I vaguely remember my first time in Korea coming to work on a rainy day. My coworkers had left their umbrellas open in order to dry them out — actually quite an inventive way to do it — but I took one look and immediately thought “You can’t do that…that’s bad luck!”
Even at a meeting with fellow Korea Bloggers Steve Miller and Suzy Chung, Steve and I couldn’t adequately explain the superstition to Suzy, and we were both dumbstruck when she asked us “Or what?”
Superstitions are interesting. Most of the time they include a very specific consequence, like how if you break a mirror you get seven years of bad luck. And breaking a mirror is a lousy thing to happen, so that one makes sense. It’s also a bad idea to walk under a ladder, and not just because it’s bad luck.
Korea has its own fascinating superstitions. By pointing these out, I don’t intend to poke fun at Korean culture, but rather look at how certain folk beliefs have reflected cultural beliefs. My culture’s superstitions make about as much sense to Koreans as Korean superstitions make to other Canadians. And that’s okay.
If you ride the elevator in many of Seoul’s most international hotels, you’ll notice the button panel is missing 4 and 13. Just like those elevators, we can all be superstitious together.
As Suzy explained on her blog, some couples might not walk to take a walk around the outer wall of Deoksugung, the palace in downtown Seoul across from City Hall and Seoul Plaza. Couples that do so are doomed to break up.
The reason for this is not some urban legend, but actually has a firmly rooted historical origin. Seoul Family Court used to be at the end of the street, so to get divorced, married couples would have to follow that path together. According to Suzy, “We walked the Deoksugung Wall path together” is a euphemism for breaking up. The court has since relocated, so maybe next it will soon be bad luck for couples to come out exit 11 of Seoul National University of Education Station.
Things to avoid before an exam
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are a lot of Korean superstitions about taking exams, as exams play such an important part in people’s lives — and that doesn’t end with graduation.
Avoid slippery foods, such as seaweed soup (미역국) or noodles, because they will lubricate your brain and the material you’ve studied will slip right out of your head. Instead, opt for stickier foods, such as glutinous rice cakes (찹쌀떡) or taffy (엿).
Oh, and I’ve also heard you shouldn’t shower before an exam, because it will wash away the knowledge, and if your hair is wet it will be similarly harder to retain knowledge.
Trimming your fingernails at night
This one is fascinating because of how specific the consequences are.
Basically, if you trim your fingernails at night, mice will eat the clippings, and they will be able to transform into human, take your form, or even steal your soul. That actually sounds like a pretty good premise for a Korean drama; maybe it could be the next season of My Girlfriend is a Gumiho.
What you have to understand about this one is that it goes back before Korea had electricity, so if you were to trim your nails at night you’d have a hard time collecting the pieces. Presumably mice would be equally able to steal your life if you’re just careless while clipping your fingernails in the daytime.
Anyway, I’m not too worried about this one, seeing as how I live with two cats.
Whistling at night
Equally unusual is the superstition prohibiting whistling at night, as well as playing a traditional Korean pipe flute called a piri (피리). If you do so, you will summon snakes or ghosts.
Or, more likely, anger your neighbours.
Perhaps you’ve really upset your neighbours, and it’s time to move out and find a new home. There are several superstitions connected with the day you move to a new home. Two of them address the concern people used to have that evil spirits would follow them from their old home to their new home.
A lot of attention is paid to which day is selected for moving: you must move on 손없는날, or “day without evil spirits (or uninvited guests).” To this day, moving companies often provide a calendar showing which days you can move out without the spirits hitching a ride, and as you can see there are multiple days safe for moving in one month.
On the actual day of moving, you’ll pack your things into the moving truck and take off without one final sweeping-up in your former home. Don’t feel guilty, you’ll probably have to sweep up once you arrive at your new home. It is believed that by leaving behind all the dust and loose garbage and fingernail clippings that haven’t been eaten by mice, you confuse the spirits into thinking that you’re still in your old place. And by the time the new people move in and clean up, it’s too late for the spirits to find you.
Last, and this happened to me once, if it rains on your moving day, it means you’ll become rich. Also, your wood furniture will be ruined. Still waiting for the former to come true.
Giving shoes as a gift
You’re not supposed to give shoes as a gift to your significant other, because it means he (or she) will run away from you.
This one feels more poetic than the others; I can’t think of any literal reason not to buy shoes for someone.
According to Suzy, an accompanying tradition is that if you receive shoes as a gift, you should pay the gift-giver a small amount of money like 10 or 100 won, ensuring that it is not a mere gift that will be used for your swift escape.
People with moles or beauty marks near their mouth
Don’t get attached to someone with moles or beauty marks near their mouth. Or…do so — I’m not here to judge. People with a beauty mark like Cindy Crawford’s are believed to be unfaithful.
People with moles near their mouths used to get teased with variations on the saying “바람기 있다,” which is basically a way to call someone a flirt in Korean.
Anyway, if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say this one may have hygienic origins…in Herpes simplex.
If you know enough Korean, you might’ve picked up on that saying in the previous entry; 바람 is Korean for “wind” and has seemingly nothing to do with flirtation or unfaithfulness. Well, in most other languages; in Korean, 바람 means both “wind” and “affair.”
It is for that reason that a wife should never feed her husband chicken wings or the wings of any other winged bird. He might similarly take flight, belly full of chicken wings (and wearing those nice New Balances you got him for his birthday).
Do you want your kid to grow tall? Rule one: never jump over your baby. Apparently if you jump over your baby, it won’t grow. Also — and more practically — you might misstep and end up next to Casey Anthony on the next episode of Nancy Grace.
A slightly safer — but more baffling — belief in this realm is that if you cut your hair short, you will grow taller. This one may be based on the sketchy but empirical evidence that men tend to be taller than women, and men usually have shorter hair.
Touching your eyes
It is said that if you touch your eyes after touching a moth or butterfly, you will go blind.
How would that work? Also, who’s going around touching moths and butterflies?
I’m told by my lovely eye model that the same holds true if you have the pollen from any orange-coloured flower on your hands.
This one seems to have a very practical implication behind it: it’s never a good idea to touch your eyes due to risk of infection, and presumably in the olden days before modern hygiene when this superstition was invented, an eye infection would have meant more than just taking medicine and wearing an eyepatch a few days.
So: regardless of how many butterflies you’ve been touching, it’s probably best just not to touch your eyes unless you’re taking out your contacts.
Not all of these superstitions are still widely known, especially among the younger generations. And while I don’t see any need to obey superstitions, we should consider our lives richer for being aware of them.
I know I’ve left a ton of superstitions off this list. I wanted a nice round ten, and I wanted to make sure there was enough left over for a possible second installment. What are some of the superstitions that I’ve missed? Let’s have a good, clean discussion, Internet.