|Understanding Korean Dramas
|Ahn Jae Wook, a very popular
Korean dramas are fun to watch. However,
sometimes there are cultural differences that prevent
non-Koreans from fully understanding what is
happening in the drama. This website is intended to
expose non-Koreans to Korean culture so that they
can enjoy Korean dramas more.
Koreans write their surname (family name) first,
followed by their given name. No comma is used to
separate the surname from the given name.
Most Korean surnames consist of just one syllable,
but a few contain two syllables (for example, Sun
Woo). The top ten Korean surnames are: Kim, Lee
(Yi/Rhee), Park (Pak), Choi (Choe), Jung
(Jeong/Chung), Kang (Gang), Jo (Cho), Yoon (Yun),
Jang (Chang) and Im (Yim/Lim). Other popular
Korean surnames include: Ahn (An), Han, Go (Ko),
Goo (Ku), Oh, Noh, Shin, and Yoo (Yu).
Korean given names usually consist of two syllables,
which may be hyphenated when romanized. The
given names for male members usually have one
syllable which is the same syllable used by all male
members of that generation in that family. For
example, in the Korean drama "More than Words
Can Say," the names of the three sons were Jang-su,
Tae-su and Min-su.
Korean women retain their maiden surname after they
get married. They do not use their husband's surname
since family surnames are reserved only for people
with blood ties.
People with the same surname who come from the
same ancestral hometown are not allowed to marry
each other. This is because they are considered
family members, even if they are only distantly
related. Consequently, when people are attracted to
a person with the same surname, they typically will
ask for that person's ancestral hometown right away.
Children usually use the surname of their father.
Many Koreans will insist that they be called by only
their surname until they get to know you better. This
can lead to confusion since more than 20% of the
Korean population have Kim as their surname and
15% of the population uses the surname Lee. So if
you call for a person named "Kim" in a crowd, many
people will think you are calling them.
As highlighted in "Mothers and Sisters," sons are
more desirable than daughters in a traditional Korean
family. If the family has more than one son, the oldest
son is expected to take care of his parents when they
age. Sons are also expected to produce grandsons to
carry on the family name to the next generation.
Daughters, on the other hand, are valued less since
they become part of their husband's family and are
required to serve their husband's parents once they
In real life, however, parents are becoming more
concerned with the health of their newborn child,
rather than the sex of the child. Whether they have a
baby boy or girl, most parents are happy if the baby
is healthy. Also, in real life, many daughters still care
for their own elderly parents even after they get
married. So Korean parents are finding out that
daughters are just as valuable as sons.
Respect must be shown to elders. Younger people
do not address older people by their given names.
For example, a girl addresses her older brother as
"oppa" and older sister as "onni," but may address her
younger brother or sister by their given names. A boy
addresses his older brother as "hyong" and his older
sister as "nuna." In an episode of "Mothers and
Sisters," Kyong-bin (the #4 child in the family) was
scolded by his mother for calling his older sister (the
#3 child) by her given name.
The next time you watch a subtitled drama, listen for
when a younger sibling calls an older sibling. The
subtitles will show the given name of the older sibling
but you will hear oppa, onni, hyong or nuna being
Girls sometimes call their boyfriends "oppa."
When identifying a person's position in the family, a
woman is identified according to her relationship to
the dominant male in the family. For example, in
"Mothers and Sisters," the women are introduced to
others according to their relationship to Kyong-bin.
For example, Yeo-kyong is Kyong-bin's sister, the
sister-in-law of Kyong-bin's mother was introduced
as Kyong-bin's aunt, and Seung-lee was referred to
as Kyong-bin's twin.
Showing disrespect for elders on TV is considered
very bad for Korean society. In August 2005, KBS
was punished by the Korean Broadcasting
Commission for airing a scene in a drama in which a
daughter-in-law slapped her mother-in-law in the face.
Direct eye-to-eye contact when talking is considered
rude and impolite. Notice that when Joon-hwi talked
with his father in episode #2 of "Pretty Lady," he
avoided looking his father in the eye even though he
disagreed with what his father was saying.
Since age is important in determining hierarchy, it is
not uncommon to ask someone their age when they
are about the same age as you.
Kissing in public is not as common in Korea as it is in
the U.S. In many of the older dramas, when a couple
kisses, it usually means the relationship is very serious
and will likely lead to marriage.
When receiving or passing something to another
person, good manners dictate using two hands instead
of just one hand. For example, when tea or soju is
poured, the person who does the pouring uses two
hands and likewise, the person holding the cup holds
the cup with two hands. Also, when a younger
person drinks with an older person, it is good
manners for the younger person to turn to the side so
as not to face the older person while drinking. You
may also notice that if the younger person is drinking
with his right hand, he will place his left hand on the
right side of his body under his right arm. I've been
told that this custom originated in the olden days
when Korean clothing had very wide long sleeves
that draped down when the arms were raised. To
avoid having the sleeve get in the way while drinking,
the left arm would swing to the right to hold the right
sleeve in place while the right arm is used to drink.
For recommended books about Korean culture,
customs, traditions, etc., click here.
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All Korean meals--breakfast, lunch and dinner--include
rice, kimchi and a variety of other side dishes, which are
all served and eaten at the same time. You can eat the
foods in any order and in any combination. The spread is
quite elaborate compared to American standards since
variety is very important.
The rice, either steamed white rice or rice cooked with
grains such as barley and millet, is served in individual
bowls for each person. The side dishes, on the other
hand, are served family style with everyone eating directly
from a common dish using their own spoon or
chopsticks. Several varieties of kimchi (pickled
vegetable spiced with chili pepper and garlic) are
provided. Soup is also served at most meals.
One thing to remember when eating Korean food is never
blow your nose at the dining table. Doing so is
considered very rude. If the spiciness of Korean food
makes your nose run, excuse yourself from the table to
go to the bathroom to blow your nose.
Korean meals are eaten with a spoon and chopsticks
which are frequently made of stainless steel. Unlike other
Asians such as the Chinese and Japanese, Koreans use
the spoon rather than chopsticks to eat rice. Koreans
also do not usually lift the rice bowl off of the table when
For recommended books about Korean food and
cooking, click here.
For articles about Korean food, click here.
Soju is a sweet Korean liquor made primarily from
potato, with an alcoholic content of about 20-25%.
Other Korean alcoholic beverages include makkoli (a
rice brew) and maekju (beer).
Red ink is permissible when using a chop (name seal).
Do NOT use red ink when writing a living person's name,
however, since red is associated with death. Red ink is
used to record a deceased person's name in the family
register and also on funeral banners to drive off evil spirits.
Number 4 is an unlucky number for Koreans since it
sounds like the Korean word for death (sa). For this
reason, some buildings do not have a fourth floor. If the
building does have a fourth floor, the elevator may show
the fourth floor as "F" instead of "4".
One method of renting real property involves "key
money." When renting an apartment, the tenant pays the
landlord "key money," which is something like a large
security deposit, for the landlord to invest. The landlord
keeps the investment income instead of receiving monthly
rent from the tenant. When the tenant moves out, the
landlord returns all of the key money to the tenant. That
is why, in the drama "Pretty Lady," when Suri moved out
of her apartment after her mother died, she received a
large amount of money which she dutifully turned over to
her father and step-mother when she moved in with them.