I mentioned in a post ago that I would put up my essay that I wrote for Cultural Anthropology class, while I was in Korea. This essay was one of my favorite projects of the semester, mainly because as much as the essay was written in English- I was able to research about the Korean language. It was very interesting to learn about this aspect of Korean culture. Even though this took me a lot of time to write, because of the interviews conducted, it was still awesome to read about.
Prompt: Choose one or more Korean kinship terms and research how they are used outside of the family. What does this say about society?
Within Korean culture, it is common to point out the sort of relationship one has with another by using kinship terms outside the family. No other language, that I have known, depicts kinship terms in such a typical way. English does something similar by calling friends “bro” and “sisters” but it is not as common as in Korean language. However, as a foreigner in the community, approaching this project proved to be difficult. Since my Korean language skills lack quite a bit, being able to immerse myself in the project was undeniably awkward. I wanted to get to the bottom of this and figure out why Korean culture uses kinship terms outside the family and what that shows about the culture, in general. When meeting new people, but boys especially, who discover how much younger I am than they, their immediate response is “Jeanna, you can call me오빠.” It is said with a smile, an invitation that is awkward to me because without the use of Korean, the word sounds strange while speaking English. I came into this project with a series of expectations and understandings of the subject. Some of my knowledge was debunked after doing some research, others confirmed. First off, there are plenty of kinship terms to choose from to depict what relationship one has with a person:
Only knowing a beginner’s level of the Korean language has given me limited kinship terms to start with. However, for the sake of specificity, my research focuses on “오빠” that is used outside the family and the lack of 누나 in dating relationships. Through a series of interviews and observations, the use of the words, their meaning, and what they bring to the culture has been revealed. Using오빠, especially in dating relationships, is able to solidify gender roles, as well as construct more intimate social relationships.
The word “오빠” is used in several different situations but for the purpose of the paper, the use of the word is found on a campus setting, applied in a classroom. In a crowded classroom, filled with mostly Korean students and a few foreigners sporadically placed throughout the room, there are at least two heterosexual couples who sit close, while class is in session. Upon observation, they conduct themselves accordingly, for class is assembled. It is not until the female or male student engages the other in quiet conversation. This happens during break time, before or after class, and during class, while the professor continues on. The female student tends to use the word “오빠” twice or more, depending on the length of the conversation. When the word is said, nonverbal communication must be observed: Her fingers reach toward his, possibly unconsciously. She shifts in her chair, closer to him or at an angle to face him better. The male is unusually attentive, distracted from the professor’s lecture, but listening to the student he sits next to. This situation has been observed more than three times, in several different classes, by different couples. The nonverbal communication shows that they are close with one another, they expect skinship from each other, and the way she shifts in her chair is to show that she wants to receive whatever she may be asking for. His attentiveness is similar to the immediate reaction I received when introduced to Korean men. It is widely known that men like being called오빠. Interviewees have given insight on to what this situation may mean and the kinship term used, in general.
The interviews conducted revealed several things about Korean culture and the use of kinship terms outside the family. Every interviewee similarly responded, when using the term “오빠,” there needs to be at least a two-year age gap between the two people. According to SawHyun, a 21 year old female student, points out that using these kinship terms is all about age and respecting age, people who are older than you are (이). Korean culture uses a respect hierarchy of age, taking the “respect your elders” rule to a different level. SoMi, a 23 year old female student, said that the use of오빠 is to express respect, friendship, and closeness with a boy who is older than you (윤). She believes that by using the term, it can be used in such a way to flirt and to get what you want (윤). Her comment mirrored those of the male students’ interviews. They agree that when girls use the term, they are using it to get what they want because they know the affect the word has on males. Literally, the term is translated in English as “older brother.” It is strange, from a foreigner’s perspective, to call a boyfriend an “older brother.” However, my original point-of-view has dramatically changed since the beginning. The word itself may mean a literal kinship term, however, it is not what they mean by it at all. One tends to begin calling their boyfriend “오빠” when they feel family values: protectiveness, trust, and respect toward that person. In this way, using kinship terms strengthens their bond, connects them in some sort of way, and lets the male know that the female trusts him.
All the females interviewed agreed that every Korean man loves to be called 오빠. SeungGyu, a 24 year old male student, said that kinship terms are just a part of Korean culture; it is extremely natural to “get high,” when being called 오빠, to take it as a compliment, as a flirtation (전). YoungSoo, a 23 year old male student, admitted liking when girls call him오빠, saying that his immediate response is to get to know her or know more about her (채). He then went on to give me permission to call him such; most women do not receive verbal permission but since I am foreign, he wanted me to be given the chance. SoMi says that the word itself sounds cute and utilizing애교 is something very common in Korean culture (윤). SoMi commented on the situation described as one that happens regularly (윤).
Using 오빠 is natural in everyday speech. YoungSoo said that “오빠” is a sign that the relationship has dropped their formal speech, becoming more comfortable with one another (채). It is way for females to show that they want to be closer to the male. When males are called “오빠,” SoMi believed that their reaction is to protect the woman, that they feel more responsibility for her (윤). Like I predicted before the interviews, 오빠 is similarly used, in dating relationships, as a pet name:
The only difference between pet names and the term오빠 is the weight of the meaning and that only women can use the term, whereas pet names are undeterred by gender.
During several of the interviews, I questioned about the idea of calling someone 누나, while dating. Some showed disgust, others thought it was a funny question. Through my observations, I did not come across a couple that utilized 누나. For this, I relied on my interviewee’s opinions. SoMi replied that it is perfectly acceptable for a man to call an older woman “누나,” when dating (윤). In American culture, dating women who are older than the man is looked down upon. It is unclear, whether or not, the instance of dating an older woman is negative, in Korean culture. According to YoungSoo, if the age gap is more than three years, 누나 can be utilized in the dating relationship (채). However, SeungGyu disagreed and said that friends may start off using the term but as they get closer and start to date, males would not want to call her that any longer; it is constantly reminding the female of her age (전). It seems that, even across countries, women do not like to be reminded how old they are. SawHyun, personally, would not mind being called 누나 because it is similar to being called 오빠 for males; she would be flattered (이). However, she pointed out that, in all truth, boys wouldn’t call their older girlfriends “누나” because they want to pretend that the boy is older, that the girl is younger (이). This is most definitely where gender roles in Korean culture is emphasized.
There is a very exact standard that Korea holds in its traditions. That is gender roles. They may be changing overtime with the integration of more Western values but Korean gender roles are forever present with the use of kinship terms outside the family. The most evident term is that of 오빠 and the relative lack of 누나, in dating relationships. Using 오빠 is all about respect. One will use the term, admitting that the male is older than the female speaker. The younger female speaker is thus putting herself in an inferior role. In this instance, it is not gender that makes that so but age. By being younger of the two, the younger is inferior to the older person. Being called오빠, the male takes on the role as the protector, given responsibility. The lack of누나, as much as it varies by couple, most Koreans do not call their older girlfriends by the kinship term. Not using the term “누나,” is a way to still give the superiority to the male, by pretending that their ages differ. Therefore, using kinship terms outside the family emphasizes a male-dominated, patriarchal society in Korean culture.
An aside from the project, I conducted a small experiment on school campus. To test if it is possible for males to recognize their close girl friend or girlfriend, a Korean woman and I called out “오빠!” to random male college students, walking by. When I asked the interviewees what they thought the results were, they replied with different answers. To make it fair, the Korean woman and I each called the term out to three different men (so six male students in total). It did not matter that I did not have an accent because six out of six male students looked our way in question. It shows the eagerness that males feel when someone calls them such. Here we were, strangers, and these boys looked back at us with elation and anticipation on their faces. We disappointed them, of course, because they were probably hoping for someone else, someone closer to them perhaps. This experiment stresses how common Korean culture incorporates the term 오빠.
Immersing myself in this project was difficult to do. As an American, the aspect of using kinship terms in language is something new to me, something I never before thought about. Being given permission to call male students오빠, was actually the “in” I needed. A lot of foreigners come to Korea having a vast, working knowledge of Korean culture, or at least they believe that they know about Korean culture. It is very common among the foreign crowd to express the want to be able to use kinship terms, 오빠 especially. Being able to use오빠, helped me understand firsthand what happens nonverbally during an interaction. Also, saying the term gave me a sense of belonging. In this way, I was able to experience utilizing kinship terms and understand them more greatly.
The interviews used in this paper were all conducted in English. Please take note that what these students attempted to explain may or may not be unreliable. These are based on their opinions of their own culture, and does not reflect the Korean culture as a whole. To depict the Korean culture as a whole, one would need a much larger sample size. If this were, in fact, a “real” ethnography (and not a mini one), a larger sample size would be given. Also, instead of focusing on one situation, a “real” examination would focus on several and come to conclusions of culture in that manner. With this mini-ethnography, it only scraped the surface of what kinship terms outside the family hold. There are so many new questions, primarily about the history of the term and the age limit of its users. To approach a possible “real” examination, one would need to be given more time and conduct surveys and gather other data for complete research. However through this mini-ethnography, it has applied the use of오빠 and how it emphasizes gender roles and social relationships within Korean culture.
전, 승규. Personal interview. 14 Nov 2014.
채, 영수. Personal interview. 12 Nov 2014.
윤, 소미. Personal interview. 20 Nov 2014.
이, 서현. Personal interview. 17 Nov 2014