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Saranghae, Kim Sa-bu: Sunbaes, Seonsangnims, and Sabunim in "Dr. Romantic"

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

In the highly rated three-season drama Dr. Romantic, the triple board-certified Boo Yong-joo, played by the incomparable Han Suk-kyu, changes his name to Kim Sa-bu and begins practicing in small-town Doldam Hospital using unorthodox methods. There he earns the ire, and eventually the admiration and loyalty of all who get to meet him. The name change is symbolic but can often be lost on non-Korean-speaking fans.


In this article, we take a closer look at some Korean terms that you might have wondered about in Dr. Romantic and other k-dramas. *Minor spoilers ahead.*


To the uninitiated, navigating Korea’s cultural and social hierarchies via English translations in a k-drama can be a confusing experience. The Korean language is one of few languages in the world with a complex set of honorifics that reflects Korea’s hierarchical culture highly influenced by a Confucian worldview. The language distinguishes how one speaks to a peer, someone of a lower position, and someone of a higher position.


These varying positions of work, age, family, and society determine whether someone speaks with deference or informality (Jansen). This “verbal power distance” (Mustafa) is common in k-dramas as well, and cannot be fully conveyed with single-word translations.


Sabunim


Sabunim, for example, is a term used in martial arts. Its literal translation is “master.” Technically, it refers to someone who has achieved a level of expertise in martial arts and can begin teaching a much younger or inexperienced person. The term, however, has been adopted in other contexts beyond martial arts.


dr romantic kdrama kim sabu netflix
The master himself

In all seasons of Dr. Romantic, we find Kim Sa-bu taking on (most of the time unwilling) students and mentoring them. The mentorship, however, extends not just to practical skills in the operating room but to life skills as well. In fact, he takes on the father-figure role that many of his students are without. This is especially true when he takes hot-headed Kang Dong-joo (Yoo Yeon-seok) and emotionally fragile Yoon Seo-jung (Seo Hyun-jin) under his wing in the first season.


dr romantic kdrama kim sabu netflix

Troubled young doctor Seo Woo-jin (Ahn Hyo-seop) finds a home in Doldam Hospital thanks to Kim Sa-bu’s generosity and guidance in season 2.


dr romantic kdrama kim sabu netflix, ahn hyoseop

Insecure Dr. Cha Eun-jae (Lee Sung-kyung) struggles when she has to confront her father’s weaknesses next to Kim Sa-bu’s strengths in season 3.


dr romantic kdrama kim sabu netflix, ahn hyoseop

There is a real full circle moment in season 3 when Kang Dong-joo returns to Doldam and is given a chance to mentor stubborn Seo Woo-jin. The clash of wills and the fight for favoritism are hinted at before both men accept their own roles in the social hierarchy.


dr romantic kdrama kim sabu netflix, ahn hyoseop

Interestingly while both doctors come into their own, neither of them will actually ever be a Sabunim. There is only one Kim Sa-bu!


Seonsaengnim


You might have heard the term seonsaengnim used several times not just in Dr. Romantic but in most other k-dramas. The term seonsaengnim is literally translated as “teacher.” A shortened version ssem is a slang for the term. You can hear it often in the k-drama about teachers like Black Dog.


kdrama black dog netflix

In Twenty-five Twenty-one Na Do-hee (Kim Tae-ri) and her teammates use the term to address their coach.


kim tae ri twenty five twenty one kdrama netflix

However, it can be used in a wider context as a term of respect to address a much older person or other professionals. In Korea, "doctor" (ui-sa) is often paired with seonsaengnim as a further form of respect (Korea Health pages). Thus, doctors are addressed as ui-sa seonsaengnim.


For more medical k-dramas, you can read our recos here: Saranghae, Frontliner.


Sunbae(nim)/ Hoobae


K-pop fans might be more familiar with these terms. Sunbae is translated to “senior” while hoobae is translated into “junior.” It’s used in academic settings and some professional settings. Regardless of age, someone who has entered the profession earlier is likely to be addressed as a sunbae or the more formal sunbaenim. You can hear Kang Dong-joo address Yoon Seo-jung as sunbae several times in the first season.


The term, however, goes deeper than words of address. It can also mean having such a relationship where the sunbae feels obligated to treat a hoobae out occasionally and to a certain extent demand some form of deference (Lim).


General surgeon Yang Ho-joon (Ko Sang-ho) is sometimes seen abusing his status in season 2 by asking his hoobaes to run errands for him.


dr romantic kdrama kim sabu netflix, ahn hyoseop

Both Seo Woo-jin and Cha Eun-jae get a chance to be sunbaes when new residents Lee Sun-woong (Lee Hong-nae) and Jang Dong-hwa (Lee Sin-young) join the hospital in season 3. Thus the cycle of being hoobaes to sunbaes is complete.


dr romantic kdrama kim sabu netflix, ahn hyoseop


Like most people, we were entertained by Dr. Romantic because of the exciting medical plotlines and political scheming. But we loved it because of the wonderful, zany characters at Doldam Hospital whose compassion for their patients was surpassed only by their love for each other.


 

Sources:

Howard, R. (n.d.). Explanation of ITF TKD titles. Taekwon-Do Dublin TKD. http://www.masterhoward.com/news/342-explanation-of-itf-tkd-titles.html


Jansen, K.F. (2019). Pop culturally motivated lexical borrowing: Use of Korean in an English-majority fan forum.


Korea Health Pages. (2022, June 21). Basic Korean medical terms every expat should know. Korea Health Pages. https://koreahealthpages.com/article/basic-korean-medical-terms-every-expat-should-know.html


Liim , J. (2015, April 3). Korean culture of forced deference. koreatimes. https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/opinion/2023/06/352_176498.html


Mustafha, Nurshazani & Abdul Razak, Fariza Hanis. (2020). Cultural Diplomacy in Korean Drama Descendants of The Sun. 1-49.


Yang. (2007, October 2). Korean Way of Addressing People. Koreatimes. https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/opinion/2023/07/162_11170.html

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