USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘South Korea’
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Seaweed Soup on Birthdays -A Korean Tradition

Main Text:

HK: “On somebody’s birthday it is tradition to have seaweed soup”

Collector: “Can it be any kind of seaweed soup?”

HK: “I don’t think it really matters, but there are a lot of traditional recipes for seaweed soup out there”

Context: 

HK moved to the Unites States from South Korea when she was in kindergarten. After being raised in different parts of Asia an coming to the United States HK has acquired many traditions, customs and folk beliefs that have been passed down from her family. The ritualistic act of eating seaweed soup at someone’s birthday is just one example of a ritual that HK told me during my collection helps to keep her culture alive. She said that at least for her family specifically, having rituals and customs like these allow for people living in the Unites States to still connect with their family and homeland in Korea. This connection that HK feels to her culture and family is one reason that she says that she will continue to educate and pass down this seaweed-eating ritual. Another reason that she says that she remembers such a ritual is that it has happened on every one of her birthday’s so that if she evert had a birthday without it, it would not actually feel like a special moment anymore to her.

Analysis:

According to HK when asked why the meal of choice for a birthday is seaweed soup she said that it is related to another ritualistic act what they give to the mother after giving birth because it helps to nourish the body. One obvious interpretation of why it is a Korean tradition to eat seaweed soup at the birth of a child and at a child’s birthday party is the nutritional value of seaweed. Seaweed has high quantities of calcium, magnesium, iron and other important nutrients.  It makes sense for a mother to eat this after brith for this reason because magnesium and iron will aid in a quick recovery of the energy and bloodlust that naturally occurs at birth. The second reason for why this tradition may have occurred in the first place and is still being passed down is the accessibility to seaweed. Most of Korea is bordered by Ocean where seaweed is highly accessible. This accessibility could lead one to believe that seaweed has been eaten as this tradition for centuries because it is cheap and easily accessible to even the common folk. This ease in retrieving and eating the seaweed has led to South Korea pressing about 90 percent of the country’s seaweed crop and to cultivate it they just let it grow on ropes that float near the surface of the water by tethered boeys.

To summarize, in addition to the explanation that HK provided of feeling close to one’s family and culture, there are two other explanations that help understand the reasons that it is traditional to eat seaweed at birth and on somebody’s birthday: The first reason is its obvious nutrient values that help growth and recovery of one’s body and the second reason its Korea’s ease in accessing such a food and its large farming industry that has been built around this access.

 

Customs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Placing Cutlery for the Dead- A Korean New Years Tradition

Main Text

Collector: I know the your family does special acts for the Korean New Year. Would you mind telling me a few of these and what you think is the most important part for the celebration?

HK: “The most important part is that every male family member has to have a different spoon and chopstick. The spoon and chopstick represent the dead person’s utensils so that they can eat the offering of food. What my dad would do is place the spoon and chopstick to each of the dishes that he made each time so that the dead person has time to eat it.”

Context: 

I was in a conversation with Hk in order to solicit information about how her family celebrates the Korean New Year. Before I collected this piece from her she had listed out at least five other customary acts that they perform at the Korean New Year celebration at her house and to narrow it down I asked her what she believes the most important act out of the day is and she provided me with this piece. She said that she remembers this piece because it is a very emotional part in her family and since her dad is a chef, he likes to prepare traditional food and it is of great importance to him that members of his past family can relish in this meal as well to have some happiness and enjoyment after life. HK said that she likes seeing how happy this makes her father so it is a very joyful moment to share with her family which is why it sticks with her. When I asked her if she would share it with her future family she responded that it was a guarantee because she wants to teach her kids the importance of family and sharing these kinds of emotional experiences with each other, especially over a good traditional Korean meal.

Analysis: 

One of the main reasons for celebration of the Korean New Year is not just to celebrate the passage into the new year but as a way to spend time catching up with your family members as well as paying respect to your dead ancestors. Understanding that a large part of the Korean New Year celebration revolves around family and paying respect to one’s ancestors, it makes sense that the custom of setting out utensils for one’s deceased ancestors would be passed down, taught to new generations and vary between family.

Another large part of this piece that needs to be analyzed is why this part of the honoring of the ancestor is centered around food. In Korean culture, food is a way of getting one’s family together and sharing a Korean style meal keeps the family close. Traditionally, eating in Korea is done family style, where main dishes are shared and eating is considered a major social activity for friends and families. The social setting of eating such as exchanging food, taking pictures of food and even talking about food all brings people and family together, especially when eating at a restaurant. I have known many people from China and Korea who all say that a two hour wait at a restaurant is worth it because they get to spend two hours or more there catching up and socializing as a large familial group. In this explanation I have argued the fact that the tradition of placing eating utensils out for ancestors as a way to honor them on Korean New Years is culturally centered around the belief that food really brings family together in a very close and personal setting.

Another reason that this tradition will continue to be passed down is that there is a lot of history behind each dish that Korea has. Food has a distinct impact on the culture itself because of all the history and meaning behind the food that is eaten and the food that gets eaten and cooked even when away from the motherland. Korean food plays a huge part for me because not only they are rich in value and nutrients also because of their taste which is unique and the traditional foods that traced back to Korea arguably all are extremely nutritious. In a way, serving this traditional food to the dead a a way to honor them provides the dead with a sense of connection tho their family and their culture as well as a way to nourish them in the afterlife. The nutrition value of the food and the uniqueness of the textures and flavor that are employed in Korean cooking act as a way to unify one’s family and help them to continue to identify and even preserve their culture when they are away from their homeland. This cultural significance that is put on Korean dishes  in the end plays a large part in why these individuals who celebrate Korean New Years and perform this ritual continue to do so.

The final way that I am going to analyze this ritual performed on the Korean New year is through a religious lens. The main religion in Korea is Buddhism. In Buddhism, ghosts are fairly common and fully accepted, unlike what is allowed for Christians. Because many Koreans have this religious belief that entertains the existence and acceptance of ghosts, it is not so strange or out of the question that folklore involving the placement of utensils for one’s dead ancestors would be passed along and practiced today by Korean families.

In summary, the cultural stance that many Koreans share in family and in food as well as the religion practiced by many Korean individuals serve as an explanation to why the act of placing a spoon and chopsticks out for one’s ancestors is an important ritual that takes place on Korean New Years.

Contagious
Folk Beliefs
Magic

Korean Electric Fan Superstition

Main Piece (direct transcription):

M: “Okay, so there’s this like…It’s not really a superstition, but…back when the electric fan first came out [in South Korea], there was this news article that came out saying that if you slept—or if you were just in a room with a closed door—and the fan kept running, like you’d run out of like… (laughter) clean air, or oxygen, and you’d die.  So now people don’t like sleeping with fans running.”

Me: “So it was all derived from a newspaper article?”

M: “Apparently, I haven’t actually seen the source, but like, you just don’t sleep with your fan running or you die.”

Me: “Do most people believe that?”

M: “Yeah, in South Korea, because they think you’ll die.”

 

Context: The informant, M, is a 19-year-old USC student originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Her mom is originally from South Korea and is the source of her knowledge about many Korean superstitions.  M’s primary language is English, but she also speaks Korean.  While sitting with M, I asked her if she knew any Korean proverbs, myths, or superstitions.  After a moment of thought, she told me that her mom is very superstitious, and that she knows a handful of Korean superstitions through experience with her mom in her house.  She then proceeded to tell me this superstition about electric fans in Korea.

 

 

My Thoughts: I thought that this superstition was interesting, because it originated from a popular source, such as a newspaper.  This was not rooted in any religious or sacred beliefs, as many superstitions are.  This is a fairly new superstition, yet it has seemed to take dominance throughout South Korea, and most people believe it.  I like this superstition because, although electric fans have been around for a while and are clearly safe, the majority of South Koreans still hold this fear that they will kill you if you fall asleep with one on.  I tried to think of any superstitions that might mirror this one in America, but I really could not come up with something.  This is a very unique superstition to South Korea, and I think that it’s both interesting and funny.  It is outlandish, yet superstitions are so powerful that people, although though they might not actually believe something will kill you, will still practice it because they want to be safe about it.

 

Folk Beliefs
general

Don’t Stand Too Close to the Microwave

The informant is a 20-year-old college student. All of the informant’s grandparents immigrated to the United States from South Korea, but both of her parents have lived in the United States their whole lives.

While I was heating up some leftover pasta in the microwave, the informant commented on the fact that I was standing too close to the microwave while it was running. I told her that I’d never heard of this being a bad thing to do, and she replied that her mother has always told her to stand far away from it, or else she will develop a chronic illness and die young. A second woman who was in the room confirmed that her mother has always told her the same thing. The second woman also has a South Korean mother whose parents were immigrants born and raised in South Korea.

While I had never heard of this belief before, I do not doubt that there is some truth to the idea that prolonged or continuous exposure to microwaves can create a higher risk of developing chronic illnesses like cancer. However, the risk is most likely rather minimal, considering that microwaves are lined with material that prevents radiation from leaking and affecting anyone in close proximity. It is interesting that both of the individuals who held this belief are of South Korean descent, which may highlight a prominent difference between Eastern and Western views on health and medicine. I asked the informant whether her mother had a specific viewpoint on keeping cell phones in close proximity to one’s body, since they are known to emit radiation similarly to microwave ovens, and the informant replied that her mother did not. This seems, then, to be a belief isolated to microwave ovens as cooking appliances, and may also reflect a more traditional viewpoint on food handling and preparation.

Customs
Foodways
Gestures
Kinesthetic

Pouring a Drink in South Korea

The informant is a 51-year-old international businessman who has frequently traveled across Europe and Asia to meet with clients for the past 20 years.

Over a relaxed nine holes of golf, I asked the informant if there were any dining customs or etiquette that have stood out to him throughout his travels. He mentioned that after having been to South Korea many times, he has learned that you must pour a drink in an extremely particular way when out to lunch or dinner.

“When you’re pouring someone’s drink in South Korea, you have to hold your forearm tightly. So if your right hand is being used to pour the drink, you place your left hand on the underside of your right forearm and wrap your fingers around it. It’s just polite. I guess that it comes from the old days when extremely wide-cuffed sleeves were the custom.”

While contemporary fashion trends and the accepted style of dress in South Korea may not encompass wearing sleeves that are so wide-cuffed they have the potential to droop into food and drink, this form of dining etiquette provides a glimpse into the types of formalities that arose as a result of the traditional style of South Korean dress. I asked the informant what a South Korean would do if you failed to hold your forearm when pouring a drink, and he replied, “Probably nothing. It’s kind of like chewing with your mouth open. Nobody will say it but everyone is thinking you’re rude.” Hearing of this subtle dining tradition that I would have otherwise never thought to perform leads me to wonder how often I and other Americans give ourselves away as foreigners when eating in other countries. Assuming that this is a practice unique to South Korea, knowing to engage in this tradition provides South Koreans a silent act of solidarity with one another. If an individual from South Korea is out at a restaurant anywhere across the world and sees another holding their forearm when pouring a drink, they will know that they share a common nationality, or at least that both are knowledgeable and respectful of what they see as proper dining etiquette.

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