Things To Know When Watching a Korean Drama

K-Drama AddictThis post gets updated and clarified constantly, so you should check back every once in a while to see what’s changed if this stuff interests you.

These are just in random order and reflect, of course, my personal experiences and opinions, and conclusions drawn from them.  Absolutely everything here should be prefaced with the phrase, “Conclusions I’ve reached based on my limited exposure through dramas and internet reading, so I could be wrong…” Plus, this is mainly life in dramas, I have no idea how much day to day life in Korea looks like this in the real world- I’ve been to Korea once for about a week over twenty years ago, and I was able to visit briefly with several friendly Koreans who wanted to practice their English and were happy to talk about their country with me. It was a fun trip and I had some great conversations, but that makes me somebody who went to Korea for a week, not any kind of authority.  I also lived in Japan for five years, but that was also over twenty years ago.  And, while to an outsider, there are more similarities between Japan and Korea than it would seem to most residents of those countries, there are also huge differences, many of which are more visible to the residents of those countries.

The shows I’ve watched usually start slow. Somewhere I read that it’s kind of like starting an old car. You have to rev up the engine a few times and then you can go for a sweet ride. Or think of it as the tedious part of setting up the chess board for a newbie player. The first episode, and sometimes the second and even the third will be about who all the players are, and it can get tedious.

Bathroom Humour– toilets and what you do with them…. just a fact of life, maybe even a humorous fact of life. It’s a cultural thing and you just need to get over it, or close your eyes and move on. Blowing your nose in public, or in front of just about anybody, however, is horrible bad manners, In You’re Beautiful, the annoying second female lead asks the male lead to get out of the car so she can blow her nose..   However, discussing your digestive process from start to finish isn’t rude, I gather. At least in dramas.

Ages: In Korea your age is one at birth, so a character who says she’s 20 is probably 19. Except…. everybody adds the next year on the Lunar New Year (so everybody born the same year is the same age), so sometimes there’s actually a two year difference between Korean ages and American equivalents. Except…. different translators working on subtitles go by different standards in translating. Some of them do the math for you and translate the stated age into the American equivilant, and sometimes they don’t. There’s not really any way to know for sure unless you learn your Korean numbers or find an official character description listing for the show. Just know that the ages given in any drama you watch could be as much as two years younger than the one given.  And if you’re ever in Korea and are asked your age, it might be easiest to give your birth year.

See Dramabeans’ glossary for some helpful info.

Youngest one: A word not in that glossary is ‘maknae,’ which isn’t pronounced quite like that looks- it’s something more like mahngnai and you can hear it pronounced properly here– essentially it means the youngest one- it could be the baby of the family (our Boy will be the maknae until he dies), the youngest member of a band, the youngest/newest employee at work.  In Baby Faced Beauty, Jang Nara plays a woman pretending to be her sister, almost ten years younger. As the maknae at work, she gets bossed around a lot, and it’s her responsibility at work get togethers to do all the fetching and carrying, as well as food prep.  When she gets caught, there’s all kinds of havoc and hostility because of the social confusion she’s caused (not least of which is letting a younger guy fall in love with her, thinking she’s younger than he).

Korea has a fairly rigidly age-based social structure. Youngers defer to olders, and olders are responsible for mentoring youngers, and this is true even of twins* and students and co-workers separated by only a single birth year.

In The Greatest Love, the main female lead is not out of line when she goes up to the younger members of a girl band to talk to them about their need to be more polite, even though she doesn’t really know them.  She’s actually fulfilling one of her responsibilities as a sunbae, or senior in the industry.

There’s an interesting example of this age based hierarchy in one of my favorite dramas, School 2013. Go Nam Soon is one of the main characters- as a student, he’s a little mysterious, but well liked, and his peers are comfortable referring to him by name and joshing around with him, even good naturedly smacking him once in a while. Then a new kid comes to school who knows him from before- in a private discussion Heung Soo, the new kid, challenges Nam Soon, “Did you lie about your age? They think you’re their friend.”

He did lie. He’s a year older, so he can’t exactly be their ‘friend.’ They ought to be using some sort of honorific, and they should not be slapping him, even in fun, and definitely not on the head.

This is also why in What’s Up, Freshman Jae-Hun is able to embarrass Senior Cheon and make him back off of his hazing simply by telling him that he (Jae-Hun) is so much older than Cheon that Jae-Hun has already filled his military service.*  It’s also why Jae-Hun gets in even more trouble when Cheon investigates and discovers Jae-Hun lied.

In episode 7 of What’s Up, , Oh Man Seok’s character, their music professor, has invited, or rather blackmailed, an old school mate of his into teaching singing to the students in his place. He has extra leverage to do this because this isn’t just a classmate, it’s his ‘hoobae,’ or junior classmate. That’s actually how he introduces him to the students- ‘this is my hoobae from college,’ although the subtitles in the version at Dramafever merely translates this as ‘classmate.’

In episode 11 of It’s Okay, Daddy’s Girl the bratty sibling asks Donghae’s  24 year old character if he works at the sidewalk cafe.  He says no, but he does help out because his friend runs the place, and then points to the 20 year old friend.  Bratty sibling says in surprise, “Friend!?  But you look older!”

In The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry, our main character is love with a man ten years her junior.  This is very complicated in Korea.  There are several scenes where Min-Jae puts the older woman off balance by refusing to use the terms he ought to use for anybody older than he is, and many other scenes with discussions about what Min-Jae (the younger man ably played by Kim Bum or Beom) calls Shin Young and her friends. He ought to call her Noona or Miss Lee or at least Miss Lee Shin-Young, but he refuses to call anybody noona, and he calls her either Shin Young-Shi or Shin Young-ah- both of which place them on equal footing, or make her slightly younger (the ‘ah’ ending of her name is something that would be more appropriate if he were older than she).    Dramabeans explains one of those scenes;

…age is always a constant presence in Korean social interactions — for example, it’s almost impossible to have an extended conversation without both sides knowing how old the other person is relative to himself, because age dictates how they speak.

And it’s why it’s a scandal when somebody is discovered to have lied about their age.  Even a lie of a year or two makes a big difference. It’s kind of messing with the social structure and putting others on the wrong foot.

In several dramas when a mixed age pair will refer to each other as friends somebody else will ask them, “Friends?!  What do you think this is, America?”

Only superiors can touch the heads of others. In general, that means you’ll see older students patting younger students on the head, or boys pat girls on the head, but not the reverse, exceptions being older sisters putting younger brothers in their place. It’s affectionate when you have the right to do it, it’s insulting and offensive when you don’t.  I have seen some exceptions, but every time I see this in a drama, it indicates a special relationship whether that’s romantic or just a friendly affection- in one episode of What’s Up, Jae-Hun has accidentally made Park Tae Yi cry, and he bends over to offer his head, and tells her she’ll feel better if she hits him.  Instead of hitting him, she just sort of scratches his head briefly, like he’s a puppy.  But I don’t think she would even think about touching his head if he hadn’t offered first.  Of course, she couldn’t reach his head if he doesn’t offer it first, anyway, she’s quite tiny and he’s incredibly tall.

First name basis: If you listen carefully while you read the subtitles you’ll see that often the subtitles show people referring to each other on a first name basis when in fact they aren’t using names at all, they are using titles- brother, sister, reporter, senior, junior, student, Teacher, “Jae-Hee’s Sister,’ “Da Bin’s Mom,” “Ara-Mi’s Dad,” Mister, Grandmother… In general, it seems, you don’t just call each other by plain first names unless you’re age-mates, and even then, you need to be close enough to do that politely.

Name order: I think most people know this now- but your family name or surname is the most important in Korea (and I think most Asian countries), so that’s what comes first in introductions.

Eye contact- the rules of engagement are different. Sometimes to me it’s like watching a dance as two people talk but follow Korean cultural norms for eye contact rather than American. It’s also rude for inferiors to stare directly into the eyes of their superiors (employee/boss; child/parent; younger sibling/older siblings, especially an older sibling who has some disciplinary authority, which firstborn sons always do.  I gather it’s particularly rude to look a person in the eye when you’re being scolded by that person.

Aegyo– cutsey charm. To me, it can be hilariously adorable or spine twistingly annoying.  Our experience in living in Japan and visiting Korea is that Asians really like cute a lot.  It’s not just for kids.

Tattoos– While they are more common in Korea than they used to be, , especially among pop stars, there is still a drama trope that they are associated with criminals (see Panda and Hedgehog or Padam Padam). This is because the laws about who can give a tattoo are restrictive enough that essentially, you can only legally get them from a doctor, and not that many doctors are interested. So once upon a time it really was only criminals who got tattooed.  Now I think it’s criminals and people who got tattoos done outside of Korea.

Continuity Errors: Sometimes the dramas you’re watching have been shot by actors and all the other accompanying personnel working grueling around the clock shifts and are finished hours before the show airs. This gives little to no time for editing and no time for retakes. Sometimes they are filming scenes for which they got the script shortly before shooting. Some actors use an ear bud and have somebody reading the lines because they were just handed the script immediately before shooting- I think this may be responsible for some scenes where the actors seem to speak in short phrases rather than a single flowing sentence (but that may also be a reflection of Korean grammar, where we would say “where is the book?” they would say something more like, “Book, where is it?”

It’s a grueling practice, the live shoots, and sometimes in addition to continuity errors you’ll see haggard faces, heavier make-up to cover pimples which stress causes to erupt and even a cold sore or two. When your actor is hurt in an accident you either cancel, use a body double, or rewrite the script- it’s the reason why in You’ve Fallen For Me or Heartstrings the main actress has a fall down the stairs and spends an episode or two in bed. She was really in excruciating pain, having been in a car accident and ordered to go to bed. She insisted on returning to the show, and you can’t blame her- without her, lots of people would be instantly out of work, but her injuries were either more severe than they realized or she exacerbated them with filming, so they rewrote the script to have her character’s injuries reflect those of the actress.

More about the live-shoot system here and here.

Your Korean entertainers consider daily IV drips while working to be normal, par for the course because they work so hard, and sometimes don’t even have time to get a drink of water. They work all night long night after night during filming and then go back and work some more.  I’ve read that sometimes they have essentially a permanent room reserved at the hospital for I.V. drips.

Sign was hit with a number of little insanities in its run-up to the ending. The shoots themselves ran so late that they were filming up to THE HOUR before airtime. Inconceivable. The director tweeted at 9:20 pm that night (Sign was a 10 pm drama) that they’d just finished the last shoots.

I’ve heard of dramas being edited right until showtime (and in Fantasy Couple’s extreme case, the tapes were split so that the first half was being aired while the second half was being edited). But cramming all that post-production work into ONE HOUR? Insanity.

The liveshoot system also contributes to the reason for so many flashbacks in Korean dramas- they are filling time they can’t fill with extra shots because they don’t have time for those extra shots. Watch King of Dramas for more insight into the hows and whys of some of the drama formatting that might puzzle you.

Scandals: A lot of things are called scandals that I would merely call rumours and they can kill an actor’s career both on and off screen. Sometimes it’s a ‘scandal’ that two single people are dating each other. I was thinking about it, though, and realized this may be an extreme reflection of something I actually find admirable. In Korea, dating is a serious relationship. And once somebody is dating somebody else, let alone actually engaged or married, it’s no longer appropriate to have a crush on that person. If K-dramas speak the truth on this, adultery is actually a crime in Korea.  In America, it’s not a crime, and as for being socially unacceptable,  not so much, and that’s unfortunate, IMO.  We don’t need the overwrought hostility and vile attacks that seem to go with fandom in Korea, but we could use a lot more respect for the boundaries of marriage.

 Drinking: If you’re really interested, you can google drinking in Korea and find out a lot more.  In general, Koreans like to drink socially, and they like you to join them, and it’s a mood killer if you don’t unless you have a really good reason (an allergy?).  In Japan at least, it was rude not to join in, and even seen as a little bit shifty and indicative of somebody who might be untrustworthy. However, dramas probably over dramatize the amount of drunkenness.  In the comments Harmony says not, and I agree with her, but would clarify that I think Dramas do over-dramatize the number of times people are falling down, passed out and throwing up drunk.  Drinking is a problem in Korea but I don’t think drinking to the point of blacking out and passing out on a regular basis is that socially acceptable.

You don’t pour your own drink, you pour for others, and they in turn pour for you.  Pour with two hands for somebody older or socially superior (your boss), with one hand for friends and social inferiors (employees, younger than you)- or sometimes you see the pouring done with one hand while the other hand is touching the pouring arm (think of holding back a kimono sleeve in pantomime).   When drinking in front of social superiors (your boss, father-in-law, somebody older), turn to the side, almost as though hiding the fact that you’re drinking.  I *think* the maknae can’t drink in a group without permission, and certainly isn’t supposed to get drunk and besodden in front of the elders.

Singing: I’ve read elsewhere that Korea is the Ireland of the east- they love to drink and sing.  I’m a fan of the singing.

Oppa– Dramabeans has an extended glossary, and this one on the power of the Oppa title is one I found most helpful.  For instance:

A guy who takes on oppa status to a girl he’s not related to also takes on a few implied responsibilities, like generally watching over her and making sure she doesn’t get into trouble. He’s the one who might introduce her to social drinking — but he’s also the guy who’d better cut her off when she’s had too much. An oppa who takes advantage of his drunk charge isn’t worthy of the title oppa. If the currently popular trope of the cold-on-the-outside, fuzzy-on-the-inside hero can look to Mr. Darcy as its archetype, then the quintessential oppa is surely Mr. Knightley.

For a hilarious example of the control a cute girl can exert with just an ‘Oppa!’ check out 2PM’s Tacyeon and his response to his variety show partner Gui Gui on an episode of We Got Married- it’s just a second or two beyond the 14 minute mark here.  He is totally and utterly undone, and it’s hilarious. (WGM, btw, is a show I’ve never watched and have zero interest in, but somebody shared this link on another forum and it’s too hilariously adorable to keep to myself).

Noona: Dramabeans extended glossary on Noona.

PDA: Public displays of affection- not happening much.  This was true in Japan as well.  Kissing in public is rude, unless you’re maybe kissing your baby.  I mean, your actual few months old, still in diapers baby, not your love interest Baby, Baby.  Hand holding is kosher, but it’s also kosher between same gender friends.  This may be true Asia wide, I don’t know.  I know in jr. high I had a good friend who was a Viet Namese immigrant, and she wanted to hold my hand in public, and I wanted to die, because it was jr. high which is a viper pit for the insecure, which I was.  I still feel badly about that, but anyway.  More about that here at Eat Your Kimchi.

Because touching the opposite gender is not that common, dramas need excuses to get their couples to touch each other, and this is why you will have the following tropes:

A fever, so one person can touch the other’s forehead and bathe the face with cool washcloths

Falling down drunk, so the guy can piggyback the girl home (carrying anything on the back is more common in Korea than here)

Falling over for whatever reason- a bus jostle, tripping, etc, so the couple can bump into each other

Falling asleep on a bus ride or at a movie theater, so one person’s head can drop on the other’s shoulder

Reaching into the popcorn bucket at the same time at the theater, so hands touch

It’s also why kisses in K- dramas are often so awkward- some of the younger actors and actresses probably haven’t done that much kissing in real life, and certainly not in public. One of the members of Big Bang claims his first kiss was on one of his music videos when there was supposed to be a fake kiss and the actress got carried away.  Taeyoung had never even had a girlfriend, not even a date, at that point.  He’s not the only one, either. U-Kiss’s Keven says he’s never dated, and his only kiss is on a music video.

Sometimes those kisses are deliberately awkward  out of sensitivity towards the cultural norms and the censors (broadcast television still has censors), or because kissing a popular star on TV can get you in a lot of trouble in the strange and wacky netizen world of K-pop fandom, even causing the untimely demise of your character.  So we have very interesting things like…. the drama The Partner, where the male lead is a total player who gawks openly at women’s, er, wherewithal, discusses intimate details of his life that I can’t write about here and couldn’t discuss without blushing in real life, but once reformed and in love with a worthy woman, we never actually see a single kiss between the main romantic pairing- there are something like three hand-holding scenes, two of them with their clasped hands hidden behind their backs.

The awkward kiss, and kisses that actually really mean something is/are one of the things that made me fall totally in love with K-dramas, as I am not terribly interested in watching other people slobbering and slurping away at each other’s faces. I am a fan of kissing my husband in private or in front of the kids because I like to embarrass them, but other than around my kids, I’m not a fan of PDA. This may also be a reflection of 20 years as a military wife, where PDA was also frowned on and actually forbidden when my man was in uniform, but I also think it’s more respectful of your beloved, yourself, and those around you (something my biology teacher, Mr. Burton, would find shocking and maybe gratifying, as he chewed me out royally for some inappropriate good-bye kisses with my boyfriend outside the classroom door.  Because, you know, being separated for 40 minutes of class calls for that kind of thing).    Incidentally, this restraint in K-dramas, the creative shots of hand holding, or chaste kisses to the forehead- this is totally swoony and romantic in a way that all the hot kisses in an American movie never, ever, can be.  It’s amazing how much more romantic the restrained and discreet romance scenes are than the leave nothing to the imagination American version.

Here’s something else I just learned, and I find it fascinating as a reflective of the importance placed on age based seniority in Korea. I’ve mentioned before, but while older sister/brother are very gender specific, to the point that there is a different word used respectively by girls and boys for older brother (oppa/hyung), and a different word used by girls and boys for older sisters (unni/noona), but there is not really a different word for younger sister or brother. Younger siblings are all dongsaengs, regardless of gender.  You can qualify it if you need to, but mostly just dongsaeng will do.

When it comes to aunts and uncles it gets really confusing to me, but basically, your father’s brother is your Samchoon, and your mother’s brother is your Gomo (there are variations based on the age relationship of those relatives to your parents, but I’m not going there). Also, unlike here, where your biological aunt’s husband is still your uncle just like the biological brothers of either of your parents, there are different words for those relationships, too.= see Harmony’s comments to this post. (my confusion on Samchoon is because I saw it used for uncle in two dramas where the uncles were not blood relatives, but were close friends of the dad and did stand in as uncles.  But now I think it’s the word used for mother’s brother OR for a ‘courtesy’ uncle).

But what really interested me is that there is no gender distinction for nephew/niece- like dongsaeng being the gender neutral term for young sibling, there’s only one word for that relationship to your sibling’s kids (jo-kah), and it’s not gender specific. In What’s Up this caused some confusion for me because the translators translated jo-kah into nephew in English, when, in fact, the gender wasn’t specified, a professor has learned that an old girlfriend was an aunt who helped raise her sibling’s child, but he isn’t told the gender of the child, he’s only looking for the ‘jo-kah,’ not specifically a nephew.

*military service- Two years of service is mandatory for all Korean males with a handful of exceptions- if you have dual citizenship, if you have health reasons.  But getting out of your service is sort of kind of not well respected.  Filling one’s duty by joining the marines is the most admired route, because it’s also the hardest, kind of just like the U.S.  Except in the U.S. I think most civilians are not as aware of just how impressive our marines are.  I say that as an Air Force wife, too.  Most boys fill their service after high school or maybe college.  Actors, singers, idol types, generally put it off until the very last minute, which is closer to age 30.  I think the leaves are more limited and what you can do on them more restricted than in the American military, although we have our restrictions as well.  However, here in the U.S. those restrictions are not as well understood because civilians have less exposure to the military due to our all volunteer only military.  This is why a while back when some American women in uniform breastfed their babies and posed for cameras for a publicity spread, they were reprimanded.  I’m a breastfeeding zealot myself, but as a military spouse, my first and most visceral reaction was and is shock and distaste that they would use, even disgrace, the uniform that way, and I am glad they were reprimanded.

Incidentally, there are female soldiers in Korea, it’s just that for girls, enlistment is voluntary and for boys, two years is mandatory.

*updated to add this about twins- young siblings don’t call older siblings by their first names, and this is generally true even of twins.  Two drama-land examples:

In She is Nineteen, Seung Jae and Yelim are twins- he’s the older, and she calls him Oppa (more specifically, whatever the phrase is for the second oldest Oppa).  But she also mouths off to him because she’s a brat.  He’s also a bit of a problem child who fights for independence from their overbearing mother by running away from home.  In one family argument after he’s come back home, Yelim very rudely demands to know why he bothers, since he always gets caught and dragged back home, and he indignantly demands, “How dare you talk that way to your oppa?”  I’m wondering, too, if she’s dropped into a very relaxed form of banmal and maybe even called him ‘you’ (which is not done) when she asks him, because he’s so offended.

They might be separated by mere seconds, but he’s the oppa and she’s the dongsaeng.

In My Princess, we have a pair of sisters who are the same age with the same birthdate,  although they aren’t twins because they were both adopted and have no biological ties. However, their new mother tells them that even twins have to have an older and a younger. They were adopted from an orphanage, hence the time of birth is unknown so she has the girls draw straws, and ever after, Seol must call her sister Dan ‘unni,’ and Dan Unni gets all the bossy privileges of being the Big Sister, and she calls Seol by her first name.


Shows I am currently watching but haven’t finished yet are described here.

You might also enjoy:

Dramas I’ve completed, recommend, and reviewed: see here.

K-Dramas I almost liked– most of these are just darker than I usually prefer. Some are just flawed.

Things to know when watching a K-drama

More Things To Know

Addiction, and why I like K-dramas

You might be watching a K-Drama if….

Where to get your fix: Sites where you can find subtitled K-dramas (and dramas from other countries, as well. I’ve watched a handful of J-dramas (Japanese) and TW (Taiwanese) dramas, but I vastly prefer the K-dramas, even though I know more Japanese – I got an A in my Japanese 101 class back in the day, when we actually lived in Japan and once I even knew both hiragana and katakana- but still K-dramas interest me vastly more).


You can learn more cool stuff here.

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