Saturday, January 13, 2007

Sweet and Sour Emotions

Dear Korean,

please explain the reason why Koreans don't smile as much as those of us born in the ole U.S.?

Jim B.

Hi, dong-seng!

I myself am Korean-American but still can't figure out this cultural phenomena. What's up with all the yelling with Korean people when they converse casually? I see it on Korean TV drama and in real life. I once heard 2 ah-juh-shee shouting really loud outside my window. I thought they were fighting but it turned out they were just talking...."I CAN'T GO GOLFING WITH YOU THIS WEEKEND!" I'M GOING TO ARIZONA!" And as much I love my family, it is rather embarrassing to hear my dad and his friends' raised drunk voices reverbrating throughout the whole restaurant. Is there a particular reason why Korean people tend to YELL when they're merely carrying on a normal conversation? ghoom-ghoom hah-da. mi-gook sah-rham han-tae yi-sang-ha-da.

Diana P.

Dear Mi-gook Sa-rahm-deul ("Americans"),

First, about the picture. The Korean searched Google Image for "yelling Korean" and four pictures of this girl showed up first. Having never cared for Korean pop culture even when he lived in Korea (except in certain contexts), the Korean has no idea who that is. But she's pretty hot, so why not? This blog could use some sprucing up anyway.

The last sentence by Diana P. was meant to say "I'm curious. It's strange to an American," but she mangled it. It should have said goong-geum hae-yo, mi-gook sah-rahm eh geh yi-sahng-hae-yo. (Or drop the two yo's since she called the Korean dong-saeng, "little brother". But she misspelled the romanization of that too.)

Alright, enough extra stuff. What's with Koreans facial expression and voice?

Couple of things out of the way first. In Korea, smiling is not the best thing a Korean can do for her reputation. People who smile a lot are traditionally considered too "light". A grave countenance is to be maintained at all time, in order to show that you are a serious person to be taken seriously. But this cultural factor is fading away as Korea has become more westernized, and only old school Koreans in their 50s and up truly follow it. (What is interesting, however, is that Korean Americans often retain old Korean habits that went out of fashion in their homeland. On the whole, Korean Americans are a heck of lot more conservative than Koreans in Korea because of this. More on this topic later.)

Another thing is that yelling in Korean dramas fall into a different theory than what the Korean is about to suggest. Characters in Korean dramas yell for the same reason characters in Bollywood movies sing - it's a cheap way to convey emotional content without relying on sophisticated dialogues or acting. Not that all Korean producers and actors are incapable of using such things: many Korean movies excel in conveying emotion through the subtlest subtleties. (One of the Korean's favorites is Waikiki Brothers.) But Korean dramas appeal to, shall we say, a less sophisticated audience. The Korean has a feeling that this may change at some point: there has got to be a market in Korea for artfully made television series, like Six Feet Under or Friday Night Lights in the U.S. But as long as there will be ajummas who sit on their asses doing nothing but watching dramas in Korea, there will be yelling in Korean dramas.

So, what about Korean people not smiling or yelling? They may seem like two different things, but they both have the same answer: Koreans are straightforward folks, and they feel absolutely no compunction to engage in social phoniness.

Like the Korean said before, Koreans are efficient folks and they do not like to waste time and energy. All the frills must go, and included in the frills is the need to hide emotions and engage in pleasantries. Life alone takes enough effort already anyway; why waste energy making shit up, and then waste time trying to figure out how people are really feeling? So Koreans smile only when they are truly happy, and Koreans talk up a storm when they are in a good mood. (It's not surprising, therefore, that the nicest Korean restaurants in Korea always have private rooms and very little public space.)

Immigrant life is full of drudgery already; would that load of dry-cleaned clothes be any lighter if you smiled at it? Save them smiles, dispense them when they count, and you don't cheapen them like those of a car salesman's. And if you're having a good time, why kill it by trying to be hush-hush about it? Surely a loud party is a happening party; the opposite cannot be true. We know all this in America already, but somehow we made up this phony rule of appearing to be happy and appearing to be having a bad time. What's the point?

There is no reason to be embarrassed, Diana noo-na ("older sister", for calling the Korean "dong saeng"). Your father is just having a good time, and there is no reason to hide it. If anyone complains, tell him to remove the stick up his ass and yell his conversations too. As anyone who's familiar with no-rae-bang ("karaoke") knows, yelling one's head off is pretty fun.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

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