Tuesday, March 16, 2010

If you're happy and you know it...

I returned from class to find a small bottle of drinking yoghurt on my desk. Though it is not generally in my nature to question such good and unexpected fortune, on this occasion I asked a co-teacher about it. Turns out Mrs. Choi, a first grade math teacher, bought a new car.

Now I don't know Mrs. Choi, and I have never seen her car (nor, likely, will I). But that's beside the point. The point is that Mrs. Choi is really happy, and wanted everyone in school to know it.

Though initially the practice comes off as bragging in a way, there's much more to it than just drawing attention to one's success. In Korean the practice is called 한탁 (hanteok), or "treating", and it is used, in reality, to thank people (usually in advance) for their blessings and compliments, and to share their good fortune in the form of finger food.

I've written before when I received rice cakes from a grandfather-to-be and during the week of the Korean SAT to wish "sticky" luck to the 3rd grade students, but the giving of gifts can be employed for many occasions.

In the event of a marriage - or a funeral - a "treat" is also given (sometimes money) though in this event it is called 사례 (sarye) or 사례금 (sarye-keum), not 한턱. This is treated as a 'thank you' (the 사 in 사례 is the same as in 감사) to the co-workers who were culturally obliged to give 부조 (bujo), a financial donation to defray event costs.

Unfortunately, though it's generally an inexpensive formality, some people take this tradition a little too seriously. After my co-teacher Amy's wedding, the vice principal actually verbally abused her in the hallway because she didn't give him or the principal a big enough gift. He said she owed them more because they "approved" the week of vacation time for her honeymoon (which, fyi, is guaranteed for all Korean teachers). Though she talked big to me immediately after the confrontation, she eventually caved and got them both a fruit basket, which the vice principal found to be quite appropriate.

한턱 could be given for just about any happy occasion, including:

- buying a new car
- buying a house
- having a baby, or
- getting a promotion.

But my absolute favorite of all the reasons for 한턱 are

- a new haircut, or
- new clothes.

In these last two cases (for women only), the gifts are given to the co-workers in their immediate office only, as thanks for the compliments that they are "bound" to have received.

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