drink the soup and all of them did become noticably red afterwards and all complained of being hot, but they said that it was good for health.  I am just glad I stayed away from it.

So, just in case you think I moan too much about the amount of advice I receive from my in-laws and think me conceited for thinking I know better, this is where the advice often comes from; fortune tellers, traditions, and self-interest.  That being said their caring is sweet and they have a good heart, I just wish they could give the silly stuff a rest sometimes.


  1. Enjoying the posts, keep it up.

  2. What a great website! Maybe you can help us out with something? We have hosted 3 Korean students ranging from 14-20, both male and female. Each time we think, this one will be a better fit, but we end up being proven wrong.

    I've been trying to understand our cultural differences, which is how I found your site, but to be honest with you, as an American, this culture is fascinating and disconcerting. One of our female students was bulimic and a what could be described as a sociopath. Her parents completely denied the problem and tried to blame us. I was told by another Korean girl that being extremely thin is desirable and that eating disorders are not discouraged.

    Our other female student was almost catatonic - barely spoke, rarely looked you in the eye, seemed entirely "lost" to the world around her. She slept constantly, which had me wondering if she suffered from depression.

    Now we have a male student and while he seems the most engaged, he has all kinds of what could be classified as anxiety disorders - obsessive/repetitive behavior, very fearful of change, etc. In addition he has no sense of personal space and asks some very unusual/inappropriate questions. He even admitted to me that he oftentimes knows the answer to his question before posing it to me - which kind of makes me crazy! On the other hand, I don't think he has ever once answered a question from us. He responds with "maybe" or just says "hmmm". He is very socially awkward and doesn't seem to care if he has friends or not. He almost never sleeps. He seems to be proud of the fact (almost bragging?) that he doesn't sleep. We are convinced that he sleeps sitting up (and with the light on). He never seems to laugh or show any emotion other than anxiety. I've also observed that he never seems to be happy when the situation warrants it. He shows very little emotion (as did our last student).

    All of these students give non-committal answers and say things like "good" or "same" when we would ask how their school day went. In addition, these students also rarely leave their rooms and never want fresh air or to go outside (we live in a a beautiful home with lovely gardens, etc.).

    It seems that all of these kids have had some rather severe and disconcerting emotional issues, but we can't help but wonder if maybe that is just cultural? Perhaps you can give some insight to help us better work with these kids?

    1. Thanks for posting, very interesting.

      My first reaction is that you have been unlucky. I have lived in Korea for 3 years on and off and I have never come across such troubled students. Some schools in Korea have the same bad luck with Foreign English teachers and think Western people are all irresponsible and lazy because of it. I wouldn't treat their problems as 100% true of their culture as a whole. However, some things are very common in many Koreans.

      Korean parents are demanding; it might be that your students have had no choice in staying with you and are quite resentful about it. I asked my students what they were scared of the other day in class and half of them said their mothers. Many Korean parents, I have found, can also be in a fierce denial about their children's shortcomings or problems, so being honest with them about a problem with their child is not often received well. They want to believe and to be able to tell their friends that their child is smart, hardworking, successful, and healthy. Honesty within the family is often uncommon and often not valued.

      Not sure about the eating disorders, will do some research.

      It is considered rude to look elders in the eye in Korean culture, so that is why your student probably did not do it. Except with family or friends Koreans are normally quite unemotional naturally also, especially in formal situations, which your situation is to them, I reckon.

      Koreans do have a funny habit of asking overly personal questions and saying things considered very taboo in our culture. They will often ask your age, weight, whether you are married, divorced, etc. When I first met my father in-law we had a conversation about why my parents divorced and how he thought it ran in families and so was worried about my character. I have also had friends questioned about their weight and how they eat too much, in front of all the teachers in the school they are working at (she wasn't even overweight).

      The one thing I would say is that student depression, especially in the age groups you are taking, is common and Korea does have an issue with suicides in middle and high school students. This is because they are worked very hard by their parents and much is expected of them in the future to get a good job and help take care of the family, it is a lot of pressure. My high school kids are at school for 14 hours in a day from 8am to 10pm, some even go to private schools after this until midnight. It is no wonder they have some signs of depression or being socially awkward outside school life. Many of your students may have had to put up with exactly this kind of stuff. Also, because of this overwork their down-time is usually sleeping or doing non-active things like playing computer games, and it might have turned into a habit for many of them.

      I do think your students have been at the extreme end of the problems, and I am not exactly sure what you do (host students from Korea learning English for a few months at a time?). If a Korean family can afford to send their kids to the US they probably do have awfully high expectations of them and have probably forced them into a lot of schooling to become successful in the future.

      Most Korean students I have taught have been really great and much nicer than students back home in England generally. It is possible you are getting samples of students from the over-pressurized children of high earning families, although I don’t know exactly their situations so it is difficult to say.

      I have always tried not to be too hard on them, try to understand that they have had to put up with far more pressure at a young age than I ever had to, have a laugh with them and try to speak a bit of English at the same time. Finding what motivates them is very difficult, but if you can find it and get on the right side of them, Korean students can be great fun. Hope this has helped you in some way.