Sweet potato vs. lemon-lime soda

A couple month ago, I wrote about how invested I’d become in Korean webtoons. If anything, I’ve become even more invested in recent months, after starting my part-time freelancing gig with Lezhin.

From a language-learning standpoint, this is actually great because aside from webtoons, I read mostly academic essays and literary fiction in Korean so, uh, I don’t have a great grasp on how conversational Korean sounds. I have no idea what idiomatic phrases or colloquial expressions are commonly used, much less slang; webtoons have helped me learn more about that world.

I also lurk in the comments, absorbing the brave new world that is Korean colloquialism and internet speak. That’s where I learned 고구마 and 사이다.

First, I present to you, choice comments from the Naver webtoon 옆집친구. These comments were for a chapter in which a third-wheel character was prevented from complicating the main couple’s hard-won relationship.

You might be able to guess what this means if you’ve ever eaten sweet potato or had a drink of Sprite (er, Chilsung Cider).

고구마

고구마 literally means “sweet potato.” But figuratively, it describes a frustrating situation or feeling being stifled.

In watching or reading something with romance, 고구마 could be used to describe a situation where the main couple’s love is thwarted, usually by something really stupid, like a misunderstanding or miscommunication. It’s that feeling of aaarghhhh! that you get when all you want the characters to do is kiss, but something happens to prevent it.

In other situations, 고구마 can be used to describe a feeling of frustration or your hands being tied. My teacher described it as a 체한 느낌, like when you keep having the same, annoying, circular argument with your boss.

사이다

사이다 refers to any kind of carbonated lemon-lime drink, like Sprite, Chilsung Cider, Mountain Dew, etc. Figuratively, it describes a sense of pleasant relief, especially after a frustrating situation (고구마!) has been resolved.

In a romance drama or webtoon, 사이다 can be used to describe a relationship that’s moving along smoothly or is finally reaching a satisfying, lovey dovey end after lots of pointless shenanigans (see above).

In other situations, I like to think of 사이다 as the relief you feel after a nice burp, or the crisp, sharp lemon taste on your tongue. It’s the feeling of 속 시원함 — both revitalizing and relieving.


I feel like my life is all 고구마 right now. It’s been 67 days since shelter-in-place orders were first issued in my county. Everyday I wake up with a sense of dread, rather than a sense of possibility. It’s all very weird. My thoughts go out to all of you.

Korean words for the pandemic

What can I say that hasn’t already been said? It is April 2020, and we are in the midst of a global pandemic.

I’d been paying attention to the virus since December, mostly out of an academic interest (in a former life, I was a graduate researcher in the field of immunology), but I still didn’t worry about Covid-19 as much as I did seasonal influenza.

When the virus hit Seoul in full force, I checked in with my friends in Korea and started to keep an eye on the news, but my life in California continued uninterrupted. I’d started the new decade with surprising momentum. I was in an essay writing workshop, honing my own narrative voice with the help of some incredible peers. At my day job, I was in the process of transitioning to a new team and was, for the first time, excited about the possibility of a real, long-term career in tech. Even more excitingly, I was hired as a part-time translator at a major webtoon portal and had just been contracted my first work.

In the part of California where I live, the first case of community-transmitted Covid-19 was discovered the last week of February. Right around then, an unrelated family emergency took my parents to India and brought my younger sister to live with me and my husband.

Less than three weeks later, several Bay Area counties, including mine, were ordered to shelter in place. While my parents were stuck in India indefinitely due to a country-wide lockdown, my workplace transitioned to being fully remote; and the team I was so excited about joining unexpectedly dissolved.

This is petty in the grand scheme of what’s happening in the world right now, but it feels so unfair. It feels so unfair that I was finally starting to get up after being so emotionally pummeled in 2019, and then this happens.

Continue reading “Korean words for the pandemic”

9 Naver Webtoons I read in 2019

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.

Continue reading “9 Naver Webtoons I read in 2019”

On reading Han Kang

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)
안개

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.

Me, in Korean

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!

Tips for improving Korean essay writing

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.

Continue reading “Tips for improving Korean essay writing”

Interview with Jung Yumi (Elle Korea 2018)

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 captioning I 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.

jungyumi2

Continue reading “Interview with Jung Yumi (Elle Korea 2018)”

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.

Throwback to my K-pop listening days

Confession time. I tend to get defensive when people ask me if I’m learning Korean because of K-pop. That’s because 1) K-pop was never a motivation for me to learn the language; it was a side-effect, and the better I got at Korean, the less I started to like idol music anyway. And 2) the stereotype of a typical K-pop fan these days is less than flattering.

That said, yes, I too had a rich, happy K-pop phase. I used to be a huge DB5K fan and then Big Bang, and had my phases with SHINee, Infinite, B.A.P., and B2ST (which UM WHAT apparently a lot has happened with them since I last checked).

Anyway I found my interest in K-pop rekindled when a friend of mine told me about YGE’s official rhythm game BeatEVO YG. The app has been absolute shit since its recent Android update so I can’t in good conscience recommend it, but I got addicted anyway and am now super nostalgic for 2006-2010-era Big Bang. All of a sudden, I’m back to listening to 하루 하루, 거짓말, 마자막 인사, 나만 바라봐 on repeat.

EvoBEATYG_screenshot
The lyrics to this song are so horrible and yet….

I think now, listening to those songs, a lot of the nostalgia I have has to do with how much those songs influenced my learning Korean. I really don’t think I give K-pop enough credit for the role it played in my early Korean learning days, but it was a critical source from which I absorbed tons of new grammar and vocabulary.

A few days ago, I was digging through some old notes from that “exponential” phase of my Korean learning days and found a three-ring binder full of K-pop lyrics and language notes.

I used to print out the lyrics to a song I liked and then painstakingly look up every single noun, verb, particle, connector, and sentence ending I didn’t know using either Talk To Me In Korean, Clare You & Eunsu Cho’s Online Intermediate College Korean, and/or Korean Wiki Project. I’d break up the lyrics into stanzas and under each stanza, type out all of my language notes, and then write up a rough translation of the lyrics in English. And then I’d compare it existing translations out there.

And then, I’d memorize.

20180419_205544
My language notes from Big Bang’s ‘Haru Haru.’

 

It wasn’t a perfect or even efficient method, and there were definitely pitfalls I had to watch out for. I risked learning grammar incorrectly, or learning weird slang words/expressions and skewing my developing vocabulary to words related to love and heartbreak. English translations that existed online were mostly terrible, so using those to help me grasp word usage and nuance was probably a bad idea. The potential to learn something wrong and then struggle to unlearn it later on was very, very high.

And yet.

This way of learning Korean through K-pop somehow made Korean feel like a more tangible and comprehensible language to me than reading about it in a textbook. Over the years, through reading a wide range of material and, yes, suffering through textbooks, I’ve managed to correct some of those things I learned incorrectly while gaining a deeper understanding of others I had oversimplified. But, for sure, if I hadn’t started out teaching myself like this, I don’t think I’d be at the level I am now.

I might be reluctant about admitting it these days, but I look back on my K-pop fandom days with a lot of fondness, both for how much I enjoyed the music itself and for how much it built my foundation for Korean. Those were good times.


Okay, so, a funny, unexpected side effect of playing so much BeatEVO YG — I’m really into Sechskies now???? Yep. The real reason I don’t listen to K-pop any more is actually just because my taste in idol music is stuck in the 90s-00s. 😂