The Korean language has its own words for “white,” hwinsaek (횐색) and hayansaek (하얀색) being the two they teach you in books. This hasn’t stopped the English word “white” from entering (South) Korean as hwait’ŭ (화이트).
And it has thrived there. From meanings that overlap with English ones—the color white, purity, skin tone—to some that are rather different, hwait’ŭ, which is pronounced like “hwah-ee-tuh,” can be found throughout the Korean language.
White as a beauty standard in Korea
As in many Asian countries—and in Europe and North America back in the day—pallor is often equated with beauty in Korea. This emphasis on white skin in Korea is not directly due to any kind of idealization of the features of white people (unlike perhaps some other Korean beauty standards). Instead, it hearkens back thousands of years (e.g., Li et al 2008)—to the days when only the wealthy could afford to be idle in the shade.
Being naturally very pale, even for a white person, I’ve sometimes had awkward run-ins with this standard of beauty. I was once riding the subway, for example, minding my own business, when an older Korean lady (ajumma) came up to me and began stroking my face, saying, “hwait’ŭ, hwait’ŭ.”
Because of this beauty standard, products claiming to whiten the skin are commonly sold at cosmetics shops and counters. Do these work? I don’t know, and I actually think their main active ingredient is sun screen. Basically all the base-type makeup and lotion I’ve bought in Korea claimed to have whitening power, although once a clerk didn’t give me the usual sample of whitening moisturizer because, she said, “You’re already white.”
On a more serious note, this kind of “colorism” can be a real problem for Korean people with darker skin. I had a student, “Ben,” whose skin was a few shades darker than average, and the other kids teased him that his father was from Africa (a way of calling him poor, I think, because their main images of Africa were of extreme poverty). This kid was only in second grade, but looks are so important in Korea, including in the job search, that I can’t imagine it’s not taken into account in hiring decisions and elsewhere.
White as symbol of purity in Korea
As in Western cultures, white is also a symbol of purity… Which may have some connections to white as a beauty standard for women especially. The most awkward public instance of this I recall was in 2009, when Kim Yuna, the figure skating sensation, starred in a promotional campaign by Smoothie King for a “hwait’ŭ” smoothie:
White Day: a couple’s holiday in Korea
Also possibly connected to purity, Hwait’ŭ Dei (화이트 데이), or White Day, takes place on March 14 as the complement to Valentine’s Day a month before. In South Korea, as in the rest of East Asia, women give men gifts on Valentine’s Day, and men are supposed to reciprocate on White Day.
As on Valentine’s Day in the States, convenience stores fill with convenient gifts of candy and other small items. In fact, White Day is, apparently, entirely an industry-invented holiday, originating in Japan—and for a short time in its early days called “Marshmallow Day” there (편집부 2015).
Alas, White Day is not the end of the relationship-status holidays. If you’re solo, your special day occurs on April 14, Black Day, when single people are supposed to eat jjajangmyeon (짜장면), a kind of black noodle dish with Chinese roots.
White in the pencil case
Hwait’ŭ extends to the mundane: it is also the Korean word for what in English we call white-out, or, more boringly, correction fluid. In America, I mostly identify white-out with “boring adult things,” i.e., my dad’s home office when I was a kid. In South Korea, it’s a common item in students’ pencil cases, usually in the less messy correction tape form.
Other uses of “white” in Korean
Hwait’ŭ is used in other ways in Korean, too. “White collar” has been adopted as hwait’ŭ k’alla (화이트 칼라) to mean “office worker,” and “White Christmas” as Hwait’ŭ K’ŭrisŭmasŭ (화이트 크리스마스). It’s used sometimes for the color white in fashion, especially as hwait’ŭ saek (화이트색). And it’s also the name of a popular brand of sanitary napkins.
I guess I feel like I also have to mention that as an American who is both white and politically pretty far to the left, I feel like the word “white” has a lot of baggage, especially as relates to skin color. However, I am centering my writing in this blog on Korea, not on America, and I think it’s pretty problematic when we Americans build our views of other societies on the framework of American society, which happens all the time, so I’m leaving that baggage alone here.
Eric P.H. Li, Hyun Jeong Min, Russell W. Belk, and Junko Kimura, Shalini Bahl (2008) ,”Skin Lightening and Beauty in Four Asian Cultures”, in NA – Advances in Consumer Research Volume 35, eds. Angela Y. Lee and Dilip Soman, Duluth, MN : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 444-449.
편집부 (2015). 데이 마케팅(Day Marketing). 마케팅, 49(11), 58-68.