Category: Books

Japanese words to understand the Japanese mind

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.

Sunset over Setagaya Park.

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.

My Japanese notes are in a mix of Korean and English.

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:

  • しつけ
  • けじめ
  • 遠慮(えんりょ)
  • 気をつかう
  • がんばる
  • 無理
  • 空気を読む

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.

How Language Makes Me Feel

비는 비.  낮은 낮.  여름은 여름….  살면서 많은 말을 배웠다.  자주 쓰는 말이 있고 그렇지 않은 것이 있었다.  지상에 뿌리내린 것이 있고 식물의 종자처럼 가볍게 퍼져가는 말이 있었다.  여름을 여름이라 할 때, 나는 그것을 가질 수 있을 것 같았다.  그럴 수 있다 믿어 자꾸 물었다.  땅이라니, 나무라니, 게다가 당신이라니…. 입속 바람을 따라 겹치고 흔들리는 이것, 저것, 그것.  내가 ‘그것’ 하고 발음하면 ‘그것….’ 하고 퍼지는 동심원의 너비.  가끔은 그게 내 세계의 크기처럼 느껴졌다.

The first couple pages of 두근두근 내 인생 (yes I’m reading that now) absolutely struck me dumb.

Never have I read a more accurate depiction of how I feel about language – particularly Korean.  I always whine about how it’s so hard to learn new words and really have them stick in your long-term memory.  But the fact of the matter is, when it does happen, it’s such an astounding feeling.  When you really truly know word – when not only know its definitions but also its subtle nuances, its color, the intangible quality it gives the sentence it’s a part of – that’s a special feeling that I think only true lovers of language can appreciate.

Reading 桜蘭高校ホスト部

Look at what I have not been reading these days.

2012-12-13 22.51.43*squeals*  桜蘭高校ホスト部 (Ouran High School Host Club) is one of my ALL-TIME favorite animes and mangas ever.  It’s cute, funny, endearing, and not to mention the art is gorgeous.  (It’s also the only anime I’ve ever watched both English-subbed and English-dubbed – and the dubbing is very impressive!)  Now shoujo manga can be pretty ridiculous but one of the charms of OHSHC is that it makes fun of its own genre and tropes and doesn’t take itself too seriously.  You have the typical shoujo setup:  a cross-dressing(or is she?) female from a working-class family enters a private academy for the Incredibly Wealthy & Snooty and gets entangled in rich-kid shenanigans – but our heroine Haruhi is far from the typical Mary Sues of shoujo-verse (lookin’ at you, Honda Tohru).  She’s sharp, resourceful, delightfully glib and her deadpan humor keeps readers laughing and rooting for her.

2012-12-13 22.53.02I’m not going to lie – reading this was (is) a very long and painful process.  I’m amazed at how much Kanji I don’t know (heh), but in turn, I’m surprised at how much I do know.  The grammar is very basic and easy to follow; I hardly need to look up anything, even with the mere year of beginning Japanese that I went through.  And the Kanji really isn’t as awful as I make it out to be.  I use the microscopic furigana over each character to get the pronunciation, and I have my Japanese dictionary app open to help with learning the meaning and stroke order.  It works!  I have a notebook that’s solely full of Kanji from this manga and I find myself getting better and better at remembering them without needing to make flashcards.  Yay.

I’m taking just over a week off for winter break (so short *sob*), but hopefully I’ll get around to studying Japanese a little more very soon.  For now, though, my days are consumed by experiments and labwork; I need to get tons of stuff done before Christmas.  Wish me luck.  Sigh.

우행시

So this is what I’ve been reading these days

I actually didn’t know anything about this book before Yekyung told me about it (special thanks to her for the gift!); she described it as a well-known book that many Koreans in their twenties have read.  It’s also been made into a movie, which I hadn’t seen or heard of.  I decided to start reading this book “blind” – as in, not knowing the story beforehand, since all the other novels I own are stories that have been made into dramas or movies that I’ve already seen.  I think that was a good initial reading strategy; the fact that I knew the plot beforehand really helped me understand the novels themselves, even if I didn’t understand every single word.  Now, however, I want to challenge myself a little and go into this novel not knowing anything, and then watch the movie afterwards.  All I know from the summary alone is that the story is about a woman who has tried to commit suicide several times and a man facing capital punishment for murder, whose lives are brought together by a Catholic nun.

I’m only 55 pages into it and it’s already quite sad.  I’ve read several Korean reviews online saying that the book made them cry – I’m curious to see if it’ll end up making me cry (granted I don’t cry easily).  The 설레임 I felt while reading 해를 품은 달 definitely proves I can be moved by Korean prose, but enough to bring tears to my eyes?  Well, we’ll see.

Speaking of prose, it’s a very lovely read but there is A LOT of figurative language.  Metaphors and similes galore.  I think I’d be frustrated if this book were in English, but this type of writing seems more forgiving in (and dare I say more suited for) Korean.  Overall, it has a very somber and melancholy tone and both characters have an introspective style of narration which might make for a very heavy read, but surprisingly it’s not.  I’m actually really taken aback by how readable  the book is despite its story, and not only in the sense that I can comprehend what’s going on.  I keep turning the pages, never feeling like I need a break to recover from the heaviness of the plot (lookin’ at you, Russian literature).

Hope I’ll finally make it to the end of this one!  I have a bad habit of buying Korean novels, flipping quickly through them, reading all the easy parts, and never going back to properly read them from the beginning.  Or worse, I buy Korean novels and don’t get any further than sniffing the pages….

Book Review: 옛것에 대한 그리움

Before I start, an extra special shout-out goes out to my loveliest of lovelies, Jeannie, who sent this book along with a stash of other goodies from Korea.  She’s forever spoiling me with gifts.  I am so lucky to know you, dear – and not just because you’re my Sugar Daddy.  Haha.

I have to admit, I distanced myself from Korean culture and history during my first year of studying the language because a part of me felt that if I learned too much about it, I might come across as a Korean “wannabe.”  As it is, I still keep my passion for Korean a bit under the wraps, but I’ve come to realize that one cannot divorce a language from its culture.  The better I get at Korean, the more I want to know about Korea itself.

And on that topic, a few weeks ago while I was watching 아랑 사또전, I decided I wanted to know more about 고수레, or food that Koreans put out to appease ghosts.  I googled it, browsed  few websites, and eventually came across an excerpt from a book called 옛것에 대한 그리움.  The same site had posted other excerpts from this book and all of them seemed to be about certain aspects of Korean culture.  It looked really interesting and informative!

Author Kim Jong-tae’s primary aim in writing this book is to preserve Korean history and tradition in the current day and age.  In the face of rapidly evolving technology, our fast-paced, modernized selves often forget the religious or cultural traditions of our parents and grandparents – which means they will be equally missing in our children’s and children’s children’s lives as well, perhaps gone for posterity.  This book means to save that on the behalf of present day Koreans.  In fact, the whole book can be summarized succinctly by the its tagline:  잊혀져 가는 거의 모든것의 아름다운 풍경.

The book is divided into five sections, each having a certain theme, and each section contains several different Korean cultural/traditional points.

Each topic gets about a four-page passage dedicated to it, explaining what it is, where it originated from, and what its significance is.  Below is a snapshot of the pages describing 고수레.

Some topics even have photographs accompanying them.  This one was from the passage describing 쪽 (a woman’s chignon).

Other passages include 장승, 소리 (an entire section about onomatopoeia!), 바구니, 봉숭아, 놋그릇, plus tons more.

This is such a lovely little book.  A good, informative read, and definitely a good way to spruce up one’s vocabulary.  I definitely recommend it to anyone who has an interest in Korean traditions.

해를 품은 달 and reading in Korean

Jung Eun-gwol, the author of 해를 품은 달 and 성균관 유생들의 나날, sure knows how to craft a story that pierces one’s heart.  I don’t think I ever fully recovered from Sungkyunkwan Scandal, which is why I think I was so fervently anticipating The Moon That Embraces the Sun ages before they even started casting.  I was dying to get my hands on the book, too, which Jeannie so kindly sent for me from Korea!

The drama deviates quite a bit from the novel, but both of them have their own charm so I will forgive this otherwise heinous crime this one time.  Heh.  The drama also had an incredible cast of child actors for the first six episodes; and currently, Kim Soohyun is stealing the screen, blazing as the young, bitter king whose heart longs for the girl he loved as a boy.

The drama is garnering shockingly high ratings week after week; whether that’s to be attributed to the pure genius that was Tree With Deep Roots or the Joseon crack that was The Princess’s Man or perhaps the popularity of the novel itself, it’s hard to tell.  For me, however, the magic is more in the novel than the drama.

The novel takes place during the Joseon dynasty, so there is quite a bit of figurative language and historical words that I’m not familiar with (and also a lot of words that I just don’t know in general; unsurprising, considering the fact that I’m attempting to read a historical novel barely two years into learning the language).  The incredible thing is I can understand most of the plot despite my extremely limited vocabulary and, while I’m at it, I’m gaining such an appreciation for the beauty of “old” Korean.

Personally, I find contemporary Korean more poetic than English and speech during the Joseon era, especially royal speech, even more so.  Unsurprisingly, this novel is filled with absolutely gorgeous language.  Metaphors and motifs galore and, my personal favorite, parallel structure, which is just as pleasing to read in Korean as English.  I plowed my way through book 1 and I’m halfway through book 2, but at this point, I’m reading more for the language than the plot.  In terms of the plot itself, well, I will suppress my inner literature bitch.  It’s little more than Joseon flavored cotton candy fluff but it’s addicting and definitely worth reading for the language.

Mom and I were talking a few days ago about reading in different languages.  My mom’s trilingual in English, Marathi, and Tamil.  She grew up reading novels with ease in both  English and Tamil.  I asked her if she ever had a weird out-of-body feeling when she was reading in either language because I experienced that several times while reading 해를 품은 달.  I’d be sucked into the story for several minutes and then I’d stop and marvel at the fact that this story is written entirely in a language that was unknown to me for 20+ years.  And I was understanding it.  Not only was I understanding it, I was having a visceral reaction to it.  For the first time since I started learning Korean, I was doing more than just comprehending.  I cried during the sad scenes, blushed during the romantic scenes, bit my nails when things were getting intense.  I always thought that no matter how long I study Korean, I would never be able to shake off that element of “foreignness.”  But the fact that I’m getting to the point where I can react to a story written in Korean the same as I do when it’s in English is yet another indication that I can be comfortable enough in a “foreign” language to the extent that it doesn’t feel “foreign” any more.  Amazing!

Mom said she never felt like that when she switched between reading in different languages, probably because she grew up learning all three at the same time.  Sometimes  I wish I had grown up knowing multiple languages just as well as I know English, but then I guess I would miss out on experiencing a transition like this!

Book Review: KLEAR Integrated Korean

About three weeks ago, I was super excited to finally get my new Korean textbooks!  I’d heard a lot about the KLEAR Integrated Korean series from a number of Korean learners online so I was curious to give it a try.  I know a lot of people have already reviewed this book but just thought I’d throw in my two cents.  Tons of pictures ahead…

Continue reading “Book Review: KLEAR Integrated Korean”