The Family System

In Korea, a typical family not only consists of the nucleus family (the father, the mother and their children), but often includes the extended family as well (i.e.: grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and grandchildren).

Therefore, in contrast to a typical western family that is comprised of an average of four members, when one asks a Korean person the size of his/her family, the answer will usually be considerably higher. Although it is not as evident today, it was not so uncommon just several decades ago to see several generations living together under on roof as one family.

The First Son: In tradition and still in practice, the first son, called “changnam”, has the responsibility of staying with his parents and caring for them the rest of their lives. In addition to this responsibility, changnam also inherits the family wealth and the family duty of ancestor worship (chae-sa). Many young Korean women avoid marrying a man who is the changnam for fear of the added work and responsibility that would be put upon her.

Younger Sons: Younger sons often reside with their parents after their marriage but only temporarily as it is not their duty to remain with their parents. Depending on circumstances, the younger sons are free to leave their family whenever they feel is the right time.

Daughters: The life of a daughter in a Korean family is considerably different from that of a son. When a man gets married, he naturally stays in his father’s family and carries on the family name, but when a woman gets married, she in fact leaves her family and becomes part of her husband’s family. So literal is it this that, when a Korean woman gets married, her name is stricken from her family’s registry and added to the registry of her husband’s family.

This be quite distressing for a Korean woman because, once she gets married, she ends up permanently leaving her natal family. Therefore, she literally becomes an outsider to her natal family as well as to her husband’s family because she is of different descent. However, once she gives birth to a son to carry on her husband’s family name, the relationship with her new family usually strengthens considerably.


Relationships Among Family Members

A husband and a wife have different roles in a household. Traditionally, the wife’s role would be to take care of the family within the boundaries of her home whereas the husband’s role would be to provide the monetary income required to support the family. The husband is considered the head of the family and is regarded as the sole source of authority.

It is expected that children respect and obey the wishes of their parents while it is also expected that the parents treat the members of the family in a fair manner. The Confucian concept of deference to superiors and to greater age is constantly present in the household and order is maintained through this deference. Children would obey their parents, the wife would obey her husband, the younger sibling would obey the older siblings and so forth. The large extended family is becoming less and less common during the more recent years but the roles and relations within the family remain largely unchanged


Korean Names

Koreans write their surname (family name) first, followed by their given names. No comma is used to separate the surname from the given name.

Most Korean surnames consist of just one syllable, but a few contain two syllables (for example, Sun Woo). The top ten Korean surnames are: Kim, Lee (Yi/Rhee), Park (Pak), Choi (Choe), Jung (Jeong/Chung), Kang (Gang), Jo (Cho), Yun (Yoon), Jang (Chang) and Im (Yim/Lim). Other popular Korean surnames include: Ahn (An), Han, Go (Ko), Goo (Ku), Oh, Noh, Shin, and Yu (Yoo).

Korean given names usually consist of two syllables, but can consist of one or three, and may be hyphenated when Romanized. The given names for male members usually have one syllable which is the same syllable used by all male members of that generation in that family. For example, the names of three brothers may be Jang-su, Tae-su and Min-su.

Korean women retain their maiden surname after they get married. They do not use their husband’s surname since family surnames are reserved only for people with blood ties.

People with the same surname who come from the same ancestral hometown are not allowed to marry each other. This is because they are considered family members, even if they are only distantly related. Consequently, when people are attracted to a person with the same surname, they typically will ask for that person’s ancestral hometown right away.

Children usually use the surname of their father.

Many Koreans will insist that they be called by only their surname until they get to know you better. This can lead to confusion since more than 20% of the Korean population has Kim as their surname and 15% of the population uses the surname Lee. So if you call for a person named “Kim” in a crowd, many people will think you are calling them


Eating & Drinking

Koreans consider the sharing of food and alcohol as intrinsically linked to the formation and strengthening of personal relationships. When meeting any Korean person for the first time, they will undoubtedly invite you to dinner or out for drinking as a sign that they wish to get to know you better. Click here to read about proper table etiquette

In a Confucian society where control of emotions and outward appearances are vital to being respected, drinking is the one occasion to cut loose. Any night of the week is a good night to see drunken groups staggering and singing songs on the streets. Singing also constitutes an integral part of the good times, and Korean singing rooms called norae-bang can be found absolutely everywhere.

People who work together or deal with each other in some way on a regular basis will often go out together for dinner and drinking. Most work places in Korea regularly have what is called hwe-shik (company meal and drink) at least once or twice a month. For most employees, but for male employees especially, hwe-shik is not optional, but mandatory. Employees who do not attend usually find themselves “out of the loop” and may be excluded from the company culture to the point where they have to quit.


Important Birthdays

The first and 60th birthdays are the most important for Koreans. The first birthday is celebrated by placing the child, dressed in traditional Korean clothes, in front of a table with food and objects. The child is urged to pick up one of the objects. Depending on which object the child selects, one supposedly can foretell the child’s future. For example, if the child picks up money, he will be rich. If he picks up a book, he will be a scholar. If he picks up food, he will be a government official.

The 60th birthday represents the completion of a zodiac cycle and is celebrated by family members offering the birthday person food, drink and best wishes for a long life. Money in a small envelope is usually the gift of choice.



Red Ink: Red ink is permissible when using a chop (a name seal on a document), however, do NOT use red ink when writing a living person’s name. Red is associated with death in Asian countries (just as the color black is in many western countries) and is used to record a deceased person’s name in the family register and on funeral banners to drive off evil spirits.

Unlucky Numbers: The number 4 (pronounced “sa” in Korean) is an unlucky number for Koreans since it sounds like the Chinese word for death (sa-mang). For this reason, many buildings do not have a fourth floor, instead jumping from third to fifth. If the building does have a fourth floor, the elevator button may show the fourth floor as “F” instead of “4”.

Whistling: Koreans are not keen whistlers. Women who whistle will have bad luck. Mothers used to warn their children that if they whistled at night, a snake would come into their room.

Dreams: If you dream of a pig, it is good luck and means money is coming your way. Other lucky dreams are: a cow walking into your house, seeing a burning house, or eating raw meat. Some unlucky dreams are: if you see a dog, if you dream of using a rake or a plow, or dream of being swept away by water. Losing a tooth in a dream means that a relative may soon die. If you laugh in your dream, you may cry during the daytime.