Korean Unmasked: Korea and Neighbors

My interest in Korean goes beyond trying to learn Hangul.  After visiting Seoul first time in 2008, my interest in getting to know Koreans and their culture increased.  How can this relatively unknown country become so successful in a span of 10 years and be able to sustain such progress?  I remember in the mid 80s, I was wondering why my cousins who are members of the US Air Force are assigned in a country called Korea.  I have been hearing how separated the North is from the South.  That time I was thinking maybe this country is so chaotic that you wouldn’t want to think of being a tourist in it.  Never did it enter my mind that I will one day fall in love with Korea.

When I first set my feet in Seoul, the first place I went to is at 겨보 (Kyobo) bookstore.  I bought some books to help me in my self-study of Korean.  While looking around I got to see this book named KOREA Unmasked.  I flipped on the pages and saw cartoons, the introduction said it’s inspired by a book entitled Land Map by Kim Jungho.  The book seeks to impart the Korean Mind Map, which attempts to explain Korean behavior and what kept them from being best in what they do.    With this, I instantly grabbed the book.  While I wanted to read history books in Korean, I think it is best start with a book with illustration rather than full words.   There was a warning that says the views in the book are actually subjective as they are opinions of the author but I don’t mind for now.  This is part 1 of the book highlights.

Being a Korean enthusiast, I would easily be able to distinguish Koreans from their neighboring brothers — China and Japan.   When I was younger then, I would tend to refer anyone who has small or squinty eyes as Chinese.  It was difficult to identify Koreans from Japanese and Chinese.  Everything seems to be alike, from their dress, actions, facial attributes etc. In fact, some people still have difficulty differentiating them and now I would understand.  I wasn’t interested with people from other country or race then.  I only care about being Filipino and to some extent to Americans and Spaniards who greatly influenced my country.   Now if you have the interest to know them you would be able to see details that differentiate Koreans from Chinese and Japanese.

Their writing styles are totally different just take the case of the word ‘hi’ written in Chinese, Japanese and Korean   你好 (Ni hao), こんにちは (Konichiwa) and 안녕하세요 (Annyeonghaseyo).  Hangul does not in any manner resemble the two other writing styles.  Based on experience whenever my friends see any of these writing styles I always hear comments like ‘oh it’s written in Chinese’.  While most countries used alphabet in writing like many other neighboring countries in Europe, Korea, Japan and China obviously developed their own writing styles.  Chinese used Chinese Characters (traditional) and even developed a Simplified version.  Japanese on the other hand used two writing systems Katakana and Hirigana (this is how konichiwa is written above).   Furthermore, the spoken language is totally different.   Though there are various words in Korean that are borrowed from Chinese, they are in most cases pronounced differently.   I have noticed how ‘r’ sound seems to be absent in spoken Chinese while it’s predominant in Japanese language.  However, in Korean both sounds do occur and this is where the nuisances of the character ㄹ comes in.  This character takes the sound of r and l in different uses or instances.

It may be difficult to tell the difference in terms of their looks since they seems to resemble in their lifestyle and culture but there are several details that sets the difference.  Small or squinty eyes maybe common with the three, they have a lot of differences from traditional clothing to eating habits.  Hanbok (한복) is how the traditional clothing of Koreans is called.  I totally love this dress; personally, I find it regal and exquisite.  Hanbok allowed women to sit on the floor comfortably during early periods and freely move to do house works.  The Japanese on the other hand has kimono, it is characterized by pillow at the back and is usually worn with wooden slippers.   Lastly, the Chinese has cheongsam.  Due to the breadth of Chinese influence in the different parts of the world, this traditional clothe seems to be easily available in various countries.   Cheongsam is cut to fit a woman’s body which is contrary to how Hanbok is cut.   The latter flowing and resembles umbrella cut skirts.

Chopsticks are common to the three but even their sizes differ and to some extent the way they are used has differences too.  Chinese and Japanese uses chopsticks alone for eating rice and picking up food; although there exists a soup spoon which is flat bottom and made of ceramics.  Chinese uses longest chopsticks amongst the three while Japanese uses the shortest one.    Both chopsticks are either made of porcelain or wood.

Japanese Chopsticks

The Korean chopsticks are not too long or too short, it stands between the Chinese and Japanese chopsticks in terms of length.  Also, it is made of stainless steel and is usually paired with a long stainless spoon for eating soups and rice.

Korean Chopsticks

To the Koreans, chopsticks are actually considered as auxiliary utensil when eating as they use spoon for rice and soups.  Chinese eats rice using chopsticks and so do Japanese; the latter however places the bowl near to their mouth as their chopsticks are normally short.   I never get to notice this chopstick difference until I read the book.  Also, right after going to Korea, I really seldom saw wooden chopsticks only on convenience stores that sell noodles to go.  Eating on Chinese and Japanese restaurants in my home country, I am able to validate this.  I also noticed that disposable chopsticks that came from Japan are indeed shorter than the Chinese disposables.

Chinese Chopsticks

Their traditional houses may look the same but it is noticeable that Chinese sits on chair and sleeps on bed.  Japanese and Koreans both sit on the floor but Japanese sleep on tatami mats while Koreans sleep on ondol floor which is actually an efficient way of warming the house through the floor.  These days of course chairs and sofa in modern Japanese and Korean houses can already be seen however, Koreans remained faithful in the use of ondol as it is indeed a great way to warm up the house on a cold winter.   I remember asking one of my Korean Language Exchange Partners then on why Koreans and Japanese sit on the floor.  I thought it must be something customary but he explained that the very reason why Koreans sit on the floor is due to the heat that ondol floor gives.