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!

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.

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?

Twenty-eight

It’s been a few years now since I stopped being excited about my birthday.

Every year, the weight of my disappointment in myself grows heavier; all of my numerous, unrealized goals come rushing painfully back at me. Responsibilities grow, conflicts become more convoluted, and meanwhile it gets harder and harder to stay true to my own sense of self.

Maybe that’s just growing up?

But maybe it’s a sign of personal growth that this year, I tried hard not to be moody and taciturn around my birthday. I know that the people who send their greetings or think to get me gifts do it because they care. So, I try to be kind to myself on my birthday and grateful for the love others have shown me.

I made a rare trip to Koreatown in Santa Clara to visit a bookstore that I haven’t been to in years, since my language partner moved away. If you’re in the South Bay, 서울 문고 종교 서관 has a limited quantity of new releases, all-time bestsellers, and Korean books on religion. But the real gem is the used books collection. I spent an unreasonable amount of time combing through the shelves until deciding on a couple birthday presents for myself.

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Yes, that book on the left is a history book for elementary school kids about 사서 (四書), or the Four Books of Confucianism. Since Joseon-era scholarly study was almost entirely rooted in Confucian teachings, I learned some relevant Korean words on the topic while reading 성균관 유생들의 나날. I figured I might as well pick up this book to learn a bit more.

books-1

I haven’t really looked through the book, but I can say that while the writing is quite simple, and I’m surprised by just how much detail is packed in a book for elementary school children. There’s a separate section for each of the four books (논어, 맹자, 대학, 중용) and places where they break down Hanja.

The second book is a collection of essays by bestselling author 공지영. I don’t know if  I can say I’m a fan of her work (too damn depressing), but I do admire her writing. I’ve been doing a lot of writing in Korean and I’m trying to improve not just my sentence structure and vocabulary, but overall composition; I figured I should get in the habit of reading good, creative nonfiction as a first step.

books-2

(This book’s table of contents is so weirdly cute.)

After books, I stopped for coffee and deliciousness at Cocohodo. Cocohodo is famous for pretty much one thing: 호두과자, or Korean walnut pastries.

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호두과자 is a walnut-shaped pastry, with a bready outer shell made of dough containing pounded walnuts, and filled inside with red bean paste and walnut chunks. In its entirety, it tastes like I’m eating a soft, sweetened walnut… which was confusing for my brain because a walnut-shaped pastry, made of walnut dough, filled with walnut chunks, which tastes like a walnut but that isn’t a walnut….! Heh. Anyway, it was my first time trying it and it was quite incredible with black coffee.

This post is late. I’ve been 28 for a few days now. It’s still hard to shake the feeling that it’s not just this post, or this blog, but that I’m late at everything I set out to do. But I know that’s not true. I know I’ve accomplished a lot in the past year, both related to Korean and not. I know I’ve achieved things I never even had a goal post for in the first place. So I’ll continue to tell myself, at least until the birthday-ish feeling wears off, that there’s really no reason to be so melancholy.

Striving for excellence in language learning

This post was going to be about how I’m preparing for the 55th TOPIK but it turned out being more about my insecurities instead. I’d normally scrap it but it’s been preying on my mind for a while now and I wonder if any of my fellow language learners have felt the same way.

It’s hard to describe my relationship with language, and with Korean in particular.

I don’t have a simple answer when people ask me why I’m learning Korean, or why I’m motivated to push myself, or why I want to pass TOPIK II. I don’t have any ethnic or relational ties to the language or culture. I’m not motivated by a love for Korean idol music or dramas. I have never studied abroad there. I have no particular interest in Korean brands nor do I aspire to work at Korean company. I developed a love for Korean literature and history only after I had achieved a certain degree of fluency.

Now with Hallyu reaching the West, so many people automatically assume I’m part of then new generation of Korean learners who are really into pop culture that I often don’t even reveal to people that I’m studying Korean. And when I do, it’s always the question of why. Why, why, why.

The only way I can describe it is how I’ve described it before: the language chose me, I didn’t choose it. There is something in the way the Korean sounds, the way that it works topologically and syntactically that just fits with the way my brain works.

For some reason, that’s not “enough” of an explanation for a lot of people.

I suppose language learning is an uncommon enough passion that everyone assumes that if you’re actively striving to improve your skill, you must have a practical reason for it. In my case, that’s simply not true.

I love the Korean language. And the reason I spend money on lessons and textbooks, and spend time revisiting old TOPIK exams is because I want to achieve a degree of excellence that’s commensurate with my love for it.

“We need to internalize this idea of excellence. Not many folks spend a lot of time trying to be excellent.”

BARACK OBAMA

I’ve written before about how I’ve struggled with my passion for the language waning. Taking advanced level classes have gone a long way toward restoring not only the sanity in my life, but also the 욕심 I thought I had lost for Korean. I’m glad that I’m even capable of being as passionate about the language now as I used to be when I first started.

It’s interesting, because I can’t say that I strive for the same degree of excellence in every new hobby or passion I develop. Like I said, the more I’m passionate about something, the more I want to get better and better at it. And I’m really quite passionate about language.

Header image by Kristopher Roller

Goodbye 2016, hello 2017

 

I love this:

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예전에 친구 은혜에게 내가 일 년을 낭비한 걸까? 라고 말하니, 괜찮아. 1년 더 살면 돼- 라고 덤덤하게 말했다. 고민하던 나는 묘하게 설득력있는 이 말에, 그래, 무병장수가 답이라고 외치며 껄껄 거렸다. 전에도 한번 올렸었는데, 난 이 기억이 참 좋다. 2016년이 끝나가는 요즘. 가끔은 나 혼자 우두커니 서있는 것 같을지라도, 모든 일이 마음처럼 잘 되지는 않았을지라도, 우리의 노력이 언제나 보상받은 것은 아닐지라도, 삶이 언제나 합리적일 수는 없고, 때론 낭비도 할 수 있는게 아닌가. 그러니, 낭비한 순간들은, 까짓것, 무병장수로 메워보자. 난생 처음 살아보는 삶속에서 고군분투하며, 서툴었던 우리에게, 용서와 축복을. ㅡ 얼마 전에 했던 작은 크리스마스 이벤트. 당첨자는 다음과 같습니다~ @jyseong0323 @aram_j_141227 @yu_chocopie_ @hana_kku @ji__h2__s2 @euniehwang @hyun_ssoou @yukinoyoousa @jiminkaaaang @snowy._.s @tomato8709 @hiss_g @heeyas20 절반은 제가 뽑았고, 절반은 책임 분담을 위해, 친언니가 대리 추첨 했습니다. 당첨되신 분은 지인 분을 다시 태그해서 소식을 전해주시와요ㅎ책 받으실 분께서 제게 다이렉트로 주소를 보내주심 됩니다~ 당첨이 안되셨다 해도 서운해하지 마시구요.ㅠ 그럼 다들, 메리 크리스마스입니다! 감사합니다~🎅ᆞ ㅡ #나는나로살기로했다 #그림에세이 #책속한줄 #글귀 #에세이 #글스타그램 #북스타그램 #에세이추천 #책스타그램 #일러스트 #illustration #illust #그림 #공감 #일상 #graphics #drawing #artwork #공감글 #공감글귀

A post shared by 김수현 (@217design) on

I always get melancholic at the end of the year, wishing I had accomplished more, grown more as a person. 2016 was a hard, harsh year for the world in general. Sometimes the greatest accomplishment is simply surviving one more year and celebrating that even though you might’ve not done anything ~remarkable~, you’re still alive.

낭비한 사간은 무병장수로 메워보자.

217design is the Instagram account of Korean writer and designer 김수현. She shares thoughtful prose and illustrations from her book 나는 나로 살기로 했다, and her words always make me smile. Highly recommend following her if you don’t already!

In my heart of hearts, I know I didn’t waste away 2016. I actually accomplished a lot. I grew to be a much happier, healthier person compared to where I was in 2012-2014 (shudders). I advanced in my career and nurtured a number of meaningful relationships. I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone more than once.

But I think when it comes to language and writing, I have severe expectations for myself. While it’s disappointing that I accomplished almost none of my personal language and writing goals for 2016, I still made progress towards them. That’s still an accomplishment, in and of itself.

In 2017, I’ll be making small steps toward making Korean more than just a hobby (gasp). I’ve already started in this endeavor and don’t want to jinx anything so I’ll keep the news to myself for now, heh.

I’m also hoping to revisit TOPIK II. My one accomplishment last year was actually taking it even though I had no time to prepare; this year, I’ll focus on improving my score.

In terms of writing… well, I won’t get optimistic and say I’m going to update this blog more often. But I’d like to. I may. I have a feeling 2017 is going to be a big language year for me.

Q&A: New site name

Jeannie asked: Omg why did you change your URL?

Astute readers of this blog might’ve noticed that my URL is no longer https://panjjakpanjjak.wordpress.com – gasp!

Five years ago when I first created this blog on WordPress, I decided to go with my favorite Korean word (at the time) as its site name/URL. I was one year into learning Korean and was fascinated with mimetic adverbs (의성어/의태어 like 두근두근, 찰찰, 말랑말랑, 졸졸, etc.). For some reason, I really liked the word 반짝반짝; there was also the small matter of 반짝반짝 also being the title of an old Big Bang song that I liked. Heh.

At the time, I didn’t really think about the URL from the perspective of the blog’s future readers. I didn’t consider whether the name/URL would difficult for people to remember or if people would have a hard time Googling the blog’s name in Korean or whether it would just be off-putting or unapproachable to have a non-English site name. Thinking about it now, I realized people can’t even really tell that this is a blog about language from just the URL. Despite the name, which I think may have harmed rather than helped grow my audience, I’ve managed to build up a small readership over the years.

Recently, though, I’ve had more and more people ask for a link to my language blog and they’re puzzled when I tell them the URL. If they don’t already know a bit of Korean, the URL is hard to remember, sounds kind of clunky. Plus I usually have to give some kind of explanation as why I went with it, which became kind of annoying to do over and over again.

That’s why I decided to change my blog URL to a loose English translation of 반짝반짝 한국어. The domain name was super cheap too. Never fear – the old URL still maps to shiningkorean.com and if I decide to give this new one up, I’ll still have panjjakpanjjak.wordpress.com, so no big concerns there.

Things have generally been looking up in terms of how I’m feeling about Korean lately. I’m starting to redefine where Korean falls in my list of priorities in life and what it means to be successful in a language. That’s taken a lot of pressure off me. I started listening to Korean music again and I’m still sufficiently entertained by 마녀보감. I’m reading again too! In a way, buying a shiny new domain name for this blog feels like turning over a new leaf… I’m a lot more motivated than I was a few months ago.

I’d love to know if any of you out there have a favorite Korean word. What is it, and why? Let me know in the comments.