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.


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.

Interview with Gong Yoo (Elle Korea 2018)

Gong Yoo is one of those actors who consistently takes me by surprise and I’m not really sure why. He’s good and he picks pretty solid projects. I’ve seen (ahem!) five of his dramas and three of his films over the years and every single time I’ve found something beautiful and moving in his performance.

I’ll admit that I still have an embarrassing soft spot for Biscuit Teacher and Star Candy, but Coffee Prince is the one that will continue to stand the test of time. I still recommend it to Korean drama neophytes when they ask me for recs.

Speaking of time, good grief, how can it already be TEN YEARS since Coffee Prince aired?! Elle Korea published a brief interview with Gong Yoo where he reflects on one of the most beloved Korean dramas of the past decade and as well as his most recent success with Goblin.

(Disclaimer: All copyright belongs to the original source. I am not profiting by this translation and cannot guarantee its accuracy.)


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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.

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Interview with Lee Min-ki and Jung So-min (Marie Claire 2017)

So 이번 생은 처음이라 / Because This Is My First Life wraps up this week. This interview came out in October, right before the show started airing so it’s kinda old news at this point, but I needed something to occupy me between episodes and it’s been ages since I’ve translated celebrity news anyway, so here it is.

Man, this drama. I came for the contract marriage trope (and also Lee Min-ki because I literally can’t remember seeing him in anything other than Dalja’s Spring) and stayed for the earnestness, the poignancy, the tender heartache present in all the characters.

Growing up, I thought a lot about love and marriage and how they relate to each other, given that my family feels one way about it and the society I grew up in feels the almost exact opposite. And now with those two worlds currently colliding in my life, this drama couldn’t have made a more timely arrival.

이번 생은 처음이라 will soon be the only Korean drama I’ve managed to finish in 2017. I may be speaking too soon, but I think it’ll be sticking with me for a long, long time after as well.

(Disclaimer: All copyright belongs to the original source. I am not profiting by this translation and cannot guarantee its accuracy.)


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It’s so strange to realize that 성균관 유생들의 나날 was one of the first Korean novels I ever bought, at a time when it was still wayyyy too difficult for me to comprehend.

Six years later (!!), I can finally read entire chapters without having to look up words and still understand what’s going on. Plus, I know an astounding number of words related to Confucian scholarship and education. (Oh my god I found the blog post I wrote when I first bought the books.)

Anyway, that’s how I came across the word 먹칠하다.

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