I was very confused when I first came to Korea, because of – well, because of lots of things, actually, and to be honest there are always plenty of opportunities for fresh confusion to arise.
But some things baffle me more than others, at least until I find out what the craic is with them (and often, even afterwards). And so it was that I found myself in an elevator* one day, looking in great bewilderment at the number panel. I was headed for the fourth floor. Can you see my difficulty?
In the end, I went to three and then took the stairs, and just put it down as another example of inexplicably odd things in Korea. But I kept encountering it. The fourlessness, I mean (but yes, also the inexplicably odd things in general). I almost got used to it, but not quite. There’s always that initial moment of faint surprise when you see a fourless number panel; a sense that something is not quite right with the world around you.
Anyway, arriving at Smile – located on the fourth floor of a building downtown – the other night, we crowded into the elevator and shared the moment of discovery. Um… there *is* no four! said the newest arrival, sounding surprised.
Just press three and we’ll walk up a floor, I said, but Dave shook his head. No, no… haven’t you discovered the secret four button? he asked with a grin.
Oh, yes – it’s ‘F’, isn’t it? said someone else. The rest of us just looked blankly at them.
So, now that I’m in the know, I can inform you that Korea is suffering from a case of tetraphobia. The fear of… the number four. I love this country. The Korean word for ‘4’ is ‘사’ (‘sa’), and it is pronounced exactly the same as the word for ‘death’, so they’re scared of it. Very often, the fourth floor of a building is skipped entirely, so that 5 simply follows 3 – particularly in a building like a hospital, where you really don’t want to take any risks. In other buildings, there’s a fourth floor, but no number 4 in the elevator. Instead, the button is labelled ‘F’ for the nice safe English word ‘four’.
Occasionally this button can be found between 3 and 5, but most often it seems to be stuck away in the corner somewhere so that you’d never dream of pressing it unless you knew the story.
This is a very weird one for me. I know that there’s a similar issue with the number 13 in our own culture (although I don’t think people go quite as far as eliminating floors or number buttons), but I’ve always found that one ridiculous, too. I don’t understand how anyone can truly believe that a number can somehow curse them just by being written down or otherwise present. A mindless superstition is one thing, like throwing spilled salt over your shoulder, or not walking under ladders, but really believing it when you stop and think about it?!
And that’s the thing. In Korea, some very unusual things are taken incredibly seriously by just about everyone. If you instinctively laugh, thinking they’re having you on, you’ll be met by a half-confused, half-insulted stare as you then try, horrified, to pretend you weren’t laughing, and say things like “oh, really?” in your most serious and interested tones.
I’m very much looking forward to telling you about a common household appliance that murders people in their sleep, but that can wait until another day.
*I know, it’s a lift. I can’t speak English any more, just American. I actually have to go through my posts before I publish them, putting ‘u’s into ‘color’ and ‘flavor’.