Every culture has their own superstitions, and it’s always a good idea to be aware of them before embarking on an extended stay in a foreign country – lest you unknowingly violate a centuries-old taboo. Korean superstitions may strike Westerners as being distinctly odd, but when it comes down to it, they’re no stranger than our fear of black cats, avoidance of sidewalk cracks, and tendency to knock on wood. However, many Koreans take their superstitions a bit more seriously than most – “fan death”, arguably the country’s most infamous urban legend, can be found listed on several death certificates issued in South Korea. In fact, many Korean superstitions are somewhat morbid, with four of the five on this list being allegedly fatal – and the other causing life-long physical suffering. So, here are five prominent Korean superstitions to be mindful of before coming to The Land of the Morning Calm.
Writing Names in Red
This is definitely one for ESL teachers to be prepared for before grading papers or writing on the whiteboard. Never write your kids’ names in red pen, or you may lead them to believe you wish them dead. Traditionally, red is the color used to write the names of the dead in Korea. To write the names of the living in red is therefore considered very unlucky, and to some is akin to the kiss of death. I’ve slipped up on this one a few times while quickly grading tests. Most kids take it pretty well and merely giggle nervously. However, a few were genuinely uneasy, and made me quickly cross their names out before I’d sealed their fate.
The Number 4
In the West, thirteen is a number to be feared, but in Korea, it’s four. The origins of the ’13’ superstition are old and obscure, but the Korean fear of four is much more literal. Four, in Korean, has the same pronunciation as the word for death (both are pronounced as “sa”). You can see why people wouldn’t want to live on “death” floor, which is why Korean elevators often list the 4th floors as “F”, or simply skip the number altogether. On the bright side, if you’re willing to live in Apt. 404, you’re looking at a reduced price!
Cold in the Bones
I learned about this superstition when the director at my first school gave birth. When we went to visit her in the maternity clinic, her room was sweltering. She told us that the nurses wouldn’t allow her ice cubes in her drink, or even let her go outside. When asked why, she told us of the superstition that if a woman gets cold soon after giving birth, the cold will get into her bones and afflict her for the rest of her life.
Korean women are subject to several postnatal superstitions; still, given the modern Korean tradition of sending new mothers off for two week stays in lovely postpartum care centers that give massages and breastfeeding lessons (known in Korean as sanhujoriwon), it doesn’t seem like a horrible place to give birth – granted your tastes are more inclined towards hot chocolate than ice pops.
Showering and Vaccinations
This one’s pretty straightforward, and basically entails that if you shower within 24 hours of getting vaccinated, you will die. It doesn’t matter which kind of vaccine it is, all of them are considered life-threatening when combined with a shower. The origins of this superstition are murky, and the science behind it mind-boggling. However, as you’re unlikely to need additional vaccinations to visit South Korea, you probably won’t encounter this one.
Less superstition and more urban legend, fan death is by far the most famous Korean “myth”. Endlessly fascinating to foreigners, fan death has spawned websites, t-shirts, and is a popular expat Halloween costume. Fan death is a phenomenon found only in Korea, and nearly all Koreans believe it. Simply put, fan death is the belief that if you leave an electric fan running overnight in a room with the window closed, you will die. The rationale behind the science of fan death varies. I’ve heard numerous theories including:
The fan chops up the air molecules in the room, making them un-breathable
The fan causes hypothermia in its sleeping victim
The fan sucks the air out of the room like a vacuum, inducing suffocation
Koreans are clearly undecided as to why leaving a fan on kills you, but they’re united in their certainty that it does. To this day, there are several cases of fan death reported every summer by Korean media, and all electric fans in Korea are sold with timer devices.
Fan death remains a divisive subject in Korea amongst foreigners and natives. It’s absolutely baffling to expats that one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world could collectively believe that a fan chops up air molecules; however, fan death is one of those topics best left alone. Discussions often turn into confrontations with Korean friends and co-workers, with the expat persistently attempting to explain the impossibility of it, and the Korean co-worker growing increasingly uncomfortable. It might also be tempting to tell your Korean friends about the many nights that you’ve slept with a fan on and the windows closed, and lived to tell the tale. However, don’t expect this to change their beliefs.
Fan Death’s reputation amongst expats is such that merely mentioning it provokes derisive laughter, but what few will allow themselves to consider is the nugget of truth behind it. While I’m confident that the majority of fan deaths reported in Korea are not caused by fans, and many Koreans hold mistaken notions as to why fans are dangerous, there is a rare medical circumstance that can cause a fan to be fatal. According to the EPA and American climatologists, the true “fan death” is actually common sense: when it’s incredibly hot, using a fan in a sealed room can increase the risk of heat exhaustion, particularly with elderly people (the details are best left explained by the EPA). However, it’s still very rare, and several other conditions must also be met. So, while there’s a slice of truth behind the legend, don’t lose any sleep if you prefer to keep your fan blasting, and the window tightly closed.
That finishes my list of Korean superstitions to watch out for. Armed with this knowledge, hopefully your Korean faux pas will be limited to tipping your waiter and leaving your shoes on… but that’s for another day.