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Interspersing my investigation of the Korean Body (viz) with some helpful cultural education from Boyé Lafayette de Mente's book The Korean Mind. :)

One of the first things that popped out at me, as I began my foray into Korean pop culture earlier this year, was the use of words like hyung and noona - what a polite young man calls a man and a woman older than himself, literally, "older brother" and "older sister". In fact, I think the very first word I picked up was maknae, meaning "the youngest"*. Taemin is the maknae of my fave boy band, SHINee, and there was even a daft reality show featuring the youngest members of various boy bands, called "Idol Maknae Rebellion".

Soon I was encountering more references to this hierarchy of age. For example: on a quiz show, Jonghyun teased Key about something, and Key jokingly retorted, "Don't lie!" Everyone exploded into laughter - because Key, who is two years younger than Jonghyun, did not use formal language**.

de Mente had the explanation for all this. Five centuries of strict Confucianism! Everyone knowing their place, down to the last detail. I get the impression that things are a bit looser these days than they were in the past, but this stuff is clearly deeply ingrained. Another example: a chat show filmed in a taxi van - a great idea! - began by having the SHINee members do various minor challenges, with the winners getting to pick which seat they wanted (the front two seats being taken by the hosts). Supposedly! de Mente's book explains: "In a car driven by a chauffeur the ranking space is the right rear seat. The second rank is the left rear seat." And so on. Regardless of the pretend competition for seats, the band members end up sitting almost exactly in age order, with the eldest, Onew, in the right rear seat, Jonghyun, the second oldest, in the left rear seat (behind the driver); and then the three youngest members in the seats behind Onew and Jjong, with maknae Taemin in the leftmost, rearmost seat.

The only exception was that Minho, who is three months Key's junior, insisted on sticking Key with the middle seat - not only technically lower-ranking, but apparently with a less flattering camera angle! Interestingly, their "challenge", unlike the others, involved both of them. Perhaps, with their birthdays so close, they're thought of as being the same age. And in fact, the "challenges" were handed out in order of age. Basically, Taemin, mate, you were always going to end up in the worst seat in the taxi. XD

* My actual first word of Korean was "aigoo!" - an expression of mild dismay not too far away in meaning from "oy!" - taught to me by my hairdresser.

** Thank gods for translator's notes, without which so much of this stuff would be impenetrable to the Western newcomer!

*** tbh, I think we have something quite similar in the West, it's just more subtle and more flexible. For example, I thought of the fine gradations of class discussed in Watching the English, which helped me grasp why it was radical for Christopher Eccleston's Doctor have a Northern accent.


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