Magpies, moths and memory loss: Korean superstitions

Every culture has their own superstitions; The British won’t put new shoes on a table, the French believe stepping in dog poo will bring them luck, and Indians refuse to get their hair cut on a Tuesday. Here are some of Korea’s most bizarre beliefs!

  • On the day of a big exam you shouldn’t wash your hair, as it will wash away everything you have learned. It’s also best to avoid ‘slippery’ foods like noodles or seaweed soup as they will cause information to slip away, and instead eat sticky foods like rice or sticky Korean candy.
  • It is said that if you give shoes as a present to your boyfriend or girlfriend they will break up with you and use the shoes to run away. If someone does give you shoes you should give them a tiny sum of money, like 100₩ (5p/10¢), so the shoes are considered a ‘purchase’ and not a gift.
  • Similarly, a woman should never feed her husband or boyfriend chicken wings, in case with a stomach full of wings he takes flight and leaves her. Especially if he’s wearing those new shoes.
  • It would seem that the Tooth Fairy doesn’t visit this part of the world. Instead lower teeth should be thrown onto the roof, to encourage the new tooth to grow upwards, while upper teeth should be thrown under the house to encourage the new tooth to grow downwards.
  • Don’t cut your nails at night, as Korean folklore says that mice will eat the clippings, become human and steal your soul. This one comes from the days before electricity so if you cut your nails at night, you wouldn’t be able to see to clean up, and the room would become dirty.
  • You should also avoid whistling or singing at night, as it can attract ghosts or snakes to your house. Apparently no one told our neighbour this one.
  • When moving house it is important to ensure that evil spirits don’t follow you to your new house. You should choose a 손없는날 (a day without uninvited guests), and moving companies often give a calendar for each month showing which days are ‘safe’ to move on. You shouldn’t sweep up before leaving the old house, because it tricks the spirits into thinking you’re still there, and by the time the new people arrive and clean the place, it’s too late for the spirits to find you.
  • In Korean culture the number 4 is considered to be unlucky, because the words for ‘death’ and ‘four’ have the same pronunciation. In Korean elevators the button for the fourth floor is often labelled ‘F’ or sometimes missing altogether, and you should never give gifts in sets of 4.
  • White is the colour of mourning and funerals, so wearing white ribbons in your hair is an invitation for death. At funerals the name of the deceased was traditionally written in red, to ward off those pesky evil spirits, so writing the names of living people in red is seriously unlucky, and can even be taken as a sign that you want that person dead!
  • Many Korean girls believe that cutting their hair short will make them grow taller, and if you jump over a baby (not quite sure why you would!) the baby will always be short.
  • On a baby’s first birthday people often present them with a pencil, some string and money. Whichever one the baby goes for first is a sign of their fortune. If they reach for the pencil they will be a good student, the string symbolises a long and healthy life and the money, of course, means they will be rich.
  • If you see a crow or a raven when you leave the house in the morning it means you will have bad luck that day. However, if you see a magpie in the morning it’s a sign of good luck.
  • If you catch the bouquet at a Korean wedding you have six months to get married, or you never will. For this reason Korean brides usually choose one of their friends who is engaged beforehand to catch the bouquet.
  • Apparently if you touch a butterfly or a moth and then rub your eyes before washing your hands you will go blind. A similar thing is said for orange flowers.
  • And lastly there’s every foreigner’s favourite…fan death. The genuine belief that sleeping in a room with the fan running overnight will kill you. According to the South Korean government this silent killer claims around ten lives every summer. There are several theories behind this one, including hypothermia, the fan creating a kind of air vortex around you causing you to slowly suffocate, the fan motor converting oxygen into carbon dioxide, and my personal favourite, the blades chopping up the air molecules making them un-breatheable. I’m no Einstein but I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works. The origins of this myth aren’t very clear as electric fans had been used in Korea for 80 years before the first reported case of fan death, but some people think the government started this rumour as an attempt to reduce energy usage at a time of limited supplies.
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10 Things I’ll Never Understand About Korea

Korea is a truly fascinating country, and I defy anyone to spend time here and not fall in love with it. However, there are some little quirks and oddities that even after 15 months I still struggle to get my head around.

1. The road rules. Or perhaps, the lack of road rules would be better. Red lights, pedestrian crossings, and giving way seem to mean nothing here. Scooters, motorbikes and sometimes even cars, freely drive along the pavement beeping at you for being in their way. As for parking, the general rule seems to be that anywhere is fair game if you can fit your car there. And there’s this strange rule that means you can turn right at a crossing, regardless of the light being green or red, which has resulted in more than a few near misses!

South Korean driving

2. The lack of queues drives me crazy here. Yeah, yeah, I’m a Brit, and all Brits love queueing, I’ve heard it all before, but seriously Korea, learn to wait your turn! Koreans seem to have this bizarre and frustrating idea that if they only have one thing in their basket or they just want to buy a packet of cigarettes, but you have several things to pay for, they can cut in front. Ajummas (see point 7) are the worst for this.

3. Koreans have an incredible ability to fall asleep anywhere. With or without the help of several bottles of soju. Businessmen kicking off their shoes and settling down on a park bench for a cheeky power nap, builders having a kip in the middle of a building site, falling asleep on the subway yet somehow always waking up in time for their stop, and in class, hopefully not a reflection on my teaching! Koreans have perhaps the longest working hours in the world, and many of my students only get 4 or 5 hours sleep a night, so it’s not really surprising that they need some down time.

2012-04-06 15.27.57

4. Every culture has their own superstitions, and Korea’s are no stranger than our fear of black cats, broken mirrors and walking under ladders. For example, the number 4 is considered unlucky here as the words for ‘death’ and ‘four’ have the same pronunciation in Korean. When you get in a lift the button for the fourth floor will often be F, instead of 4, or sometimes skipped altogether, and you should never give sets of 4 as a gift. Writing someone’s name in red is also reserved for the dead, which has on more than one occasion led to a slow motion style ‘nooooooo’ from the kids as they dive to take the pen out of my hand. And then there’s fan death, the widely held belief that sleeping in a room with a fan on overnight will kill you. There are several theories behind this one, but the most common one is that the blades of the fan will chop up the air molecules making them un-breatheable. No, really.

Fan death

5. Along with several other East Asian countries, Korea uses a different way of age reckoning than the Western world, meaning that your ‘Korean age’ will be either one or two years (depending on what month you were born in) older than your ‘Western age’. Babies start life at one, as you are considered to be one in your first year of life, two in your second year of life, three in your third year of life and so on. However, in Korea everyone ages up on the Lunar New Year (Seollal) in February, and not on their actual birthday. For example, a baby born in January would be one year old when they were born, and would then turn two on Seollal in February, even though they would only be a few days old according to the Western system. This system is used in every day life in Korea, although the legal system uses the Western reckoning. Confusing I know!

6. Writing and reading the date can also be a source of great confusion here. While American English uses the month-day-year format, and British English uses the day-month-year format, Koreans usually (depending on their education) go for year-month-day. So 10/9/12 could be October 9th 2012, September 10th 2012, or September 12th 2010. Frankly it’s anyone’s guess and it makes sell-by dates an absolute nightmare.

7. Ajummas. That one word is enough to strike fear in the heart of even the most seasoned expat. Kitted out in clashing animal prints, more diamanté than the entire cast of TOWIE, and of course, the obligatory visors atop their standard issue perm, this army of elderly women that roam the streets of Korea is a force to be reckoned with. They will push, jostle and elbow their way to the front of the queue or to get on the bus first. Although they are painfully slow when walking down the street, don’t be fooled, as soon as that subway seat becomes free they pounce. The last thing you want is to invoke the wrath of an ajumma. Do not mess with them.

ajummas

8. This bizarre, and slightly disturbing game is unfortunately very popular among Korean kids at the moment. Where they learned it, and why no one stops them is completely beyond me. The ‘game’ involves the kids putting their fingers together like a gun, waiting for the opportune moment before jamming their fingers up your bum shouting DONGCHIP! You have been warned.

9. Coming from the land of the eternal tea-break, the rate that buildings appear and disappear in Korea is nothing short of astonishing. One week you’ll walk past a hairdressers, and the next week it’s a fully refurbished restaurant. It’s like living in some kind of time-warp.

10. The national obsession with kimchi. I mean seriously, it’s fermented cabbage.

South Korean fan death

Fan death. The commonly held belief in South Korea that sleeping in a closed room with an electric fan on all night will kill you. Seriously.

According to the South Korean government’s consumer agency, electric fans claim between seven and ten lives every year. The same government body also states that asphyxiation from fans is one of the top five causes of summer fatalities.

If bodies are exposed to electric fans or air conditioners for too long, it causes bodies to lose water and hypothermia. If directly in contact with a fan, this could lead to death from increase of carbon dioxide saturation concentration and decrease of oxygen concentration. The risks are higher for the elderly and patients with respiratory problems.”

Now, you may be wondering how a seemingly harmless electrical appliance can transform overnight into a brutal cold-blooded killer?

Well, there are several suggested ’causes’ of death by fan.

The first is hypothermia. Our metabolisms naturally slow down at night and this makes us more sensitive to temperature changes. If the fan is left on all night, the change in room temperature can in turn cause our body temperature to drop so much that it causes organ failure and hypothermia. Hmm…

The second is death through prolonged asphyxiation. This theory claims that if a fan blows air directly onto your face, it creates a kind of vortex, and the fast moving flow of air makes it difficult to breathe so you slowly suffocate.

The third theory is that the fan motor actually converts the oxygen in the room into carbon dioxide, thus suffocating its sleeping victim.

Lastly, and my personal favourite, is that the blades of the fan ‘chop up’ all of the air particles in the room leaving you none to breathe. Now, I’m no Einstein but I’m pretty sure that that isn’t right.

So where did this absurd myth originate from?

The origins of this mind-boggling superstition remain a mystery. Electric fans had been used in Korea for over 80 years before the first reported case of fan death. One theory however, is that the rumour was actually started by the South Korean government during the 1970s as an attempt to reduce energy usage at a time when there were limited supplies.

Is it all just a lot of hot air?

There is no scientific evidence that sleeping in a room with a fan running all night alone will kill you. In fact, several studies have disproven the theories beyond doubt. Most of the deaths are actually attributed to alcohol poisoning, heart conditions or other undiagnosed medical problems. In 2007 Dr. John Linton, who had carried out autopsies on several fan death victims, told the International Herald Tribune “there are several things that could be causing the fan deaths, things like pulmonary embolisms, cerebrovascular accidents or arrhythmia. There is little scientific evidence to support that a fan alone can kill you if you are using it in a sealed room. Although it is a common belief among Koreans, there are other explainable reasons for why these deaths are happening.”

Yet South Koreans of all ages, classes and backgrounds continue to believe in this urban legend. Even doctors and medical professionals warn of the dangers of electric fans.

How can we protect ourselves from these silent assassins?

The Korean Consumer Protection Agency advises that doors or windows should be left open when sleeping with the electric fan or air conditioner turned on, to prevent the oxygen from being converted into carbon dioxide/sucked out of the room/chopped up into tiny pieces. Also, most fans now sold in Korea come with a timer device that automatically switches it off after a certain amount of time, no doubt saving tens of lives every year.

We slept with the fan on last night, and I feel lucky to have escaped with my life.