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Culture Superstitions & Myths

Don’t eat THIS on test day. THIS tells baby’s future. Korean superstitions and beliefs.

Fun and Quirky Korean Superstitions and BeliefsEATING A BLOCK OF TOFU AFTER GETTING RELEASED FROM JAIL

친절한 금자씨 (Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, 2005)

In Chinjeolhan Geumjassi 친절한 금자씨 (Lady Vengeance, 2005), the vengeful heroine Geum-ja who had to take the rap for a crime (smothering a child) she didn’t commit and serve 13 years in prison is offered a block of tofu by a pastor upon release. Eating a block of tofu after getting released from jail is one of the most frequently appearing Korean movie/drama clichés. But for every social custom, there’s got to be a valid reason. On the practical side, it’s believed to have started during the Japanese Occupation (1910-1945), when a huge number of Korean independence activists suffered from malnutrition caused by the hardships of prison life and persecution. Upon release, they had to find a way to replenish their body in the most efficient and economical way possible – and tofu, rich in protein, healthy fats, carbs, and essential amino acids, fit the bill. Symbolically, the white color of tofu is associated with “purity” and “peace,” so eating tofu is a ceremony of wishing the ex-convict to never go back to prison again. Oh, except in the movie Lady Vengeance, Geum-ja knocks the plate of tofu straight to the ground because, well, she was on the warpath for her well-overdue revenge. Tofu and revenge are a dish best served cold.

Do you know anyone getting out of jail? Good! Here are some tofu selections.

Fun and Quirky Korean Superstitions and BeliefsYEOT 엿 (KOREAN TAFFY) WILL MAKE YOU PASS THE NEXT BIG EXAM

Fun and Quirky Korean Superstitions and Beliefs!

What’s the hottest item among Korean students preparing for a big exam? It’s the Korean taffy, or yeot . Made with steamed rice, glutinous rice, glutinous sorghum, corn, sweet potatoes, or mixed grains, the belief comes from the fact that the Korean expression of “passing a test” is butda 붙다, which literally means “sticking (to the group/list of successful applicants).” By the same logic, Korean rice cake, tteok , made with glutinous rice, is another popular item due to its stickiness. Nowadays, forks are a popular gift because it symbolizes “picking (the right answer).”

Check out this flamboyant yeot-cutting performance!

Are you or anyone you know taking a test soon? Good! Here are some yeot selections.

KANG BONG SEOK, Food Master’s Grain Syrup Ginger Korean Taffy 250g [Amazon]

Original Ulleungdo Pumpkin Taffy Candy Korean Traditional (820g) [Amazon] <- This one goes well with Halloween-themed parties.

Fun and Quirky Korean Superstitions and BeliefsAVOID EATING MIYEOKGUK 미역국 (sea weed soup) BEFORE BIG EXAMS

Fun and Quirky Korean Superstitions and Beliefs - Don't eat this on test day!

Miyeok, or seaweed, is full of health benefits – it contains a substantial amount of iodine and calcium, which are the nutrients highly important for pregnant and nursing mothers in the Korean culture. For this reason, miyeokguk has been eaten by mothers after giving birth, to rapidly restore the lost nutrition while promoting blood circulation to expedite the recovery process. Therefore, eating miyeokguk for breakfast on birthdays serves a dual purpose – celebrating one’s birthday and honoring one’s mother. That’s why your friends ask whether you ate miyeokguk on your birthday! What should you do if your birthday falls on a big exam day? Should you eat miyeokguk or not…? Well, the decision is entirely yours to make, but how about eating miyeokguk and eat tteok (rice cake) or yeot (Korean taffy) to cancel out the bad omen!

Do you want someone to fail a test? Good! Here are some miyeokguk products.

Bibigo Korean Seaweed Soup, Miyeok-Guk, Ready-to-Eat, 17-ounce (1-Pack) [Amazon] – This one’s soup only.

Korean CJ Hetbahn Cupbahn Microwavable Cooked Rice with Soup (Seaweed Soup, 2 Pack) [Amazon] – This one has rice in it, so it’s a ready-to-eat meal.

Fun and Quirky Korean Superstitions and BeliefsBUT DO EAT MIYEOKGUK (SEAWEED SOUP) ON BIRTHDAYS

Miyeok, or seaweed, is full of health benefits – it contains a substantial amount of iodine and calcium, which are the nutrients highly important for pregnant and nursing mothers in the Korean culture. For this reason, miyeokguk has been eaten by mothers after giving birth, to rapidly restore the lost nutrition while promoting blood circulation to expedite the recovery process. Therefore, eating miyeokguk for breakfast on birthdays serves a dual purpose – celebrating one’s birthday and honoring one’s mother. That’s why your friends ask whether you ate miyeokguk on your birthday! What should you do if your birthday falls on a big exam day? Should you eat miyeokguk or not…? Well, the decision is entirely yours to make, but how about eating miyeokguk and eat tteok (rice cake) or yeot (Korean taffy) to cancel out the bad omen!

Fun and Quirky Korean Superstitions and BeliefsWHO/WHAT DO KOREANS BELIEVE BRINGS BABIES?

Samshin Halmoni 삼신 할머니 (grandmother goddess/spirit) in Buddhist painting.

While the storks are busy delivering babies in other parts of the world (mostly in Europe, and North America because the myth is believed to have been popularized by a piece of fairy tale written by Hans Christian Andersen of Denmark in the 19th century), there is also someone working around the clock in Korea. Known as Samshin Halmoni 삼신 할머니 (grandmother goddess/spirit), where samshin can be interpreted as “triple god/goddess or spirits,” it is known as the god who makes the blood, the god who puts the bones together, and the god who helps during labor and delivery or often depicted as just a single goddess of childbirth. Put together with halmoni (grandmother), she (they) represents  “the goddess of conception and pregnancy who appears in the form of a loving grandmother.”

Compared to the storks whose duty is mostly finding babies in caves or mashes and bringing them to the mother, the Korean grandmother goddess’ roles and responsibilities are quite complex. They include and are not limited to; 1) hearing out the prayers of the couples wanting a child, 2) blessing the couples with a baby, 3) looking over and protecting all babies that are still in the womb, 4) ensuring safe and smooth childbirth for both the mother and the baby, 5) protecting the baby from diseases until the age of seven (after that, they are protected by the god of Seven Stars). To pay respect and render thanks to Samshin halmoni for such unconditional love and care, families would offer a special table dedicated to her, presented with seaweed, rice, and freshly drawn water (and in some regions, people might also put scissors, thread, and money), from which the first meal is made for the mother immediately after giving birth.

Fun and Quirky Korean Superstitions and BeliefsMONGOLIAN BIRTHMARKS? – THE WORKS OF SAMSHIN HALMONI

Fun and Quirky Korean Superstitions and Beliefs - mongolian birth marks

And our beloved samshin halmoni is smart enough to trademark her work through the process of branding! Almost every Korean infant (97%, according to research), regardless of gender, is born with a bluish spot or mark on various parts of the body (buttocks and torso 97.3%, arms 1%, legs 0.8%, chest and back 0.7% head and neck 0.2%), which usually fade away as they grow up. According to a Korean myth, a pregnant woman was having a difficult time giving birth, and samshin halmoni came to the rescue and gave her a belly rub, and voila! The baby came out like magic! But the problem didn’t end there – the baby wouldn’t breathe or cry! Even the seasoned veteran like samshin halmoni herself was taken aback because it’s not something that happens a lot. As an ad hoc measure, she gave the baby a good ol’ slap on the buttocks, and only then the baby started crying and breathing. And her slap was so powerful that it left a bluish spot on the baby’s buttocks! For this reason, the bluish spots found on the Korean babies are believed to have come from the divine slap, and they serve as an assuring reminder that the guardian-spirit grandmother has carefully inspected the baby and put a seal of quality. In reality, the spots, known as mongo banjeom 몽고반점 or Mongolian spots, are spotted (pun intended) among the babies of other Asian countries (China 86.3%, Japan 81.5%), as well as the Native Americans (62.2%), and Latin Americans (46%) and Caucasians (5-10%). Samshin halmoni must be so busy traveling all around the world!

Fun and Quirky Korean Superstitions and BeliefsIPDEOT– KOREAN WAY OF SAYING “THERE’S A BUN IN THE OVEN”

Honey, are you…?

At a breakfast table with all the family members present, just when the man of the house is about to lift his spoon, a young lady abruptly jumps out of her seat and sprints straight to the toilet, covering her mouth, and everyone at the dining room hears her vomiting wildly. Next, the camera zooms in on the confused faces of the family left hanging at the table, and everybody goes, “Wait a minute… Is she…?” The medical condition known as ipdeot 입덧, or “morning sickness” in English, is also a popularly used Korean drama cliché for saying, “Uh-oh! I think I may be pregnant!” While it’s one of the many possible symptoms and hardships experienced by pregnant women during the early period, it’s used most frequently due to its dramatic effect. So if you see this in a Korean drama, you know it’s a telltale sign of pregnancy!

Fun and Quirky Korean Superstitions and BeliefsTAEMONG – THE DREAMS THAT FORETELL THE CONCEPTION OF A CHILD

From seeing a majestic dragon ascending to the sky ( = making a rise in the world) to seeing a deceased ancestor with a worried face ( = warning of an imminent danger/misfortune), Korean people love interpreting dreams by identifying the symbols and assigning meaning to them. And taemong 태몽 (conception dream) is a special kind of dream believed to be an omen of conception, from which the baby’s gender can be predicted through the interpretation of the symbols. Unlike other dreams, taemong can be had by other people close to the mother of the baby, such as the father, grandparents, relatives of the baby, although most of the time it’s the mother of the baby who has the conception dream, and the periods when taemong is had can vary – before one became aware of the pregnancy or during pregnancy. Like other dreams, there are specific signs and symbols to look for but, in general, they are based on the similarities to male and female genitals (e.g., corn, eggplant, chili pepper vs. flower, chestnut burr) and their masculine and feminine characteristics (e.g., sun, tiger, dragon, carp, rooster vs. crescent, clam, bird, egg).

Fun and Quirky Korean Superstitions and BeliefsWHY DO KOREAN BABIES CELEBRATE THE 100TH DAY?

A beautifully set up baekil janchi table.
eltower.co.kr

Baekil janchi 백일잔치, literally meaning “100 days party,” (baekil “100 days” + janchi “party”) is a festive event involving family members and close relatives celebrating a baby’s 100th-day mark since birth. Because the infant mortality rate was high in the past, making it through the first 100 days since birth was a remarkable achievement. As the number 100 symbolizes, it was an important milestone telling everyone that the baby has passed the critical mark and is expected to live a long and healthy life. Guests are offered various types of tteok such as baekseolgi 백설, susugyeongdan 수수경단, and songpyeon 송편 and share words of blessings for the baby. So if you are fond of tteok, it’s an event you wouldn’t want to miss.

RELATED: What are the types of TTEOK 떡 (Rice Cakes) and their meanings? When do Koreans eat them? How are they made?

Fun and Quirky Korean Superstitions and BeliefsWHY DO KOREAN COUPLES CELEBRATE THE 100TH DAY?

Given the explanation above, it must be self-explanatory why Korean couples make a huge fuss over their 100th day mark – it’s a symbol of having persevered through the most critical first 100 days in a relationship. It’s also a celebration and a pledge for more happy days to come. Couples usually dine out at a fancy restaurant and gift each other. For your information, these are the gifts to avoid!

Fun and Quirky Korean Superstitions and BeliefsWHY DO KOREANS CELEBRATE THEIR 60TH BIRTHDAY SO HUGELY?

Just like how we throw our babies a party for crawling up their way to the 100th day and the 1st year mark, our parents also deserve a celebration in their own right when they reach a milestone in their life – that is their 60th birthday hwangap 환갑. According to a research study, the average life span of the people during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897) was way lower than half of what we have today (78 for male / 85 for female, but keep in mind that the high infant mortality rate played a role in dragging the average down). The situation wasn’t too different for the chosen ones – the average age at death of the Dynasty’s 27 kings was 46.1, although there were some outliers like King Yeongjo 영조 who lived a long 81.5 years of life. Therefore, one making it to the age of 60 was definitely something to be celebrated and congratulated on, so their children would organize lavish feasts and parties with invitations extended to family friends and village neighbors, sharing words of blessing and wisdom. With the advance in medical science and improvement of living conditions, however, the average life expectancy has dramatically increased, and the 60th birthday became less important (60 is the new 30, ya’ll!). Instead of having big parties, families often opt for dining out at a fine restaurant or take a family trip. Oh, but don’t you easily assume that they’re done throwing parties just yet – those big parties are saved for 70th birthdays chilsun 칠순 and 80th birthdays palsun 팔순.

*Technically, the word hwangap 환갑 represents the completion of a 60-year cycle of the Asian zodiac system used to calculate time in China and the East Asian cultural sphere and the beginning of another cycle.

Fun and Quirky Korean Superstitions and BeliefsDOLJABI – WHAT YOUR BABY GRABS DETERMINES THEIR FUTURE!

Look at this adorable baby giving the guests a sneak preview of her future.

If baekil janchi is a small-scale private event involving just family members and relatives, doljanchi 돌잔치 “first birthday party” (dol “first birthday/anniversary” + janchi “party”) is a village-wide event involving as wide a spectrum of guests as family friends and neighbors. And the highlight of the event is doljabi 돌잡이 = “first birthday grabbing” (dol means “first birthday/anniversary” + jabi 잡이 “to grab”). It’s a traditional ceremony that takes place with a belief that the item the baby picks up from the birthday table predicts the baby’s fortune/future!

Check out a selection of beautiful baby hanbok on Amazon.

THERE IS A SPECIAL PLACE WHERE KOREAN MOMS GO AFTER GIVING BIRTH

You deserve it, mom!

Who are the VVIPs in Korea? There might be a few you can think of, but mothers who just gave birth are definitely one of them. In Korea, the time period between childbirth and recovery is of utmost importance for the health of the new mothers, because it’s difficult for the new mothers to naturally return to their pre-pregnancy health levels without proper care. For this reason, there are service facilities called sanhujoriwon 산후조리원, which can be translated as “postpartum care centers,” but provides more services than it sounds. For example, it provides services such as daily meals for mothers, babysitting, changing diapers, and bathing of the newborns. In addition, nurses are present and there are facilities to respond to emergencies. Of course, this is not a vacation hotel for the new mothers – they still have to breastfeed the baby every few hours and learn how to handle the newborn. In sum, it is an auxiliary institution that can share the burden of exhausted mothers to help facilitate their speedy and proper recovery. In Korea, where men’s paternity leave is almost nonexistent, it’s an essential service.

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