Elwood 5566

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor – First Birthday Celebrations (돌잔치)

Posted in customs, Health care, Korean children by 노강호 on June 10, 2011

the first birthday party – when baby is 2

Poverty and hardship have left deep impressions on the Korean cultural landscape many of which are still evident today. Korean food, often reflects former economic hardships which is one reason why black-noodles (자짱면) is still a favourite when students graduate. Though many families now go to elaborate buffet restaurants, black-noodles are still eaten to mark graduation as it was at one time considered a ‘luxury’ food. The obsessions Koreans have with food, which might be expected if you are starving, almost matches the British obsession with the weather, the result of living in an unpredictable climate. I am still not used to responding appropriately when a Korean asks me if ‘I’ve eaten’ and on so many occasions still reply with a list of what comprised my last meal or perceive it as the opening for an invite to dine together. Instead, they are really inquiring as to my general well being but so ingrained has this become that for some, even this is not implied and the comment reduced to a basic nicety void of any real meaning and synonymous to British observation about the weather.  Historically however, it developed at a time when many people were starving and was a question of much deeper significance. Dog stew (보신탕), silk worm (번데기), grasshopper (메뚜기) and a whole range of roots, woods and barks, many of which grow in the UK (shepherd’s purse 냉이, burdock 우엉, ㅡmugwort 쑥, etc, but which are no longer commonly used), reflect the former scarcity of food.

a lavish affair – Lee On-yu’s (이온유) 1st birthday. Hee-ho, On-yu’s older brother, who was the subject of an earlier post, is on the far right (Diary of a Little Boy)

Former high infant mortality rates can be attributed to the custom of a child being one year of age upon being born and with infancy and childhood being so precious, when circumcision was introduced to the peninsula, in the 1950’s, it was an ordeal sparred babies and infants and instead postponed to early adolescence. In 2006, Korea was cited by a UN report (link) of having the world’s lowest infant mortality rate of 3 (3 in 1000) compared to 45 in 1970.  A further development of the high infant mortality rate was the importance of a child’s first birthday celebration (돌잔치),  when in Korean reckoning they are two years old.

traditional first birthday attire - the dol-bok (돌복)

traditional first birthday attire – the dol-bok (돌복)

45 deaths per thousand within the first year doesn’t seem high until you consider that currently, 49 deaths per 1000 is the global average and that today’s most poverty stricken countries have infant mortality rates of around 50 per 1000.  The fear your baby may have been one of the unfortunate led to babies, pre and post natal mothers being secluded until deemed healthy. The threats to life weren’t just from disease but also from famine and the wide swings  in the Korean climate. Even today, circumcision is usually carried out in the winter rather than the summer vacation where the incredibly high humidity prolongs healing and increases the chances of infection.

Un-yu. The microphone he played with suggests he might be a future singer – he was certainly in good voice here

The first significant event to celebrate was a child’s 100th day celebration, the baek-il (백일). However, as might be expected, this was a fairly low-key affair and the baby wasn’t ‘publicly’ paraded. On the child’s first birthday, at two years of age, it was time for parents to present their baby to the world and hence the lavish dol-jan-ch’i (돌잔치) celebration.

In today’s affluent Korean society, this event usually takes place in a large, specifically designed function room to which families and friends are invited. Historically, and traditionally, the celebration varied depending on local custom. Today, the baby maybe be casually dressed or might be attired in the highly colourful dol-bok  (돌복) which differ according to gender. An elaborate buffet is provided which, along with the usual food one might expect, are foods of a more traditional and symbolic nature.

what will it be?

Now the child has survived the most threatening period of childhood, it is time to ponder what they might achieve in life and hence one of the most important parts of the celebration is when the baby is sat on a traditional duvet, propped by pillows and surrounded by objects which if played with or handled, predict the child’s future. The objects include:

pen, brush, book or calligraphy set – scholar

bow and arrow – warrior/soldier/strength (not as common as in the past)

rice cake – rich or possibly unintelligent

money -rich

thread – long life

ruler, scissors, needle – dexterous

However, numerous other gifts might appear, such as a microphone for a potential singer or a gold ball for a golf player. Nowadays, you seem to be able to add what you want.

The first birthday party has a long tradition and there are numerous variations to the celebrations which I have not done justice to in this short account. A good starting point for more in-depth information can be found at Wikipedia.

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

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Laura -Korean Teenagers (3) Magical Moments

Posted in Gender, Korean children by 노강호 on October 24, 2010

Korean school girls

Laura is perhaps one of the most pleasant girls in my school and I have now been teaching her for over 2 years. Her grades in her State school aren’t the best, which for Koreans is always 100%, but she excelled this year when she twice gained 100% in her English exams. As usual, she still comes to the academy wearing an assortment of scents and will thrust her wrist under my nose and ask my opinion. In the last few months however, she has learnt to use them with discretion and they no longer overpower the entire academy. Eye-liner is a recent addition but is only minimally applied and she doesn’t wear it in school;  it isn’t allowed. Contact lenses, it seems, are tolerated and I have noticed a number of girls have started wearing them. I’m told a pair cost around 10.000 Won (£5). Although I’ve seen two girls in supermarkets with blue contact lenses, which actually looked attractive, the colours most girls seem to wear are either dark brown or more usually, black.

The Hanja character for 'innocence.'

In class one week, Laura and her friends told me the procedure for attracting a boy’s attention and then going on a date with them. The first part of the process is to offer the boy small gifts such as chocolate or candies. One of the most significant moments, and one a few girls seem to cherish, is when a boy they are interested in makes substantial eye contact. Once an interest has been established, photos might be exchanged by way of their mobile-phones. The aim of preliminary overtures is to secure going out with the boy, either on a trip to town or more significantly, a trip to the cinema. Such events give their friendship the status of ‘going out’ and it is from this date that teenagers start  referring to their ‘sweetheart’ as a ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’ and counting the days until their relationship reaches its hundredth day, a date which is usually celebrated (백일 – ‘100th day,’ is also celebrated a 100 days after a baby’s birth).

 

'Boy hunting'

The most significant part of going to a cinema is that soft drinks and popcorn are shared and Laura and her friends are quite excited when they talk about the ‘skinship’ involved in putting their hands in the large container of popcorn at the same time  as their ‘boyfriend’ or  their heads knocking or touching when drinking from straws  in the same cup of drink.

 

...as long as there's room for two hands

Most of the girls in my academy, even ones older than Laura, who is 14 in western years, (Koreans are one year old the moment they are born), neither date boys nor express much interest in them. Indeed, despite its innocence and cuteness, many parents do not allow dating . Unlike the west, cinemas are not the venue for groping or fondling and such sexual intimacy does not seem to be anticipated or envisaged by anything other than university aged students. Boys the corresponding age of Laura profess much less interest in dating ‘rituals’ though some have crushes and I have only met a couple of boys who seemed interested in dating girls. Of course, this is only my limited observation.

Around the town young ‘sweethearts,’ probably Laura’s age and older are occasionally seen holding hands or having a meal together in a restaurant which is one of the ways in which a hundredth day celebration is marked.

Such ‘rituals’ seem trivial and naturally, they are played out in western culture, however, in Korea they are vastly more significant because more intimate physical affection between the sexes, even between adults, is frowned upon. No doubt this may be changing but other than holding hands, petting and kissing in public is a non-event. That Korean teenagers are not likely to engage in sex before adulthood, a phenomenon backed up by Korea possessing among the world’s lowest figures for teenage pregnancy and sexual transmitted diseases, places more significance on events such as eye contact and non-sexual intimacy. The very most the average teenager can expect in terms of any intimacy before adulthood, is probably a kiss on the cheek. Korean teenagers, unlike their western counterparts are under no pressure to either be, or appear to be, sexually active. Further, it seems Korean teenagers are quite scathing of the character of teenagers, boys or girls, who do engage in sexually activity while still school children.

 

height is crucial, looks secondary

And what are the criteria for a suitable ‘boyfriend?’ As with older girls I have talked to, height is  crucial and ideally the boy needs to be 10 cm taller than the girl. I have been told this is  because the boy needs to be taller than the girl should she wear high heels. Boys need to be attractive, kind, considerate towards the girl, funny and smart. Not all the girls think alike and a few said they would consider a boy shorter than themselves or one academically weak.

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© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.