[KS] Inquiry from a New York Times columnist

Hang Ryeol Na nhr24 at hotmail.com
Mon Jul 25 10:48:31 EDT 2016

Dear Mr. Lieber (and everyone else on the list),

Thanks for your email. I just wanted to share my little story, hoping that it can be something "about how different Korean and Korean-American families interpret it today." To me, it is about religious faith. I was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea. I became a university freshman in 1992, when my family was having a very difficult time financially because my father's business completely failed. Like many of college students in Korea, I worked for a part time job while being a full time student (Koreans call it arbeit, a german word), which was English tutoring for a middle school student. I received 400,000 Korean won as the first monthly pay and it was my first time in my life of making money. I gave it all to my mother. Nothing serious. I thought it is simply a right thing to do based on the bible teachings about first fruit (Leviticus 23:10, Deuteronomy 26:2) and honoring parents (Ephesians 6:2). Just the other day when I asked my mother about how she remembers it, she said 'It was a lifeline. We were able to survive that month because of the money you gave me. Actually a few more months we were able to survive when you had the arbeit." I am positive I can find many other people even just around me who did the same or very similar thing as I did with the same motivation.


Hang Ryeol Na, Rochester NY

From: Koreanstudies <koreanstudies-bounces at koreanstudies.com> on behalf of Young-Key Kim-Renaud <kimrenau at gwu.edu>
Sent: Monday, July 25, 2016 8:00 AM
To: Korean Studies Discussion List
Subject: Re: [KS] Inquiry from a New York Times columnist

Dear colleagues,

I need to correct myself. What Mr. Ron Lieber's Korean-American friend said seems to have been a common practice in Korea, after all.

During a small dinner party including a couple of a certain age from Korea yesterday, I inquired about this topic. The gentleman said he gave the entire envelope of his first salary (Koreans used to be, and still are in some cases, paid in cash in envelopes, even for their salaries) to his mother, along with a set of red underwear. She kept the underwear and gave back the envelope instantly. He said this was a typical scenario. Clearly in this case, it was not a matter of one party needing money more than the other.

A beautifully packaged set of high-quality long johns, undershirts, and/or socks was a common gift for all occasions, as they were practical and people didn't need to worry about individual tastes, unlike neckties or scarves. However, I am still not sure when red underwear emerged as a symbol of good luck. It certainly wasn't when I was growing up in Korea, and almost all underwear were of white, beige, or pastel colors, as they still are today.

This was a case of symbolic gifting, which is rather common even today. Less frequently but quite noticeably, some special guest lecturers, prize winners, etc. "donate" the entire envelope of payment to the organizations paying /rewarding them for their services/achievements, or contribute the sum to some other causes.

I don't necessarily think the custom of giving cash originates from modern capitalism or blind greed for money, although the system could certainly be abused. I think it comes from the community spirit of sharing the burden when unusual, large expenses for special rituals incur, as for funerals, weddings, 60th birthdays, and even for hospitalization. In my opinion, when people are trying to chip in, money certainly is far more helpful than getting five toasters or table clothes that fit nothing in the house. That is why in the West they have had the "wedding list," which I had a hard time recognizing as something stylish for a long time, as I found it funny for anyone to "ask for gifts."

It's all about kind intentions for good human relations, as all gift-giving ought to be.



On Sat, Jul 23, 2016 at 9:04 AM, McCann, David <dmccann at fas.harvard.edu<mailto:dmccann at fas.harvard.edu>> wrote:
Try Googling "Which are the best gifts to give my parents from my first salary?"  Or look for 'my first job,' and other related topics.  Interesting cross-cultural vistas do unfold.

Also interesting perhaps to note, the shift from a farming, exchange economy to a work-for-cash economy is registered in Kim Dong-In's 1925 short story Kamja, "Potatoes."  A very troubling story, to be sure, but one that does grapple with the shift back in the 1920's to the cash economy and some of the implications and results.

David McCann

On Jul 22, 2016, at 9:16 PM, Young-Key Kim-Renaud <kimrenau at gwu.edu<mailto:kimrenau at gwu.edu>> wrote:
I am not sure if this is a Korean custom, although filial piety is a strong cultural tradition in Korea. There is a great deal of variation in how filial piety is expressed, but some things are systematic. This is not in my opinion.

However, I have had two colleagues from Taiwan, who did give their first paychecks for a full-time job to their parents. It seemed that it was a very common practice there.

Young-Key Kim-Renaud, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus of Korean Language and Culture and International Affairs
Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures,
The George Washington University
1-703-527-0115<tel:1-703-527-0115>, 1-202-994-7106<tel:1-202-994-7106>

On Fri, Jul 22, 2016 at 12:38 PM, Clark W Sorensen <sangok at u.washington.edu<mailto:sangok at u.washington.edu>> wrote:
I don't have any stories for you on this issue, but my general observation over the years is that the degree of responsibility children feel for helping out their parents financially often corresponds with the amount of education their parents financed. Thus the custom you refer to is most likely prevelent among college graduates, but it may not be found among working class Koreans or Korean Americans.

Clark W. Sorensen
Korea Studies Program
University of Washington

On Thu, 21 Jul 2016, Lieber, Ron wrote:

Hello -

My name is Ron Lieber, and I write the Your Money column for the New York Times -- all about anything and everything that hits you in the wallet. I write often about families and
money -- how not just dollars but also wisdom and values are taught and passed between generations.

On that note, over the years Korean-American friends of mine have told me about a tradition where new college graduates (or teenagers or college students or even some older adults
getting their first paychecks at a new, prestigious workplace) buy a gift for their parents after they start their first full-time jobs. I've heard about everything from handing the
entire paycheck over in cash to buying red thermal underwear for both parents or lingerie for their mothers.

I'm trying to trace the origins of this tradition and write about how different Korean and Korean-American families interpret it today. I think it's something that all young adults
might want to mimic in some way, whatever their family background.
If you can help, I'd be grateful for an email reply -- even if it's to share a story about a gift you've given or received.

Thanks so much...

Ron Lieber
The New York Times
Your Money columnist
lieber at nytimes.com<mailto:lieber at nytimes.com>

"The Opposite of Spoiled" is my book about how -- and why -- to talk to kids about money. For more information, visit http://oppositeofspoiled.com<https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v2/url?u=http-3A__oppositeofspoiled.com&d=CwMFaQ&c=WO-RGvefibhHBZq3fL85hQ&r=ajrk6Uw03wH4RlMujp9kUDDjym5seax6Q9Vt0TDncgc&m=OahsfID5WMWeyPzq8I7T5SuP_Gl88lAtHMx1QzaSVaE&s=6JvFxMqIKfex51c2Q82lrDbFl3K4yP7GBcncU-U_oK8&e=>

Twitter: @ronlieber

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