End-of-term Speech

Today I delivered a short speech in Korean as part of the closing ceremony for my monthlong Korean language program at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, on what has turned out to be my speaking tour of Asia. The speech was a hit with the teachers and staff, as well as with my classmates, all of whom were amused by how much of our new grammar I managed to work in.

As for the lower-level students, they were just confused — as I was confused by the opening speech by, well, someone — not sure who — who spoke in rapid, low-toned Korean for several minutes. It’s true what Psy said: “뛰는 놈 그 위에 나는 놈” (“Wherever there’s a running man, there’s a flying man above,” a proverb that more or less means that no matter how good you are at something, there’s always someone better). But I suppose I could also make the claim now that “Baby baby 나는 뭘 좀 아는 놈” (“I’m a guy who knows a little something”).

Below you can find the text of the speech in full, errors and all. (I assume there are errors.) Have fun running it through Google Translate, which makes a hash of what I intended to say, but which might actually capture the muddled flavor of my Korean.

안녕하십니까 여러분. 나는 미국에서 온 조쉬입니다.

벌써 한 달 진났습니다. 레벨 테스트를 봤습니다. 친절한 선생님을 만났습니다. 문법을 많이 배웠습니다. 발표 했습니다. 한 달 동안 우리 다 열심히 공부했습니다.

자, 사실에 보통 열심히 공부하지만 가끔도 궁부하는 동 마는 동 하면서 열심히 공부 한 적 했습니다. 어차피 한국어를 조금 배울 수 밖에 없다고 생각합니다.

그렇게 공부 할 만 했습니다. 하지만 공부 한 김에 더 중요한 것 교실 밖에 했습니다. 외데에 오면 세상을 만나다더니 한 달 후에 사실이라고 압니다. 일본, 러시아, 대만, 미국, 프랑스, 스페인, 영국, 독일 등 친구를 만들었습니다. 함게 같이 전통 음악 치고 Kpop 춤 추고 빳빙수 너무 많이 먹었습니다. 정말 한국 문화를 많이 즐거웠습니다.

우리 새로운 친구들을 그리울 겁니다. 하지만 너무 슬플 리가 없습니다. 세상에 어딘가 외대 친구가 만나면 기분이 좋겠습니다. 그리고 또 다시 한국에서 만나기 바랍니다.


The Language School Bubble

When you go to a Korean-language immersion program, there are certain illusions to which you’re likely to fall prey, especially if you’re at something of an advanced level.

First, you might start to think that what you’re doing is normal. After all, everyone around you has also devoted years to learning your target language. You can lose sight of how uncommon it is — how downright weird it is — to spend hours upon hours trying to parse and retain this obscure and difficult language. And you can forget that not all people from Japan, England, Spain, France, Taiwan, and China have an interest in Korea, or even know where it is. You start to think that everyone everywhere cares who EXO is.

Second, you might come to believe that you’re actually pretty good at Korean. I’ve been hanging out with a group of Japanese women, communicating almost entirely in Korean, and we’ve been able to have a lot of fun and even some intelligent conversations about things like religion. But it’s an illusion created by the fact that we’re all at the same level: we know more or less the same grammar and vocabulary, so we don’t tend to use stuff that’s way beyond what our counterparts can understand.

But as soon as I get into a conversation with actual Koreans, I’m in trouble — especially if they’re talking to each other rather than just to me. I catch words, sentence endings here and there. I get general ideas, maybe, but miss important key points, like that the entire conversation was about someone’s boyfriend rather than about not having a boyfriend. In other words, I have no idea what’s going on most of the time, but now speak Korean well enough that I feel like I should be paying attention anyway.

Some of this is the midpoint letdown — I’m two weeks in, with two weeks left to go, and feeling frustrated by all the short trips I’ve had to Seoul these past few years, when what I really want is to live here, to settle in, to be able to commit myself to an extended period of learning. Two weeks is such a tiny span, but I feel like I’ve learned an enormous amount, met interesting people, started conversations that I want to continue. But I’ll be leaving again in two weeks. What I need here is time.

I’m excited for my upcoming travel in Southeast Asia, and I have no intention of giving that up. But this visit to Seoul has reaffirmed my desire to be here and stay here. And I know that when I come to stay, I will finally get an experience that right now feels tantalizingly just out of reach.

Learning enough to understand sorrow

When I first went to Korea, in 2001, I knew next to nothing about it, and I didn’t speak the language at all. I’d given myself a crash course in the hangeul alphabet and knew a few basic phrases, and that was it. I was in those days too intimidated by the language to give it serious study, but I couldn’t help picking up words and phrases as I went along.

One word I heard constantly was 어떻게 (eotteoke). One day I asked one of the Korean teachers what it meant. Literally, she explained, it means “how,” but it’s much more than that. Koreans use the word kind of the way American English uses “what,” as an exclamation, a complaint, a rebuke, an expression of bafflement.

Early the next morning, I stepped out onto my little street of Pambat-gil (which I did not know until after I left Korea meant “Chestnut Grove Street”). Off in the distance was an ajumma. She stood in the middle of the street, arms spread wide. I could see that she was gripping a cell phone in one of her uplifted hands. And she was crying out, in the most mournful tone, with the final vowel long drawn out, “Eotteoke! Eotteoke!”

I felt a giddy sense of elation: I understood! Something was happening in Korea, and I got it. What I got, though, was that this poor woman was howling out her shock and sorrow in the middle of the street at 8 am. Whatever news had come through that cell phone, it wasn’t good.

I was reminded of that dissonance — of the thrill of understanding tempered by the sorrow of what’s understood — as I read a long Facebook post in Korean today. Usually I let those pass by unread. They’re still difficult. But I’d just yesterday finished reading the classic Korean short story 사랑방 손님과 어머니 (Mother and Her Guest), and I thought maybe I could manage the five paragraphs my friend had written.

I’m glad I did. I learned that my friend’s grandmother had passed away, an important event that I otherwise would have missed. She wrote beautifully about the way her grandmother had been a teacher to her, how at a difficult time in her life her grandmother had taken her in and taught her how to make dolls’ clothes, how the family sat together sharing memories and how each person’s memories were different, but they were all warm memories.

I’m sorry that my friend has lost a dear family member, but I’m also thrilled that — with much help from an online dictionary — I could share in my friend’s memories of her beloved grandmother, her sense of loss and sorrow. I’m pleased that words I learned from reading Mother and Her Guest helped me to understand what my friend had written. I am also grateful that I know enough Korean now to find out about my friend’s loss and express my condolences.

[a year of korean]

Today marks the one-year anniversary of my current self-guided Korean language study program.

On March 6, 2006, I began Lesson 1 of Integrated Korean: Beginning Level 1. Since then, apart from the occasional hiatus between textbooks or while vacationing, I have been studying steadily. My goal is to work my way through all 10 semesters, to High Advanced Level 2, plus the associated readers and Chinese-character study guide, within five years.

At the end of my first 12 months, I am already well into Lesson 3 of Intermediate 1, which is pretty much where I should be. And I am certainly far more proficient with this fascinating, ornery language than I was at the beginning. But this is a long journey, and there is still far more of it ahead of me than behind.

Of course, I wouldn’t have made nearly so much progress without the diligent, thoughtful efforts of my teacher, Yi Young-ae, who has had the patience to answer my many questions, sit through my halting efforts at my verbal exercises and correct lesson after lesson full of fumbled Korean spelling (청수하다, 텐니스, 각도기) and grammar.

[when do we plan?]

A curious difference between English and Korean is the way we refer to future intentions.

In English, we say the phrase “I plan to” in present tense to indicate something we intend to do in the future: I plan to go home.

Like English, Korean has several different structures to indicate different levels of intentionality. In English, we construct these forms out of various words that color the meaning: I’m thinking of going; I mean to go; I plan to go. In Korean, it’s done with verb endings that don’t have independent meaning.

For the strongest level of intentionality short of I will — translated by my textbook as plan to — Korean uses the form ~기로 하다 (~giro hada). And what strikes me as interesting is that the past tense — ~기로 했어요 (~giro haesseoyo) — is used where we use the present.

Here’s an example:

Korean: 오늘 저는 집에 가기로 했어요. (Oneul jeoneun jip-e gagiro haesseoyo.)

Translation: I plan to go home today.

Literal translation: I planned to go home today.

I think the Korean formulation is more accurate in a certain sense. By the time something is set as your intention, you’re done with the planning. Of course, the Korean grammar form doesn’t quite literally mean to plan, so it’s hard to say. Still, the idea is that you set your intention in the past, and now that intention carries on separate from your ongoing creation of it. In English, by contrast, if you say I planned to go home today, the implication is that you now have a different intent; only by maintaining the plan in the present tense — by continuing to plan — do you demonstrate that your will remains firm.

[let me count the ways]

It was Elizabeth Barrett Browning who asked every English major’s favorite math question: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” It is, of course, a question the poem utterly fails to answer, or even adequately explain.

If Browning were Korean, however, she might be able to put a number on it, or at least on the number of ways to say you love someone.

It all comes down to verb endings and their proliferation in Korean. I’m sure you’re comfortable enough with verb conjugations that change the tense or person, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Roadmap to Korean: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Language, by Richard Harris, provides a list of 18 different ways to say “I’m going to school” and 23 ways to ask “Do you know?”. That’s all with the same verb root, in the same tense and person. The shifts change the levels of politeness and formality, and some of them have subtle meaning shifts as well, like expressing surprise or leaving an open-ended feeling.

Fortunately, most of these verb endings are relatively rare. Still, it’s discoveries like these that make me worry I’ll never really grasp this language.

[more on shin jung-hyeon]

아름다음 강산 (Beautiful Rivers and Mountains) by 신중현 (Shin Jung-hyeon/Shin Jung-hyun) (Love, Peace & Poetry: Asian Psychedelic Music)

I have a bit more to share about Shin Jung-hyeon (신정현), the Korean singer I mentioned yesterday.

First of all, I think a better translation of the title is the more literal “Beautiful Rivers and Mountains.” In fact, with Young’s help, I translated the lyrics — she did a rough translation, then I went through and tried to make it into more coherent poetry, spending a lot of time flipping through my Korean-English dictionary to look at secondary meanings of words. But we’ll get to the translation in a moment.

The story of the song is also interesting. It came about when Park Chung Hee (박정희), the longtime military dictator of South Korea, asked Shin Jung-hyeon to write a song in praise of the Blue House, the official residence of South Korea’s president — the equivalent of a sitting U.S. president requesting a song in praise of the White House. Shin refused, which is not something to which dictators take kindly. Not long afterwards, he released “Beautiful Rivers and Mountains”:

Beautiful Rivers and Mountains

Blue sky
White clouds
A thread of wind rises
To fill my heart

Blue-green leaves
Blue-green river
In this beautiful place
You’re here and I’m here

Hold my hand, let’s go and see, run and see that wilderness
Let’s come together and speak of our new dreams

Blue sky
White clouds
A thread of wind rises
To fill my heart

Into this world
We were born
This beautiful place
This proud place
We will live

The brilliant red sun
Glitters on the white waves
Together they overflow the ocean
How good it is to live here!

I will love you with the song I sing

Today I’ll go to meet you and we’ll talk
Time will pass
We will live together, then fade and fall

In this everlasting place
I hunger to create
Our new dream

Spring and summer go,
Fall and winter come
Beautiful rivers and mountains!

Your heart, my heart
Your heart, my heart
Yours and mine are one heart
You and me
Our love is eternal, eternal
We are all, all in endless harmony

Now, somehow President Park got it in his head that this song was a political snub, and he probably wasn’t entirely wrong. According to what Young has been able to dig up in various Korean blogs and in an interview with Shin himself, the trouble began when he and his group, The Men, performed the song live on television. Shin had shaved his head for the performance, and the backing group had put up their long hair with traditional women’s hairpins, all of which was considered outrageous at the time. Park’s wife saw the performance and was deeply insulted. The insult was compounded when Shin gave the song to Kim Jeong-mi (김정미), who had a reputation as a twepyejeon (퇴폐적), or decadent, and recorded the song in an exaggeratedly breathy, sexy style.

But what really did Shin in was a conviction for dealing marijuana. According to a recent interview, he played a gig at one of Korea’s biggest theaters, and the many Western hippies on hand — apparently some of the hippie vagabonds on the Asian trail made it all the way to the Hermit Kingdom — gave him so much marijuana that he ended up supplying the whole Korean rock scene for a while, though never indulging himself. (This is what the man says, anyway.) Once he was busted, the authorities had every excuse to ban Shin from performing and to ban a number of his songs from being played on the radio. Still, he remained an important pop composer, and his songs were often major hits recorded by Korea’s biggest stars.

The ban was finally lifted in the 1980s, when Shin began recording and performing again. In 1997, there was a major tribute concert and a renewed interest in Shin’s career, and he is now widely respected as one of the most influential Korean pop artists of all time.

[korean names]

In response to a comment from DKNY, I thought I’d do a post on how Korean names work.

In Korea, almost everyone has a three-syllable name. The first syllable is the family or clan name — Kim, Lee, Park, etc. — and the following two syllables are the personal name. So, for example, Roh is the family name of the Korean president, and Moo-hyun is his personal name; with the foreign minister, the family name is Ban, the personal name Ki-moon. They should be addressed as Mr. Roh and Mr. Ban, never as Mr. Moo-hyun or Mr. Moon, although Koreans have a tendency to make this mistake in reverse with foreigners, which meant that I was “Mistah Joshi” throughout my time in Korea. In China and Japan as well, the family name comes first, followed by the personal name.

Interestingly, this pattern of largest-to-smallest is followed throughout the Korean language. Dates are stated year-month-day-hour-minute, locations are given with the largest area first — country-prefecture-city, for example.

Occasionally Korean personal names have one syllable rather than two. This was more common historically, but seems to be out of fashion these days. Nevertheless, the Korean Mission currently has two deputy permanent representatives, Joon Oh and Cho Hyun.

With me so far? Good, because now it gets confusing, in three ways.

Word order: Unlike Koreans, Americans and Europeans put their family names last. Many Koreans who live in the West or deal frequently with Westerners have adopted our pattern. Thus, if you meet a Korean-American born here, she’s probably going to introduce herself as Susan Kim, not as Kim Susan. This is straightforward when the person in question has a Western personal name, but when the whole name is still in Korean, it gets difficult. DKNY cited what is probably the most famous of such reversed names, Reverend Sun Myung Moon. His family name is Moon, and in Korean, using the official government translitaration system, his name is Mun Seon-myeong. Which leads us to our second area of confusion …

Spelling: The South Korean government has adopted an official transliteration system that nobody likes, which replaces an older transliteration system that was full of diacritics. Koreans who want Americans to pronounce their names right have thus gotten creative. For example, though the most common spelling of the Korean family name is Park, the transliteration system would render it Bak, and in my two years at the Mission, I’ve also seen a Mr. Pak and a Mr. Bahk; these folks all had the same name in Korean. Probably the most famous crazily spelled Korean name is Syngman Rhee, the first president of the Republic of Korea, whose name in official transliteration would be Yi/Li/Lee Seung-man. Which leads us to our third area of confusion …

Sinicization: It is deeply upsetting to most people when I tell them that there are, in fact, no Koreans named Lee. The name that is rendered Lee in English is in fact simply I, though that pronunciation is usually rendered Yi. The mysterious L is there because that’s how the name — and its associated character — is pronounced in Chinese. This is also true of all Koreans named Lim, who are really named Im. Even weirder is that the Korean name Roh is pronounced Noh, so the current president of the Republic of Korea is, in the official transliteration system, No Mu-hyeon. (How Syngman Rhee came up with his spelling remains a mystery.)

Short note on stray E’s in the transliterations: eo is pronounced like aw in awesome, eu like u in put, ae like a in save.

So now you know why he’s Minister Ban, not Minister Ki-moon.

[colors and numbers]

I have discovered a most extraordinary blog. 16 Colors elegantly combines the Internet’s tendencies to spectacular pointlessness, acute nerdiness and accidental beauty.

I stumbled across this strange beast while searching for an online random color generator. And why was I searching for such a thing? Because I’m learning Korean.

See, when you’re learning foreign vocabulary, you can often help yourself along by creating little mnemonic stories about the new words. For example, I can remember that sukje (숙제) means “homework” because I think of an Arab kid who’d rather go to the souk and smoke a jay than do his homework. Elaborate? Yes. Effective? Very.

There is some vocabulary, however, that is simply not amenable to that kind of mnemonic storytelling. Specifically, number and color terms just have to be memorized through brute force and repetition.

Koreans have a couple of different number systems, and while the Chinese-based system is relatively simple — higher numbers like 25 are just “two-ten-five” — the Korean native numbers, used to tell people’s ages, have unique terms for 20, 30, 40 and so on up through 90. (Past 99, it’s all the Chinese system.) To bang these beasties into my head, I dug up an online random number generator, made a long list of numbers between zero and 99, and then sat there for a while reciting them. After about ten minutes, my intuitive knowledge of number terminology had increased substantially.

Looking to replicate this success, I googled “online random color generator,” and lo and behold, I found my way to 100 Random Colors 2.0, which is exactly what it sounds like. Hit reload and watch the colors change! (The site was created by web designer Regnard Kreisler C. Raquedan.) But somehow the random colors are even better in blog form. There are even archives!

Meanwhile, I should get back to mumbling Korean words at the screen.


This one’s for you, Jenny.

On Tuesday, with the day off for Korean Independence Day, I made my way to the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central branch, at Grand Army Plaza, and came home with an armload of books, among them Roadmap to Korean by Richard Harris (not the actor), a student of the Korean language, a resident in that country for five years at the time of publication, and a kindred spirit. His book is a compendium of useful concepts that he wishes he had, and now I wish I had, upon first arriving in Korea (example: an appendix with translations of typical ATM screens).

When we were in Korea, our school’s assistant director and our primary boss, James, was fond of prefacing every statement with “Maybe,” which led to much bafflement. “Maybe tomorrow is a holiday.” “Maybe you teach one extra hour tonight.” “Maybe I have to go to Seoul tomorrow.” Maybe? What the hell does that mean?

In a chapter about how Korean is a high-context language, meaning much is said indirectly or left understood based on context, Harris has this to say about Korean maybeism:

Another example of Koreans not being direct linguistically is the only-too-common, seemingly ubiquitous ‘maybe.’ Though some visitors to Korea don’t ever pick up on this, even after years of interaction with Koreans, the fact is that the Korean language itself is ladled with grammar structures that imply that something is not definite, when everyone knows it clearly is. That’s why Koreans, when speaking English, say things absolutely baffling with regards to the use of maybe.

Harris feels my pain!

He goes on to give a few examples of phrases that make sense in Korean but translate bizarrely into English, like “Maybe I can’t go to class” and “Maybe your sister’s tall.” They make more sense to me now, knowing what I know of Korean grammar. At the time, though, they left us completely at a loss. This is why I want to learn Korean so badly. Just as I needed to go back to Nepal and India a second time to find out what had so completely addled my mind on the first go-round, I feel now like the only way to work out what Korea was really about is to get inside the language.

No easy task, that, but I’m working on it.