I guess this is a slump

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.

Thoughts on literary writing in another language

Last month, I told my Korean teacher about staying up really late to finish an assignment for an online YA fantasy writing course I was taking, and she semi-jokingly suggested that I should try writing a novel in Korean.

Now, I don’t think this is something I’ll ever do or even be interested in doing — it’s hard enough to write a novel in English and I’ve been trying for a decade! — but it did make me wonder about bilingual writers who choose not to write in their mother tongue.

In the case of the diasporic writer, I get it. You become more fluent in English or the primary language of wherever you are educated. But what about writers like Yann Martel (Life of Pi), Nabokov (Lolita), and Jack Kerouac (On the Road), who chose to write in English when they were more than literate in their native languages?

Granted, you could argue that choosing to write in English is a practical move since it makes your writing accessible (and marketable) to the broadest possible audience… but as much as writing is a business, it is also a very personal and emotionally taxing endeavor that language has no small part in.

I thought back on the times that I’ve been compelled to write in Korean, not just for the sake of practicing writing, but because Korean came intuitively to me in that moment. Sometimes it was because there were specific words or sentence constructions that fit what I was feeling more closely in Korean than English. Most of the time, writing about my fears, my insecurities, and disappointments came difficult in English and more easily in Korean. As limited as my writing ability was, I found it easier to be honest with myself and express myself feelings in Korean than English.

In her memoir, Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, who chooses only to write in English, perfectly captured what I was beginning to realize:

When one thinks in an adopted language, one arranges and rearranges words that are neutral, indifferent even, to arrive at a thought that one does not know to be there.

When one remembers in an adopted language, there is a dividing line in that remembrance. What came before could be someone else’s life; it might as well be fiction. Sometimes I think it is this distancing that marks me as cold-hearted and selfish. To forget the past is a betrayal, we were taught in school when young; to disown memories is a sin.

What language does one use to feel; or, does one need a language to feel? In the hospital, I visited a class of medical students studying minds and brains. After an interview, the doctor who led the class asked about feelings. I said it was beyond my ability to describe what might as well be indescribable.

If you can be articulate about your thoughts, why can’t you articulate your feelings? asked the doctor.

It took me a year to figure out the answer. It is hard to feel in an adopted language, yet it is impossible to do that in my native language.

Yiyun Li, DEAR FRIEND, FROM MY LIFE I WRITE TO YOU IN YOUR LIFE

There is definitely a sense of detachment and distance that I feel when I write about something intense and/or emotional in Korean. In English, the same sentiments come across as strangely warped or fake because it’s difficult, in a way, to properly admit that I feel those things. Conveying a worry or a painful memory in an adopted language might feel almost dissociative, but it’s also relieving.

(Side note: There’s a great line in Li’s memoir where she writes about finding comfort in Katherine Mansfield’s journals: “Is it possible that one can be held hostage by someone else’s words? What I underlined and reread: Are they her thoughts or mine?” This is exactly how I felt reading Li’s entire memoir. I have something highlighted on almost every single page. I highly recommend it, especially if you’re a lover of reading/writing and have struggled with mental illness.)

In fact, a few days ago, I wrote a short poem in Korean about why I write in Korean. It’s not very good but it surprised me that I even wanted to do it; it’s the first time I’ve ever written anything in Korean that’s not a journal entry, a translation, or a TOPIK essay, and I haven’t written poetry of any kind since high school. Something about writing it in Korean made it feel more sincere and natural.

As a reader, I’ve always found poetry difficult to enjoy because bad poetry is really really bad and good poetry is usually too honest for me to stomach. But I’ve now come to enjoy the works of certain Korean poets, and many Korean writers as well, whose works I would have found difficult to get through in English. Their subjects and themes resonate strongly with me, yet also more remotely.

A lot of bilingual writers have said some variation of what Li says in her memoir — that writing in a non-native language offers them a sense of distance, that words have less personal context and therefore less “baggage.” Maybe there are some stories and subjects that fit with some languages more naturally than others.

Either way, it makes me grateful to know another language — that as a writer and a reader, I have that much more opportunity to be moved by literature.

Thoughts on non-Koreans adopting Korean names

This is a topic that’s made me scratch my head for a while now and I’m not entirely sure about it. Over the years, I’ve come across many non-Korean-heritage learners who have adopted a Korean name and introduce themselves in class and to their native Korean friends using that name. Usually it’s a Korean-sounding name or a Korean name that carries the same meaning as their given name. I myself have been asked by my Korean instructor several times if I go by a Korean name or if I want to make one up.

Acknowledging the fact that I’m not Korean and thus can’t know an ethnic Korean person’s perspective, I’ve always found this practice weird and kind of offensive.

For me, a name has always been more than just a name. My name is a tie to my Indian heritage — a tenuous connection to my extended family with whom I share very little in common now and a relic of the religion I was brought up with (archana is a specific type of Hindu prayer). For years, I thought about changing my last name because I hated  Tamil Nadu’s practice of using the patronymic as a family name (more on this here), which was constant reminder of the extreme patriarchal thinking and misogyny rampant in my family. And in America, for better or worse, every mispronunciation of my name is a reminder of my otherhood — and yet I refuse to come up with a Starbucks name. Why should I, when the West continues to appropriate and capitalize on Indian culture?

In other words, names come with baggage. Even if I were to permanently immigrate to Korea, I could never casually adopt a Korean name because I don’t know what it’s like to carry that baggage. For example, I was weirded out when a Korean friend of mine told me about what an American acquaintance of hers did: he married a Korean woman and both of them adopted a random a Korean last name that their children would later take on. Even though she was impressed by the guy’s decision, it felt too much like cultural appropriation to me. That said, regardless of my feelings on the topic, could there be a scenario in which adopting a Korean name not only makes sense, but would be considered a courtesy to native Koreans?

I know many Asians who come to reside, work, and/or study in the West adopt Western names for the sake of convenience or so they can avoid hearing their name horribly botched over and over again. A lot of this is rooted in Western imperialism, which has turned English communication into a survival skill; sadly, not choosing a ‘White’-sounding name can even be detrimental to your success in the West.

If Koreans (or anyone with a non-Western name) feel that they can only be successful in an English-speaking country by adopting an English-sounding name, shouldn’t foreigners in Korea do the same?

My language teacher pointed out that in a country full of immigrants, like America, there’s enough diversity that even if people botch non-Western names, they’re at least unfazed by it. But because Korea is relatively homogeneous, having a name that is difficult to pronounce can inconvenience yourself and others around you in non-insignificant ways; some official forms for example, can’t accommodate names that are longer than 3 or 4 characters.

If you’re living and working in Korea, is it a form of arrogance to insist on having people call you by your “difficult” name? Aren’t you just acting like a special snowflake, constantly correcting/reminding everyone about your name? Isn’t conforming to cultural expectations a way to show respect for that country’s conventions? I don’t know.

I’m curious to know if any of you have an opinion one way or another on this. Is it courteous to adopt a Korea name if you’re a foreigner living in Korea? Should Korean learners adopt a Korean name from the outset? Is it offensive no matter what?

2018 language goals

In all honesty, I never liked setting personal goals because why bother when there’s good chance that I’ll just fail and make myself feel bad?

There are a few different things wrong with that attitude, yes, but one major reason for it is that my goals were always either 1) grossly unrealistic or 2) not concrete enough.

Re: #1, I used to live by that terribly tired quote, “Shoot for the Moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Why not pile up more on your plate than you can handle or make your to-do list infinitely long, when even just accomplishing some of those things is an achievement, right? Objectively, that’s true. But a glass half empty-type person like me dismisses all the things they have accomplished and are consumed by what they haven’t, maybe even so much so that it paralyzes them from moving any further. So. The trick is to aim lower, maybe even embarrassingly low, so you do manage to check off everything on your list, even if it’s just for your own ego and self-esteem. If you feel good about accomplishing stuff, chances are you’ll want to accomplish even more stuff.

As for #2, if there’s one thing being in analytics taught me, it’s that it’s impossible to measure success when you’re not metrics-driven. Setting a goal like “be better at X” isn’t helpful because “being better” isn’t something you can really measure when it comes time to evaluate yourself. Setting a number to your goal helps to make it more concrete, more measurable. Instead of “run more,” something like “run 10 miles a week” is better.

So, with that in mind, my realistic and measurable language goals for 2018 are:

1) Publish 2 blog posts a month

Maybe not every month, but at least 9 out of 12 months this year (hence my rush to get this post out before the end of January). Heck, if I can publish 1-3 blog posts a week for my job, I can do it for the thing I love.

2) Study 50 new words a week

I was proud of my TOPIK II score this time around but my biggest challenge was, hands-down, vocabulary. So. As much as I hate memorizing, I will be getting very intimate with my Quizlet decks this year. This isn’t my favorite way of studying vocabulary; I much prefer learning words through context but I concede that sometimes the best and fastest way to learning new words is memorization coupled with lots and lots of practice sentences.

3) Write 1 TOPIK essay a week

Through my classes, I’ve accumulated a lot of helpful notes on how to improve my writing score; now it’s just a matter of practicing so that I can write well in the allotted time. I plan on publishing and notes to this blog as well.

4) Improve my score in each TOPIK section

I’m not setting any hard goals on how much I want each section to improve by, but if the overall number increases, I’ll be thrilled.

5) Read at least two Korean news articles a week

Ahem. My weakness is reading Korean celebrity interviews, web comics, and historical novels; needless to say, my scope of relevant Korean vocabulary is limited. I want to improve my vocabulary rapidly but I don’t have the time or interest in immersing myself in Korean economics or politics to learn through context. But reading or even skimming a couple articles a week should be doable.

I really admire people who can maintain elaborate study logs, where they carve out exactly how many hours they’re going to put into reading, listening, writing, etc. Back when I first started learning Korean, I absorbed things so enthusiastically that every spare moment felt as though I was doing something language-related. Studying wasn’t even a thing I thought about separately setting aside time for.

I think I keep saying this over and over again here, but I’ve been feeling ‘lost’ with Korean for a long while now. I plateaued in terms of how much I could “absorb” effortlessly and didn’t know how to impart more discipline in my studying. Hopefully goal-setting like this will help me add more structure to my studies and help me further improve my Korean fluency.

One Million Roses

My heart feels sliced in half today.

I have been removed from the idol scene for a few years now, but there was a time in college and graduate school when SHINee’s music meant a lot to me. I bonded with two of my closest friends over their music; no matter how far-removed we were as fans then, it truly feels like we’ve lost something precious today.

As someone with clinical depression, just a scant few months older than Jonghyun, and as someone who has felt a similar kind of hopelessness and despair, I am truly sick with grief at how society keeps failing individuals with mental illnesses.

Take this moment to reach out to your loved ones and check in on them. The ones who smile the fiercest on the outside are often the ones who are crumbling on the inside.

I leave you with a song that Jonghyun covered on Immortal Song 2 back in 2011. To this day, it is one of my favorite performances by him.

Originally a Latvian song and popularized by Russian singer Alla Pugacheva, the Korean version 백만송의 장미 was first sung by Shim Soo-bong in 1997. Korean lyrics and English translation by me below.

Continue reading “One Million Roses”

That poem in ‘Because This Is My First Life’

There are a lot of reasons I loved Because This Is My First Life. Like, a lot.

One of them is Jiho’s penchant for making literary allusions and using extended metaphors to express her complicated thoughts and feelings. This was a nice bit of character development, I thought; even though Jiho doesn’t work as a writer for a good chunk of the show, that side of her still comes through to the viewer.

There are two main works which Jiho alludes to in the show. One of them is the poem <방문객> (“The Visitor”) by Korean poet 정현종. The poem appears in his 2009 anthology <섬> (Island).

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방문객

사람이 온다는 건
실은 어마어마한 일이다.
그는
그의 과거와 현재와
그리고
그의 미래와 함께 오기 때문이다.
한 사람의 일생이 오기 때문이다.
부서지기 쉬운
그래서 부서지기도 했을
마음이 오는 것이다―그 갈피를
아마 바람은 더듬어볼 수 있을
마음,
내 마음이 그런 바람을 흉내낸다면
필경 환대가 될 것이다.

The Visitor

The coming of a person
is, in fact, a tremendous feat.
Because he
comes with his past and present
and
with his future.
Because a person’s whole life comes with him.
Since it is so easily broken
the heart that comes along
would have been broken ― a heart
whose layers the wind will likely be able to trace,
if my heart could mimic that wind
it can become a hospitable place.

[I’m appending a million caveats onto this translation because I feel that translating poetry is sacrilegious unless you truly, truly understand the nuances of the language and the cultural/historical context of the poet — neither of which I can claim to be any kind of expert on… and yet here I am. I did read a few analyses of this poem; while my translation is a little graceless, I think it gets across the main point of poet. Take it with a grain of salt, use with caution, etc. etc.]

For what I know of the poet (Romanized as Chong Hyon-jong), his works reflect the challenges of connecting with oneself and others during this age of materialism, but mostly end on an uplifting note.

The titular poem, for example, poignantly captures this sentiment with just two lines:

사람들 사이에 섬이 있다.
그 섬에 가고 싶다.

Island

There are islands between people.
I want visit that island.

Because This Is My First Life isn’t only about marriage and love in the modern age (though it does do an amazing job at addressing that). Like these poems, I think the show as a whole tries to capture the profundity of human interaction. Knowing oneself isn’t easy. Knowing others is almost impossible. But despite this, the fact that humans are able to come together and communicate and coexist is a truly tremendous feat. Everyone comes with their own ‘baggage’ — their own past, their own present, their own future. It’s not something to downplay or ignore. To accept them as a person is to accept all of their weight; that, perhaps, is the best comfort that one human being can offer another.

Twenty-eight

It’s been a few years now since I stopped being excited about my birthday.

Every year, the weight of my disappointment in myself grows heavier; all of my numerous, unrealized goals come rushing painfully back at me. Responsibilities grow, conflicts become more convoluted, and meanwhile it gets harder and harder to stay true to my own sense of self.

Maybe that’s just growing up?

But maybe it’s a sign of personal growth that this year, I tried hard not to be moody and taciturn around my birthday. I know that the people who send their greetings or think to get me gifts do it because they care. So, I try to be kind to myself on my birthday and grateful for the love others have shown me.

I made a rare trip to Koreatown in Santa Clara to visit a bookstore that I haven’t been to in years, since my language partner moved away. If you’re in the South Bay, 서울 문고 종교 서관 has a limited quantity of new releases, all-time bestsellers, and Korean books on religion. But the real gem is the used books collection. I spent an unreasonable amount of time combing through the shelves until deciding on a couple birthday presents for myself.

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Yes, that book on the left is a history book for elementary school kids about 사서 (四書), or the Four Books of Confucianism. Since Joseon-era scholarly study was almost entirely rooted in Confucian teachings, I learned some relevant Korean words on the topic while reading 성균관 유생들의 나날. I figured I might as well pick up this book to learn a bit more.

books-1

I haven’t really looked through the book, but I can say that while the writing is quite simple, and I’m surprised by just how much detail is packed in a book for elementary school children. There’s a separate section for each of the four books (논어, 맹자, 대학, 중용) and places where they break down Hanja.

The second book is a collection of essays by bestselling author 공지영. I don’t know if  I can say I’m a fan of her work (too damn depressing), but I do admire her writing. I’ve been doing a lot of writing in Korean and I’m trying to improve not just my sentence structure and vocabulary, but overall composition; I figured I should get in the habit of reading good, creative nonfiction as a first step.

books-2

(This book’s table of contents is so weirdly cute.)

After books, I stopped for coffee and deliciousness at Cocohodo. Cocohodo is famous for pretty much one thing: 호두과자, or Korean walnut pastries.

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호두과자 is a walnut-shaped pastry, with a bready outer shell made of dough containing pounded walnuts, and filled inside with red bean paste and walnut chunks. In its entirety, it tastes like I’m eating a soft, sweetened walnut… which was confusing for my brain because a walnut-shaped pastry, made of walnut dough, filled with walnut chunks, which tastes like a walnut but that isn’t a walnut….! Heh. Anyway, it was my first time trying it and it was quite incredible with black coffee.

This post is late. I’ve been 28 for a few days now. It’s still hard to shake the feeling that it’s not just this post, or this blog, but that I’m late at everything I set out to do. But I know that’s not true. I know I’ve accomplished a lot in the past year, both related to Korean and not. I know I’ve achieved things I never even had a goal post for in the first place. So I’ll continue to tell myself, at least until the birthday-ish feeling wears off, that there’s really no reason to be so melancholy.