Category Archives: Everything Korean

Korea trip day 3: Seoul

Yesterday was a social day, meeting two of my old language partners. The first for 샤부샤부 lunch, the second in the afternoon and for 삼겹살 dinner in another part of Seoul.

The lunch place was the first I have ever been to where I had to take off my shoes. Look at the difference between my pair of sandals bought in Italy and those bought in Korea. Which ones are easier to slip off at such a restaurant?


At lunch my friend insisted on ordering (he told me he picked non-spicy options to ensure I wouldn’t be overwhelmed) as well as putting things on my plate whenever I ran out of food. This was something, which surprised me so he made sure to tell me that if I ever date a Korean guy and he doesn’t serve for me, I should consider it a big. red. flag. I don’t mind the serving part if that really makes their day, but I’m not sure I would necessarily notice a lack of serving since I’m not used to it in the first place, and I’m not so sure either that I would entrust just any guy with ordering food for me. Especially considering how quickly my friend then proceeded to ask me why I hadn’t eaten live octopus yet…

Acknowledging that I need to get around and to have access to some sort of map system, and I’m the kind of person who keeps the number of apps on my phone at an absolute minimum since I loathe that 98 % of them require access to everything on the phone, I figured maybe I should get myself a Korean phone where I could download all the app recommendations that were thrown at me. My friend was game. Let’s go hunting for a phone! So far so good – or so I thought…

A telecom company told us that unless I had an alien registration card, it simply wouldn’t be possible – unless we went directly to Samsung/LG/pick-a-brand, which would be able to sell the phone without signing me up for a plan. My past couple of phones have been Samsung, I’ve been really happy with them, and my work will give me an iphone for work purposes, so we went to the Samsung shop. The selection wasn’t overwhelming, but I found one that I liked, the clerk assured us that it would work with foreign sim cards too if I needed it, and he found a purchasing contract for me to sign. It would appear that this would be the end of that story, but no; this is really just the beginning.

As soon as he had looked intently at us and given us the “no way back now”-nod, opened the box with surgical precision, and opened the the phone, he realised that my sim card is a standard sim card whereas the phone requires a micro sim card. Thankfully my current Korean sim card is a combination sim card where a micro version can be pressed out of the center of the card. It FIT! However, the phone still didn’t work…

Did I have a pre-paid sim card? erm, yes… I’m a foreigner, I’m here on vacation, and that was why it was so important that the phone was unlocked and compatible with other sim cards. At this point my friend decided to try and lighten the mood by suggesting that I just use it as some sort of art installation at home in case they couldn’t make it work. Very helpful…

Apparently the issue is that buying phones without plans, and using pre-paid sim cards is not only a strategy used by harmless tourists, but also people whose career paths would have a tendency to cross paths with law enforcement. I was told that in order for the phone to “eat my sim card”, it would have to have a regular sim card with a plan first. Essentially it’s a way to ensure that people don’t buy a “burner phone”. However, I have to admit to having a slight difficulty seeing that problem as I had to show my passport in order to even get the prepaid sim card and sign a receipt including my home address and home phone number to get the phone, but alright.

Ever the problem solver, my friend pulled his own sim card from his phone. Alas… his was a nano sim card… The clerk therefore asked if I had another sim card that he could try to cut into micro size? I pulled 4 sim cards from my wallet which made both my friend’s and the clerk’s eyes go wide. He was only 80 % sure it would work, so I opted to keep my Danish sim card safely tucked away.

Just like he promised, it accepted other sim cards (it’s currently hosting an old British sim card, the new British one living in a third phone), but since that isn’t a Korean sim card, it didn’t have the desired effect, and I therefore have to use the Korean sim card in my regular phone and then use that phone as a hotspot for the new one. It’s not as complicated as it sounds, although it sure can look a little shady to pull out various phones and start shuffling around sim cards. New phone

I made the mistake of trying to log into my kakao account on the new one without having some sort of back-up ready, which just deleted every chat and picture I have exchanged… whyyyyy???! getting the new sim card didn’t cause anything like that so I’m quite annoyed about that part.

Dinner with my other friend was great as well. It was rather hot in the restaurant because of all of the grilling going on, but it was a really great experience. Here is what the grill looked like: In the center you have the charcoal, and on each side you can insert spears with meat and mushrooms. Delicious!

The restaurant was structured a bit like an old car workshop with various tools stacked different places. Customers who had to wait to be seated were given these tools to indicate where in the queue they were – the bigger the tool, the longer the wait!

This also marked my first trip to 강남 😉DSC06402

Oppas and the art of avoiding pronouns

I have a confession to make. I have increasingly come to appreciate 존댓말. While 반말 can definitely be a sign of genuine closeness (unlike when it’s just granted as a foreigner freebee), it’s also a game changer. And it can be a confusing one at that. Yes, 반말 may be grammatically easy, but Korean is so much more than grammar! For that reason, I’d say that 존댓말 can in some other respects be easier since it’s just more clear cut.

One of the things I’ve encountered in relation to speaking casually is the reply “just call me by my name” when asking how to address someone if we have started out on pretty formal terms and things then slide. It’s happened to me twice in a few months. It was probably well meaning, but I dread this kind of reply because quite frankly it just seems to make it more difficult for me. If you’re younger than me I’ll call you by name to your heart’s content, but I’ve been around enough Koreans to be somewhat uncomfortable calling someone older than me by name if writing or speaking in Korean. I’ll have no qualms if speaking English, but in Korean something just seems to be missing. Which leads us to a whole new “problem” if the other party happens to be male: when to call someone “oppa”.

If you’re not related, childhood friends or something along those lines, both people going casual would imply that guards are lowered by choice, but that doesn’t change the fact there is an age difference and that just calling someone by name in such a situation is not common among Koreans. How about just attaching an oppa (오빠) then?

This is possibly one of the most loaded words in Korean, and one which can be received and perceived very differently depending on who says it, the intonation, and the situation. When speaking formally, opting for name-씨 or some appropriate title is an obvious choice, but how about when speaking casually? This caused a bit of agonising on my part since I didn’t want to jump the gun and call someone oppa only to be met with incredulous silence or even worse: being told not to.

I don’t usually make disclaimers, but a bit of googling will reveal that when and how to use this word is constantly discussed among learners as well as those who are subjected to the endearment. Some people think that it’s a given to use it with pretty much anyone older than you, others think it’s a Koreans-only term, yet others think that it skews the power balance between the man and the woman in question in potentially unfortunate ways regardless of ethnicity. For that reason I’d like to make it clear that this post reflects only my own thoughts based on being around Koreans from time to time, talking to them about language and cultural curiosities, my endeavours to learn the language (I still have a long way to go), and of course some random google searches in the course of the past four years. I’ve never been to Korea (although the tickets have been booked!) so all of my encounters with Koreans have taken place outside Korea. If some Koreans out there think that I’m really off the mark, I’ll stand corrected in the comments, but please do it kindly. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to the point.

For those out there who are not too familiar with the word 오빠, who wonder what the whole fuss is about, and want a more thorough explanation, Dramabeans has published an informative post about the different types of 오빠s and why they can be so confusing. In short, though, it is a term used for “a woman’s older brother”, but you’ll find it used in three situations:

  1. It’s what a woman calls her older brother.
  2. It’s something a woman can call an older guy (not born in the same year as her, but up to app. 10 years older) whom she’s feeling somewhat close to, but is not biologically related to.
  3. It’s something a woman can call an older guy (same age criteria as above) that she’s romantically interested in or involved with – but not married to, although some do break this convention and continue to call their significant other 오빠 even after tying the knot.

While the first one is a no-brainer and a situation in which I’ll never find myself, since I’m Danish and my brother doesn’t speak a word of Korean, the distinction between situation two and three is where things can get a little messy even for Koreans, especially if situation 2 escalates to situation 3, or if one party hopes for an escalation and the other clearly does not. Adding a foreigner to the mix doesn’t seem to make it easier.

Some Korean men get thoroughly weirded out if a non-Korean woman calls them 오빠, in which case it’s obviously better to just avoid it all together. But how does one know if that’s the case unless they tell you? If someone tells you “just call me by my name” is it then an acknowledgement of you normally doing that in English/your native language so that might be comfortable for you, or is it a case of “she may be uttering words that definitely sound Korean most of the time and I’ll humour her by replying in Korean, but if that blonde girl calls me 오빠, I will run for the hills no matter what she reads into it”? Or a case of “if I tell her to just call me 오빠, she might misunderstand so let’s not even go there”?

A lot of non-Korean girls out there seem to have a thing for the word 오빠 (especially the potentially romantic connotations), and I’m not surprised that it can make some Korean guys make less than flattering assumptions about a woman’s sanity if she randomly squeals OPPAAA! at every opportunity regardless of which language she’s speaking in that moment and how well she actually knows the recipient.

It seems that one very crucial point, though, seems to be whether or not you know (at least some) Korean. On a similar note, Sofie once revealed to her language partner that I had once dared to call her by first name – in Korean – and he was positively appalled that I didn’t follow proper etiquette by calling her 언니 until he was assured that it was a rookie mistake and that I never did it again.

It’s important to keep in mind that sometimes it’s definitely possible to read to much into it. It really can just be a clear “situation 2” where it has no romantic vibe whatsoever, the other person just happens to be older than you, and you acknowledge a certain closeness to that person. But giving someone that label can also confer certain responsibilities on that person and they will be making assumptions about why you call them that.

For a while I therefore developed an incredible ability to simply avoid pronouns. Yes, I know. It’s the easy way out. In many cases you can get away with that in Korean, but in other situations, it’s just so much easier to use a pronoun (e.g. when returning a question and just attaching a “-는?” rather than repeating the whole thing).

It took more than 3.5 years of learning Korean before calling anyone 오빠. Really. I hadn’t come across a situation where it seemed to be the obvious choice. I wasn’t in Korea, most of those I had spoken to so far were a bit younger than me since they were undergrad exchange students and therefore not in oppa-territory in the first place. I’d not come across any older guys whom I considered close enough to actually be an 오빠, and when I finally got to know someone well enough that they would qualify, I wasn’t entirely sure how it would be received. What can I say, maybe I’m just stingy with the 오빠s. One of my Korean girl friends has even laughed at my “strictness”. I have gotten over it, even if I don’t use it liberally.

After a while I dared to drop a casual 오빠 into a conversation, and when I got a fairly enthusiastic reply, I figured it could be incorporated (sparingly) into my active vocabulary. Also, it obviously doesn’t have to be accompanied by the infamous oppa-pout-wiggle routine that is sometimes expertly performed by some women, but makes a lot of onlookers cringe.

The second time I introduced it by interjecting it after we had been joking about age, and he brought it up himself. When I subsequently sent a Kakaotalk voice message including the word 오빠 followed by a text that he should hurry and listen before I’d regret it recording it, it resulted in a few text replies including “좋아”, “You cannot delete it”, and a surprisingly cutesy happy emoticon. Even so, I didn’t take that as a carte blanche to call him 오빠 all the time.

I might be overthinking some things, and this might very well be one of them. By the length of this post you’ve probably already realised I put quite a bit of thought into this whole thing because I don’t want to mess things up. But it’s made me curious about your approach. How do you decide whom to call 오빠? Or are some of you Koreans who have been called 오빠 by foreigners? Leave a comment with your thoughts 🙂

Meeting language partner again after 2.5 years

Last week I had the opportunity to meet one of my very first language partners for dinner on Wednesday as well as for an entire afternoon on Friday. We have stayed in touch over Kakaotalk since he went back to Korea after completing his exchange year in Copenhagen back in 2013, and we finally managed to meet again now that he dropped by Denmark for a quick visit during a vacation from graduate school in France.

Admittedly we didn’t speak a lot of Korean except for a few sentences here and there since our common language has always been English so that’s become our default language, but we did get to eat Korean food and enjoy each other’s company. Also, at dinner we were placed close to another table where a Korean and a Dane were obviously having a business meeting, which made me very aware that if I could hear their conversation (“ten million” “… before or after tax?”) they could likely hear us just as clearly.

A few moments to remember:

Realising that my phone’s settings are in Korean while his are in French.

After overhearing him speaking with two Koreans, nodding at the right times, and being able to translate afterwards:
Him: Oh, you understood!
Me: I understand more than you think
Him: Well done, we spoke quite fast
Him [to himself]: oh this could be dangerous…

After taking a picture of us together at a book cafe – with him being obviously much closer to the camera than me because of the angle:
Him [looking at the photo]: your head looks so small! just like that book!
At that I just started laughing, knowing full well that in Korea that’s a compliment, but in Denmark it just sounds a teeny bit odd
Him: that’s a good thing! Well, I’m close to the camera, but still

A bit of Korean daily life right there in Copenhagen.

Japanese/Korean confusion

Leave it to me to convert a Japanese language partner to Korean TV series. Since some time back in October, I’ve met a Japanese speaking girl to prep for my weekly Japanese class on Wednesdays and to help her with Danish homework. Obviously I wasted no chance to introduce her to a bit of Korean, which has shaped conversations a little bit since then.

Next week she will visit some family elsewhere in Europe and then go back home so none of us were feeling particularly studious today. Naturally that meant that we ended up talking about Korean language and guys instead of geeking out on Japanese grammar and her (fairly odd) Danish book.

Last week I couldn’t go to my Japanese class due to studies and work, and today was obviously complete anarchy at our Japanese meeting so needless to say my Japanese was fairly rusty by the time I reached my class. But it was so worth it to just have a bit over an hour of undiluted girly gossip.

Rest assured that my Korean studies are pretty much on track, though.

How are your studies going? I can see in my reader that some of you already have holidays!!! 부러워요!

Do you drink mead?

A few days ago I got the most hilarious question from a Korean about Danish Christmas lunches. It took me a few seconds before I realised what he meant, but then I just couldn’t help laughing. Mead is something I personally associate with the era where the Danes’ favorite pastime was plundering so I have to admit that it’s not a staple in our household.

For fun I asked some of my office mates at work yesterday. Here are their replies:
#1: “Well, maybe if we had been living back in the Viking Ages…”
#2: “What?! [chuckle]”

He had a Danish girlfriend for a while and considering this question and his mentioning of a Danish city by its name as it was some 800 years ago I suspect she had a blast telling him less-than-completely-accurate stories sometimes.

Nooo! don’t give him shoes!

The other day at work I ended up in a small group of people talking about buying Christmas and birthday presents. One colleague had just been gifted with a set of knives for her birthday by her boyfriend – in spite of being all thumbs in a kitchen according to herself – and an other colleague was contemplating buying shoes for her boyfriend for Christmas.

I wonder if I had thought twice about giving such presents just a few years ago. This time I ended up thinking “of ALL the things you could come up with…”. I naturally kept that to myself.

Obviously, it’s superstitions, and the one about knives is also known outside Korea, but I immediately thought about how we were basically making rounds in the “don’t-give-category” according to Korean traditions and slowly ticking off every item on the list.

A tiny culture shock right there in my home country.