Frenchman’s guide to Korean culture

May 6, 2015
(Courtesy of Benjamin Joinau)

(Courtesy of Benjamin Joinau)

sketches of korea










By Kim Jae-heun

Benjamin Joinau, professor of French Language & Literature at Hongik University who teaches history and civilization, has published a cultural guide book “Sketches of Korea” to help foreigners understand Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective.

“Korea is not only about K-pop, Samsung, kimchi or Psy,” said Joinau during an interview with The Korea Times at a cafe in Samcheong-dong, Seoul, Wednesday. “It’s a more complex and interesting culture. I hope my book can further expand the curiosity of Korean culture for foreigners who reached my story having a small interest.”

Joinau first arrived in Korea 20 years ago and only had despair his first two years in an unknown country. He tried to learn about the culture before, but there were no books about Korea in France back in 1994. Only a few travel guide books in English would describe Korea, but in non-attractive ways with gloomy pictures.

As soon as he arrived in Korea, he realized that the country was very different from what he had learned from books in Europe. After five years in Korea, the professor published his travel guide book “Coree” in French as part of the travel book collection “Le Petit Fute” in 1999.

Still, Joinau felt something missing about the books published on Korean culture.

“Most books introducing Korean culture were written by governmental institutions or Korean writers who wanted to show the best about Korea. But they are sometimes not right. We have different points of view.

“The books by Koreans tend to focus only on traditional aspects, which make us think Koreans still wear hanbok (the Korean traditional clothes),” said Joinau.

The professor decided to write a cultural guide book that compliments tour books on Korea. He took some five to six years to thoroughly research and describe small details of Korean culture that he divided into five categories – social, cultural, artistic, traditional and spiritual – in his recent book.

“My book covers a detailed explanation on everything from cultural heritage to etiquettes in everyday life like at mokyok-tang (Korean sauna), where many foreigners can make mistakes because they are not familiar with it at all.

Writing a book on Korean culture was not an easy job for a foreign professor.

“I find it hardest to check facts on my research. I had to double check or even triple check sometimes because people told me different stories. Wikipedia or Naver (Korean search portal) was not trustworthy too. Tradition and customs also change very fast in Korea.

“I remember struggling to distinguish the difference between kkotminam (“flower-like” handsome man) and hunnam (charming and attractive men), whether hunnam is better looking than kkotminam or more masculine,” said Joinau.

Joinau still finds more work for him to publish books about Korean culture.

“I was lucky to come to Korea 20 years ago that I got to publish the book on Korean culture. Trends change with time and if the books sell well, I want to write a second edition to update the stories,” said Joinau.

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