Of being a Seonbae or Hubae in Korea

Written by on August 27, 2012 in Lifestyle

The famous F4 seonbaes of K-drama “Boys over Flowers”

Seonbae (선배) – or with the more familiar Romanization “sunbae” – and hubae (후배). If you’re a fan of Korean TV dramas and K-pop, you’ve probably heard these words on numerous occasions. Seonbae means senior and hubae means junior. No, it’s not the “senior” as in “senior citizen” or the “junior” as in someone who has the same name as his father; seonbae is someone senior to you in age, grade, rank, position, level, or experience in a certain field, and hubae is the opposite.
When seonbae or hubae is mentioned, the first thing that generally comes to mind is alumni from the same school, although not from the same year. In Korea, the term friend (친구) is usually limited to people your own age while a distinction would be made for age differences. For example, a 3rd year high school student would be seonbae to the 1st and 2nd years; the 1st and 2nd years would be hubae to the 3rd years. The 2nd years would be seonbae to the 1st years whilst being hubae to the 3rd years.
The terms apply in the workplace, too. When someone has the same job description and title as you but happens to be older or has entered the company earlier than you – that person would be a seonbae. Or even in showbiz: someone who has made their debut earlier you would be the seonbae. You get the picture.

Even during a game on opposite teams, hubae Choi HW politely greets seonbae Choi DS

In Korea, you never call anyone older or senior to you by name only. You either call them by their rank or title: “Teacher”, “manager”, “director”, “ambassador”, “reporter”, etc. Even for familial terms (which we’ve talked about already in this post), you call your older brother, “older brother” and older sister “older sister”. The seniors may call their juniors by name.
When you get close to someone on a personal level you may start calling them “older brother” and “older sister”, that doesn’t go so well in a professional setting. There are instances when you’re not that friendly enough to use those familiar terms and there are also cases where people don’t have a specific title to use. Thus, you call them “seonbae” or the more polite and respectful “seonbaenim” (선배님).

A pretty girl hubae’s request sometimes gives the guy seonbae false hope

There’s a certain protocol to being a seonbae or hubae, though. From the hubae to the seonbae: utmost respect. From the seonbae to the hubae: “trickle-down love” (내리사랑), i.e. love and affection for one’s juniors, or parental love.
One of the most frequent things a hubae might say to their seonbae is “Please buy me a meal (밥 사주세요).” (In Korean, the word for “cooked rice” is synonymous for “meal”.) It is custom for a seonbae to look after the well-being of their hubaes and this practice usually reaches far beyond the university years, when it is the most common. Unless you’re in the company of friends, or unless it’s decided in the beginning that it’s every man for himself, it’s usually the eldest or the most senior person in the group who picks up the bill. Even at a prolonged company dinner, “I’ll treat you” is ordinarily said by the seonbae in the group and it’s taken for granted by the hubaes. After all, in other groups where they are the seonbae, they would be the ones treating their hubaes.
It’s not a one-way street, though. Seonbaes are not there just for hubaes to leech a free meal. Seonbaes give you a lot of advice; they are mentors in your field. If you’re not a “good” hubae who gives the seonbae proper respect, you’re going to be stuck alone to struggle in whatever field you may be. A seonbae has been there, done that, written the book; you actually get very valuable help and advice.

Actor Kim Soo-hyun bows so fast to his seonbae Son Hyeon-joo that he’s a blur

Loyalty is required from both the seonbae and hubae to one another. Sometimes, and in certain circles, the level of respect due to a seonbae is absolute; it is very blatant in sports and the entertainment business, and also in schools with long histories.
I personally was a reporter for the high school newspaper and the seonbae-hubae relationship was brutal. (The school was established in 1906.) There were only eight of us in each year so we were supposed to feel privileged to have been chosen. And with privilege came responsibility. Anything that may tarnish the image of the paper was frowned upon and we had to carry ourselves accordingly to the rules. Addressing a seonbae properly was especially a huge deal. A 90 degree bow was essential, except for when someone more senior was around such as a teacher or someone in an upper grade. One misstep and it meant punishment for everyone. I’m quite sure our school wasn’t the only one like this.
Fortunately, these rigid practices have loosened over the years to friendlier seonbae-hubae relationships; sometimes the rapport between a seonbae and hubae may be stronger than that between friends. The 90 degree bow is still quite common, though. I don’t’ think that custom is going to change soon; after all, it’s extremely polite.
In the end, it all comes down to mutual love and respect. Since you’re always someone’s seonbae while being another’s hubae at the same time, you naturally learn to be both the one and the other; you get to treat a seonbae the way you would like to be treated, you take care of a hubae the way you would like to be taken care of.
Sometimes when you find yourself unable to talk with family and friends, the advice from a seonbae or a fresh perspective from a hubae may be just what you need. It’s a very important relationship in Korean culture. Although it may be called something different, I’m quite certain that this relationship exists in others as well, for life would be pretty bleak without it.

About the Author

Suzy Chung

Multilingual editor, writer, and translator. Coffee addict, bookworm, art junkie, foodie, oenophile, and a billion other things. I tend to talk a lot. @suzyinseoul