Tag Archives: south korean

Korean Customs with Employees and Employers

Main Piece: “In Korea if you work at a company and your team leader says you are going to drink tonight, you have to drink. It is is not acceptable to turn down the offer if it has been made for you. And ff you are either at a restaurant, a bar, or if you’re just sitting around with your boss and he is pouring you a glass of anything, you have to drink it. Guys are forced to drink, and if you are given a drink of any kind you have to drink the entire thing. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like it or don’t want the drink, it is part of the culture and the expectancy to finish the drink your boss gives you.”


Background: WP grew up in South Korea, and this is his first time in America so he has spent nearly his entire life growing up with customs such as this. WP made it clear that this is not simply in companies that are for younger people, but that this is something that occurs in almost every major job. When thinking about it, WP seemed to believe that this custom was to reinforce the idea of respect and obedience to your superiors. If you don’t follow your boss it is considered being rude, and along with that if you don’t listen to them and go along with this custom, then you will hardly ever get a chance to be promoted. The main reasoning for this, according to WP, is that if you “disobey” your boss and do not drink with them, then you would be considered someone who goes against their words. WP said that drinking is part of the professionalism in South Korea, and as such it is not a good look for your professionalism if you do not comply.And if you don’t do all the elements of the “society,” then you are seen as less than and unworthy of higher positions in the workforce.


Context of Performance: WP told me about this while we were at my apartment. I was asking him about his time in South Korea, and wanted to know if there were any customs that he thought were much different from Korean to American culture. Having now worked in both countries, WP could definitively say that he thought the custom of having to drink with your bosses and your colleagues, was far more Korean than American. Because as he said that he still went out to drink with his colleagues here, it was by no means mandatory and even less so with your boss.


Analysis:  I found this piece to be incredibly interesting for a number of reasons. For starters, in America while it is certainly not uncommon to go out after work with your colleagues, it seems that going out with your boss is for very rare occasions. At least in my experience, there was always this worry from the boss that they would be showing favoritism or it wouldn’t be professional to go out and drink with their employees. The biggest concern for the higher ups was that they feared if their employees saw them as more of a friend than a boss, they would have a harder time controlling them. It would eliminate some of the fear involved with your boss, and thus the bosses would generally try to steer clear of being overly friendly outside of work with their employees. Additionally, in this era it would be very questionable if a boss was forcing their employees to drink. Especially with the debates about the pay gap between women and the problems associated with women in the workplace having less opportunities to advance, this custom would not be very acceptable in America. This would more than likely get bosses fired because especially after the Harvey Weinstein incident in Hollywood with Weinstein using his power to force women into doing things to advance their career, there is no way this would be allowed.

Valentine’s Day and White Day in South Korea


“Um, in Korea, they observe like different ways of celebrating like Valentine’s Day, in comparison to like Western cultures. Uh in Korea uh on Valentine’s Day, on February 14, instead of the guys getting something for the girls, it’s girls getting something for the guys. It’s usually like homemade chocolates, um like homemade baked goods, just like all this stuff. And then, a month later, on March 14, it’s called White Day where the guys kind of give back to the girls. There’s a saying I think where they give back three times as much, but what they do is the usually give also chocolate, marshmallows, and if it’s like couples they give each other like lingerie, all this other stuff.”


White Day is celebrated not only in South Korea, but also in Japan, Taiwan, and China.


That the men have to three times as much to the girls on White Day than they receive from them on Valentine’s Day points to the holiday’s purpose as a celebration of human relationships, and what inevitably ensues from them. The spring date of the festival reflects the associations of this particular season, mainly, fertility. In giving three times more than they receive, the males are attempting to find a partner, ultimately to fulfill the unconscious goal of reproduction.

Pepero Day


“Another, couple kind of holiday is November 11. So it’s 11 11, so it’s like four sticks. And this is kind of uh related to uh a popular snack called Pepero, which is like this long bread, like cracker covered with chocolate. And, usually like lovers and couples would either make it or buy a ton of it and give them to each other. And for little children in elementary school who don’t really have like girlfriends and boyfriends, they would give each other like lollipops or like little candies to like celebrate young Valentine’s Day.”

Context: According to the informant, the holiday is massive in Korea, but not as popular among Korean Americans in the States. He says, however, that people still observe the holiday here, and that when he was a kid they “kind of did Pepero day.”

Analysis: Although the holiday, like Valentine’s Day, was created by a corporation in order to increase sales, it has been taken over by the people, who make the day their own and celebrate it in a variety of ways. The holiday can also be analyzed in light of many other traditions discussed in class: using a Freudian lens. The four sticks of 11/11, represented by the Pepero sticks, are themselves phallic symbols. In exchanging these phallic symbols, what the holiday is doing (whether or not this is conscious) is celebrating sexual maturity, the ability to reproduce. The informant later clarified that the holiday is mostly observed by young people and couples. This makes sense in light of what has been discussed. The holiday is only celebrated by those who are capable of reproduction, so it seems. Old people seem to be excluded from this holiday as well as young children, who the informant says share “little candies,” marking their inability to fully participate in the practice of exchanging the Pepero sticks.


“Duk Guk on New Year’s”

            Born in an agricultural town in South Korea, the informant shared the tradition of cooking and eating  떡국 (duk guk), a rice cake soup that sometimes includes dumplings called (mandu), on New Year’s day, or (Seollal). The informant explained that her first memory eating the soup was at the age of three, and it has since been so ingrained in her lifestyle that she has carried the practice over to America, where she and her family enjoy the delicacy each New Year. As the informant spoke about the yearly tradition, she was in the process of cooking dinner for her family, and she added that this felt natural to her because cooking in groups was often a social experience as well in Korea, when women could talk freely with one another.  


            We always eat duk guk on New Year’s. We always eat it for breakfast New Year’s morning. The tradition of making mandu in our family began when I was, eh. . .maybe seven or eight. It was always the women. The men usually gathered together in another room and drank and played cards. Duk guk is part of our inherited culture. Duk is, you know, long and a little thicker. . .it’s like a water hose, and when they actually make duk in a big kitchen or factory it’s almost as long as a water hose, too (the ones I bought at the market for you and your brother when you were kids are just always already cut up). But, when I was little we would take the really long duk home and after it hardened a little bit we would cut up in the oval shape that you see in the duk guk. The long duk symbolizes long life, which is why we eat it on New Year’s. Duk guk is made with beef broth, which we make first, and then we add the duk, and then the mandu, and then a little bit of egg, and finally we sprinkle thinly sliced seaweed over the top.

            The mandu that we put in the duk guk is a fun activity that allowed us ladies to get together. We make it in an assembly line style, and we assign who does what part depending on what they are good at―some people are better at mixing, or putting the stuffing in, or folding the dumplings. Making the mandu is where the cooks can get more artistic; each person might make them a little differently, and if you’ve been making mandu together for a long time you can tell who made what dumpling. During the mandu-making process we might be gossiping, or telling funny stories, that’s how it’s always been.

            The funny thing is that, in Korea, once you eat duk guk on New Year’s day, everyone gets one year older. So in Korea, you do not age on your birthday. . . everyone ages on New Year’s day. You might still have a small celebration on your actual birth date, but you earn one more year only on New Year’s Day. You get a year when you’re born―you’re already one year old, and then you get another year when you eat the duk. That’s why your Korean age and American age might be a little different. Oh, and didn’t I tell you? . . everyone eats duk guk.


            The informant’s description elegantly explains the reasoning behind why duk, the rice cake, is eaten on New Year’s. The combination of its symbolism of long life paired with the process of aging collectively on New Year’s in Korea shows that, in Korean culture, perhaps there is a muted emphasis on individual importance (i.e. a big birthday celebration for each person). This value is seen again in the dumpling-making process, as each person contributes to one dumpling, only able to express their individualism and talent in little, creative ways. The women, quite literally, expend equal amounts of energy during the cooking process, and thus the food presented to the men and rest of the family is a undoubtedly collective effort. The informant also emphasizes several times that “everyone” eats the dumpling soup, implying the link to a national identity when Koreans eat duk guk.

“The Heavenly Maiden and the Woodcutter”

            The informant, who was born and raised in South Korea until immigrating to the United States as a young adult, tells a popular childhood fairytale about a woodcutter and a heavenly maiden. As far as the informant knows, the tale dates as far back as at least the Chosŏn Dynasty, the last and longest-lived dynasty in Korea that began with General Yi’s proclamation in 1392 and ended in 1910. According to her, it is one of the most oft-told tales during childhood, and that most children’s storybooks would include it. In fact, the informant herself had a published version of the tale in a children’s book she bought for her own children. The text and images included are from this book, the story re-told by Lee Hyung Sung, illustrated by Lee Mung Sun, and published by Ji Gyung Sa.

            The informant finds “The Heavenly Maiden and the Woodcutter” a touching story because of its ultimate sadness. She feels that Western tales, she cited Disney renditions of fairytales in particular, are easy to forget because “each one makes you feel the same way. . .they leave you happy, but children are happy most of the time, so wouldn’t a child remember something better if it made them feel sad?” The sadness and bitterness that concludes the story is not necessarily a result of anyone’s faulty behavior or poor judgment. Rather, the informant explained, it is a set of unfortunate circumstances that leads to the forced separation between the woodcutter and his wife and children, so by the end of the tale there is no one or nothing to truly blame for the situation. For that reason, she remembered this story above all other childhood tales that she heard, and she knew she wanted her children to hear it as well, to show that sometimes, in life, it is futile to struggle to find a concrete reason behind the sadness that we will all come across in life.



            Long ago in another land, there was a woodcutter who lived in the countryside with his old mother. He was so poor that even though he was an adult he could not get married. No one wanted to marry him because he was so poor and living with his mom. So his wish was always to get married. One day, he was in the deep forest cutting and collecting the wood, and there was a deer running hard toward him. The deer asked him, “Please save me! The hunter is coming after me! Please help!” The woodcutter told the deer to hide underneath his pile of chopped wood. Sure enough, a couple minutes later the hunter came passing by and asked the woodcutter, “Have you seen a deer running?” The woodcutter told him, “The deer went all the way that way” and pointed him in the wrong direction, even though the deer was hiding underneath the pile of wood. So, of course the hunters follow the path  the woodcutter pointed to, and a couple minutes later he lifted the wood and told the deer, “Okay now you can come it, it is safe.” However, this deer was a spirit of the forest and he told the woodcutter, “Thank you so much! In return for your kindness I’d like to make one of your wishes come true. So, what is your wish?” The woodcutter explained, “Well, I am so poor and even though I’d like to get married there’s no lady to get married to. . .I want to be married.” The deer told him, “In the deep forest, there is a big pond. Every 15th, when there’s a full moon, heavenly maidens descend from the sky and bathe in the pond. Go there and hide one of the maiden’s outfits, which allow them to fly back to heaven. If you hide it, one of the maidens will not be able to fly, and you can take her to your house, where she will be your wife.” The deer firmly added, “Remember, no matter what do not give the maiden her outfit until she has had three children.”

            So, the woodcutter followed the instructions. He really went deep in the forest during the full moon and, sure enough, the maidens were out and having fun bathing. He went to where the clothes were piled and then hid one of the robes behind a tree. When the maidens are done bathing, they put their robes back on and fly up to the sky again. But one of the maidens kept looking and looking for her outfit and couldn’t find it and she began crying. So, slowly the woodcutter went to her and told her, “Here are some clothes, would you come with me?” (they were human clothes, of course).

The woodcutter reaches the pond

          She had no choice, so she went with him and became his wife. They had two kids and lived very happily. But, every once in a while, always during a full moon, she would look at the sky, missing her home. The woodcutter felt really bad watching her missing home, so he thought that they seemed happy enough―they already had two kids―and maybe it was okay to give her the winged maiden’s outfit. So one night when she was crying again he gave her the winged robe and explained that he trusted her not to run away because he could see that she was happy. She was happy, and asked if she could try it on. Of course, as soon as she put it on the feeling of flying and of seeing home returned to her. She held her two kids―one in each arm―and flew back to the sky in her winged robe. The woodcutter has now not only lost his wife but his two kids, as well. He cried every day.

The heavenly maiden flies away with her children

            One day, the deer came back to him and said, “I told you not to give her the winged robe until she had three children. The reason being that she cannot hold three―she only has two arms! No matter what, she could not bring herself to fly without her children. But, you didn’t listen to me, and now this has happened. I will give you one more chance. After the time when you hid the robe, the heavenly maidens don’t come down to the pond anymore to bathe. Instead, they send a bucket from the sky and lift the water to the heavens. When the bucket comes down to the pond, get in the bucket and it will lift you to the sky.” Again, he followed the instructions and, sure enough, the next full moon a bucket came down from the sky. He hopped in the bucket and was lifted to the heavens.

The woodcutter ascends to the heavens

             He saw his wife and two kids, who were so happy to see him, and his wife asked if he could stay and live with him. He stayed there until the next full moon, but soon he became worried about his mom back on Earth. He was happy, in a way, but still missed his mother back home. So the heavenly maiden said, “Since you are missing your mother so much, I will give you this winged horse so you can go to see your mom, but please come back! You must be riding the horse the whole time; if your feet touch the ground, the horse will fly away and you will not be able to come back.” He promised his wife he would just visit his mom and he would return right away.

            The winged horse took him to his mom, but he could not jump off to the ground. He explained this to his mom and she understood. That day, she had made a really hot pumpkin porridge, which is one of the woodcutter’s favorite dishes. She told her son, “That’s okay, you don’t have to come to the ground, but I made some delicious pumpkin porridge and I will bring it out to you. You can eat it on the horse and then go back to the sky.” She brought the bowl of soup and he was eating while still on his horse. By mistake, he spilled some hot porridge on the horse, who cries “Aiiiih-aiiiih” and jumps up and down in pain. The horse’s rocking knocks the woodcutter to the ground and, of course, the horse flies away to the sky. The woodcutter had no way to return; the maidens no longer even sent the bucket down anymore. From then until the day that he died, the woodcutter looked up at the sky in search of his wife and two kids. After his death, the woodcutter became a rooster, and that is why we now see the rooster look up at the sky and cry “Cuckaeioooo, cuckaeiooo.”

The woodcutter spills hot porridge on the winged horse


The woodcutter's soul as a rooster


            “The Heavenly Maiden and the Woodcutter” has many elements expected of a fairytale. Animals are personified and humans can travel between the earth and heavens, indicative of a mystical world that is typical of the fairytale setting. The story is, however, quite sad and moving at the end, as the heavenly maiden and the woodcutter never reunite and neither are truly happy. The sadness and bittersweet nature of the tale (because, in the end, the couple’s separation was cemented by an accident) seems somewhat unconventional for a children’s story, but perhaps this is only because so many western children consume sanitized versions of children’s stories.
             A number of interesting observation can be made from the tale. For one, it is clear Korean culture places importance on the lunar cycle; much of the tale’s pivotal moments revolve around actions the occur on the full moon. Additionally, the spirituality and wisdom of the deer suggests little invincibility and superiority, if any at all, attributed to humans. Furthermore, the maternal connection between a mother and child is clear and strong―the informant spoke of the heavenly maiden leaving with her children despite her Earth-bound husband quite neutrally, as if the reasoning behind this is natural and understandable. Lastly, the ending of the story is akin to that of a myth, because the tale not only tells a story but also explains why something has come to be the way this it is in the world today.