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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, May 22, 2005

Cultural cues help with Korean soaps

 •  K-Dramas: The sagas continue
Should they get married?
Should Se-jin and Seung-wan, from "Wonderful Life," get married because of the unexpected baby even if they do not love each other?
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By Jeff Chung
Special to The Advertiser

Even with the help of subtitles, there are cultural differences that don't always translate well into another language.

I know a few readers have opted to give Korean soaps a try since we started this column last month. While most of what you watch is easy to understand, knowing a few Korean cultural tidbits will ease your understanding of what you're watching — and reading.

For example, here in the United States we simply call each other by name or by their relationship to us — for example, father, mother, brother, sister, uncle and aunt.

It's a little more complicated in Korea. What you call somebody depends on gender, age, and how well you know the person — not necessarily being a blood relative.

In Korean dramas, for example, you will find men calling other older men "hyung" (older brother), even though they are probably not related. Koreans view this as a sign of a close relationship and respect. As the older brother, you often have the burden — or honor, depending on your point of view — of picking up the tab.

I have a few Korean-American friends in Hawai'i who know this tradition and use it whenever we dine out. They call me hyung so I pick up the tab. A good little joke.

You could be just a year apart, but the rules apply.

When a woman calls another older woman "un-ni" — literally, "older sister" — it serves the same purpose as "hyung," except it is used only among women.

A woman calls an older man "oppa," meaning "older brother," because she is younger and showing respect. It also shows that they have a close relationship.

In Korean dramas, you will find girls calling other men "oppa," then later on in the drama plot start dating or liking them.

Because we translate and subtitle her saying "brother" when he is really not related to her, this can be quite confusing for people in Hawai'i or anyone else unfamiliar with Korean culture.

To clear the misunderstanding, we try to subtitle and replace all the "hyung" and "un-ni" with the character's names, but in Korea, this would be considered rude.

So what does a man call an older woman? That would be "noo-na," older sister.

Jeff Chung is the general manager of KBFD, which televises all of the K-dramas. If you have a K-drama question or comment, call KBFD at 521-8066.