A cultural breakdown of 'Squid Game' for non-Koreans and those new to K-dramas

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Warning: Contains major spoilers.

By now it seems everyone's heard of “Squid Game,” Netflix's violent survival game series topping the platform's streaming charts worldwide. As the internet continues its debate on whether or not the subtitles and English dubbing adequately convey the show's message, there's no doubt that certain nuances of the culture have been lost in translation.

For those who don't speak the language or aren't familiar with the culture, here are some details you may have missed.


Gong Yoo’s cameo

While the game recruiter shown briefly in the subway station might appear as a random extra to those new to South Korean entertainment, the actor is considered one of South Korea’s top stars alongside the show’s leads Lee Jung-jae and Park Hae-soo. Gong Yoo rose to fame in the 2007 K-drama “Coffee Prince,” before starring in other hit dramas and movies including the 2016 zombie horror film “Train to Busan.” The fact that he’s so well known in South Korea sparked one viral theory about how he could potentially end up having a bigger role in the game that viewers haven’t yet been made aware of. Despite appearing in “Squid Game” for only minutes, he’s become a fan-favorite to many online, including this one TikToker who dreams that he’d slap her in the face as his character is seen doing to potential players.


The games

Perhaps one of the reasons the series is so successful is that it centers around classic childhood games familiar to global audiences. While different countries have their own variation of “Red Light, Green Light,” the Korean version in the show directly translates to “The hibiscus flower has bloomed.” As TikTok’s Korean language teacher @MyKoreanDic demonstrates in a viral video, the game is often less structured — and has far less deadly consequences.

Much like last year’s dalgona coffee craze, the dalgona candy featured in the second game has become a viral TikTok trend. Users on the social media platform are attempting to cut out their own shapes from melted down sugar to see if they would survive a hypothetical “Squid Game.” Dalgona is a well known street snack in South Korea that’s usually purchased for children who attempt to cut out an imprinted shape just as the players in the show must do to survive. Though unlike what we see in the show, children in Korea will usually stick to using their hands and forego the pins, lighters and vigorous licking. Some street vendors will even reward children with another dalgona if they manage to properly complete the task. While it was more popular to older generations in their youth, there have recently been reports that dalgona businesses are seeing a surge in demand.


Sae-byeok and the life of defectors

Viewers get to know the character of Sae-byeok as a strong female lead who would do anything to make her family whole again. With a tragic backstory of losing her father and seeing her mother captured during their escape from North Korea, the character provides a snippet of life that North Korean defectors have experienced in the ongoing North-South Korea divide. Since the border between North and South Korea is heavily fortified and nearly impenetrable, defectors will flee the country through North Korea’s northern border shared with China. Sae-byeok’s mother being captured and repatriated by Chinese officials is a harsh reality many escapees face given China’s alliance with North Korea.

In an early scene where she visits her younger brother, Sae-byeok speaks in a North Korean accent. The accent becomes less pronounced as she speaks with other players in the game, which may portray the character’s attempt at assimilating into South Korean society. Antagonist Jang Deok-su repeatedly jabs at her North Korean background, calling her a “spy” and “communist b*tch.”While most of what he says doesn’t represent the average Korean with basic human decency, it does speak some truth to the discrimination faced by defectors in South Korean society. North Korean defectors in most cases are protected as citizens in South Korea due to the countries’ shared origins, but 70 years of separation have made them almost entirely foreign to one another.

Sae-byeok’s last wish before her untimely death, to have her family cared for, included getting her mother out from North Korea. Had she won the final prize, equivalent to $38 million, she would have easily been able to afford the thousands that brokers charge to smuggle loved ones out of the country.


Ali and that heartbreaking episode

While Ali’s limited language skills and lack of know-how with some of the games are pointed out, viewers may have missed the subtle details that point to his foreigner status. The nuances in the language of simply referring to another person in a respectful way is complicated, and one that non-native speakers may have trouble grasping. Proper names require appropriate honorifics and pronouns aren’t used in the same way as in English. It also changes depending on the relationship to the person being addressed. While the subtitles show that Ali called Sang-woo “sir,” the more accurate translation would be “boss,” a respectful but awkward word to use in the context. Coupled with that in the same scene, are his exaggeratedly deep bows. In Korea, the deeper the bow, the greater the respect. The entire interaction adds further context to Ali’s character when you see the effort he puts into showing respect, despite his awkward attempts at doing so.

Comparing this interaction to his final moments in episode 6 adds another dimension to a gut wrenching scene. By then, their relationship has evolved so much that Sang-woo told Ali to call him “hyung,” a word that literally translates to “older brother” but is used between any close males.

Ali’s last word before he’s killed off-screen is him calling out for his “hyung,” as it dawns on him that the man he’d hoped to finish the game with sent him to his death.


More to Mi-nyeo

Mi-nyeo is portrayed in the show as a loud, annoying character. And while there’s no denying that she is, the subtitles miss out on some lines that add depth to her and speak to greater issues within Korean society, as TikToker @Youngmimayer points out in a viral video.

In the scene where she tries to convince other players to be her partner, the subtitles translate one of her lines as saying “I’m not a genius, but I still got it work out[sic].” The TikToker points out that her line more accurately translates to “I am very smart, I just never got a chance to study.” @Youngmimayer argues that the butchered translation fails to capture a popular trope in Korean media where “a poor person that’s smart and clever just isn’t wealthy.” As many of the video’s commenters have pointed out, leaving out this line misses opportunities for discussion on the show's take on class struggles.


Loan sharks

Loan sharks appear in countless K-dramas, oftentimes in the most unlikely scenarios and are a commonly used villain trope in South Korean entertainment. For instance, in the lighthearted 2011 hit teen drama “Dream High,” they push a teen to pursue a singing career and Netflix’s 2020 “Itaewon Class,” a loan shark appears in the form of a white-haired elderly grandmother. They are prevalent in South Korean society, and may even collect your organs if you don’t pay up, the same way Gi-hun is threatened in the series. Take this story of Seo Jung-jin, who became South Korea’s second richest man last year. Even he at one point was said to have pledged his organs to loan sharks.


The weakest “kkakdugi” translation

After mourning the ultimate betrayal in episode 6, some viewers were surprised to see that Mi-nyeo, presumed to be shot dead as she wasn’t able to find a partner for the challenge, was automatically sent through to the next round. But to many Koreans from older generations, the scene might have been more predictable. The subtitles suggest that she moved on as she was said to be the “weakest link.” The actual word they used to describe her, “kkakdugi,” was the name of a role that was commonly used among children to account for whomever didn’t make the cut in a game. The word literally means “Korean kimchi radish.” Korean source Insight connects the use of the word in gameplay to the way kkakdugi is made with the leftover, uneven bits of radish used to make other dishes. It was a way of allowing all children to feel included in the game even if they couldn’t participate in the same way. While it may seem counterintuitive to stop bullying by referring to them as leftover radish, poking light fun was a way to prevent even further distress that could arise from being left out.


Sang-woo's achievements

The genius-turned-everybody’s-least-favorite-character is a graduate of Seoul National University, and there’s a reason it’s mentioned several times in the show. The highly competitive university’s top tier status is considered a gateway to success in a society that values intellect. His mother is heard bringing up the achievement in the way many Korean parents hope to be able to brag about their children. But knowing this bit of information sets his character up as not only one that’s smart but also as driven and capable of handling intense competition.

Sang-woo exhibits signs of depression throughout the series, but one scene that viewers may have overlooked showed him possibly attempting suicide. The bathtub scene, where he was seen partially submerged underwater while wearing a suit, briefly featured a briquette at his side. As Reddit user u/lifechainged points out, the briquette is a fuel and heat source associated with poverty and has been used by Koreans as means to commit suicide by inhaling the toxic fumes.

Together these elements add to the show’s commentary on what is deemed by society as markers of success. Sang-woo resorts to inhumane tactics to beat out the competition before ultimately dying by suicide. Coupled with the prestige of his job and education, it leaves viewers to think about the costs of such highly praised achievements.

Featured Image via "Squid Game" on Netflix

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