Monday, December 16, 2013

Korea, The Country of Kim, Lee, and Park

When you think of Korean names, the most common three names you can think about are Kim, Lee, and Park.  It is very weird that only three surnames takes up almost half of whole Korean population.  I don't know if any other country in the world have similar surname rates.

According to Korea National Statistics Office (KOSTAT), in year 2000, Kim(21.6%), Lee(14.8%), Park(8.5%) takes up about 45% of total Korean population.  There are around 250 surnames in Korea, but no one really knows the exact reason why the three surnames take up so much portion.  Yet there are several assumptions why the situation has happened.

First, the slaves from Chosun Dynasty got their first surnames inherited from their masters.  In Chosun Dynasty, which is the last kingdom of Korean history, the royal surname was Lee(이, 李).  Kim(김, 金) was the next authoritative, powerful royal family surname.  As the dynasty fell, the slavery system also was collapsed, and the masters granted their surnames to the former-slaves.  Think of the slaves in the US got their names from their masters after the Civil War.

Second, the common people purchased the royal names with money.  At the end of Chosun Dynasty the social status system was on the verge of collapse.  Some of the poor royal family could not afford to have slaves, and they are not respected.  Some wealthy merchants had more power over the poor royal families.  These wealthy common people even purchased the royal family's surname and made fake family tree as if they were born to be royal families.  As the number of royal people increased, the Kim's and Lee's population also increased.

Third, the surname Park(박, 朴) is from Shila Dynasty, it is one of the oldest surnames of Korea.  As the Shila Dynasty lasted for 1000 years, the descendents of Park spread out everywhere in Korea.  Even though not as popular as Kim's and Lee's, Park's were also another common royal family surname in Korea.

Anyway, there is no clear reason why the three surnames are most popular surnames in Korea.  Yet the three assumptions above might be the reasons why there are so many Kim, Lee, and Park.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The meaning of friends is special in Korea

The definition of a friend is an acquaintance or a favored companion.  This is in English definition, and the definition can be varied in each cultural background.  Here we are going to learn about Korean definition of friends.

In Korean, friends is called ChinGoo(친구).  This word can be used as a very casual, light relationship, yet sometimes can be used as a very serious relationship as well.  So, how's the two usages are used in everyday life?

 <Picture 1 : Calligraphy of ChinGoo>

The Korean word ChinGoo itself means an 'old friend'.  In other words, you have to know the person for a long period of time, and maintain a good friendship.  This is the usage for serious relationship.

What makes the meaning of friends in Korea special is the casual, light relationship.  In this case, the usage of ChinGoo is only depends on the biological age.  For instance, if two persons are born in the same year, they are friends.  Even if they meet for the first time, if their ages are the same, they are friends.  Moreover, sometimes they use this term for the people they have not ever met before.  Rather extraordinary?  Yet this is how Koreans use the term ChinGoo in everyday life.

Since the term and age are correlational, it is very, very hard to be friends in different age groups.  Even only one year difference in age makes almost impossible for people to be friends.  It is rather peculiar that the newly-met people in same age group can easily be friends, yet long-known people in different age group cannot be friends.

This excessibe emphasis of caring about age is originated from Confucianism.  In Confucianism, age and social status are very important.  The young have to respect the elder, and the elder should take care of the young in the teach of Confucious.  The weird truth is Confucianism is from China, and Chinese people do not care about age as much as Koreans do.

Anyway, age is very sensitive issue amongst Koreans.  Even foreigners who have lived in Korea, and made friends with Koreans care much about age.  These foreigners, including the Western people, consider the term ChinGoo exactly the same as other Koreans do, even between themselves.  So, if you meet a Korean for the first time, and hear that 'We're friends.', do not be alarmed.  It means nothing more than you and the person are born in the same year.  Of course, you actually can make an old friend with the person in the long run.

* Source of Picture

Monday, August 12, 2013

Housing rental markets in Korea

When you move to a new place, one of the first things to look up is the housing or rental markets.  Where to live and how much to spend are two key constraints to the new residence.  This applies to Korean housing rental markets as well.

In Korea, there are two major rental markets.  One is monthly rental(Wolse, 월세) that you can easily find everywhere around the world.  The other is yearly rental(Chonse, 전세) which is very unique system, as far as I know, only exists in Korea.

First, the monthly rental is quite similar to that of the states'.  You put certain amount of security deposit, and pay the monthly rent.  One thing you would feel strange is the security deposit is a lot higher than you deposit in the states.  Here in the US, the security deposit is usually around one-month-amount rent.  Yet in Korea, the security deposit is around one-year-amount rent.  For example, when you find a place for monthly rent of $800, the amount you pay for security deposit is $10,000.  Sometimes, you can negotiate the amount of security deposit by increasing the amount you pay for the monthly rent.   Such as paying $900 for decreasing the security deposit to $8,000 or so.  It is somewhat strange system of monthly rental market compared to that of the states'.  Yet by explaining the yearly rental, you would understand why the system works this way.

The yearly rental is the system you would find only in Korea.  You put security deposit of very high amount in the first place, and get it back when your lease ends.  Weird?  Yet that's how it works.  For example, one condo is priced at $500,000, and the yearly rental is $350,000.  You deposit $350,000, and get the exact $350,000 back when you leave; of course, if there is a damage to the property, some amount may be taken off.  So, if you have a good amount of money, and do not want to spend on monthly rent, this should be your choice.   Even if you do not have the exact amount and need to get some loan from the bank, the interest rate you pay is a petite amount compared to the monthly rent you usually pay.  This sounds too good to be true?  Extraordinarily, this works how it is.

<Picture 1 : Nightscape of Seoul>

So, why there is such a thing as a yearly rental?  Apparently, the landlord seems an angel.  Yet the landlord also benefits in two ways.  One is the simple financial interest he/she gets out of banks.   However, that amount is awfully small especially when the interest rate is super low.   The major benefit the landlord expects is the appreciation of the property.  If the landlord only has $150,000 in his/her pocket, and wants to purchase a real estate of $500,000 value, the landlord fills up the shortage of $350,000 from the yearly rental.  Hoping that in a year or two, the property would increase its value more than what he/she paid.  And this actually worked in past several decades.   In other words, you can purchase a house without a mortgage loan from the bank.

These days, however, the yearly rental market is shrinking its size.  The real estate market is not as good as past several decades, and the yearly-rental-market homeowners would not expect much profit out of it.  On top of that, financial interest rate is the lowest ever, which makes the landlords to get less and less profit out of.  Thanks to all the harsh situations, more and more landlords are changing their properties to monthly rental instead.   Well, maybe in 10 years, the yearly rental market would disappear in history.

* Source of Picture

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Ondol, the very unique Korean heating system

Korea has a very unique heating system called the Ondol.  This is the heating system that has been used in Korea for thousands of years, and still is the most common system in Korean architecture.  To understand the Korean culture better, you should know about the Ondol.

What makes the Ondol very special is the means it uses to transfer heat.  Unlike Western radiator system which heats up the vicinity air, Ondol transfers heat through the entire floor.  It can be hard to understand without a visual explanation.

 <Picture 1 : Cross section of an old school Ondol>
Picture 1 is the traditional Ondol system.  The Agungi(아궁이) is the traditional fire place located at the kitchen area, and that is where the Ondol gets its source of heat.  In other words, the heat is used for both cooking and heating at the same time: energy saving.  People set up a fire at the Agungi, and the heat passes through the channel underneath the floor until it reaches the chimney.  As the heat passes the channel, the floor, which was usually made with mud and stones, gets warmed up.  Thanks to the nature of mud and stones, heat is preserved for a very long time even without a big fire at the Agungi.  This is a very energy efficient way of heating. The meaning of Ondol is warm stone in Korean, that explains everything.

There are several advantage of Ondol over Western radiator heating.  First, it holds up the heat for a very long time even after you put out the fire.  Traditional Korean houses, Hanok(한옥), usually heat up the Ondol during dinner time, and the warmth lasts till the next morning.  Second, it evenly distributes heat in the room.  Though the floor near the Agungi tend to be warmer as it's closer to source of heat, the whole room gets warmed up very evenly.  Think the whole floor as a big radiator, and the radiant heat spreads out from the bottom of the room to the top as warm air moves upward in simple science.  Third, it is carefree of maintenance.  Since it is the part of the main structure of a house, there is nothing really to fix or go wrong.

However, there are disadvantages of Ondol as well.  It needs considerable amount of time to heat up the room as mud and stones do not get heated up easily.  Moreover, it's hard to control the temperature of the room.

To match up better with modern lifestyle, the idea of Ondol has evolved in newer Korean houses.  Since most Koreans these days live in apartments/condos in city, architect changed the structure of Ondol.  It is now nothing to do with Agungi.  The heat source is boilers.  Yet the core idea of Ondol is still there.  There is long curvy metal pipe that runs underneath the floor, which is filled with water (Picture 2).  People can control the temperature of the room with a thermostat, which controls the temperature of the water inside the pipe.  These days, you can find this system as underfloor/infloor heating in the US as well.

<Picture 2 : Today's Korean heating system>

<Picture 3 : There is no visible radiator in Korean houses>

Thanks to Ondol, Koreans do not wear shoes at home.  Since the floor is the warmest part of the house, people would appreciate direct contact to the floor.  This is also the biggest reason why Koreans did not use a bed at home.  They rather slept on the floor with a very thick blanket for cushioning.  Yet the influence of Western culture, most of today's Koreans sleep in beds.

If you are puzzled why Koreans take off their shoes at home, this is one of the main reasons.  Well, it's also part of a Korean culture that has passed down generations anyway.

* Sources of Pictures

Variety of Kimchi

When people think of Korean food, the first thing comes up would be Kimchi.  It's that famous and popular.  Kimchi is very spicy and smells strong that many people have hard time trying it for the very first time.  Yet once people get used to the taste and smell, they get fond of it, and would not eat Korean food without it.

Usually Kimchi is made with salted cabbages; thanks to the popular main ingredient, Kimchi sometimes is called the Korean sauerkraut.  However, that is only one form of Kimchi.  Kimchi can be made with radishes, beets, green onions, and many other vegetables.  Even the most common cabbage Kimchi can be made with various ingredients, and each of them tastes different.  Surprising?

These are some of the examples of Kimchi:

1. Cabbage Kimchi (Baechoo Kimchi, 배추김치)

<Picture 1 : Baechoo Kimchi, 배추김치>
The most common form of Kimchi

<Picture 2 : Baek Kimchi, 백김치>
Similar to Baechoo Kimchi but without red pepper powder.

2. Radish Kimchi (Moo Kimchi, 무김치)

<Picture 3 : Kakdoogi, 깍두기>

<Picture 4 : Chongak Kimchi, 총각김치>

<Picture 5 : Dongchimi, 동치미>

3. Green Onion Kimchi (Pah Kimchi, 파김치)

<Picture 6 : Pah Kimchi, 파김치>

Thanks to its various forms and tastes, each type of Kimchi is served in different occasions and times.  Such as Dongchimi in Picture 5 is served in hot summer days with a little bit of ice on top.  Kakdoogi in Picture 3 goes very well with beef broth-ed soup called Sulungtang.

* Sources of Pictures