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Korean Superstitions and Advice

Posted on the 26 August 2012 by Smudger @ChristopherSm73
Korean Superstitions and AdviceKorean 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 behavior.  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 realize 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: http://www.asiapundits.com/of-the/video-of-the-week/video-of-the-week-bear-bile-being-collected-at-a-farm-in-china/. 
Korean Superstitions and Advice
Like I mentioned before in a post about Korean death anniversaries(http://smudgem.blogspot.kr/2012/07/death-anniversaries-in-korea.html) 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 http://blog.korea.net/?p=7920.
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
Korean Superstitions and AdviceOften 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.
Below: A Shamen priest that advises people to change their names for better luck in the future.
Korean Superstitions and Advice
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.

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