Author Archives: Eugene Sung

“You hide your head but not your bottom” (頭隠して尻隠さず)

Original Script : 頭隠して尻隠さず

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Atama kakushite shiri kakusazu

Transliteration : You hide your head but not your bottom

Full Translation : You think you have hided your wrongdoings perfectly, but everyone knows that you did it

Context : 

My informant is a high school student who was born in Osaka, Japan. She graduated elementary school in Japan but soon moved to the United States for English education. She still uses Japanese in her home and uses and knows a lot of Japanese proverbs and idioms that are still widely used in Japan. Here, she is describing a well-known Japanese proverb. She is identified as Y, and this piece was collected over a phone call. 

Y : I think I learned this one when I was in middle school. So, “頭 (Atama)” means head in Japanese and “尻 (Shiri)” literally means butt, haha. And “隠す (Kakusu)” is a verb that means to hide. The proverb is directly translated into “you hide your head but not your bottom”. Since the person hiding can’t see what others are doing, the hider thinks that no one knows what he or she has done and acts like they didn’t do anything wrong too. But in fact, everyone knows what’s going on and it’s the hider himself that doesn’t know what’s going on. 

Analysis :

The proverb makes the audience imagine a person hiding its head in a hole or in a corner while exposing its curled-up body completely. Because what they see is darkness in the corner and avoids people’s attention and judgement from it, they think they have kept their mistake undercover and no one knows about it. However, in fact, everyone obviously knows what is going on but just acts like they didn’t see it. This proverb reminded me of a personal memory of mine when I was playing hide-and-seek with a young cousin. She would hide behind the curtains but her leg would be still exposed under the curtain. However, I had to act like I couldn’t find her and ‘lost’ the game because I couldn’t find her in time. She giggled and thought I wasn’t able to find her at all. This proverb can also be translated that the person hiding isn’t smart enough like a young baby to know that everyone knows the truth.

“The bird will listen to what you say during daytime and the mouse will listen to what you say during nighttime” (낮말은 새가 듣고 밤말은 쥐가 듣는다)

Main Piece : 

“낮말은 새가 듣고 밤말은 쥐가 듣는다”

Original Script : 낮말은 새가 듣고 밤말은 쥐가 듣는다

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Natmalun saegadutgo bammalun jwigadutneunda

Transliteration : The bird will listen to what you say during daytime and the mouse will listen to what you say during nighttime

Full Translation : There will always be someone who listens to what you are saying, so be careful everytime when you speak

Context :

My informant is an adult male who was born in the Gangwon Area of Korea, which is located on the East side of the peninsula. He received Korean education throughout his life and he now works in Korea. Here, he is describing a commonly used proverb that is used in the Korean society. He is identified as S in the dialogue. This piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was translated into English. 

S : This is a pretty common one too. I don’t think this only pertains to the Korean society but it is true that you need to be aware of what you say no matter what. If you are gossiping about someone in public, actually, even in private, you never know who will be listening to you and spread the word. It’s kinda sad because it seems like it’s trying to tell us that there is no one to trust in this world but also tells us that you, yourself, need to shut your mouth and don’t make unnecessary comments about others and mind your own business. 

Analysis :

This proverb was very interesting because of the animals who will be listening to the person talking. We can also learn that a lot of Korean proverbs have animals taking action. By introducing the bird and the mouse as listeners, it makes the audience imagine birds flying around and mice running around to spread the message of the gossip. Upon my research, I also found a very interesting article that was published by JoongAng Ilbo in 2010, that shows a possible scientific explanation to this. This article talked about the movement of the sound; sound moves from cold places to hotter places due to refraction and during the day, the sound moves from the ground to the sky due to the sunlight and its heat. On the other hand, during the night, the air cools down as the sun sets and the ground is comparatively warmer because of the lingering heat inside the soil. Thus, during the day, the birds are more likely to hear what someone is saying because they are in the sky, and during the night, the mice are more likely to listen to what someone is saying. Before this project, I just thought this proverb was only meant to give a lesson to be aware of what you say to others. However, learning a scientific background made this quote more interesting and I wonder if any more proverbs have a scientific explanation to it too. 

“When the tiger used to smoke” (호랑이 담배피던 시절)

Main Piece : 

“호랑이 담배피던 시절”

Original Script : 호랑이 담배피던 시절

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Horangee dambae pidun shijul

Transliteration : When the tiger used to smoke

Full Translation : Long, long time ago… 

Context :

My informant is an adult male who was born in the Gangwon Area of Korea, which is located on the East side of the peninsula. He received Korean education throughout his life and he now works in Korea. Here, he is describing a commonly used proverb that is used in the Korean society. He is identified as S in the dialogue. This piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was translated into English.  

S : So ‘호랑이가 담배피던 시절’ is one of the most famous opening lines of Korean folk stories. The storyteller, or whoever narrates the story would start off with this opening sentence and continue telling the first chapter of the story. It is similar to how Disney movies start with “once upon a time..”. They never identify the exact year of what’s taking place, but only hints that it is a very long time ago. 

E : Is the author for this opening line known?

S : I don’t think so. I’m not an expert on this, but because this is a very widely used opening in countless folk stories, I think it is unknown and will be hard to find who started this. I don’t think the author for “once upon a time” is known too. I’d be surprised if the author is known. 

Analysis :

I think this particular folktale opening reflects a very Korean aspect as they introduce the tiger out of all animals. Tiger has been a national animal of Korea for a very long time and a lot of the ancient folk drawings or cultures include, or is related to tigers. Tigers in Korean folklore hold a great importance and has been used in various occasions such as the Olympic mascot. Also, when we explain smoke, it doesn’t mean Western cigarettes, but it is most likely believed to be ‘곰방대(Gombangdae)’, which is a traditional smoking device of Korea made out of wood and metal. This opening lets the readers imagine a tiger, sitting in his house like a human, and smoking, using Gombangdae. The triggering of the imagination of the readers gives off a mystical feeling to open the scene. 

This article highlights how Korea used a white tiger as a mascot for their 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics and what tiger means in their culture.

“A pearl necklace on a pig’s neck” (돼지 목에 진주목걸이)

Main Piece : 

“돼지 목에 진주목걸이”

Original Script : 돼지 목에 진주목걸이

Phonetic (Roman) Script : Dwaeji mok-eh jinju mokgul-ee

Transliteration : A pearl necklace on a pig’s neck

Full Translation : One must live within one’s means

Context :

My informant is an adult male who was born in the Gangwon Area of Korea, which is located on the East side of the peninsula. He received Korean education throughout his life and he now works in Korea. Here, he is describing a commonly used proverb that is used in the Korean society. He is identified as S, and I will be identified as E in the dialogue. This piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was translated into English. 

S : So what do you think what it means by a pearl necklace on a pig’s neck?

E : Maybe that it doesn’t go along well? It doesn’t fit?

S : Basically, yeah. A pig will never wear a pearl necklace and even if it did, it won’t know the value of it, whether it is high or low. This proverb means that one must live within one’s means and know their own value. If one doesn’t live within their ‘range’ but only seeks for valuable objects, they will only look like a pig with a pearl necklace. 

E : Haha, I think that’s a very straightforward explanation of it – a pig with a pearl necklace.

S : It’s supposed to give that direct meaning, I guess.

Analysis :

This proverb shows the difference of a human and an animal and that they have different values for objects. While a human might admire expensive cars and jewelry, an animal would not value those objects but would rather value a good meal. This hints at a humor by comparing two unlikely matters; an expensive pearl necklace and a pig, which is an animal that is usually perceived to be dirty. 

49 Days After One’s Death in Korean Buddhism

Main Piece : 

49 Days After One’s Death in Buddhism

Context :

My informant is an adult female who was born in Seoul, South Korea. She received Korean education throughout her life and mainly speaks Korean. She believes in Buddhism and has been attending temple events for a long time. Her family also are Buddhist and follows the Buddhist way when it comes to events such as funerals and ancestral rites. Here, she is describing how a Buddhist ancestral rites is done during 49 days after one’s death. She is identified as K, and I will be identified as E in the dialogue. This piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was translated into English.

K : In Korean Buddhist belief, 49 days after one’s death is the most critical time after the funeral. Once someone dies, they do not go to heaven or hell but are kept in a ‘middle-zone’ between Earth and the heavens for 49 days and are sent to seven stages of hell to judge whether they have lived an honest life.

E : What does it mean by ‘honest’ life?

K : It means that they haven’t done any wrong doings. One must not lie, not kill someone, not trick someone, and stuff like those. Even telling a small lie to your friend also counts as wrongdoing. Each hell determines if you have committed a crime. One category of these hell judges a ‘crime you have committed with your words’. This would include speaking bad about your friends, hurting your parent’s feelings with words, or lying. Like this, the ‘crime’ itself doesn’t always need to be a serious offense such as murdering or deceiving multiple people for money. We might be committing a ‘crime’ even now as we talk. 

E : So it means that you must be aware of what action you take, I guess. 

K : Yes. This belief tells people that anyone can be an ‘offender’ in the afterworld and makes them cautious. After the 7 weeks and 7 trials, they are then determined what life they will be living in their next life. Depending on how you lived your previous life, you might be reborn as a human, an animal, or even a non-animal such as a rock. The better life you lived, the more human you will become. If you commit a big crime, you will be reborn as an animal such as a dog or a pig. If you didn’t commit any sort of crime and lived a very pure life, that’s when you get your chance to enter heaven. 

E : Does that mean it’s impossible since we all commit ‘crimes’?

K : It sounds like it, doesn’t it? But it’s described to be possible. That’s why Buddhist monks shave their head, live in the temple, and train to strengthen their mind and body. This is also related to why they don’t eat any kind of meat – it means that an animal must unnecessarily die for the monks for their meal. In order to stop the unnecessary death, they eat with vegan choices. They are the closest beings to heaven since they consciously try to prevent themselves from commiting wrongdoings. Also, know that during those 49 days, the family members of the recently deceased are recommended to not participate in any events that are enjoyable. This includes drinking alcohol, going to a party, or going on a trip. It’s not set as a strict rule, but you just need to do it to show respect. You also wear only dark-colored clothes such as black or dark grey. 

Analysis :

This proverb shows how the Korean society believes in the Karma system and the cycle of life. In Buddhism belief, when one dies, they don’t directly go to heaven or hell like Christianity but are judged for the next 48 days for how they have lived in their previous life and how many wrongdoings they have done. I think the fact that the trial of one’s death is continued on for a long time is also to give a sense of pressure to people to not commit wrongdoings when they are alive. It pressures people to only act nicely if they do not want to be suffering even after their death. 

For another version of this story, take a look at the film, “Along with the Gods”. This Korean movie was made in 2017 and was based on the comic by Ho-Min Ju. The movie is about what happens in one’s afterlife in Buddhist belief and gives a good summary of the informant’s piece.