20 Things Newbies Need to Know About Korean Dramas

First of all, I am not Korean.  I do not speak Korean.   What I  understand of Korean culture barely scratches the surface.  Therefore, this list is basically what I wish someone had first told me when I stumbled on to the fantastic world of Korean Drama so that I was not lost thinking things like look at all these wonderful characters but why can’t they hug in public?  It is a really a very basic K Drama list for Dummies Newbies.  After you get your feet wet and begin trying to understand cultural and language elements,  I suggest you visit some k drama resource blogs.  You will find one that fits you.   Dramabeans, has some excellent information for beginners.  The recaps that Dramabeans does are also really helpful when you are learning your way into K Drama Land because they are generally middle of the road.   This is the value of Dramabeans, it helps non-korean/non-korean speaking newbies a place to “keep up”  with dramas when they don’t exactly understand what is going on due to cultural differences, pop culture references, and of course the language barrier.  Also Ask A Korean has great insight to cultural information, but is not a K Drama specific site.  This is you tube links/channels from people that post various instructional info that is quite helpful:   Newbie Help.

Also, please check out the Links for other webpages and blogs.

  1.  Most Korean TV shows are called dramas.  Most run one season-13-30 episodes.  16-24 episodes is the norm.  A  basic Korean Drama is basically a 1970’s Romance Novel.   There is conflict and angst and epic stuff that happens.  Without the sex.  Except- half the time the female lead character is older than the male lead character or the actress is older than the actor (go Korea).
  2. Main types of dramas:  Rom-Com/Romance, Melodrama, Makjang (Extreme Soap Opera Melodrama), Sageuk (historical drama)/Fusion Sageuk (historical drama infused with modern elements and/or fantasy).  There are some medical and procedural crime drama type shows.  Every now and then we get a drama that does not exactly fit in these categories, such as Misaeng, which is a work place drama.  There are also longer dramas and sitcoms that run 50-100 episodes often called dailies (think soap operas).
  3. These labels  in #2 are deceiving.  Rom-coms can have tragic elements.  And melos can have funny moments.
  4. Korean women in dramas rarely show skin and it appears they might die if  even their collarbone is exposed.  Except legs, even in freezing cold weather,  tottering on ridiculously high heels, even when they are say, secret service agents.  Men are often more sexualized on TV than women.  All that really means is that there is usually a shirtless scene.  There are very disparate culturally assigned gender role behaviors for the Korean culture.  This is often problematic for western viewers.
  5. There is little diversity in Korean Drama other than class and sometimes a Japanese or Chinese character.  There are very few non Korean cast members or characters in the shows.  There are some rare male homosexual characters, or inferences that a character may be homosexual.  I have yet to see a lesbian character.
  6. TV Shows are heavily monitored, censored.  Most kissing is a lip press.  If you see an actor open his mouth this is a big deal.  If the actress kisses him back it is like R rated.  If it’s in a public setting it’s almost porn-PDA is a no no, I mean even holding hands.  If the couple actually has sex over the course of the show consider you have witnessed the television event of the year.  Do not make the mistake in thinking the actor or the actor is a terrible actor or a bad on screen kisser because of bug eyed lip press kisses.  The actors are taking DIRECTION and do what they are told.
  7. Do not try to translate or recognize words as a newbie, just go with the flow.  The subs are often not literal translations because of grammar structure and cultural practices, and other reasons.  Sometimes the literal translations that do make it into the subs will seem odd because they are folk sayings or puns that make no sense to non-Koreans.
  8. There are strict age and social pecking orders. It is a highly patriarchal society also.  The younger you are, the lower you are in status.  People rarely call each other by their given names, unless the person that is being spoken to is younger or a lesser social status.  Even married couples.  Even twins-the younger twin calls the older twin by a certain designation (sex specific)  but the older twin may call the younger by their given name.  Thus, sometimes when you see a name in the subs, it doesn’t match what the person is saying.  The first words you will learn to translate will most likely be these titles.
  9. Usually someone in the drama will  be an orphan, or someone will die or be dying.  Usually from cancer or a heart condition.
  10. Do not even think about trying to make sense of anything medical or illness related.
  11. Do not even think about trying to figure out monetary subs, or heck even any numerical subs.
  12. Prepare to crave ramen, rice, and soju and shout out Aja!, and Fighting!
  13. There will usually be two primary leads male/female, and two secondary leads male/female. You will probably want to stab the second female lead.
  14. Family is a big huge deal.
  15. Money and physical beauty are big huge deals.
  16. Extensive plastic surgery is very common in Korea.  See comments section below for a discussion on this.   Many celebrities have had plastic surgery and use skin lightening products.
  17. There is usually one “idol” in the cast.  An “idol” is a singer/performer/musician that also acts.
  18. Most shows spotlight an industry/service through the characters jobs.
  19. There will be a long separation and/or a time jump with the lead characters.  This ties to the Korean concept of Han.
  20. Words and phrases that you will hear a lot:  Confession, Burden, and Do you want to die?

 

18 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lauren Park
    Mar 13, 2014 @ 03:29:25

    Just to let you know, historical dramas are called Sageuk not Sajeuk:)

    Reply

    • Lauren Park
      Mar 13, 2014 @ 03:44:56

      and also, it kinda bothers me that you’re stating #16 as if it is a fact. I looked at your favorite k-drama list and the most of the leading actresses of those dramas are known for their natural beauty in Korea and Koreans don’t even know what the hell is skin bleaching. The extremely white faces are most likely achieved by shit load of make ups.

      Reply

      • randomsoju
        Mar 13, 2014 @ 23:52:23

        I’m not sure my favorite dramas exactly correlate to ratio of natural vs cosmetic actors lol. 1) I think it is common knowledge that most celebrities have had cosmetic work, and that is on a global scale, not just Korea. 2) A 2009 report in The Economist stated 1 in 5 women in Seoul has had cosmetic work. There have also been reports on other fairly credible news sources such as The NY Times, Business Insider, ABC News, and Business Weekly, to name a few. ABC named the top 7 countries where cosmetic surgery is rampant. SK was #1 on the list. 3)For me, logic dictates that if most celebrities have had cosmetic procedures, and SK has high rates of cosmetic surgeries, and you can look at many SK celebrities and pretty much tell they have had plastic surgery, well, if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it generally is a duck. 4) There are also many articles on skin lightening from the same type of sources as listed above as well as pop culture sites. Many BB creams has skin lightening ingredient, so yes make up does contribute one way or another. However when it is body wide it’s not usually make up. If a person’s skin is visually shades lighter than previously, and unless it’s obviously they had a tan whether from the sun or fake and bake, I’d have to chalk it up to skin bleaching.

        I’m not trying to be critical or anything like that regarding cosmetic or natural. I included #16 in my newbies list because of feedback I received from some people I tried to introduce to K-drama. They said they were very discombobulated by the difference in appearance between older generation actors and younger generation actors, that it was obvious that the younger people were having work done. And I was like, wow, you know, I registered that thought when I first starting watching dramas, but I got so used to it, that it was just normal to me. (And that is when I started doing some reading).

        I will be meeting up with some other k drama fans next week and I’ll ask them their opinion on this as part of a newbies list. Thanks for your feedback!

        Reply

        • Lauren Park
          Mar 14, 2014 @ 05:52:57

          wow, thanks for the really detailed explanation. I agree with you that plastic surgery is very common in Korea but I just wanted to point out that the k-drama newbies might get the idea that all of the Korean actresses and actors got plastic surgery when there are plenty others who are just naturally beautiful.
          When you said ‘skin bleaching’ I thought you meant the really extreme bleaching that involves acid and other strong chemicals,which I believe is not that common ,but yeah… there are bunch of whitening products in Korea.

        • randomsoju
          Mar 14, 2014 @ 13:58:11

          No, thank you for pointing out that I might be unclear or sending the wrong message. Sometimes we think we are communicating our thoughts clearly but unless someone says hey, wait, what?, then we do not realize that we might not be clear. I will certainly mull over this, and revise this to be more concise to say skin lightening, and to reflect that cosmetic surgery is prevalent rather than coming off as a blanket statement.

    • randomsoju
      Mar 13, 2014 @ 23:53:09

      Typo, duly noted. Putting it on my to do list correct. Thanks!

      Reply

  2. NewKDramaAddict
    Jul 04, 2014 @ 14:58:21

    Great post! I’ll definitely share with future converts!!

    Reply

  3. Sam Taylor
    Nov 10, 2014 @ 22:14:34

    This was a huge help however im in a bit of a dilemma and i dont know if others feel the same. What do you do when you like the secondary male? Should i just stop watching because i know that in the end they will be the character thats alone? Or is there some dramas where the secondary leads end up together?

    Reply

    • randomsoju
      Nov 15, 2014 @ 04:03:53

      There seems to be a large contingent of viewers out there that have ‘2nd lead syndrome.’ There are a ton of loveable 2nd leads in k drama, but you know, cast lists rarely lie, so the first male in the cast list and the first female in the cast list = couple. There is a formula, lead +lead. It’s pretty simple. I think viewers should enjoy dramas and characters, but I don’t get some viewers that seem to think that the end game of lead+lead is optional and up to the last minute think that the 2nd lead has a chance at end game with the lead female character.. A good example of this, uh, delusion, I’m not sure what to call it, is Reply 1994 and Chillbong. Chilbong was a lovely character but you know there were two things going on-1, he was not the lead male character. One look at the cast list would tell a viewer this. 2-during the drama, Na Jeong, not for one moment, showed one iota of interest in Chilbong. So not only were the “upset” viewers ignoring tropes and formula, they were ignoring what the drama was actually telling them was going to happen. If there was anything to be upset about in R94 it was that Bing’s character development WAS a red herring and that’s another topic. All that said, I enjoy many characters in dramas, but unless you are willing to go with the drama and understand that lead + lead is normally the romantic end game, and invest in that pairing, no matter how great or loveable any other character is, the viewer is setting themselves up for an unsatisfying viewing experience.

      There are the rare dramas out there where lead female + 2nd lead male happen. You can easily google those. 2nd lead does not always equal ‘ends up alone.’ There are plenty of dramas where the second leads have love lines in the end with each other or someone else.

      There are even dramas where clever writers and directors subvert the characters-a prime example of that is actually Heirs. Kim Tan actually has the traits of a 2nd lead and Young-do has traits of a 1rst lead. (Actually, KT and YD are basically the same character shaped slightly differently by circumstance.) The writer actually gave the viewers what they wanted, a 2nd lead character as the lead character, and many viewers still were not happy lol. That instance tells us a whole lot about viewer psychology. However, interesting stuff like this in a drama does not make a drama good lol.

      Another instance of the showmakers playing with the leads was Dream High.

      Dropping a drama is a personal choice as is viewing a drama to start with. If you can’t invest in the plot, which included lead + lead end game, that is certainly a reason to consider not watching a drama. I personally would not consider dropping a drama on the off chance that a 2nd lead doesn’t have a happy ever after moment, but that is me.

      Reply

  4. Christine DeAngelis (@rubybird2425)
    Nov 20, 2014 @ 12:52:25

    Is there some significance in the number three in Korean culture? I’ve watched six shows so far where the couples have been separated for three years, can that just be coincidence? (In one show it happened twice, with different people.)

    Reply

    • randomsoju
      Nov 21, 2014 @ 23:00:32

      No it’s a definite trope in k drama. 3 is an important number in many cultures and religions. A likely suspect would be in relation to Yin and Yang. If you research it and find the answer let me know.

      Reply

  5. Ruth Lefcoe
    Feb 17, 2015 @ 15:06:07

    I’m not a newbie. I’m about 4 years and 100+ shows into this obsession. Things that either confuse or annoy me that I’d love to discuss:

    – The long breaks … hate them. (a) the couple is still in love but doesn’t contact each other the ENTIRE YEAR they are apart and (b) it always happens in the final episode and then everything is wrapped up right at the end. UGH

    – One-sided love. I can’t even.

    – Wearing day clothes (jeans, sweaters, ties, hair accessories) to bed.

    – Wearing heavy winter coats in the house and in restaurants at the table while eating.

    – Characters being so naive that they can’t tell someone “likes” / loves them.

    – Characters being so lame / shy that they can’t just tell someone they like them, or ask them out on a date to get to know them better.

    – How easy it is for a parent to give their child(ren) up for whatever various reasons.

    – Stuffing as much food they can possibly fit on a spoon into their mouth and chewing with their mouth open/talking with their mouth full.

    I know there are more that I’m missing but these are my ultimate pet peeves in almost every single show I’ve watched.

    Reply

    • randomsoju
      Feb 17, 2015 @ 15:44:06

      – The long breaks … hate them. (a) the couple is still in love but doesn’t contact each other the ENTIRE YEAR they are apart and (b) it always happens in the final episode and then everything is wrapped up right at the end. UGH

      You might want to read up on the Korean concept of Han.

      – One-sided love. I can’t even.

      You’ve never been in love with someone that has not loved you? Or had a crush?

      – Wearing day clothes (jeans, sweaters, ties, hair accessories) to bed.

      Korean TV censorship issues.

      – Wearing heavy winter coats in the house and in restaurants at the table while eating.

      It’s friggin cold in Korea and the sets are not heated.

      – Characters being so naive that they can’t tell someone “likes” / loves them.

      People ignore stuff they don’t want to deal with in real life as well as on tv but yeah, that’s stupid.

      – Characters being so lame / shy that they can’t just tell someone they like them, or ask them out on a date to get to know them better.

      I think perhaps this reflects the reality of how awkward relationships between the sexes due to cultural and societal rules.

      – How easy it is for a parent to give their child(ren) up for whatever various reasons.

      This has to deal with a couple of things- historical cultural gender role expectations and other cultural practices. I suggest some reading on this as well, here are few very basic points: Children belong to the patriarchal family. Ability to trace heritage, to be a part of the Korean clans, is extremely important. In the case of unmarried pregnancy: This is a no no. And if the woman has a child with a non Korean, even worse. There are many orphanages in Korea. Also you must understand the long history of Korea, under the influences and threat of China, Russia, and Japan, in which Korean women were a commodity. Japan annexed Korea and used Korean Women as comfort “women.” The U.S in almost ever country they forge bases on or occupy are infamous for creating camptowns with the cooperation of the countries government. Poverty was an issue, if you understand history, Koreans were very poor, dealing with Japanese occupation, the World War periods, the civil war over communism including the U.S. involvement ans subsequent fall out, poverty, etc., families were split apart.

      All of these things influence film and also connect to redemption, the concept of Han and other elements you see in the dramas.

      – Stuffing as much food they can possibly fit on a spoon into their mouth and chewing with their mouth open/talking with their mouth full.

      Differences from your culture?

      I know there are more that I’m missing but these are my ultimate pet peeves in almost every single show I’ve watched.

      Reply

  6. Ruth Lefcoe
    Feb 17, 2015 @ 16:02:00

    Thanks for the responses! I’m not meaning to be rude or insensitive to cultural differences. I’m not American born and have lived in and visited other countries. I’m well aware and accepting of cultural difference in other countries as well as all over the US. Most of my “annoyances” are less that they are different from how I live, and more that they are such a common occurrence in Korean dramas and stand out so much from the plot and relationships. I didn’t know about Han and am really interested to read about it. THANKS! One sided love: yes I’ve had a crush, but I didn’t follow the person around and expect them to eventually go for me. I wasn’t mean to the person they actually did like, etc. It’s HOW they do it in the shows and not that someone has a simple crush on another person. Again thank you for your response. I often wonder if something is an actual cultural difference or just for the sake of TV and drama. I am a sociologist at heart and truly love learning about other cultures and societies. Another question I always have is about people getting actually physically ill (fevers and passing out) from emotional strife. I have to assume that’s just “drama” for drama’s sake.

    Reply

    • randomsoju
      Feb 17, 2015 @ 20:43:37

      I hear you, sometimes the tropes overwhelm, and get so annoying and boring. I think it’s a product of watching so many dramas from a small “world.” It’s also just about impossible not to view another culture without any ethnocentric bias. I certianly can’t do it myself even though I do try. But back to the same tropes in dramas— Korean population is not small, but it’s a collective society//culture and within that the entertainment biz is a fairly small ‘society’ if that makes sense. It’s difficult to make something mainstream and stand out, because the culture tells you to conform. I think that is even more the case in kpop. This also seems to influence a different approach to what I am used to considering as plagiarism or good business ethics lol. I’m a history major, so I love learning about cultures too. Check out my links page, it should lead you down some interesting paths to information.

      Reply

  7. Boon Ang
    Jul 07, 2015 @ 02:42:55

    Hi. First, let me thank randomsoju, laurenpark, ruth, and other commentators. Your contributions have contributed immensely to better appreciate, understand, and make meaning of the dramas I’m watching. It has help explain the literary devices employed by writers. The many comments on Korean culture also contextualized its meaning.
    I just watched Valid Love several times because I found it extremely well scripted by Kim Do Woo from a literary perspective – motifs (especially food as love motif), images, metaphors, words, and symbols, not to mention excellent acting. It was difficult to understand as the narrative was multilayered and the characters complex. I also liked the way it employed honorifics to denote the various relationships.
    I have a question to ask you all. I checked up on the honorific “dangsin” and was informed that it refers to “you” in endearment terms. Often reserved for loved ones, spouses, and ex-spouses. How come some subtitlers in Valid Love translated “dangsin” as “honey” in some dialogues and and just “you” in others with the same people? Listening in on the Korean dialogue, all I heard was “dangsin” at all times. Did the subtitlers have information we don’t as the audience?

    Reply

    • randomsoju
      Jul 07, 2015 @ 16:43:45

      Hi, I think those are questions for subbers or a korean language expert. Which I am not. I will say that korean is a high context language and also words have more than one meaning in most languages so that is normal. I think with dangsin, it is an informal ‘you’ not necessarily an endearment, such as hey you idiot to someone, however in context of a romantic relationship, it has the inflection of an endearment such as honey. I find subbing can be erratic but I also am grateful to the subbers because its a labor of love and give a lot of leeway because i have no idea the time constraints they have taking the time out of their lives to do it. i am sure you can find more ‘official’ answers by researching korean language sites also. Thanks for visiting and commenting!

      Reply

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