The cultural issue of "respecting someone because they are older than you" came up during conversations last night. The husband and I were trying to explain this Korean cultural phenomenon to our guest, who was white. My husband is a 2nd generation Korean and grew up in mostly white neighborhoods until college. I, on the other hand, am closer to 1.5 generation and had many Korean friends.
We both attended a church during college where it was very normal and sort-of expected that you call older persons Oppa, Unni, Hyung, and Noona. They are terms of respect and endearment. If you are a gal, you call older gals unni and older guys oppa. If you are a guy, you call older guys hyung, and older gals noona. Unni and noona can be translated to older sister. Oppa and hyung can be translated to older brother. I know, it can be very confusing.
Anyway, this was very strange for my husband and it took him a long time to finally call people hyung or noona. And he reserved the terms for people who he felt were his REAL hyungs or noonas, people who looked out for him as if he were their younger brother. I, on the other hand, started calling everyone who were older than me, even by one year, unni and oppa. It was just normal for me and I just didn't think that it was a big deal.
The strange thing is, I don't call my older sister unni. I used to, when I was younger, but now most of the time we talk to each other (which isn't very much actually) I call her by her first name and we speak in English. I think if I was speaking to her in Korean, I'd be more likely to call her unni.
I also have a friend who is like 2 years older than me and I ALWAYS call her unni. Granted, she is more "Korean" than I am so I feel like I should be abiding more by the "Korean" ways with her... but maybe in my sub-consciousness I respect her more than I do my "real" sister and that's why I naturally call her unni? OK. This is turning into like a self-therapy session... ack!
Anyway, the whole "respect for elders" and the "older person looking out for the younger person" aspect of the Korean culture is something that I really love. I know it can be abused as well, but in general, I love the concept of these "vertical relationships." I love these terms of endearment. It's like, it creates an instant connection when I call someone unni or oppa. Or when some calls me noona or unni. I am caught by surprise when I am called that nowadays... it's so unusual.
I think this is partly the reason why I cringe everytime I hear/read/see parents being called by their first name by their children. I don't know. It just seems WRONG to me. I cannot even imagine this happening in a culturally Korean family... unless the kid REALLY wanted to piss of his/her parents.
Do you use these terms with your own siblings/cousins/friends? For the Kimchi mamas with more than one kid, do your kids use these terms with each other?