Breaking a taboo – Busan, South Korea

Image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay

I stopped at the sound of gasps. I knew not to do it, yet in that momentary slip, a seven year old student feared for his very life.

As a cultural anthropology graduate I was well versed in taboos around the world, from the ’social suicide’ to the real life and death ones.  So before moving to South Korea, I studied voraciously their culture, customs, and taboos.

Early Sunday morning I left for my new home, Busan, South Korea. After 26 hours of airports, planes, buses, and taxis, I arrived at my apartment to a welcoming boss who promised my first day would be shadowing the head teacher – it was my first real teaching job after all. Yet, 14 hours later, I was standing in a classroom of kids on my own, having arrived at the school only ten minutes earlier.

The students were sharing their names when it hit me to write them down as a visual aid throughout the class, so I grabbed a whiteboard marker and started writing. Then came the gasps. The first students’ name was written in big, bold, bright red letters, the colour used to write the name of a deceased person, or alternatively used for a living person if you wish them harmed or dead. I wanted neither.

The next ten minutes was spent explaining cultural differences and assuring the young boy that he was safe. The students, who had a high level of english, happily accepted my explanation and class continued. That day, I understood the value of knowing cultural taboos before travelling to a new place.

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