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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 😂

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.

—Dear Friend, From My Life I Write To You In Your Life by Yiyun Li

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?