Koreanism of the Month – Fan Death


Non-koreans, but Westerners especially, in Korea immediately notice that Koreans will argue for concepts – particularly related to food, healthcare, Korean physiology, and Korean nationality – that we inevitably find singular if not peculiar. This is common in cross-cultural interaction of course, but still, I have found more unique cultural positions or ‘myths’ here than I have in the other places I have lived or travelled to over the years. I thought it might be interesting to record them as they pop-up

The most famous one among the expat community here is Fan Death. On the ‘mechanics’ of fan-induced asphyxiation or hypothermia, check the wiki entry. Also put ‘fan death’ or ‘fan death korea’ into Google and drift around the sites. Try this one, and check out the scanned graphic half-way down.

Fan Death seems wholly unique to Korea. No one I know and nothing I have read has ever noted its existence elsewhere, even in Asia. It is the koreanism most common ridiculed by foreigners, and which westerners most reliably roll out in those tiresome arguments over Korea’s ‘modernity.’ It also makes for great humor:

Fan Death

WARNING: The video contains profanity.

I honestly don’t know what to make of this. Lots of Koreans genuinely believe it, as fans sold in Korea have timers installed explicitly to prevent fan death. As far as I know, fans with timers are sold in no other country. Clearly it is more than just an urban legend or goofy joke when it affects the buying decisions of 50 million consumers. In my own experience, some of the Koreans I know best – smart, educated people – swear this is true, and say that its western racism to reject it as blithely as we do.

On the other hand, the empirical, rationalist, social scientist in me is awfully doubtful. Indeed it is kinda hard NOT to see as simply surreal – like the video of Stalin dancing to techno. Comments?

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