Studying Korean Social Issues Can Be Fun…

(Sources: left, right)

And using manhwa (만화), or Korean cartoons, is a good place to start. Sadly, my favorite “grown-up” comic-book poptoon (팝툰) sold its last edition back in March, but there’s lot’s more where that came from.

One possibility is Department Head Dal-ma (Dalmagwajang; 달마과장), available in the free Focus newspaper. Although it’s often very basic, requiring no Korean ability to get the gist of, you could do much worse than quickly translating it on your morning commute.

Take these two strips for instance, which kept cropping up in Naver searches while I was preparing a recent post on sexual harassment in Korea. First, number 21:

Dal-ma: Gulp.

Man: Miss Kim, what did you have for lunch?

Miss Kim: I simply had ricecake at the park.

Even from just these first panels, already one thing of interest is that the man uses banmal (반말), or informal speech to speak to Miss Kim, and she replies in nopimmal (높임말), formal speech. No big deal there you might say: he’s probably her superior in the company. And as this recent incident on a subway demonstrated, using the appropriate level of speech to others is considered extremely important in Korea, with even many of my university students using nopimmal to friends just a few months older.

But then the same happens in the second cartoon too, even though the man addresses the woman with the semi-formal shi (씨) at the end of her name. And while a brief survey of other Dalmagwajang cartoons does occasionally show men and women each using nopimmal to each other, I didn’t see any cases of a woman speaking to a man in banmal and he answering in nopimmal. Which is not to say that they don’t exist necessarily, but if there are any then I’d wager there’d be very few.

If so, then is that just a reflection of reality? After all, women do tend to have junior and/or non-advancing positions in Korean workplaces, as even in 2011 it considered perfectly normal for them to resign and/or be fired upon marriage or becoming pregnant (only 50% of Korean women work, the lowest rate in the OECD).

(Source: unknown)

But on the other hand, recall that even subtitles for foreign films and programs have this gender-dichotomy grafted onto them too, despite being absent in the original English:

A women’s group has issued a report on the “sexist” dubbing of foreign films and dramas, reports women’s newspaper Ilda The group took a look at some 27 English-language dramas shown on terrestrial broadcasting in September and October.  It found that most of them employed sexist sexist practices when dubbed into Korean.  Namely, male characters spoke in banmal, or “low language,” while female characters used jondaenmal, or “high/respectful” language, even though the original English dialogue made no such distinctions.

This tendency was most often seen in dialogue between husbands and wives or lovers.  Besides dramas, foreign films showed the same tendency, with 12 of 15 films monitored by the group employing this dubbing practice.

Clearly then, for TV at least there is a compulsion to conform to it. Whether that’s just the industry convention, fear of negative public reaction, and/or the personal choices of the translators themselves, then that remains to be seen, but I’d be surprised if that didn’t apply to some extent to other forms of media. And either way, you’re left with a pretty pervasive socialization agent, and one easy to overlook for English speakers, and/or even easier to get used to for native Korean speakers.

Man: Ah, why didn’t you invite me? I pound ricecakes really well…No, well, I eat them well…

Miss Kim: (Laughing) What do you mean?

Dal-ma: Even acting like that, he won’t get accused of sexual harassment?

Next, despite its curious reputation for conservatism overseas, in fact the Korean media is simply full of sexual innuendo, and this cartoon read by millions every weekday is surely a classic case in point: “떡을 치다” is literally “pounding rice cake”, but is really slang for having sex. Which is why a year ago, a cartoonist was sued for sexual harassment by Girls’ Generation’s (소녀시대) management company SM Entertainment for this otherwise innocuous-looking cartoon:


This might sound strange, but personally I find that slang quite endearing. For not only does it seem quintessentially Korean (here’s another example), but with most Koreans living in the countryside until as recently as 1979, then it reminds me of the country’s strong agricultural roots too (no pun intended).

Ahem. Continuing:

Dal-ma: Still, if something is judged sexual harassment or not all depends on your face (how attractive you look)

Woman left: He really said that?

Woman middle: (Laughing) Really?

Dal-ma: Wow! Look at her chest!

Dal-ma: Jeez, how can’t they feel ashamed to wear clothes that emphasize their breasts like that…

Eek, I forgot! Staring is also sexual harassment.

Dal-ma: (Worried) For no reason, because of a misunderstanding I’d be called a bald pervert.

Woman: Eek! It’s sexual harassment!

Having a shaved head myself, then I couldn’t help but chuckle at the unnecessary mention of his baldness here, as if that somehow makes his perversion all the worse. But with shaved heads being best known as a symbol of “prison, protest, or penance” in Korea, then unfortunately those negative connotations aren’t likely to go away any time soon.

Woman: Sexual harassment!

Dal-ma: No, it’s not that…

Women in background: Bald pervert!

Dal-ma’s daughter: What’s wrong with Dad?

Dal-ma’s wife: He’s like that because working at the office is tiring.

Next, number 57 (as I type this, the latest is number 327 by the way). Sorry for the poor image quality:

Woman (Eun-hee): Good morning!

Man: Good morning! Eun-hee, you bought new clothes?

Eun-hee: Yes, because it’s the end of the year I spent a lot on myself

Man: Wow, your back is a killer!

Eun-hee: Really?

Man: Yes, you’ve a perfect Honey-bottom!

Despite what the man says in a moment, that’s the first time I’ve heard the term ggooldongi, a combination of ggol (꿀; honey) and ongdongee (엉덩이; bottom). But I have heard (and written about) ggoolbokji (꿀벅지) that it comes from though, which, as Matt at Gusts of Popular Feeling explained:

…apparently means, according to this article and allkpop, ‘sweet-as-honey thighs’ or “alluring as-if they-were-coated-with-honey thighs”, though a more creative, if incorrect, translation would be ‘alluring thighs that spread like honey.’ Ahem.

And in particular:

…a ‘high school girl living in Cheonan’ posted a petition on the Ministry of Gender Equality’s website claiming that the word ‘honey thighs’ actually means ‘thighs that you want to smear honey all over and lick off’, and represented the sexual commodification of a female body part, was sexual harassment, “induced a feeling of sexual shame” and said its use should be banned. She was also irritated that such a ‘sexually derogatory word’ was used by the media and asked that it stop. According to allkpop, “Even Korean portal site Daum has requested people to refrain from using this controversial term…”

Hence Eun-hee’s justified reaction:

Eun-hee: Honey bottom?

Man: These days it’s popular. It means honey applied to a bottom…

Eun-hee: I’m going to the Human Resources Department to complain about your sexual harassment!

Man: Honestly, it was just a compliment, why…

Man: Well, I was just complimenting her on how well her clothes fit. Why’s she acting like that?

Dal-ma: It doesn’t matter what your intention is, it depends on how the other person receives it. If they feel uncomfortable, then it’s sexual harassment.

Man: In that case, if someone has a good body, how can we give them a compliment?

Dal-ma: If you intend to compliment a certain part of a person’s body, then do it precisely. Then, the other person will take it well.

Man: I don’t really understand.

Dal-ma: Watch me do it.

Dal-ma: Sung-mi, your pectoral muscles are amazing. And your Sternocostal joints and Sternocleidomastoid muscle are beautiful!

Sung-mi: Er…thank you.

Dal-ma: You see?

No, I didn’t find them funny either. What’s more, they give the impression that all it takes to deal with sexual harassment in Korean workplaces is a quick visit to the Human Resources Department, and consequently that male employees are very nervous about being accused of it. Unfortunately though, as this case at Samsung and these recent testimonies by victims demonstrate, the reality is anything but.

Why the discrepancy? That’s a good question, and it’s made me curious to see if its also found in other newspapers, and so on. Which is not bad for a couple of quick cartoons over a morning coffee, yes?^^

15 thoughts on “Studying Korean Social Issues Can Be Fun…

  1. I can’t say I’ve paid much attention to the Korean comics (still a fan of Garfield, Calvin & Hobbes, et al.)…

    The rather clueless guy sounds like some of the American PSA’s I vaguely remember from the late 80’s and early 90’s. From their perspective, they were simply admiring, genuinely believing it to be a compliment since that’s how they would interpret it. Any chance at comparing those old PSA’s with the guys portrayed here?


    1. Oh, me too: the latest saga with the animated snowmen in Calvin & Hobbes, starting about here, has had me in stitches for the past few weeks.

      Not being North American though, then I’ve got even less idea about those American PSAs from the late 80’s and early 90’s than you I’m afraid. I’ll try to keep the similarities in mind in future then, but other than that I’m not sure the comparison is apt, because I don’t think there’s any indirect public service intentions behind this cartoon?

      Before I go, I’ve just remembered: here’s a good cartoon about something that men might think of as a compliment, but to woman it’s just harassment.


  2. I read a lot of Korean books (in translation and not) last year and noticed that in most of my books, the husband would often use banmal while the wife would talk to her husband using the -yo form. In one book where both the male and female in a relationship used banmal, the man murdered the woman at the end of the novel. Hmm.

    Most of the books I read were children’s books and YA novels, so maybe that was part of it?

    I asked Good Man how his parents refer to each other. He said 98% of the time his mother uses banmal, and his father does, too. I don’t know if his family is weird or if my books are weird or what.


  3. “Namely, male characters spoke in banmal, or “low language,” while female characters used jondaenmal, or “high/respectful” language, even though the original English dialogue made no such distinctions.”

    The original English dialog made no distinctions because English itself does not permit such a distinction. On the one hand, translating most speech into banmal would reflect the greater linguistic and social equality of English-speaking peoples. On the other, a younger person using banmal towards an older adult would be perceived as rude even by Koreans understand English. It would be interesting to observe language levels in translations of conversations between two people who do not have an obvious age or job-related senior-junior relationshio to each other, specifically a) two men; b) two women; and c) a man and a woman. It’s my guess that the first two would be in banmal while in the last dialog, the man might use banmal and the woman jondaemal. That was my observation

    Tagging on to Amanda’s comment, literature and film have not caught up with the reality that most couples use banmal between themselves at home though when conversing with others in public, the wife may use jondaelmal when speaking to her husband in front of others. At least that was my observation of communication patterns among middle-class Korean couples in their 30s and 40s several years ago.


    1. Well, I meant to write “even though the original English obviously made no such distinctions” sorry!^^

      Frankly, although they’re obvious in hindsight, those observations about the reality of the very gendered use of formality in Korean I only suddenly made while writing that post, so it’ll be interesting to follow-up on those and your own points now that I’m more aware of them.

      Either way, it’ll be interesting to see the extent of the difference between how the Korean language is used in the media and how it is in reality, and what that says the worldviews of whoever is in control of the former.

      But not to imply that it’s solely just (sexist) middle-aged Korean guys imposing their outdated views on the rest of the public though. Like I say in the post, it was a shock, but some of my university students – supposedly more progressive and liberal by default – use nopimmal to friends even just a few months older.


    2. Sonagi in this comment and her next one pretty much sum up what happens in translation. One approach is that the differences are eliminated in translation, because the only way to easily portray this is rudeness, which is not necessarily what is happening here, rather an invidious social distinction is being drawn purely on the basis of sex. This is linguistically complicated in English, because it doesn’t really exist in that form. Sonagi’s example of “honey” versus “oppa” is a great one – the cultural connotations are quite different. Even though “honey” can be used in a socially superior way, it also has a lot of other potential meanings for a reader, many of which are affectionate. It would take a super-amazing translator to be able to pull this off, though I bet Kim Chi-young could do it. In some bad translations (I’m thinking of “Fire” for instance), the translators clearly tried to bring this language through, but it serves the purpose in English of making the man appear like a brute, for reasons that aren’t quite clear (although in “Fire” the man clearly is a brute), rather than reflecting a social structure.

      To use the Korean terms in sort of direct translation, however, requires at least explicitation of some sort, since most Westerners have no idea of the power relationships inherent in the words. It is often jarring for Westerners to read “sister of father” and “sister of mother” because we don’t know what the cultural difference (by which I suppose I mean power-relationship inside the family) is. I should also say that stories that feature hanok have the same sort of problem as language levels, since hanok spaces are strongly gendered and this often passes over the head of westerners or is difficult to understand.

      These cultural differences are often deeply embedded in language and so very hard to accurately translate….


  4. In translating Korean into English, one of my pet peeves was not directly translating Korean forms of address like “Auntie,” “Section Chief Kim,” or “Big brother.” Translating “Oppa” as “honey” in a conversation between a boyfriend and girlfriend obscures the cultural inequality of the relationship. The male is usually older and often leads, at least nominally. With more Korean women dating and marrying men who are the same age or younger, I wonder whether these women follow the same pattern of address and call their donggap and dongsaeng “Oppa” while being called by their names only in return.


    1. Related, I don’t know to what extent it is (or probably isn’t) done for conversations in typical Korean workplaces, but I’m sure it would be an important element towards understanding what it would be like to work in them too. And why I never will…I can’t imagine tolerating having my miserable status in the company rubbed in my face literally every time I had to communicate with someone.


  5. I noticed in the TV show Lost that, although the character Sun is financially and socially higher up than her husband, she speaks formally and he uses banmal to address her.


  6. I’ve noticed the difference in the over-dubbing of English programmes, too, and that sometimes when a man and woman who would consider themselves equals are talking, she’s using a higher form of speech. They also sometimes don’t seem to get the extent to which familiarity would govern formally in English culture, not unlike how it would in Korean culture.


  7. Korea the country and it countrymen do not treat mixed races children properly, they are relegated as third class citizen, all the benefits of being born Korean is not acknowledged, they are not represented on television or in the entertainment world, they push forth the whiter shades. You will be acknowledged if you leave that country and become famous else where then you are a proud Korean, but in country you are ignored. Equality should be given to everyone of korean birth just not the fairer sex.


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