Four Distinct Seasons. Only in Korea.

Dear Korean,

Did you know Korea has four seasons? This line seems to be part of the average Korean's repertoire of small-talk to use when-talking-with-foreigners. It might be becoming less common, but you certainly used to hear this a lot from Koreans - so much so, that I think it must be in the school textbooks somewhere. FWIW, I believe 'My country has four seasons' is something the Japanese like to say as well.

My question is 'Why?'. Why do Koreans feel the need to point this out? Is it because it's inculcated in school? If so, why is it taught in school? Is it Japanese influence (and why do the Japanese like to say this?)? Is it perhaps to distinguish themselves from other Asian countries with tropical climates? But then why use it on westerners all of whom come from countries with four seasons, and none of whom see anything remarkable or remark-worthy in the fact?

Bemused and baffled.

Although Korea is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan, there is still a great deal of clumsiness on the part of Koreans as a whole when they interact with non-Koreans. The "four seasons" talk is a classic example. Because a large number of Koreans simply have never interacted with a foreigner, they lack the necessary self-awareness of how they would sound from the perspective of the foreign listener.

(By the way, although the situation has vastly improved in recent years, this lack of self-awareness is present in Korean society at every level. One of the results stemming from such lack of self-awareness is the cringe-worthy "visit Korea" ads like this one.)

It also does not help that Koreans, in most cases, do not have the necessary English ability to convey subtle nuances. No Korean believes that Korea is the only country in the world that has four seasons. But when they speak in English, their tones often end up sounding like they do.

Four seasons on the road near Cheongju.
So when it comes to figuring out why Koreans need to point this out, clumsiness has a great deal to do with the answer. Koreans will grow out of it sooner or later, but as of now it may be somewhat annoying. However, that is only a part of the story, because a greater mystery remains: why seasons, of all things?

More after the jump.

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Another big part of the "seasons talk" is that yes, Korean schools do teach their children that four distinct seasons is one of the defining characteristics of Korea. Unfortunately, some combination of lack of self-awareness, lack of knowledge about other countries and lack of ability to express nuanced thoughts distorts that proposition into the crazy idea that Korea is the only country in the world that has four distinct seasons.

But this idea does have a tiny kernel of truth to it. Although this is less true in the recent years as climate change has been affecting Korea's climate, Koreans are not kidding when they say Korea has four distinct seasons -- it is not just that Korea has four seasons, but they really are distinct. Isabella Bishop, a British woman of late 19th/early 20th century who was one of the earliest Western visitors of Korea, gave high praises for Korea's climate, especially the winter:
The climate is undoubtedly one of the finest and healthiest in the world. ... Korean winter is absolutely superb, with its still atmosphere, its bright, blue, unclouded sky, its extreme dryness without asperity, and its crisp, frosty night.
The winter then leads to a very pleasant, flowery spring. The summer is significantly hot, with a long monsoon spell in the middle. Autumn is undoubtedly the best time in Korea, with cool temperature and crisp air. The brilliant fall colors of Korea compare favorably to the best autumn leaves of New England, with bright yellow leaves of ginko trees -- native to Korea -- providing accents. Much of the world may have four seasons, but not necessarily this distinct.

Just this much may not make Korea all that unique. However, it is with good reason that Korean schools teach that having four distinct seasons is one of the defining characteristics of Korea. It is not so much that Korea experiences these four seasons -- lots of places around the world experience spring, summer, fall and winter. It is the degree to which Korean culture revolves around the seasons that makes the seasons a defining characteristic for Korea.

A good example of this would be the degree to which Korean food revolves around the seasons. Traditional Korean cuisine is mostly made up of vegetables, whose productions are significantly seasonal. The standard napa cabbage kimchi, for example, has traditionally been a late fall/winter dish, because napa cabbages grow in cool temperature. Similarly, the fish available Korea's seas -- another significant part of traditional Korean cuisine, given that Korea is a peninsula with water on three sides -- change significantly based on the seasons. To this day, Koreans are keenly aware of the best food for each season -- fresh namul [나물; herbs] for spring, barley rice for summer, hickory shad [전어] for fall and red bean porridge [팥죽] for winter, just to give a few examples -- and Koreans are generally diligent about keeping up with the seasonal diet.

Korea's traditional holidays also revolve around the seasons. The four major traditional holidays of Korea -- lunar new year [설날], daeboreum [대보름], dano [단오] and chuseok [추석] -- correspond to winter, spring, summer and fall, each entailing elaborate celebrations involving, among other things, seasonal foods.

So, a lot of Koreans' "four seasons" talk is a clumsy lack of self-awareness. But it is nonetheless true that Korea's distinct four seasons define a great deal of Korean culture.

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