When I think of my evolving relationship with Korean pop culture, I think I will remember 2019 fondly as the year I committed myself to Korean webtoons.
Webtoons are online-first original comics optimized for mobile consumption. (There’s an interesting article that came out earlier this year contrasting webtoons to Japan’s print-first manga culture.) A number of content platforms publish webtoons, but I’ve stuck exclusively with Naver, for no good reason except consistency; I’ve been using Naver for all Korean-related things (news, dictionaries, and its online translator, Papago) for years.
I’ve been writing this post on and off since February this year, ever since I finished reading 흰: The Elegy of Whiteness by Han Kang, and here we are, finally.
흰 (English title: The White Book) is the third book I’ve read by Han Kang, and the first I’ve read in the original Korean. A few years earlier, I had picked up Han’s Booker Prize-winning work 채식주의자 (The Vegetarian), mainly out of a curiosity for the novel’s British translator, Deborah Smith, who had only begun learning Korean seven years prior to the book’s publication.
Reading The Vegetarian was a milestone in my literary (?) Korean journey and education. Prior to it, I prided myself in being able to read Korean literature in the original language, when others had no choice but to rely on translations. What better way to show the world just how fluent I had become! At the time, I didn’t see translation as an art or science in and of itself, only as a means to an end. I’ll remember The Vegetarian as a novel that challenged all the ill-informed notions I’d had about foreign language, fluency, and literary translation.
I found The Vegetarian eerie and bizarre, but Human Acts shook me to the core. It was the first time I had read any literature about the 1980 Gwangju Uprising—nine harrowing days during which the South Korean martial government open fired and otherwise violently suppressed pro-democracy protesters, most of whom were university students.
I read this book during a time in my life when it was hard to feel anything, and, oh, did this book make me feel. The novel is a series of deep-punching vignettes about the atrocities that took place during the uprising and the shadow it continues to cast on Koreans 5, 10, 20+ years later, including Han herself. To date, Human Acts remains one of my favorite books, simply because of how much it hurt to read.
Soundlessly, and without a fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke. Something that, until then, I hadn’t even realized was there.
Han Kang, Human Acts (tr. Deborah Smith)
The White Book is a series of interconnected meditations on the color white. It is a slim volume, just over 100 pages, interspersed with black-and-white photographs. Each “chapter” is rarely more than two pages long.
I thought, naively, that this would make reading the book in Korean simpler. Honestly? I should have known better; both The Vegetarian and Human Acts were short novels, but quite difficult to read, even in English.
Each moment is a leap forward from the brink of an invisible cliff, where time’s keen edges are constantly renewed. We lift our foot from the solid ground of all our life lived thus far and take that perilous step out into the empty air. Not because we can claim any particular courage, but because there is no other way.
–Han Kang, The White Book (tr. Deborah Smith)
When I read The White Book, I felt a kind of desolation. It wasn’t agony like Human Acts, but a quiet, persistent sadness. The color white often represents purity, light, innocence. In The White Book, we experience the color white in its other forms: the chill of a pale corpse, gauze covering a wound, snow and ash falling on a quiet city, bones in an x-ray, white-hot pain, ghosts, fog.
The phrase “하얗게 웃다” was one of Han’s white things that struck me as especially poignant. Laughing whitely, it is translated into English. I always equated this to “laughing innocently” or “laughing cheerfully/brightly.” But according to Han, there’s a fragility in the expression, a trembling feeling, as if you were smiling through tears.
하얗게 웃는다, 라는 표현은 (아마) 그녀의 모국어에만 있다. 아득하게, 쓸쓸하게, 부서지기 쉬운 개끗함으로 웃는 얼굴, 또는 그런 웃음.
너는 하얗게 웃었지. 가령 이렇게 쓰면 너는 조용히 견디며 웃으려 애썼던 어떤 사람이다.
그는 하얗게 웃었어. 이렇게 쓰면 (아마) 그는 자신 안의 무엇인가와 결별하려 애쓰는 어떤 사람이다.
Last month, I went to Seoul for a week by myself. I’m not great at sharing travel stories, but one thing I did do was visit a lot of bookstores because that’s what happens when I go anywhere by myself. On my last day, at Thanks Books in Hapjeong, I spotted a single copy of Han’s 2013 debut poetry collection.
Yeah, I bought it.
There’s no English-language novel that I’ve read so far that captures such intimate suffering as does the three novels I read by Han Kang. Her work is beautiful, but her writing can sometimes be inscrutable. I certainly felt the gaps in my knowledge of literary language (insofar as that can be generalized) while reading The White Book. If you’re studying Korean, and are starting to think about reading literature in Korean, I recommend reading Han’s works in translation first. Put it on your list, regardless.
My husband and I had our wedding in March. Not a big deal, except that in the months leading up to it, I developed severe anxiety, a sleep disorder, and, most unsettlingly, a hypersensitivity to certain kinds of sounds (a symptom of anxiety). I stopped being able to listen to a lot of music I used to enjoy in the past.
In January, I came across old seasons of Hidden Singer on Netflix. That’s where I first heard Lee Juck’s 다행이다.
“다행이다,” from his 2007 album 나무로 만든 노래 (Songs Made of Wood), is one of Lee Juck’s most well-known songs, written for his now-wife while she was studying abroad. It’s also one of the few songs I could listen to without experiencing panic attack-like symptoms. I listened to it on repeat for months. And, as is the case with most of my favorite songs, the lyrics struck me deeply.
다행히/다행이다 is not a complicated word. It’s commonly used in daily Korean in a number of situations. And yet, that’s exactly what gave me pause.
다행(多幸) is literally ‘much luck/fortune’–that’s the same 행 as in 행복, 행운, 불행, 요행. I’ve seen this song title translated as “It’s a Relief,” “Relieved,” “Fortunate,” “It’s Fortunate.” The phrase 다행이다 could also mean “thank goodness,” “how lucky,” “thankfully.” All of those words and phrases have their own specific nuances.
I used to feel helpless translating, at times, even a phrase as basic as 다행이다, which seems to carry several layers upon second glance. How do I know which is the right interpretation? What did the artist or writer intend? I’ve stopped thinking like that for the most part. My translation can try to be true to the original writer, but ultimately it is most true to myself. It’s a mere snapshot of my self, my feelings, at one particular moment in time. Through translation, I often uncover hidden truths about myself.
Listening to 다행이다, I thought of the phrase “What a relief.” But I didn’t think of a person. I thought about Korean. The sound of the language, the words, the grammar, Hangeul itself.
What a relief, that I had even just one ever-present, constant thing that I could rely on during that time in my life. What relief, that there was at least one thing I could delight in when it felt like I was disappointing everyone around me. What a relief, that I’ve had the privilege to pursue this language purely, doggedly, for so long. 다행이다.
“What a relief” Lee Juck (translated by me)
What a relief it is that I can see you and run my fingers through your hair that we can sit face to face and breathe the same air that I can hold you and let myself cry when things get too hard What a relief that this beautiful world exists with you in it
Even as the wind whips fiercely around me and even as the roof I stand under drips with rain What a relief it is that I’m not abandoned here alone My weary daily life and my struggle to survive isn’t in vain because an astonishing person like you is always by my side
What a relief it is that I can see you and we can share a meal together that I can clasp your aching hands in my own that I can hold you and comfort you as best I can What a relief that this beautiful world exists with you in it
Even as the wind whips fiercely around me and even as the roof I stand under drips with rain What a relief it is that I’m not abandoned here alone My weary daily life and my struggle to survive isn’t in vain because an astonishing person like you is always by my side
What a relief it is that I can see you and run my fingers through yourhair
We recently got back from a trip to Tokyo, and half of my heart is still there.
This was my third time in Japan and Theo’s sixth; between the two of us, we’ve explored most of the touristy metropolitans on Honshu, so we were content to just stay put in Tokyo, visiting museums and parks, eating soft serve, and making late-night trips to Family Mart.
People are always surprised when they find out that I keep going back to Japan though I only know the most basic of conversational Japanese, and yet I’ve only been to Korea once despite being fairly fluent in Korean (going on my ninth year of studying)!
The reality is, I’ve been your typical anime, manga, and (later) JRPG nerd for far longer than I’ve been studying Korean. I loved Pokémon in elementary school, watched English dubs of Rurouni Kenshin, and ate up the most ridiculous shoujo manga I could borrow from my friends. I taught myself kana when I was in high school and studied the language for a year in college — in a lot of ways, Korean was the interloper in my Japanese studies, heh.
That said, I’ve never been good at learning Japanese, even though I keep coming back to it. (I recently had an epiphany about this but that’s another blog post).
Learning Japanese through Korean (kinda)
As I got better at Korean, I wondered if things would stick better if I learned Japanese in Korean. To some extent, I was right; it did make learning grammar easier since there are a lot of grammar constructions that have a one-to-one equivalence between Japanese and Korean. But then I’d always feel like the two languages were competing for my time — and I would always choose Korean in the end.
When I told my Korean teacher about my upcoming trip to Japan, she asked if I wanted to spend a few minutes every class doing some basic Japanese, and I figured it wouldn’t hurt.
(As an aside, I’ve been taking private lessons in Korean for about a year now and my teacher is phenomenal. She’s done academic research in linguistics as well as technical translation work from Japanese into Korean, and she is trained to teach Japanese. She’s currently studying to get her TESOL certificate too. We have the nerdiest conversations about language and culture in Korean and it’s brilliant.)
In any case, I decided to show her some of my notes from a Japanese book I picked up on a whim when I was there in 2015.
Much like I’d started out learning Korean, I brute forced my way through the text, looking up every unfamiliar Kanji, unknown vocabulary word, and grammar point I didn’t know. I even made index cards to flip through on my commute to work.
But then my teacher suggested we try a more inductive approach to learning Japanese. So rather of meticulously going over grammar point by grammar point, this is what we do instead.
I read through the Japanese text on my own out loud (yes, stumbling over all the Kanji I couldn’t read)
My teacher then re-reads each sentence out loud, and then translates it into Korean.
We go over some key vocabulary and phrases in the text.
We discuss the text together in Korean.
Even though our discussion (and my comprehension) of the text is largely in Korean, I find my ear becoming more and more attuned to cadence of Japanese sentences; I’m even retaining more words and improving at reading. Most importantly, I feel myself getting better at Japanese, while also getting to practice Korean.
Two birds! One stone! I finally feel like I’ve found a sweet spot for learning both Japanese and Korean.
My teacher has been incredible; she basically lets me set my own curriculum and follows me patiently wherever my language whims take me. Obviously this wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for her. But! There’s something also to be said about this book I serendipitously picked up four years ago
日本人の心が分かる日本語: a mini review
I didn’t know anything about this book when I spotted it in the Japanese language section of Kinokuniya’s flagship store in Shinjuku, but the book’s subtitle caught my interest: “A book for foreigners wanting to read between the lines to see what the Japanese really think.”
The book is made up of short essays (3-4) pages on specific words related to Japanese culture and etiquette. Each essay is structured the same way:
A few introductory sentences defining the word and its origins
Several specific example scenarios, usually in the form of dialogue, illustrating different nuances of the word or the concept it represents
Each example scenario is followed by an explanation
Each essay has an additional section called もっと深くwhich goes deeper into the topic using more advanced Japanese
Finally, each essay ends with a list of key vocabulary words. These words tend to show up in subsequent essays.
I haven’t taken the JLPT exam, but the essays are probably at an intermediate to upper-intermediate level in terms of grammar. The vocabulary felt more advanced than the grammar, though the book does a great job of referring back to and reinforcing the key terms that were introduced in earlier sections of the book.
Here are just a few of the topics covered in this book:
So my teacher and I discuss these essays in a mix of Japanese and Korean, and the great thing is, I’m learning a lot of basic things about Japanese culture that I didn’t know before, while also using Korean to compare and contrast it with Korean and Indian culture. It’s stretching my brain in fun and exciting ways.
Speaking of brains, I think I’m feeling my mind sort of… unlock(?) itself to Japanese lately. It’s easier to learn and retain new things. I feel energized by studying Japanese — that’s something I used to only ever feel with Korean.
Sometimes certain stories come into your life right when you need them the most.
On December 14, 2017, I wrote that sentence and saved it to a draft titled ‘Lingering thoughts on Because This is My First Life.’
For the rest of 2018 I couldn’t remember what those lingering thoughts were.
Funnily enough, now, a year later, I do. Something about it being this time of year, with the holidays and New Year coming up, and with it, inevitably, all the conversations about family, memories, nostalgia, tradition — stuff that’s always made me nauseous — also made me remember the Korean drama Because This is My First Life.
I have, in many ways, been a thorn in my parents’ side for the past several years. I’ve broken from tradition in a number of ways, forcing them to scrap and rewrite the playbook of raising a Good Indian Girl time and time again. One of these ways is my being in a relationship that doesn’t, and will never, conform to their expectations. Trying to contort myself and my partner to fit into that mold continues to cause me great pain.
Because This is My First Life is a show that reached out and spoke to my heart one year ago, and it still does so today. With its main couple and their unconventional relationship, their love for each other challenged by tradition, their strained familial relationships — it’s a story that paralleled my life shockingly well. (Minus the, you know, whole contract marriage deal).
Both characters realizing what they value in themselves and in each other, and then acknowledging that those things are different from what their families value, was heart-bursting moment for me.
The finale wasn’t about solving all of the issues and living Happily Ever After. It was an acknowledgement that relationships take honest work. And family might not always come around, but you can still be yourself and be happy. It’s okay to prioritize that happiness.
The last few minutes of the finale has some of my favorite lines in all of K-drama land:
계약 내용은 일년마다 갱신되지만 대전제는 항상 똑같아. 우리의 사랑은 최우선으로 할 것. 물론 일반적인 일은 아니다. 각자의 집으로 갔던 첫 명절에 어머니는 나에게 전화를 걸어 우셨고 우리 아빠는 상을 엎었다. 하지만 그게 다였다. 그 이상에 큰 일은 일어나지 않았다. 그냥 우리는 남들에게 또라이 부부가 되었고 그 만큼 우리의 생활에 충실할 수 있게 되었다.
결혼이든 비혼이든 혼인 신고를 하든 안 하든 무엇을 택해도 생각보다 그렇게 심각한 일들은 일어나지 않는다. 중요한 건 어떤 형태로든 옆에 있는 이 사람과 지금 이 순간을 함께 하는 건. 그래서 오늘도 우선 우리는 사랑만 하기로 한다. 그리고 지금 이 순간을 사는 여러분에게 모든 진심을 담아 건투를 빈다. 어차피 이번 생은 우리 모두 처음이니까.
Every year we renew our contract but the terms always stay the same. That our love will be our top priority. Of course, this is easier said than done. When we went to our separate homes for our first long holiday, my mother-in-law called me and cried over the phone and Dad flipped over the table. But that’s all. Nothing else happened. We simply became known as the weirdo couple to others and were able to stay true to ourselves that much more.
Whether you choose to get married or remain single, whether you choose to register your marriage or not, whatever you end up doing, the consequences are not as severe as you’d think. The important thing is that, whatever form it takes, you share this moment together with the person by your side. That’s why, once again today, we decided to love each other first and foremost. And to all of you living in this moment, with all of our hearts, we wish you good luck. Because, for all of us, this is our first life anyway.
I’m not a romantic and I certainly don’t believe that putting love first can solve all of your problems. But this message to me was more about staying true to yourself — you might disappoint others in your life, but at the end of the day, it’s not going to be a big deal. People will continue to live their lives.
If this is a hopelessly Western way of thinking, well, I’m not going to defend myself. For the most part, I still tend to live my life conforming, trying not to rock the boat, but some things are just too important.
Fun fact: I didn’t finish a single drama in 2018.
I say this as I watch Memories of the Alhambra on Netflix, so maybe 2019 will be different? Alhambra strongly reminds me of Nine (also now on Netflix), which I absolutely loved and have actually watched twice. But it also reminds me of Sword Art Online and Ready Player One, both of which I hate. Heh. So we’ll see if I stick with it. I’m two episodes in and I haven’t rolled my eyes too much yet.
I often tell people that Nine is the drama that pretty much ended all Korean dramas for me. In the five years since it ended, I’ve only finished three dramas — Signal, Age of Youth, and Because This Is My First Life.
Maybe I’m becoming more discerning? Picky? Impatient? I’m not sure. Nevertheless, I’ll continue to keep an eye out for another drama that charms me as much as First Life did.
It’s always surprises me when fellow language learners say they feel like a “different person” when they speak in a non-native language.
When people ask me if I feel like I have a different personality when I speak Korean, my answer has always been no.
If you’re learning a new language as an adult — at least, past the “optimal” age to acquire a language — how much of your self can truly be affected by the language? The culture and language of your family and the society you spend your day-to-day life in has so much a firmer hand in shaping you. I doubt that even study-abroad programs or other intense immersive experiences can have a significant effect on one’s core self.*
(Aside: I do think this is a very different situation from being multilingual from birth. I’m not well-versed in the research, but I know there are models and theories for how language shapes identity and personality in children who grow up in multilingual/multicultural households.)
I’ve heard a lot of language learners say they sound more polite or reserved in Korean or Japanese but I suspect that’s because those languages have distinct speech levels; and the one that you learn in class or from a textbook is the standard “polite” style, mixed in with a few extra honorific and humble verb/noun forms. The phrases and and vocabulary you learn tend to sound more neutral; and coupled with literal grammatical ways to sound polite that don’t exist in English, it makes sense why people might feel like they have a new personality in a new language.
So maybe that’s why people feel like they’re a different person when they’re speaking a different language—maybe it’s because at the beginner level, communication feels limited to more neutral phrases. Communicating abstract inner feelings, your 속마음, is a challenge. And then once the nuances of language, all the contexts and connotations of words and phrases, become more apparent, there’s a learning curve to “fitting” yourself into this new language. How does my personal philosophy and worldview fit into Korean? My interpersonal relationships? My morals and ethics? My sense of humor? My “voice”?
No, I don’t think I have a different personality in Korean, but I do think that adjustment period of finding yourself in another language can feel weird and uncomfortable to the extent that you feel like you’re undergoing a kind of metamorphosis. You might feel like only a small part of yourself in Korean — the rest is still being built as you build up fluency.
One interesting thing I have noticed about myself when I speak Korean is the degree at which I show certain parts of myself. I grew up in the United States, but was taught to reject the Western mindset for a more conservative South Asian one — that is, to reject individualism for collectivism, to maintain the status quo and preserve social harmony, to revere one’s elders and social “betters” regardless of their character, to give a few examples. Through and through, I’m Asian American, and I still don’t know how to balance how I was raised at home (very Indian) with how I grew up among my peers (American). But I’ve noticed that when I speak in Korean, especially to native Koreans, I subconsciously tap into the part of me that’s more Asian than American and downplay or ignore the parts of me that are more Western. But both of those identities are still a part of my self and still continue to shape my personality.
The more advanced I become in Korean, the more I become myself in the language. These days, I’m finding it to be easier to express my innermost thoughts, my life philosophy, my 속마음 in Korean. But I think the moment that I felt like I was wholly myself in Korean, was when I realized I could be funny. Not that I’m really funny or anything in English, but it’s pretty satisfying to know that I can be my snarky self and actually say things in another language that can make people laugh.
At the end of the day, maybe this is what fluency should be? Not a score on a test or the ability to talk about politics or discuss modern literature, but a measure of how much you feel like yourself in a language.
*Post-script: I have little to no knowledge of psychology, so I’m probably missing a lot of nuance here. One thing I got lost reading about while working on this post was the distinction between ‘self’ and ‘personality.’ There seems to be different schools of thought on how/if they are distinct, and then how those things relate to ‘identity.’ I might be wrongly conflating a lot of things here but writing all of this out in my own words, just for my own sake, still felt worthwhile. Thanks for reading!
After more than a year of attending advanced Korean classes and regularly writing and reviewing 500-800 character essays with my teacher, I’ve accumulated a few useful tips for improving long-form writing that I thought I’d share here.
I’ll preface this by saying few people write well in any language, even among native speakers. I’m a writer and storyteller in both my professional and personal life and I know just how hard it is to build compelling rhetoric using effective, engaging language on any topic. So, following these “quick tips” won’t make you a good writer in Korean — that will take years of practice reading and writing, just as it would in English. But it may help you get started on the road to sounding more natural.
Caveat: This is only one language learner’s experience (mine) and one language instructor (my teacher)’s advice, so take with a grain of salt.
I’ve liked a lot of projects that Jung Yumi has been in, but the one I can’t forget is Que Sera Sera, her first TV drama. It’s possibly one of the most horrifying and hard-to-stomach (i.e. amazing) melodramas I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen it 2.5 times myself and the opening song still always gives me goosebumps.
That said, I think it was her role as Joo Yeol-mae in I Need Romance 2012 that really made me a fan. I was surprised at the frankness with which that show addressed love and female sexuality and relationships that didn’t conform to societal norms; plus, I have a soft spot for shows with female leads who have close circle of girl friends. Writing aside, I adored Jung Yumi’s punchy line delivery and the spark she gave her character. [Shameless plug: I’m currently captioningI Need Romance 2012 in Korean on Viki if you’re looking for a fun drama to study with.]
Last month, Jung Yumi wrapped up filming Live, her small screen comeback after four years. She was interviewed in this month’s Elle Korea on her past projects and her acting style in an article titled ‘정유미의 호흡’ (translated below).
Now, I’ve translated the article’s title (maybe too literally) as ‘Jung Yumi’s Breathing.’ 호흡 is an interesting word. It literally means breathing or respiration, but in the context of the article, it’s more referring to Jung Yumi’s laissez-faire way of doing things. She goes with the flow, marches to the beat of her own drum, so to speak.
Disclaimer: All copyright belongs to the original source. I am not profiting by this translation and cannot guarantee its accuracy.
I’ve been feeling very “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” when it comes to studying Korean these days.
When I don’t have time to study a language, I feel bad because I truly love it and want to do it regularly. That is not what’s happening now; for the past couple months, I’ve actually been great about challenging myself with Korean and studying consistently. And yet somehow, this made things worse?
A few days ago, without planning to or really thinking about it ahead of time, I told my Korean teacher that I wanted to quit studying Korean. I’m not sure if I meant, like, stop taking Korean classes or just stopping altogether, but either way, my reasoning was kind of lame and surprising even to myself.
I felt like studying Korean had become pointless.
Here’s the thing. I love geeking out about linguistics and language acquisition, and learning languages has always been a thing I’ve loved doing for its own sake, like how people love things like hiking or cooking, without aspiring to be a mountaineer or chef. I never started out learning a language to accomplish anything or to fulfill a goal aside from just enjoying the process. I didn’t start studying Korean because I thought it was a valuable skill I could bring to the workplace or anything. I didn’t plan on doing anything with it.
But after becoming more disciplined in my studies — attending classes, writing more, memorizing words, participating in discussions — not only did my language abilities improve, I started to feel more and more restless. I kept feeling like I wanted (needed?) to do something with Korean.
I tell people I want to become a literary translator some day, but it isn’t currently feasible for me to set out on a path to accomplish that. I’m not ready to quit my day job and give up the nascent career I’ve built for myself since leaving academia in 2014 — it’s not related to Korean, but I like it. Packing up and moving to Korea isn’t an option, and yet everyone tells me that’s the only way I can make any kind of “use” of this skill.
And so, I wonder. To what end am I working this hard?
It’s like, up to a certain point of proficiency, learning Korean “as a hobby” for my own intellectual satisfaction was fine. Aspiring to know the language well enough to enjoy its culture and history and literature was fine. But now that I’m becoming more fluent, there’s this itch in me to want to use it to create or contribute something meaningful, to make not just a hobby, but part of my livelihood
And because I can’t find a way to do that, it makes me want to give up just a little on the language. Maybe not pushing myself, not going all-in with my studies will help me keep Korean at arm’s length and push it back into “just a hobby” territory.
I’m not even sure if any of this makes sense, but I think I’m going through some kind of existential crisis or slump with learning Korean right now. I need to take a step back and think about how to reprioritize my life.