Even if you don’t speak the language, you need a few of Korea’s own special terms to better appreciate some of the unique ideas, stereotypes, vocabulary – the nuances – in Korean daily life and thought. This also saves me from having to break up the flow of my sentences with lengthy definitions – something I hate! Hope this lighthearted and by no means comprehensive list makes my posts a little more understandable to the average waygookin (see below).
Ajumma (아줌마) – the Korean term for a middle-aged woman, it literally refers to any married woman, but is generally used for women over 40. To both Koreans and foreigners over here, the word ajumma is embedded with stereotypical images of plump, aggressive old women with permed purple hair and baggy clothes who elbow you roughly to get a seat on the train or to push in front of you at the shops. They are at once completely irritating, yet also very endearing. They can be incredibly friendly, genuinely helpful and cook brilliantly – even if the service is gruff and hurried. Of course, as a stereotype, many older Korean women are nothing like this limited but useful definition.
Ajosshi (아저씨) – the male equivalent of the ajumma, the ajosshi is best characterised as a middle-aged businessman/office worker, often called a salaryman in Korea. The stereotypical ajosshi wears a grey or black suit with a tie – the suit is often made of a shiny polyester-like fabric and the tie may have sparkly silver bits in it. His natural environments are the office – where he works steadily but slowly all day and half the night – and the restaurant/pub, where he goes after work. The ajosshi can be grumpy, but he is often an affable bloke, especially when red-faced from drinking. He can sometimes be found face down in a pool of vomit, or else stumbling home at 6am on a Wednesday ready to work another 11 hour day. Again, not every middle-aged Korean man resembles this fellow.
Bang (방) – pronounced more like ‘bung’ or ‘bahng,’ this is the Korean word for room, and is widely used for different types of bussinesses. An internet cafe, for example, is normally called a PC bang, while a karaoke joint is called a noraebang, which literally means ‘singing room’. A useful term, bang can also be used for larger businesses, like jimjillbang, a public sauna/recreation centre, actually containing multiple bath, spa and relaxation rooms.
Chimek (치맥) – Koreans are a fast-paced people, and their speech reflects this – anything that can be converted to a quick, convenient noun soon gets shortened. Chimek is a handy portmanteau combining the word chicken with the Korean word for beer, mekju. The word refers to restaurant/pubs that serve fried chicken alongside giant jugs of cheap beer, and to the meal itself. It doesn’t mean chicken-flavoured beer, thankfully.
Halmoni (할머니) – the Korean word for grandmother, and also a polite term of reference given to any woman old enough to be your grandmother. Halmoni seem much gentler and friendlier than the stereotypical ajumma, although for foreigners the distinction between ajumma and halmoni is sometimes unclear – addressing an old lady as ajumma might be considered rude, but then, what if calling her ‘grandmother’ makes her sound too old? Mrs. Kim would be so much easier.
Hanok (한옥) – Korean traditional houses made from wood and stone, with tiled roofs. Normally square or L-shaped, hanok are beautiful historic buildings with internal courtyards designed to maximise natural light, and with heated floors called ondol. Sadly, the number of hanok is in drastic decline as Korea modernises and cannibalises its past in the process. Efforts have been made to preserve them in recent years. See this post for more details of the Andong hanok village.
Jaebol (재벌) – refers to major corporations controlled by families, basically meaning a conglomerate. Korea’s major companies, such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai are multinational conglomerates that, at the highest level, are family-owned and often run by members of the family or their associates. The jaebol led the enormous economic growth from the 1960s known as ‘the miracle on the Han river’ which turned Korea from a poor, war-ravaged agricultural society into an industrialised urban powerhouse. Their success was – and still is – partly due to strong government support and favouritism. Today, the bosses of the jaebol are the corporate princes of Korea – terribly wealthy, powerful and almost immune from prosecution.
Joseon (조선) – the name for the Korean kingdom that lasted from 1392-1897. During this long period much of the culture, social fabric and rules of modern Korea were formed. Joseon is now a convenient shorthand for the old, classical Korea that still lies quietly but strongly underneath the modern face of Korea.
Kimchi (김치) – cabbage that is fermented for weeks or months in a pot full of red peppers, chopped radish, shrimp paste and other good things, kimchi is the essential Korean dish. It is eaten at almost every meal, served cold as a side dish, boiling hot in soup, fried with meat, and in multiple forms involving different vegetables, seasonings and length of fermentation. Kimchi has a spicy, pungent, acquired taste that, if acquired, will make you love Korean food forever (many people don’t reach this stage).
Makgeolli (막걸리) – a cloudy, sweet wine made from wheat and rice with a funny, earthy taste that quickly grows on you. A traditional Korean favourite, makgeolli can be bought in big plastic bottles from convenience stores, although traditional restaurants – lots of wood in the decor and floor seating – serve the stuff in a big pot, to be drunk from bowls. It goes wonderful with pajeon (savoury vegetable pancake) and provides a gentler intoxication than the infamous soju, but punishes over-indulgence with a mighty hangover. Makgeolli is a regional beverage, with each part of Korea producing its own unique brand.
Ondol (온돌) – Korea’s traditional central heating system, historically an oven-like space under a house where small fires heat up the rocks underneath the floor. The heat moves up through the wood and warms the floors, making for a comfortable sleep in winter – even today most Koreans prefer to sleep on floor mattresses. The clever ondol system is used today – in the modified form of heated water pipers under the floor – in most houses and apartments.
Skinship (스킨십) – originally a Japanese word, skinship refers to “physical relations” or a relationship in which physical intimacy is the main point. Skinship is also used to describe things like making out, heavy petting, and friends with benefits. It really is a brilliant way of referring to certain pleasurable actions that fall under the sexual but not quite sex category.
Soju (소주) – the drink of choice for most Koreans, soju is a clear spirit made from sweet potatoes and rice that tastes like vodka but a little sweeter. It comes in beer-sized green glass bottles, normally adorned with a beautiful girl in a tight dress and a ‘come drink with me’ pose. Its alcohol content is about 20 percent, and it’s drunk in shot glasses, and is almost never drunk in moderation. Unlike the gentle, contemplative embrace of makgeolli, soju screams down the throat and into the stomach before coiling round the brain like a fat, muscular serpent. It has turned many a good man bad.
Umchinah (엄친아) – another brilliant Korean portmanteau, umchinah is a shortened form of the Korean expression for my “mother’s friend’s son” and refers to that elusive competitor whom you always hear about but never meet, who succeeds at everything and to whom you are constantly, and always unfavourably compared to. “Why can’t you be like my friend’s son? He studied at Seoul National University, and now he’s a dentist. I heard he’s going to Harvard next year for post-graduate study. And what have you done?”
Waygookin (외국인) – the Korean word for foreigner, it literally means a “person from outside the country”. Korea has a fairly small number of non-Koreans and a strongly unified identity based on blood, language and nationality. The word seems rude, and most Koreans use foreigner (in English and Korean) instead of a more “politically correct” term like non-Korean or person from another country, but they don’t usually mean it in a negative way. After a short while here, you’ll find that you’ve started referring to yourself as a waygookin too.