Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Dried Fish Lady (건어물녀)

건어물녀 or "dried fish lady" was, and to some extent still is, a briefly fashionable term for a lady who is neat, beautiful and capable at work but after work is dirty, drinks beer (as opposed to some more refined drink), eats dried fish (perhaps a shortcut to cooking), stays at home and has no date.

The origin of the term comes from the Japanese comic book The Light of Hotaroo published around 2003. The comic book was about a young girl who was successful, fashionable and clever at work but at home was slovenly wearing the same comfortable trainees day after day, nibbled on dried fish when hungry, and was lazy and inactive. She fell in love, however, and tried to change to become more acceptable to the man, but in the end she realized that she was just a "dried fish lady" at heart and so stopped trying to make the changes because she accepted herself for who she was; the man did not and they broke up. So the connotations of dried fish lady also include work as being more important than love while also having the tendency of being antisocial.

Another popular contemporary slang for a successful woman is "gold miss". Yet, while both the Dried Fish Lady and the Gold Miss both remain single and dedicated to their work, the similarities stop there. A Gold Miss is the Korean or Asian concept of the West's "career woman".

Historically due to the strong influence of the Confucian society, marriage was very important as a woman was dependent on the three men in her life (first her father, then her husband, finally her eldest son), and in Confucianism the family was of utmost importance as procreation was important for the continuation of the ancestral line and offspring would continue the procreation while performing ancestral services to the parents and grandparents up to the fourth generation. Unmarried women in the strong Confucian era were looked down upon, were a shame to the family and were dependent on their fathers or elder brother. However, in the past decade or two women have entered the work force and many have remained single, dedicated to their work which is becoming accepted as the clutches of Confucianism have exceedingly weakened from the influx of western influences. So now Gold Misses are appearing in society. They are successful, independent women with money of their own and are usually in their 30s and 40s. They enjoy spending their money to look fashionable and to maintain their health, and so unlike the Dried Fish Ladies who stay at home, Gold Misses are outgoing and actively involved outside their homes, meeting a wide variety of people. Basically, they take pride in who they are at work, associating with people and in their neatly arranged homes.

With the relaxed standards of the previously strong Confucian society, females of any age now can be independent, and so office ladies, even students, who prefer staying at home in comfortable clothes and without inviting people over can get labeled as 건어물녀. So, to find out if you are a Dried Fish Lady, take the self-diagnostic test. Answering three or all four of the questions with the affirmative means that you are a 건어물녀.

Dried fish lady self-diagnostic test:
(1) Do you wear the same trainees at home every day?
(2) After work/school do you quickly remove your make-up when getting home?
(3) Do you like to stay at home after work/school?
(4) Are your text messages short and very simple?

This presentation was given by Ha Bo-yoon and Kim Soo-rin. When concluding their presentation, they posed the four-question self-diagnosis test for the 28-member class to find out for fun if any in the class had "dried fish lady syndrome". Surprisingly, four of the ladies in the classroom laughingly raised their hands for at least three of the four questions, surprising themselves with the outcome and REALLY surprising the two speakers, who commented on the outcome by saying that though the four were self-diagnosed as "dried fish ladies", there were other considerations not mentioned so the ladies were not to take this seriously.

Japan has introduced other terms for people with similar introverted behavior, hikikomori (ひきこもり or 引き籠もり), an extremely anti-social person who basically stays in his/her apartment or room all the time and refuses to go out. See hikikomori in Wikipedia for more on the seriousness of this problem in Japan. Korea has borrowed the term from Japan because the anti-social problem is becoming more and more apparent here also.

[The point of this presentation was to associate a food with some kind of cultural behavior, and here a cultural behavior is evoked by a food term. Other food terms in Korea which apply to cultural behavior are 둰장 여, or doenjang girl, meaning a girl races after western expensive products, consumes the overly pricey prestige Starbucks coffee and is consumed with makeup and looking too good while taking pictures of herself in fashionable settings - see more here. This term, used since 2000 or so, is a Korean coinage from adding "girl" to one of Korea's more common and basic sauces to imply more than the common or basic.

One other food term (introduced in this presentation and which I haven't heard in use yet) is "herbivore men", 草食系男子 (Sōshokukei-danshi), coined in Japan in 2006 and refers to men who are passive in dating and careful to follow a vegetarian diet. Korea is a big meat-eating country and so this phenomenon isn't readily apparent yet, but like other popular Japanese-isms, this concept too will soon take-off in Korea.


  1. My understanding of the herbivore men was that the term "herbivore" referred to their overall gentle and grazing cow-like demeanor, and less so to any literal dietary tendencies...? Not that I have read copious amounts on the trend.

  2. Thanks, Katharine! I was paraphrasing a presentation given by two students, and in hindsight, they did include the personality qualifications of "gentle" and "grazing placidly". And you're right, even though vegetarianism was mentioned by them, the focus was on the characteristics rather than the behavior. Thanks for the correction!