Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Putting the "chun" in "chuunikka..."

Today is the vernal equinox (that's the spring equinox for those of you who are products of the Los Angeles school system). In Korean it is ch'unbun [choon-boon, 춘분, 春分].

And it's colder than a penguin's ass right now.

I'm thankful that ch'unbun has finally arrived, not just because it means the weather might actually get warmer at some point (though sometimes it seems as if the government may have cancelled the warm weather altogether because they heard that rich people enjoy it so). I am happy ch'unbun has arrived because now when people say, "Why is it so cold this spring?" it will actually be spring when they say it.

You see, in Korea "spring" and pom [봄] don't exactly mean the same thing. Of course, in both languages, spring/pom is the period between the cold of winter and the searing heat of summer, but when it begins is defined quite differently.

In Korea and other parts of Asia, the traditional solar calendar used for farming was divided into twenty-four seasonal subdivisions [chŏlgi, 절기, 節氣], with each of Korea's much-touted Four Seasons™ having six chŏlgi within them. And yes, a meteorologist could practically set his/her watch by them.

Whoever named the mini-seasons was a hopeful sort, I guess, because sometime in February, what my relatives in Minnesota refer to as The Dead of Winter, is called ipch'un [입춘, 立春] in Korean: literally, the "onset of spring." This comes around February 3 or 4.

Mind you, this is when the temperature is minus-something on the Celsius scale everywhere in Korea, and probably minus-something on the Fahrenheit scale in at least a few places. When people dread going outside because the blustery wind will freeze their flesh to their glasses, even if the frames are plastic. When Mother Nature decides it would be funny for you to have a snotcicle hanging down your nose. In other words, when it's cold enough for Singaporeans and Malaysians to be heading up to Muju and Yongpyong in droves for the skiiing.

Calling this the "onset of spring" is either very optimistic or a twisted joke.

Many Koreans respond to the bitter cold of winter with hopefulness rather than despair. By latching onto ipch'un as the beginning of spring--which many do--it is a declaration of endurance and perseverance.

And there I am to ruin it for them. When March rolls around and people flip their calendars and start peeling off their layers of wool and cotton, only to shuffle into the coffee shop, the office, or the restaurant complaining that it's not fair that spring is just as bad as winter, there I am to tell them, "You idiot, spring doesn't begin until March 21." Then I do my bit about the vernal equinox, showing how this is when the sun is right over the equator, blah, blah, blah.

You can tell I'm popular at parties.

If they're not convinced, I remind them of other words that have ip in them. Like ipku, which is used in the name of many subway stations that are near (not right in front of) major universities (서울대입구역, 숙대입구역, 홍대입구역, 이대입구역, etc.). Okay, so that's an entirely different Chinese character (入 as in 入口), but you'd be surprised how many people don't know that.

If I still haven't convinced them, or if they've informed me of the previously mentioned Chinese character discrepancy, I point out that the other ip seasonal subdivisions are not all that close to the main season for which they are named. In two months, for example, we will have ip'a upon us [입하, 立夏], heralding the onset of summer. (Fun fact: 입하 also refers to the arrival of goods, though those are difference Chinese characters, too: 入荷.)

Ipch'u [입추, 立秋], the so-called onset of autumn, comes around August 7 or 8, when we're still in for weeks of scorching weather that will melt your socks.

And of course, iptong [입동, 立冬], marking the coming of winter, is around November 7 or 8. Okay, this California-raised boy does acknowledge that around that time it is colder here in Seoul than it ever gets in Orange County.

This post really has no point, except to say that for the other descendants of a garlic-eating bear, it's now okay to end your hibernation [동면, 冬眠].

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