Korean language and culture series: Gone whalin’

In Episode 2 of Answer Me 1997, Yoonje (played by SEO IN GUK) undergoes circumcision during his spring break. And so, yes, for the latest edition of the Korean language and culture series, I will go there… umm, down there.

During spring break of 1997, Siwon’s mother takes Yoonje to an urology clinic, hilariously (and aptly) named “Twin Bells Urology Clinic,” so that he may get circumcised.

Despite Yoonje’s wish to keep this procedure a secret from Siwon, he is humiliated to find that not only does Siwon know, but in fact, his entire neighborhood does! One by one, his neighbors congratulate Yoonje on his “pogyeong” surgery.

And when he returns to Siwon’s home, he is greeted by Mr. Sung’s hearty laughter and congratulations to him for “catching a whale” today.


The official Korean term for circumcision is “pogyeong.” As a Sino-Korean word (loanword of Chinese origin), “pogyeong” is expressed in Hanja (Chinese characters) as 包莖. And then what appears to be a completely unrelated word is 捕鯨, a Sino-Korean word meaning “whaling” or “whale hunting.”

But these two seemingly different words using different Chinese characters are both pronounced and written in Hangul (Korean script) as 포경 (pronounced “pogyeong”). Indeed, “pogyeong” (meaning “circumcision”) and “pogyeong” (meaning “whaling”) are homonyms in Korean! Over time, Koreans developed the idiom “catch a whale” to describe the circumcision procedure.

In fact, circumcision is a relatively new concept in Korea. It was supposedly first introduced to Koreans by American doctors during the Korean War. And thus, without the cultural or religious origin for the procedure as found in the other parts of the world, Korean men generally undergo the procedure later in life (some time between the preteen years to young adulthood) simply for hygienic and convenient purposes. A popular time to get circumcised is during school breaks to give the boys ample time to recover from the procedure before school starts again.

Medical communities often debate about whether circumcision is actually beneficial for men, and you frequently find such discussions in Korean parenting books and magazines as well. However, most Korean parents opt to get their sons circumcised “just in case” or because “everyone else does”, with one source estimating that approximately 90% of Korean men get circumcised. (Source: Medical Today)

It is also becoming increasingly popular for Korean parents to choose to have their sons circumcised earlier in life during infancy, but many still choose to wait.

Now you can understand why I often wonder about what this song really means!  I present to you “고래사냥” (“Whale Hunting”) by Song Chang Sik. (NOTE: The song is about actual whale hunting, but I can’t help but still wonder, y’know what I mean!)



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  1. muchadoboutlove

    Wow! Thanks for this new information! I was searching for it after I saw the episode..It’s quite a surprise that it’s a common practice in Korea. No wonder all people on the street greeted Yoonje and congratulated him like it’s a usual thing to do. Haha~ but poor Yoonje :D

  2. estel

    Hahaha this is the BEST. POST. EVER. Poor Yoon-jae. I totally died laughing during that scene. It’s good to know these obscure bits of culture, they make AM1997 so much more fun to watch. ^_^

  3. joonni

    I just couldn’t believe what I saw- “Twin Bells Urology Clinic.” Twin bells! ROFLMAO.

    Thank you so much blue, always so informative. I’m so glad that AM1997 is bringing you and bella back to blogging world.

  4. Kelinci Biru

    well, thanks for the post Blue! It always good to know part of Korean culture. In Indonesia, its something to celebrate for, and mostly done as a child, and the whole neighborhood will comes and congratulate you.
    so it was funny to me to see people reacted that way to circumcision.

  5. tarianant

    “…Mr. Sung’s hearty laughter and congratulations to him for “catching a whale” today.” We won’t get this from the subtitle, thank you so much.

    I’m very VERY thankful that DF subs this drama, but after reading your transcap (which I love) I feel kinda sad about the subtitle. I know that DF has their own standard. The limitation of words per telop, a more “appropriate” diction etc.

    And indeed people said “words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart” but still it can be done a little better, one example: when Papa Sung told SW to wipe her lipstick. DF subtitle: “Wipe your lips! Right now!” while your transcap: “You want me to use bleach and scrub that thing of your lips”. Haha. LOVE IT. And based on your transcap, I also noticed a few translation errors on DF subtitle. I wonder if the satoori dialect is the reason behind it.

    I love this drama to pieces therefore I’m grateful that you and a few awesome people (also Joonni at SJ and pinkblossom at carrotblossompatch) willing to write about some of the cultural references, the meta, recap and also the awesome-transcap.

    Anyway, whale-hunting…LOL. Indeed it IS. It’s a common procedure in my country, so I had my share of hearing some of those whales wail. Poor Yoonjae.

    (Sorry for the long post)

    1. gailT

      I totally agree with tarianant. I appreciate this post and all you do, which help us non-Koreans better understand the cultural nuances in Korean dramas. Thank you!

      In the Philippines, most boys get circumcised in the early teen years as well, and it is a rite of passage. Most neighborhood boys get “tuli” (our term for it) at the same time, so it is also a sort of bonding experience. I have cousins who grew up in the States go home to the Philippines one summer and get the procedure done there. My own brother (this may be TMI, so I’m at least glad he won’t be able to read this) got the procedure at aged 12 just before we immigrated because my family thought there’s no doctor in the States who’d circumcise someone that old.

      Thank you for doing the culture series. It is very helpful!

  6. Sabah

    Thank you so much for this post. I did wonder about the wherefore of Yoon Jae’s circumcision. Outside of religious reasons I don’t know many people that have their boys circumcised so I did wonder. That is really enlightening because I tend to be a lot naive of attitudes and world views outside the western hemisphere because of the very biased media though I only blame myself.

    I did learn from others blogs that Korean people love puns and so I knew that I would miss out on a lot within Korean arts such as dramas, lyrics etc so I am indebted. Thank you.

  7. goldeng

    hi thanks for the post!! i wondered why he undergoes circumcision with 18 years old -where I live they so it when youre a baby/kid- and why people were that open about it… I felt embarassed but I loled soooooooooooooo hard with the way he was walking… xD I felt like giving him money for a taxi to drive him home he needed to put up with the WHOLE neighborhood congratulating him!! xDDDDD

  8. Noiha

    Thank you so much for explaining. ^^ Here in my country, circumcision done when you’re a kid and people aren’t ashamed of it. The subbed episode I watched explained it as “surgery” so I kinda wonder what kind of surgery he did until he need to walk like that. Haha.

  9. Noiha

    Hi, can you also address some cultures which were seen in Reply 1997:
    - Funeral. How long do you need to do that?
    - Colleges and occupations. Yoojung mentioned that she often looked down because she’s from community college (idk, that’s what the subtitles told me)? And what about Sungjae’s occupation?

    I really love this drama because now I can see many cultures I didn’t see in other dramas (which only revolves around chaebol, chaebol, and chaebol…). Thank you so much for this culture series, it really helps us to relate to the drama more. If anyone know whether there’s another article written for these stuffs, please let me know too. Thank you~~~~~~~~!!!!!!

  10. MJin

    it’s weird that he undergoes circumcision at age 18. really weird for me, ‘coz here in the Philippines boys get circumcised earlier (preteen). people will laugh if you get circumcised at 18. my nephews were 10 and 6 years old when they were circumcised. circumcision is a norm here.

  11. Jen

    Wow I didn’t know Koreans did that. In my country (France), it’s totally UNUSUAL. People consider it a weird/scary thing that Jewish and Muslims are forced to do, and people only talk about it with friends. Hypochondriacs do that too lol.
    I see that that boys talk about it without being embarassed in some countries… That’s interesting, I’m curious : do girls talk about their own things so lightly with the neighbourhood and all too? (breast, periods, etc…)

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