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!)