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∙ Current position: Academy of Finland Postdoctoral Researcher, Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Helsinki
∙ Ph.D. dissertation Neighborhood Shopkeepers in Contemporary South Korea: Household, Work, and Locality available online (E-Thesis publications a the University of Helsinki). For printed copies, please contact me by e-mail.
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Friday, May 07, 2004

(Social categories) Paeksu thoughts

There's been some discussion in my comments section about the meanings of a Korean term for a person who is not engaged in productive work or study. Paeksu (or baeksu in the present ROK system), a term introduced in a Korea Times or Herald article, has the literal meaning of "empty hands". The first Chinese character (白) is actually "white" in it's most common meaning, but it's also used in contexts when it means "empty", like kongbaek (空白, vacuum, empty space).
(Direct link to a Korean-language definition in the Korean Language Academy Dictionary, the best Korean-language dictionary in the web, very worthwhile of having in in one's browser)

My experience of the use of paeksu is that it's used mostly in the negative tone or in a jestering sense between friends. Saying that one's husband is spending a paeksu life would mean that he isn't capable of doing work or lacks the will; instead what I've always heard is that 우리 아저씨가 지금 잠깐 쉬고 있어요, "My husband is resting a bit at the moment." It'd be a big mistake to ask whether one's husband is a paeksu, but it's amusing that I tell that I'll become just a paeksu paksa, when Koreans ask what I'll do after I get the Ph.D.
The verb nolda is another way to talk about being a paeksu; when used in the sense of not being employed it's on the negative side and not really something that one should use on someone else's state of being directly to that person. In the neighborhood, anthropologist's fieldwork didn't look like working or studying, so someone in a jestering tone suggested I stop nolda there and go home to finish my studies. (Well, I went home, but...) Nolda is a wonderful verb with such a huge variety of meanings; from the laundry grandfather mentioned in a posting below I learned that it can also be used of sexual intercourse.

Paeksu is also used together with kôndal, which in itself denotes a bit more useless and socially dangerous being, risk to others.

One of the funniest versions of paeksu husbands are the so-called shutter men (셔터맨), men who only need to raise and lower the shutter of the shop of their wives. The stereotype concerns especially husbands of pharmacists, who have been able to earn a good income without help from their husbands - pharmacist is one of the few professional occupations which has been available for women for a longer time. (But there's also some unambiguity whether pharmacist is actually a professional occupation or whether it's just shopkeeping, changsa, and pharmacists just medicine merchants, yakchangsu. Also hairdressing shop keeper's husband has a chance to become a shutter man, as these women often earn quite good; the two hairdresser's husbands that I've known did lower the shutter of their wife's shop almost every evening, but they were not shutter men in the more figurative sense - had their own income albeit lower than their wife's.
Shutter man nicely corresponds to the image of shaman's husband, whose only work is to bang the drum in the rituals his wife performs. I think there's a proverb on this, but I can't remember it.

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