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To visit or not to visitKorea’s medical culture ① Byeongmunan explained - the 101 on visiting your Korean family, friends and acquaintances
  • By Marian Chu
  • Published 2017.02.22 07:05
  • Updated 2017.03.23 18:15
  • comments 0

Visiting friends and family members in the hospital is a common tradition in many parts of the world. Koreans have taken visiting hospitalized patients to a whole new level, however. Commonly referred to as “byeongmunan,” the term describes the act of visiting sick friends, acquaintances and family members in the hospital.

Byeongmunan is essentially a give-and-take relationship: When I’m sick, you visit me, and when you’re sick, I visit you. This practice closely correlates with the concept of “jeong,” which roughly translates into affection or attachment, communal or individual.

It’s common sense to visit your friends and family in the hospital – after all, they are people that are important to you. So what makes byeongmunan different?

Aside from you being expected to visit friends and family, you are also supposed to visit people you don’t know well (or people that you don’t even like!). You are expected to take time out of your busy schedule to see work superiors and colleagues, church members, and even family members of your significant other.

Why do Koreans go through this headache of visiting distant acquaintances? Aside from comforting the patient (and subconsciously comforting yourself on your relative health), byeongmunan boils down to relationship building and tradition.

Consider this scenario: your boyfriend’s father is sick and admitted to a hospital. You’ve only met him once. Do you have to go?


Not going in this scenario could hurt your relationship with your boyfriend, as well as your relationship with his parents. Not going would also mean you’re okay with your boyfriend not visiting your parents in the hospital if they are ever sick.

The same applies to work colleagues. Because of the hierarchical nature of Korean society, not visiting your superior (or even colleague) in the hospital could have some unfavorable consequences for you back at work. The situation occurs because the superior assumes that you don’t care about them (and that you have no manners!) which could make you fall out of his or her favor. That, of course, will make your working environment a tad bit uncomfortable. The consensus is that it is good manners to go, and tacky to not.

So you’ve decided to go – the next question is how? Type ‘byeongmunan’ online and you’ll find information about byeongmunan customs. You can find a list of customary sayings, gifts, and dress codes that are acceptable for the occasion. Some of the most common gifts include fruit baskets, tonic drinks, vitamins, or other health products. Just make sure you don’t go empty-handed.

Some people even slip the patient an envelope filled with money (discreetly, of course). Money is given to support the payment of medical bills. Giving 50,000~100,000 won is customary – giving less or more is up to you (and your relationship with the patient, or the severity of the illness). They may decline politely, but don’t be fooled! You should insist until they accept so that it saves face for all parties.

Byeongmunan has been part of Korean culture for very long, but there have been calls for change in the last few years. In 2015, South Korea experienced the outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). The first MERS patient here was a Korean who returned from the Middle East on May 20, 2015. He was diagnosed with MERS nine days after he sought medical help, and the outbreak spread to 186 patients infected and 36 dead within two months.

Hospitals now campaign against byeongmunan

Government officials have pointed to the culture of byeongmunan as one of the contributing factors to its rapid spread. Friends, family members, and work acquaintances visited MERS patients in the hospital and became infected. The widespread practice, of course, caused more acquaintances to visit the newly sick patient, creating a domino-like chain of infections.

The outbreak has spurred a campaign for changing the byeongmunan culture. Some possible reforms include not visiting the patient at all, visiting the patient at designated times, and following sanitary procedures (washing hands, no flowers or food for presents), among others.

However, despite the calls for reform, it doesn’t seem like this culture will fade anytime soon. It has been ingrained in Korean culture for centuries. No culture changes overnight.

Regardless of how the culture of get-well visits changes in the future, this article is to provide readers with some insights into this particular aspect of Korean culture. If you have further questions on how to visit your family, friends, or acquaintances in Korea, leave us a comment below.


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