9 things that are an actual “thing” in Seoul.

In September 2014, I went on a 10-day vacation to Seoul.  I didn’t find it too difficult to adjust to city life there, actually, and didn’t face any huge cultural hurdles.  But I did notice some quirky trends that I thought I’d share!  Here are nine random things I noticed while out and about in Seoul.

  1. Horizontal stripes.  In the world of men and women’s fashion, the pattern of the season was horizontal stripes.  Stripes of all colors, in fact, but the most popular seemed to be white and navy blue.  WHYYYY.  Pretty much 80% of the twenty-somethings we encountered were wearing horizontal stripes.  Now, I’m a bit on the curvy side so I’ve always avoided horizontal stripes (my hips and derriere really don’t need any more attention drawn to them heh) but Theo LOVES them so… now I own blue-and-white stripey shirts.  Guh.  A very… uh… helpful shopkeeper in Migliore informed me that it was currently in style for young women to wear over-sized striped shirts tucked baggily into a pair of micro shorts.  Guess who’s not going to dress like that ever?

    I succumbed to the stripes.
    I succumbed to the stripes.
  2. Illegal U-turns.  Think this only happens in Korean dramas?  Think again – IT HAPPENED TO US.  We were heading to lunch in Myeongdong and the driver and I were chatting quite happily (he was speaking 사투리 which was kinda scary!) and suddenly he just guns it.  Wrenches the wheel in the middle of a two-way street and does a U-turn to get to the restaurant on the opposite side of the road.   Granted, we took the taxi only twice the entire time we were in Seoul so we have no idea how frequently this happens…. Most of the time it’s not even physically possible because there’s so much traffic!
  3. Coffee, coffee EVERYWHERE.  I can think of absolutely NO logical reason for there to be as many cafes as there are in Seoul.  Is it the population density?  Are there really that many people and that much demand that all cafes manage to be somewhat profitable?  I dunno.  As a consumer, I think it’s great (albeit baffling) because no matter where you are in Seoul, there’s probably a cafe within a few paces from where you’re standing where you can get your caffeine fix.  And it’s nice to be able to go into any cafe to meet up with friends and know that it’s not going to be unbearably loud or crowded.  Most cafes have just the right steady-state of people going and coming for it to be comfortable enough to study in or work from.  And most importantly, there’s almost never a struggle to find a spare power outlet.

    Hongdae, Seoul. How many cafes  can you spot?
    Hongdae, Seoul. How many cafes can you spot?
  4. Couple-sized desserts.  Oh woe is the soul who is single in Seoul.  I have never been in a place that so thoroughly makes me aware of my relationship status – and I’m not even single!  One thing Theo and I realized was that the general cost of desserts/smoothies/sweets/etc. were much pricier than we thought they’d be.  That’s because 8 out of 10 times, ‘one’ dessert item is sufficient to feed two.  (Actually this doesn’t apply to just desserts – even entrees at some places are proportioned so as to satisfy you and one other special someone).

    Yummy bingsu in Insadong.
    Yummy bingsu in Insadong.
  5. 셀카봉/Selfie sticks.  Improve your selfie-taking experience by using one of these contraptions.  So they’re not strictly Korean  but, let’s be real, I don’t think any other country has gotten the art of taking selfies down like South Korea.  Literally every stall in Namdaemun, every gift shop, and any other random place you can think of sold these things.  (If you’re thinking of getting one in Korea, you may find this post useful.)  We… didn’t bother getting one.  I think we only took 3-4 selcas the entire time we were in Korea.  At Coex Aquarium, we even asked another couple to take a photo of us together.  Gasp!!  One thing that surprised us was the lack of instant cameras.  Theo bought a Fujifim Instax before our trip and – for whatever stereotypical reason – we both thought they’d be really popular in Korea?  Not so much.  The couple who took our photo at Coex Aquarium were delighted when offered them a photo.

    Theo and me at Coex Aquarium!
  6. Keypad locks.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that our Airbnb apartment didn’t have a front door key – it used a keypad lock.  (Speaking of which, isn’t it a Korean drama cliche that an ex-boyfriend/girlfriend can break into the other’s apartment by using his/her birth date as the keypad combination?)  Having JUST had the experience of locking myself out of my apartment, I really wish I had a keypad lock to my own place.  The one thing we didn’t know is that after the four-digit code, you press (*) to unlock from the outside.  That tripped us up when we first got to the place, but Theo (who’s way more in-tune with electronics than I’ll ever be) eventually figured it out.
  7. Parasols.  Best way to keep cool on a muggy, sunny Seoul day?  Parasols!  I saw tons of people (mostly 아줌마s) carrying around beautiful paper parasols to ward off the midday sun.  If, like us, you decide to trek around Bukchon in the middle of the afternoon in late summer, I highly recommend getting a parasol.  When I went to school in Texas, I used to unabashedly carry around an umbrella in the summer.  I regret not buying my own pretty parasol in Seoul.
  8. 명품.  This is such an interesting word – it’s a catch-all term for brand-name, luxury goods.  And people are really into luxury goods in Seoul.  One thing that surprised me was the absolute craze people have for duty free goods.  Go to the top floor of Lotte Department store, for example, and you can have your pick of duty free brand-name handbags, jewelry, sunglasses, shoes, and a bunch of other expensive things.  Speaking of department stores, we spent a lot of time exploring all the major ones in Seoul – Lotte, Coex, Galleria, Shinsegae…. And for people who can’t afford new items (ahem – me), if you walk around Gangnam and Apgujeong, you can find tons of stores selling used high-fashion goods (that are still ridiculously expensive).

    Buy all the things!
    Buy all the things!
  9. Complicated garbage.  Gah taking out the trash is SO DIFFICULT in Korea.  Recycling isn’t just about sorting into compostables, paper, and glass.  In the apartment we were staying in, we had to sort out glass bottles, cans, papers, food waste, plastic bags, cardboard and other stuff into separate bins.  Needless to say, I was the one who had the responsibility of taking out the trash because I was the one who could read Korean.  When I asked the security guard where the garbage area was, he pointed me in the right direction, and then eyed me as I sorted the trash out appropriately.  I didn’t get yelled at so I’m assuming I did it right.  Heh.  Want to know why trash is so complicated in Korea?  Check out this excellent post on Seoulistic.

Well, that about covers the 9 main things that really stood out to me while I was in Korea.  I’m sure I missed plenty of other trends!

Gosh.  Writing this post really makes me miss Seoul.

한글날 축하합니다!

I’m going to cheat and set this post as published on October 9, 2014 (even though it’s really October 13 here shhhh) because that day was Hangeul Day!

I have so much admiration for King Sejong.  He took the problem of illiteracy into his own royal, ink-stained hands and literally created a whole new alphabet so his subjects would be educated.  Are our nations’ leaders even half as proactive these days?  I think not.

So what exactly is Hangeul Day?

October 9, 1446 is the purported date of the publication of 訓民正音 [훈민정음].  Considered one of UNESCO’s World Heritage records, 훈민정음 is the official document detailing King Sejong’s new script and the reasons behind its creation.


What does the title mean?  Once again the Hanja tells you the entire story.

  • 訓 [가르칠 훈] = to teach
  • 民 [백성 민] = commoners
  • 正 [바를 정] = pronunciation
  • 音 [소리 음] = sound

Put that all together and in English you get something like “Instruction on Pronunciation for the Common People.”

Hangeul as we know it and use it today has 24 자모 or characters (14 consonants and 10 vowels).  But back when Sejong wrote the 훈민정음 during the 25th year of his reign, Hangeul actually had 28 자모 – 17 consonants and 11 vowels.  Over the centuries, as the language evolved, four characters slipped quietly into extinction.  한글날 made me strangely nostalgic for these letters.

I first learned about these 옛한글 (old Hangeul) characters from my dear friend (and ex-language partner) Kwang-im and was really curious about what they looked like and how they were pronounced.  So after some researching and digging around, this is what I found.

ㅿ[반시옷]:  It’s a sound that is made between your teeth and the tip of your tongue, closest to the English ‘z’ sound.  It went extinct during the Imjin War (1592).

ㆁ[옛이응]:  This is pronounced likeㅇ but was written little tick mark (꼭지) on the top.  I think the usage between ㅇ and ㆁis actually different in terms of when one is used as 받침 verus another, but that’s something I still need to read about and clarify!  It went extinct around the 17th century.

ㆆ [여린 히읗]:  This character was created specifically to in order to pronounce Hanja.  I’m… actually not sure how exactly it’s pronounced.  It didn’t have a really prominent role in spoken language so it went extinct during the 15th century.

ㆍ[아래아]:  It’s really just a dot!  And for a character that looks so simple, I honestly can’t even fathom the sound in my head.  It’s a mix between basically all the other Korean vowels but closest to a sound that lies midway between ㅗ and ㅏ.  Unsurprisingly, a sound that complex went extinct quickly but the script remained in use until 1933.  Supposedly some inhabitants of Jeju Island still use it to this day.

Naturally, the four ‘extinct’ 홑낱자 (single 자모) means there’s a whole bunch of ‘extinct’ 겹낱자, or double (think the ㅄ in 값), and even triple 자모 , as well!

A while back I remember reading something about historical dramas and how even in the most historically accurate ones, the way the actors speak isn’t necessarily how people really spoke back in the Joseon Era.  Not just in terms intonation and grammar.  The lost characters of 옛한글 is evidence that even pronunciation was different back in those days.

Why did these specific characters go extinct?  As with any language, Korean is constantly evolving.  The way words are pronounced keeps changing and sounds blend into one another.  Just think about how difficult it is for the untrained ear to pick out the difference between 애 and 에 these days!  Words and sounds that are rarely used die out and are replaced.  Society seeks to optimize both speed and efficiency when it comes to spoken and written language; of course, the definitions of speed/efficiency change over time too as technology evolves.

I am, without a doubt, a purist when it comes to language.  It pains me to see lost words and alphabets, but language isn’t static.  Understanding how and why it changes is just as rewarding as understanding its past.


소자 vs. 소신

The good thing about having so many Korean novels is when I get bored/frustrated with one, I can always move onto another.  I’m pretty sure that at the moment I have a bookmark in every single one I own – but I’m close!  So close!  This close to finishing 우리들의 행복한 시간…. and I started reading 해를 품은 달 again (Note: The novels are fun but I do not recommend the drama.)  It’s sad but also amusing that I was reading these two books at the same time way back in 2012 as well.  Amazing how time zips by.

I’m not going to be critical about the fact that I haven’t improved much in Korean over the past couple years because I know I was struggling with bigger issues than just trying to get over a learning slump.  Only in the past few months have I made a real return to reading and listening to Korean on a daily basis again.  And I’m so, so happy to say that it brings me just as much joy now as it did when I first started!

So I reunited with 해품달 again a few days ago and have already read 50 pages or so from where I last left off.  No more skipping paragraphs/chapters and only reading for the Hwon-Yeonwoo Tragic Romance (TM)  Storyline!  Actually, a lot of characters have tragic moments in the novel and somehow – maybe it’s something about actually reading it – I can feel the tugging of my stiff, underused heartstrings more intensely than I did when I watched the drama.

This particular passage comes from Yangmyung’s point-of-view regarding his father, the King.  For those not familiar with the drama or novel, Yangmyung is the older son of the King and one of his concubines but has always been overlooked by his father.  All he ever wanted was to hear a word of praise from the King and, in hopes of achieving it, he throws himself into studying the philosophies and principals of being a good ruler.  But, knowing that Yangmyung will never ascend the throne so long as Hwon is alive, the King sees his academic achievements as “impudent” (건방지다).  Crushed, this is what Yangmyung decides:

이 일이 있고 나서부터 양명군은 ‘아바마마’와 소자라는 단어 대신 ‘상감마마’와 ‘소신’이란 단어만을 입에 담았다.

Something I’ve always found fascinating about the Korean language is its ability to, with almost no ambiguity, accurately define interpersonal relationships – which is why this one sentence alone is sufficient to tell the reader how swiftly and harshly Yangmyeong perceived the change in his relationship with the King.  The key words alluding to it were:

  • 아바마마 vs. 상감마마
  • 소자 vs. 소신

The first bullet is simple to understand – it’s just the difference between calling the King ‘my royal father,’ which is used by princes, to ‘Your Majesty the King,’ which is used by ordinary subjects.  It’s sort of easy to guess the meaning of 아바마마, given that it derives from 아버지 and 마마 (‘majesty’).  On the other hand, I had heard 소자 and 소신 many times while watching historical dramas and knew enough from context that they were both first-person personal pronouns or 1인칭 대명사 (i.e. “I”), but I couldn’t really tell what the difference was.

  • 소자 [小子]:  honorific way for a son to address himself to his parents
    • 小:  작을/젊다 소
    • 子:  아들 자
  • 소신 [小臣]:  honorific way for a subject/citizen to address himself to his liege
    • 小:  작을/짧다 소
    • 臣:  신하 신

The breakdown of the Hanja really makes the difference between the two pronouns clear:  소자 = “young son” and 소신 = “young citizen.”

You could liken it to the difference between 저 (polite) and 나 (casual) except the fall from addressing yourself as a prince to addressing yourself as a mere subject seems much more precipitous!  By changing the way Yangmyung addressed himself to the King, he made clear the change in their relationship – and the severing of familial ties – to everyone in the court. It’s such a simple change and yet it is heartbreaking….  Perhaps I feel the contrast more strongly because I’m not a native Korean speaker!  In any case, I’ll  continue to marvel at these linguistic gems that I pick up from the novels I’m reading.

새해 복 많이 받으세요!

Happy Lunar New Year, readers!

Good grief, January just flew by, but luckily 설날 gives me another chance to wish you all a very prosperous new year.  How are you all doing?

A lot of things have happened since the last time I blogged and many of them, I’m happy to say, are good things.  My life is more balanced these days.  I’m happier than I have been in a long while.  Yes, there are still challenges but instead of letting them swallow me, I feel like I can take them on.  Everyday I marvel at how I’m lucky to have such a wonderful support system both online and in real life.

My goals for the New Year?  I’d say it’s to sustain this positivity.  To appreciate myself and others more.  To achieve balance in my life.

As for my language goals for the New Year:  Get back to Korean.  Make it a part of my daily life again.  The two-month hiatus was nice, but now I’m ready to start again.  Also further my Japanese.  I bought a couple novels in Japantown a few months ago and I’m eager to get started on them (keep an eye out for a future post on it!).

In other news, I found a really awesome vegetarian 떡국 (ddeokguk) recipe via @ZenKimchi earlier today!  (This makes me happy because I’m vegetarian and often cannot enjoy Korean cuisine.)


Find the recipe (and more yummy photos) HERE.

For those of you who may not know, 떡국 is a dish that is traditionally consumed on Lunar New Year (설날) in Korea.  Curious as I am about traditions, I used Naver’s 지식iN to find out why.  One of the most common answers I found has to do with age.  Given that Koreans usually add +1 to their age on New Year’s day, traditionally, it was said that one can only grow a year older if one ate 떡국 on 설날 – so this was one way to convince children they could grow up faster if they ate this on New Year’s.  The other explanations I saw had to do with the 떡 itself.

(image source)

가래떡 – the type of 떡 used in 떡국 –  is long and white in appearance (see above).  Because of its length, people say eating 떡국 will give you a long life.  And, because it is pure white in color, people say it symbolizes the bright, new beginnings associated with the new year.

Gah my mouth is watering now.

Wishing you all a wonderful new year!  Here’s to more blog posts in 2014.

‘돌 속의 별’

돌의 내부가 암흑이라고 맏는 사람은
돌을 부딪쳐 본 적이 없는 사람이다
돌 속에 별이 갇혀 있다는 것을 모르는 사람이다
돌이 노래할 줄 모른다고 여기는 사람은
저물녘 강의 물살이 부르는 돌들의 노래를
들어 본 적이 없는 사람이다
그 노래를 들으며 울어 본 적이 없는 사람이다
돌 속으로 들어가기 위해서는 물이 되어야 한다는 것을
아직 모르는 사람이다
돌이 차갑다고 말하는 사람은
돌에서 울음을 꺼내 본 적이 없는 사람이다
그 냉정이 한때 불이었다는 것을 잊은 사람이다
돌이 무표정하다고 무시하는 사람은
돌의 얼굴을 가만히 들여다본 적이 없는 사람이다
안으로 소용돌이치는 파문을 이해하지 못하는 사람이다
그 무표정의 모순어법을

-류시화 시집 <나의 상처는 돌 너의 상처는 꽃>



Another tidbit I learned from my language partner.

We were talking about names and such and she said that her own name was rather unusual by Korean standards.  When my language partner was born, her father legally named her this somewhat odd name without consulting her mother, which upset her mother so much that she called my language partner an entirely different (more common) name  for most of her early childhood.  The reason her father named her thus was because of 태몽.

태몽[胎夢] breaks down to 胎 (아이를 배다 태) and 夢(꿈 몽).  The definition is easy to figure out from the Hanja – 태몽 is a dream about a child that is about to be born.  This dream is sometimes dreamt by the mother herself but can be dreamt by close family members as well – the father, grandparents, aunt, uncle, etc.  Traditionally, the content of the dream is supposed to tell you something about the gender, nature, and/or future successes of the child.  Sometimes, as in the case of my language partner, parents name their child based off 태몽.

For example, suppose one dreams about a dragon.  Supposedly, if one sees the horns or head of the dragon, the child will be a handsome boy; if one sees the tail, the child will be a beautiful girl.  Regardless of the child’s gender, a dream containing a dragon is considered very auspicious since dragons symbolize power and authority.  Dreams about tigers are also considered very auspicious.  Since tigers are considered companions of the Mountain God, these types of 태몽 indicate that the child will be very noble and mighty in nature.  Dreams about riding tigers, being bitten by tigers, or being embraced by one supposedly indicate the child will be a boy whereas dreams about tigers entering your home indicate the child will be a girl (source).

This was just a sampling, but there are tons of stuff about 태몽 interpretations out there.  If you’re curious, just type in ‘태몽 풀이’ into your favorite search engine and read away.  It’s quite interesting and will give you insight into what certain animals, fruits, etc. symbolize in Korean culture.

I’m not sure if there’s anything similar to this in American culture and I’m fairly certain there isn’t anything like this in Indian culture.  Interestingly, my family believes in something like the opposite of 태몽.  My parents and grandparents often say that when a person passes away, his/her spirits says its final farewell by visiting close family members’ dreams.  A rather interesting, unexpected parallel!

마의 16세

This is the funniest piece of Korean slang I have learned EVER.  It’s pure gold.

So here’s the context.  The phrase is 마의 16세.  마(魔) comes from 마귀 마, where 마귀 means ‘evil spirit’ or ‘demon.’  It’s the same 마 that’s in 악마 (‘demon’, ‘devil’), 마술 and 마법 (‘witchcraft’, ‘magic’), and 마녀 (‘witch’).  So not a good thing, right?  16세 is sixteen years old, in Korean age (so 14/15 Western age), and this is significant because it is the age when students finish middle school and enter high school.

Basically, 마의 16세 refers to one’s transition from an adorable child to an awkward young adult.  Puberty hits and, bam, so does the acne, the growth spurts (either vertically or horizontally), the braces, the glasses – all the physical and emotional changes that made the transition from child to teenager oh-so painful.  This phrase covers the latter part of puberty – the transition into adulthood – and, interestingly, it seems to apply mostly to boys, whose physical appearance changes more dramatically in a short period of time (in some instances), than girls.  Regardless, I don’t miss those days.

It’s possible that sixteen-year-olds might say something like ‘마의 16세만 넘기면 된다,’ but the really funny thing is that this phrase doesn’t seem to be commonly used to refer to Koreans themselves.  It seems that some Koreans believe that the physical features of Asians do not change significantly between  adolescence and adulthood, or that they make that transition smoothly without an ‘ugly’ period (e.g. look at 유승호 and 여진구!).  In fact, this phrase might be used almost exclusively for Westerners.  

The funniest thing about all this is that the origins of this phrase, according to my Language Partner 언니, comes from Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame)’s shocking transformation from adorable 10-year-old to… less-than-adorable* teenager?  Oh dear.  Of course, I don’t know how true this is but some snooping around on the interwebs has informed me that a lot of people associate this phrase with Dan’s post-puberty transformation.  Face-palm.

*Not my personal opinion, just reporting the general consensus.  We all have our ideas of what is attractive and what is not, but I don’t like throwing around words like ‘ugly’ at anybody.