Learn about Korean Culture through K-Drama

Learning the culture of a country can be done through enjoying the entertainment it creates. This practice is tried-and-true for entertainment industries in a lot of countries, from United States of America with their Hollywood since a century ago, to South Korea with their Hallyu, or Korean Wave, since the new millennium.

South Korea produces many kinds of entertainment and on various platforms every year. The most popular ones are K-Pop (music), K-Drama and K-Movie (cinema), and recently K-Literature (book), as indicated by the increase of book titles translated from Korean to Indonesian in recent years. The intensive use of social media also enhances global awareness of and further engagement with the Korean culture.

As an avid fan of K-Drama for the past five years, I’ve noticed three aspects which might give a glimpse of life in South Korea. Although the nature of K-Drama itself is exaggeration of real situations and/or problems, many parts shown to the audience are the actual reflections of their daily life. This was confirmed through my interviews with the Korean people I befriended when I was studying in Tokyo and my seonbae, the seniors in a taekwondo academy I’m currently enrolled in.

1. The Customs in Society

1.1 Group and Individual Dynamic

Like in many Asian countries, a group matters slightly more than an individual. Every individual needs to belong somewhere. Every individual is a part of some kind of group, with family as the smallest group/unit existing in the society. Apart from family, every individual will belong to other sets of groups, for example: school, hobby club, work, and so on.

Individual has obligation to adhere to group’s rules and codes of conduct. Failure to do so will result in alienation or even cast out of the said individual. Group’s goal and purpose are deemed much more important than those of an individual. Individual’s accomplishment is perceived as the accomplishment of the whole group.

One of my favorite K-Dramas which displays the group and individual dynamic is “Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo” (2016). Taking place in a sport university, this K-Drama follows Kim Bok Joo’s journey to win a prestigious weightlifting championship. When she has to gain more weight to be eligible for the championship, the other students in the weightlifting major are cheering on and rooting for her to succeed. I am incredibly moved by the way Kim Bok Joo’s group is supporting her effort as an individual.

1.2 Senior and Junior Dynamic

Many relationships among members in Korean society revolve around seonbaehoobae, senior-junior dynamic. A seonbae is someone who has more seniority in the group in terms of age, social status, experience, knowledge, and other criteria. A hoobae is someone who is considered “less” than the seonbae regarding those criteria.

My first experience with seonbae-hoobae dynamic was when I joined a taekwondo academy five years ago. As an inexperienced student, I started by wearing the white belt. After two months, I took a test and advanced to the next level, thus my belt changed from white to yellow. A couple of weeks after, several women joined the academy and started calling me seonbae, although they looked much older than me.

I had quite a dilemma at that time. Age wise, I called them eonni, a term used for older sister or older woman you know well. Level wise, I was more skillful than them, and therefore was referred as seonbae during the class. Due to their hoobae status, they also did mundane things around the academy, such as cleaning up or serving coffee/snacks to sabeomnim (taekwondo teacher) and seonbae after every lesson.

I found the same senior-junior dynamic when I was studying in Tokyo, where a senpai (senior, in Japanese) takes a kyouhai (junior, in Japanese) under his wing and is committed to teach him how to navigate around and outside of the group. As a kyouhai, I was indebted to my senpai for showing me how to survive in a big city like Tokyo.

A seonbae in Korea also does that for his hoobae, and the hoobae is entrusting himself completely in the hands of the seonbae. In many K-Dramas I’ve watched, I’ve noticed how often the phrase 잘 부탁드립니다 (jal buthakdeurimnida), which is loosely translated to “please take good care of me (i.e., the speaker)” or “please guide me”, is used.

A seonbae is also held responsible for the shortcomings of his hoobae, as shown in office-life K-Drama “Misaeng” (2014). In that drama, Jang Geu Rae (the main protagonist, played by Siwan) is working under a supervisor and a manager. Due to his lack of education and skills, he often makes mistakes in his job. The manager and supervisor characters in this drama, acting as Jang Geu Rae’s seonbae, often apologize to other departments for the troubles and problems he causes. They beat themselves up because they feel that they haven’t sufficiently taught Geu Rae to meet other people’s standards.

I was mind blown when I watched this. As someone who comes from another country in Asia, it is unlikely to find the similar attitude in Indonesia. A seonbae feeling responsible and apologizing for his hoobae’s shortcoming might be found in certain situation, but it is not a standard practice in Indonesia. In most cases, a person’s failure and victory are his own, neither his group’s nor his seonbae’s. 

1.3 Education and Social Status

Education and family background are considered essential to secure one’s place in the society. Young people are demanded to take their study seriously and work hard to enter favorite universities, whose alumni holding prominent positions in the society. As someone gets older, he is expected to reach notable and significant status among the society members.

College life is where the group-individual and senior-junior dynamics are thoroughly exercised to prepare a young person for real life. This period is important for someone to choose the right kind of group and make connection with the right kind of people, in order to ensure smooth transition from study to work and further success in life. Despite of the exaggeration and absence of relation and context with common people, the K-Drama “Sky Castle” (2018) does an outstanding job in portraying how crucial education and social status are for Koreans.

2. The Unit of Society

2.1 The Importance of Family

As in other parts of the world, family is the smallest unit of society. A nation comprises of many societies and a society comprises of many families. Like in many Asian countries, a family consisting of father, mother, and children is the standard traditional form. Confucianism heavily influences the values that Koreans uphold, which includes the roles held by each family member. In traditional setting, the husband is the main breadwinner, and the wife is the main caretaker of the family.

Of course, awareness of women’s rights, emancipation, and advancement of technology have alternated this setting to suit more modern society. I found it openly displayed in K-Drama “My Secret Terrius” (So Ji Sub, 2018) as one of the apartment residents chooses to be a stay-at-home dad because his wife has more successful career and is making more money. They can easily have a comfortable life without him having to work.

Family plays a major part in the daily life of Korean people. Even being adults and living separately from their parents, Koreans will still consider it their moral duty to visit their hometowns and celebrate Koreans most important traditional holidays, namely Seollal (Lunar New Year’s Day) and Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving Day), with their families.

2.2. The Importance of Procreation

Although time has changed with more and more people prefer to stay single, and more and more married couple opt not to have children, the existing demand of the society to procreate new generation still very much applies. Many K-Dramas revolve around the pursuit to find a husband/wife, which is often facilitated by parents and a reliable matchmaker. Young people are encouraged to go to arranged blind dates until they find the suitable people to marry.

One memorable K-Drama where blind date has part in is “My Lovely Kim Sam Soon” (2005). In the early episodes, Hyun Jin Heon (the male protagonist, played by Hyun Bin) meets Kim Sam Soon (the female protagonist, played by Kim Sun Ah) when she is having blind dates in the hotel that Jin Heon’s mother owns and manages.

Some of these blind dates do succeed and result in marriage, like for the female protagonist’s friend in the K-Drama “Scent of a Woman” (Lee Dong Wook, 2011), and others do not. Nevertheless, as I’ve mentioned earlier, the pressure to settle down and have children is still at large even in today’s society. Although there is a growing resistance, many young people remain feeling obliged to meet the expectation set by their family and society.

2.3 Extended Family

The presence and importance of extended family members, as in grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, naturally differ between in urban and rural areas.

In urban area, children are expected to leave home when they reach university age and move to their own place. This is shown in K-Drama “Dear My Friends” (2016) where Park Wan (Go Hyun Jung) lives in her own apartment, although her mother also lives in Seoul and within reachable distance.

After their children leave, parents in urban area live quite independently. Many of them are having their own jobs and social circles, like Park Wan’s mother who is still hanging out with her friends from the same elementary school. They’ve been friends for more than 60 years! Wow.

Life doesn’t get dull just because one is a senior citizen in Korean society. Many of K-Dramas are showcasing this, especially “Navillera” (2021), the newest slice-of-life K-Drama from TVN, which tells a story about a 70-year-old man who is studying ballet under the guidance of a 23-year-old ballerino. It’s very interesting, isn’t it?

From the K-Drama “Dear My Friends” (2016) we can also see different practice in rural area regarding the presence of extended family members. Park Wan’s grandparents from her mother’s side live outside Seoul with their son. When Park Wan’s uncle decides to get marry, his parents asks his future wife to live in their current house and help with their family farm. By not letting the newlywed having separate living arrangement, the household ends up consisting of two families. It is quite possible to consist of more than that in real life in Korea, especially if the said family has a business to run.

The same practice can be found in Korea’s neighboring countries like Indonesia. Regardless of its location, urban or rural area, a household might consist of many families: the grandparents, parents, children, the parents’ siblings and their children. They believe that families have to stick together, to go through good and bad together. Newly married couple is discouraged to have their own household. Even if they are permitted to do so, the extended family members still live relatively close to them to provide help and support when necessary.

3. Language

Like in many Asian countries, respect for parents and elders is also considered a virtue in Korea. The main purpose of Koreans applying honorifics and different kind of speech levels is not only about showing the relationship between the speaker and who they’re speaking to or speaking of. It is more about showing the right amount of respect to the people with whom they’re interacting in the society.

The speech level is generally grouped into two:

  1. Jondaetmal: polite speech level
  2. Banmal: casual speech level

However, these two groups are broken down into seven more detailed levels, based on the degree of formality and politeness they need to convey.

3.1 High Level

It contains high formality and politeness. It consists of:

  1. Hasoseo-che: a very formal and polite level of speech. It is used to address king, queen, or high official, and also used in historical drama or religious text. This is a jondaetmal form.
  2. Hashipshio-che: the most common high formality level of speech. It is used by strangers in their first meetings, used to address customers in service industry, and also used among colleagues. This is a jondaetmal form.

3.2 Middle Level

It is used because the speaker is unsure about which level of social status or politeness to employ. It consists of:

  1. Haeyo-che: the most common polite way of speech. It is used to address strangers and the elderly. Foreigners are encouraged to learn this form because it is simple and has the proper politeness for everyday situation. I am currently learning this in the Korean language class I attend at King Sejong Institute, Jakarta, Indonesia. Haeyo-che is a jondaetmal form.
  2. Hao-che: an outdated formal speech with poetic edge. It is used to address people who are of the same age or lower with a moderate degree of respect, and mostly used in writing and in historical K-Dramas. I noticed this form when the royal characters in K-Drama “Kingdom” Season 1 (2019) and Season 2 (2020) are conversing with each other. Hao-che is also a jondaetmal form.
  3. Hageche: a neutral form of speech. It is used among people of the same age or lower, used among middle-aged adults speaking to other adults they’re close to, used by older people to address younger people, used among adult male friends, and also used in novels. This is a banmal form.

3.3 Low Level:

It is used to address someone’s family and friends, and much younger people. It consists of:

  1. Haera-che: a conversational style of speech, on the borderline of being formally impolite. It is used in grammar book, impersonal writing, and indirect quotation. This is a banmal form.
  2. Hae-che: an informal and casual speech with no added levels of  formality or politeness. It is used to address family members, close friends, and children. This also a banmal form.

The intense frequency of watching K-Dramas expands my knowledge of how Hanguk-eo, Korean language, is perceived and utilized in Korean society. Everything has its own place, its own formula, and its own purpose. Watching K-Dramas goes hand in hand with my learning Korean language in King Sejong Institute. Thanks to the world’s connectivity, what I’m learning in class is easily presented on the screen for further observation and study, anytime I want.

Pandemic has made many people around the world turn to K-Drama for entertainment. K-Drama surely offers something different, something special, and something uniquely Korean, compared to the mainstream entertainment from the West we are accustomed to for decades.

K-Drama is just one of the many forms of entertainment we have access to in order to know the Korean culture. It hasn’t found its final shape as the Korean culture itself is still evolving. I myself have benefited a lot from K-Drama, in terms of relaxation and the opportunity to learn a new culture.

How about you?

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