Hangeul Day

Today is Hangeul Day, a holiday that celebrates the Korean alphabet. Hangeul ("Korean script") is special because, unlike every other alphabet in the world, it was created---"created" as in someone sat down and carefully thought about each and every sound in the language, then designed a symbol to represent all those sounds, and then, when it was ready, unveiled the new writing system to the population. Isn't that amazing? And the person who did all this is a man known today as King Sejong the Great.

King Sejong the Great was the fourth king of the Joseon Period, reigning from 1418 until his death in 1450. He was a King who genuinely cared about his citizens, creating loan systems for farmers who had a bad season and grants for students' education. He sponsored the development of many scientific tools, like the rain gauge, water clock, sundial, and some astronomical maps. Because his reign was so plentiful in its achievements, it's now known as the Golden Age of Korea.

While he's known for many achievements, his greatest was definitely the design and creation of Hangeul. Before Hangeul, Korea used Chinese characters to represent the sounds of the Korean language. This was called Hanja. The same symbol was used in Chinese, Japanese (where it was called Kanji), and Korea to represent the same word, but all three languages would have different pronunciations. It was very awkward, however, because Chinese grammar is very different from Korean and the symbols didn't always represent the Korean sounds and structure accurately. The script was also very complex and therefore difficult to learn. Only the educated were literate. King Sejong, recognizing the need for equality, decided to create a new writing system so that all his citizens could read and write. It's not sure of King Sejong created the script himself or simply organized and managed scholars to do the work for him, but King Sejong, nonetheless, usually gets the credit for this linguistic invention.

King Sejong unveiled the writing system in 1446, supposedly on 9 October, in a book called, Hunminjeongeum, meaning "The Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People," which at the time was also the name of the language. It had 28 symbols to represent the sounds of the Korean language, though now the alphabet stands with 24 symbols: 14 consonants and 10 vowels. The elite, threatened by the thought of educated commoners, fought against the script at first, though King Sejong prevailed and the script was adopted for official use.

hangeul  art at the National Museum of Contemporary Art

hangeul art at the National Museum of Contemporary Art

Chinese, Japanese, and Korean scripts are quite different from each other. The Chinese script is logographic, meaning each character represents a morpheme (a word or affix).  The Japanese script is syllabic, so each character represents a syllable sound. The Korean script, according to linguist Geoffrey Sampson, is featural. This means that each character represents the featural elements that make up phonemes---which sounds complicated, but just means that each character represents the shape of the mouth when making each sound. This is the only alphabet in the world to do so. Try this: make an "n" sound---the tip of your tongue hits the roof of your mouth at the front, just behind your teeth. This is represented in the Hangeul symbol for the "n" sound: ㄴ(King Sejong pictured the speaker facing left). The "m" sound in Hangeul is represented as ㅁ, which is related to the Chinese character for "mouth" and loosely represents the shape of the mouth. But the greatness of Hangeul doesn't stop there. Each character is combined into syllable units to ease pronunciation, thus combining two different alphabet systems into one.

I taught myself how to read Hangeul by riding the subway: each stop is announced on the speakers and written above the doors, so I would listen and read and repeat the names quietly to myself, trying the match the sounds with the symbols. It was a slow process; it was months before I could read with confidence. But, with the more efficient education process of reading a textbook, learning to read Hangeul can take just one day. Now I read all the Hangeul I can find, even though I rarely understand what I'm reading.

I find Hangeul to be a much clearer writing system than our English alphabet. Sometimes, when reading signs or product names that are written in the English alphabet, I get confused over pronunciation: Is that a long a sound or a short a sound? Hangang: is it han-gang or hang-ang? I look for the Hangeul version to help, knowing that there's one pronunciation for each character and the syllables are divided for me. (It's han-gang with short a sounds, by the way, and it means "Han River.")

After the Japanese colonization in the early 20th century when the script was banned, Hangeul has emerged as Korea's only written script. (The only place I see Hanja is in the subway, where it's written on station signs along with English.) Most Korean personal names can be written in Hanja, but this practice is quickly fading with the younger generations, who are choosing native Korean names for their children. In 1989, UNESCO has recognized the uniqueness and importance of Hangeul. Every year, a prize of $20 000 is awarded to people fighting illiteracy with the UNESCO King Sejong Literary Prize. This year, the prize went to People's Action Forum in Zambia, which uses the local language to educate rural women in its literacy programs.

Today, Korea has one of the highest literacy rates, and modern linguists sing Hangeul's praises as the most scientific language in the world. Hangeul Day, celebrated each year on 9 October, reminds Koreans how special their language is, not only to their country, but to the world.

Working It

According to a 2008 ranking by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, South Koreans work more hours a year than other OECD members. South Koreans work, on average, 2357 hours a year, compared to the USA at 1797 hours a year.

Things in Korea are changing though. Just a few years ago, the government changed the 6-day work week to the typical 5-day work week. Prior to that, Korea was the only country in the OECD that worked on Saturdays. It hasn't changed completely, though; I know my school has classes every other Saturday (which gladly I am not a part of!).


Korea also has more public holidays than I'm used to in Canada, but these too are slowly changing. After changing to a shorter work week, the government drops more and more holidays every year. It seems as though the government doesn't feel workers need a day off to celebrate Consitution Day or Arbor Day anymore.

In addition to losing public holidays every year (hey, I like to celebrate things), I'm thoroughly disappointed when national holidays fall on the weekends. In Canada, national holidays are "moved" to a weekday if they fall on a weekend, ensuring ourselves a long weekend. But in Korea, the holiday is the holiday--so if Foundation Day lands on a Sunday, well then enjoy your Sunday with the family but see you at work on Monday!

I can't believe that Koreans are the hardest workers, though. They may work longer, but work harder? Don't think so. It's a daily occurance to see teachers asleep at their desks, or shopping online, or gone off to our "nap room" (complete with couches and sleeping mats) for a deep sleep. As long as you're at work, it's good; you don't actually have to be working, it seems. I'm the only teacher I know that writes out a lesson plan---in fact, I was once told to stop making lesson plans!

I think it's more to do with status. Instead of "Mr." or "Ms", people are identified by job titles. Hi, I'm Melanie Teacher. So having a good job is more important than anything else. If your job is your identity, it makes more sense that you're there---a lot.

Read the article from CBC here: World's hardest-working countries

Hi Seoul Fest & Lotus Lantern Fest

This weekend was the beginning of the colourful Hi Seoul Festival, spring edition. As one of the biggest and best of all Seoul's festivals, organizers have decided to multiply the fun times four. This year, for the first time, the festival will be held once a season instead of just once a year. And because one huge festival is not enough for a city of 10 million residents, the Lotus Lantern Festival also commenced this weekend. This festival is a week-long celebration of Buddha's birthday.

Lotus Lantern Fest at Cheonggyecheon

Lotus Lantern Fest at Cheonggyecheon

Over the weekend, I managed to attend several events, including a couple of parades, an “Imagination Factory,” and a water gun fight. Sunday night was a big night of parades. For three and a half hours, some friends and I watched thousands of people march, dance, and sing their way down Jongno Street. Unfortunately, it was a little rainy---a big no-no with parades, especially those involving lanterns---but it actually was okay. The crowds were thinner than they would have been otherwise, so those of us who braved the drizzle were treated with better views.

Hi Seoul parade
Hi Seoul parade

On holiday Monday (Children’s Day), I spent the day wandering around City Hall and Cheonggyecheon Stream, photographing the adorable children participating in the fun events Hi Seoul organized for their special day. Seoul Plaza at City Hall offered lots of crafts (that I would have done myself if I thought I could get away with it) and physical activities like trampolining and tight-rope walking (again, things I would have liked to have done myself if I could pass for a child!).

water gun fight at Cheonggyecheon
water gun fight at Cheonggyecheon

Over at Cheonggyecheon, the warm and sunny weather provided the perfect day for the largest and funnest water gun fight I’ve ever been a part of. Organizers handed out water guns to the kids (and towels to their parents) and let the children loose. Anyone brave enough to be in the area was guaranteed to get wet, but no one was complaining. It was definitely the highlight of my weekend.

Since the Hi Seoul Festival continues until next weekend, I’m thinking of going back for a rematch...

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Coronation of King Sejong
Having Fun in the Streets of Seoul
Children's Day at Hi Seoul Festival

Turning A Year Older in Korea

Today is Seollal, the Korean New Year. The Korean New Year usually coincides with the Chinese New Year (which is also known as the Lunar New Year). Here in Korea, the Korean holiday celebrates the beginning of a new year, as well as celebrating another year of life, making it the most important holiday of the year.

I've been told for the past six months that my Korean age is either one or two years older than my Western age, but no one could tell me how to calculate my exact Korean age. The age system seemed to be so confusing, it's taken me six months to understand it. And after all that time, I now realize it's not too badeven for those of us who aren't so great at math.

So here goes.

First of all, when a Korean is born, he or she is already one year old. Then on his or her first Seollal, the little baby turns two. It doesn't matter when his or her actual birthdate is; everyone turns a year older on this day.

So let's pretend a little baby was born here in Korea on 1 December 2007. We'll call it KB, Korean Baby. KB, on 1 December 2007, is one year old. Today, KB turns two years old.

Let's pretend another little baby was born in England on the same day, 1 December 2007. This little one is named EB, English Baby. EB doesn't even turn one until 1 December 2008.

So, the little KB is always older than EB by one or two years. Before Seollal, any date between 1 December 2007 and 7 February 2008, KB is one year older than EB. But from Seollal until 30 November 2008, KB is actually two years older than EB.

In fact, I've also been told that the common Korean "birthday" is the Gregorian new year, 1 January. Koreans tell me, "Everyone turns a year older on the same day, on New Years Day." And I ask, "What new year? Lunar? Or January first?" Then they get all flustered and unsure, and I get different responses from different peopleor even different responses from the same person. But my Korean go-to girl, the all-knowing Ms Heo, was very sure when she was telling me about this interesting holiday, so I'm going to go with her answer.

Because Koreans find it complicated and difficult to explain, many people have turned to asking, "What year were you born?" instead of "What is your age?"

And with a new age comes a fresh start with a new year. This three-day holiday a family affair, very similar to Chuseok, where most people go home to visit with their relatives. At home, families eat tteokguk (rice-cake soup) and ring in the official new year wearing traditional hanbok. As well, families hold ancestral memorials, just as they do on Chuseok.

Unique to this holiday, children receive gifts on Seollal from their elders. And not just any gift, but envelopes of money. Elder relatives give envelopes with money to their children, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. The amount usually coincides with the children's ages; the older you are, the more you get. It's such an important aspect of this holiday that new banknotes to banks so that people can give crisp new bills. In order to receive the envelope (called sebaetdon), the child must bow to their elders (called sebae) and wish their elders luck in the new year by saying, "Saehae bok manhi badeseyo."

So, all over Korea, happy birthday and happy new year! Welcome to the year of the rat. May you receive a lot of luck in this new year.

Turning 1 in Korea the Traditional Way 
It's on Me: Paying for Dinner in Korea

My First Korean Christmas

It’s a Christmas tradition in my family to go for a drive around town on Christmas Eve to admire the colourful lights. Here in Seoul, I went on many walks around the city for several weeks leading up to the Big Day, hunting for festive displays of glowing lights. I found them.

There’s certainly no shortage of electric, exciting lights in Seoul, especially at top spots like City Hall and Cheonggye Stream. Sidewalks, malls, banks, subway stations—cheerful decorations, the festive spirit, and melodious choruses of “Last Christmas” are everywhere. Even without the glistening white snow and sub-zero winter temperatures, it sure feels like Christmas time.

Because there is a huge proportion of Christians in South Korea, Christmas is celebrated as a religious holiday. It’s different from the gift-giving, family-oriented holiday elsewhere.

As we were all craving family, friends, and turkey on Christmas Day, my expat friends and I headed to the Hilton for a buffet feast. We devoured lamb, beef, seafood, turkey (of course), fruit, salads, and desserts; drank Cass and wine; and enjoyed each other’s company. Here, we’re each other’s family.

Presidential Election Day

Presidential Election Day in Korea is such an important day that, in fact, it's a national holiday. Posters and banners of the many battling President wannabes have been smiling down on citizens for several weeks now. The most involvement I've had in the election process was analyzing the posters and banners for the man with the nicest smile and body language.

All the candidates have a number assigned to them, 1 through 12. Yes, there were twelve candidates this year. Grand National Party candidate Lee Myung Bak, who I adoringly referred to as #2, raised a power fist in his banner that looked over several of Seoul's intersections and city streets. His fist told me he was confident, but not cocky; powerful, but not controlling. His smile told me he cared. I liked him. I learned he was a former CEO of Hyundai and also a mayor of Seoul, elected in 2002. During his reign as mayor, he was the leading force behind the reconstruction of Cheonggye Stream in downtown Seoul, and he also revitalized Seoul's transportation system. Now I like him even more.

Chung Dong Young was candidate #1 but favourite #2. He was a news anchor at MBC prior to his attempts at President with the United New Democratic Party. In third place was candidate #12, Lee Hoi Chang. This candidate was previously with the Grand National Party and ran twice for President, and in his third attempt he decided to run as an independent.

According to Ms Heo, my friend from work, candidate #3, Kwon Young Ghil, was "scary" because his socialist views reminded her too much of the communist values of neighbouring North Korea. She also said that #8, Heo Kyung Young, was "crazy" because he said that his IQ was 430, and I have to say that I would agree with her! She had positive things to say about #6, Moon Gook Hyun, but she thought he was too unknown to most Koreans for him to be elected now. "Maybe another year," she said. As for the other candidates, "They are not important," she said when I quizzed her.

Unfortunately, Lee Myung Bak, the frontrunner throughout the race, is now under investigation in a fraud scandal. The allegations were dismissed earlier, but the case was reopened, just days before the election, after an old video surfaced that may prove he has some involvement afterall. Apparently, a brawl broke out in parliament because of the reopened investigation.

But, the threat of a fraud investigation didn't in any way damage Lee's huge lead over any of the other candidates. He won by a landslide, taking almost half the votes himself, and will take office on 25 February 2008.

Korea's National Foundation Day

3 October 2007

South Korea commemorates its independence from Japan on two separate holidays, on both 1 March and 15 August. These two national holidays honour more recent milestones in Korea's coloured history. National Foundation Day celebrates the Big One: its creation. Korea was founded in 2333 BC by Dangun, a “legendary god-king” according to my guidebooks. Appropriately, this holiday is sometimes called “Dangun Day”. On 3 October, a big celebration is held on Mount Manisan in Ganghwado Province.

I, however, missed the ceremony to volunteer at a baby-home (orphanage) with a friend from work. We were there the week before, during the Chuseok holidays, and the little ones were just too cute to forget about. After just one visit, there were already a few I had fallen for. To celebrate the national holiday, the baby-home had plenty of other visitors and even a magician to entertain the children (and the volunteers). After a few hours, it seemed as though the volunteers outnumbered the children! Even though most Koreans aren’t interested in adoption, I know these children certainly are loved by many.

My First Chuseok

I was unsure of what to expect when Ms. Cho, a music teacher at my school, picked me up at 9 in the morning to bring me to her brother's place. She wanted to help me celebrate my first Chuseok. Chuseok, the Korean version of Thanksgiving, happens during the full moon in autumn. It’s a time to remember one’s dead ancestors and get together with family. And since it happens over a five-day long weekend, there’s lots of celebration.

We drove to her brother’s apartment and relaxed with some other women in the family until the boys showed up. I was disappointed to see that no one except for one small child was wearing the beautiful traditional hanbok for the holidays.

child wearing Hanbok for Chuseok

child wearing Hanbok for Chuseok

They all placed the food on the table according to what seemed to be a diagram cut from the newspaper, perhaps something titled ‘How to Set a Table for a Chuseok Ceremony’. Like any Korean meal, there were a lot of dishes and the display covered the whole table.

Then they placed framed pictures of their dead parents on the buffet table against the wall in between two large cream-coloured candles. Once the food was placed properly, the children of the pictured ancestors, as well as their spouses and children, took turns bowing to the pictures. First, a tea-like drink was poured into a silver bowl on the floor in front of three incense candles. It took three tips to pour the tea into the bowl. Then the child or family would bow down, with their head to the floor, twice. This was followed by the Catholic cross fingered across their chests. 

Next, stapled booklets were handed out to each of the adults, covered with Hangeul I couldn’t decipher. One of the elder sons seemed to lead the reading, but the other joined in with choral readings and some singing every once in a while. Again, it was a mix of Korean tradition and Catholic additions.

Finally: the candles were blown out, tables were spilt apart, food was divided into multiple bowls, chopsticks and spoons were handed out, and people were told to sit down to eat. I skipped the kimchi and fish and dined on beef, rice, soup broth, and veggies instead.

After, we drank some tea and coffee and chatted. Some families left, but I stayed and chatted with a grandson who has lived in America for half his life but is back in Korea now to do his mandatory two year military service. We had some Korean TV show playing in the background, and I kept glancing at it and imagining I could understand what was going on.

By 2 in the afternoon, the time had come to visit the ancestors’ graves. We packed up the food and headed for the cars. I was sleepy and I knew a nap was inevitable. Very soon after we hit the streets and the bumper-to-bumper Chuseok traffic, I drifted off. I slept for a good chunk of the two hour drive to the mountains. When we got there, I was lucky to find that Ms. Cho had some extra sneakers because apparently it’s a steep walk up the mountain to the gravesite. After switching my footwear, I hiked up to their mother’s grave. (Apparently their father’s was located somewhere else.) It was a beautiful location—almost hidden amongst the trees. I wouldn’t have known it was a graveyard if I hadn’t been led into it.

They poured some soju on the grave as a sort of libation. We spread blankets out and set up the grill. Leftovers from our late breakfast or lunch were set out for this mid-afternoon snack/early supper. We enjoyed the meal and chatted for a while—or rather, they chatted while I got lost in my own thoughts. Part of the conversation that was interpreted for me went something like this:

“In the Cho family, the women’s face is very ugly.”

“Not beautiful.”

“All the women look the same.”

“Yes, all very ugly.”

“But their personality is very good.”

At first I was unsure of whether to laugh or not, but I took my cues from them and let out a giggle. They were being silly and so I let myself enjoy it.

Being with family over the holidays—no matter whose family or what holiday it is—is always a pleasure.