Category: Personal

해를 품은 달 and reading in Korean

Jung Eun-gwol, the author of 해를 품은 달 and 성균관 유생들의 나날, sure knows how to craft a story that pierces one’s heart.  I don’t think I ever fully recovered from Sungkyunkwan Scandal, which is why I think I was so fervently anticipating The Moon That Embraces the Sun ages before they even started casting.  I was dying to get my hands on the book, too, which Jeannie so kindly sent for me from Korea!

The drama deviates quite a bit from the novel, but both of them have their own charm so I will forgive this otherwise heinous crime this one time.  Heh.  The drama also had an incredible cast of child actors for the first six episodes; and currently, Kim Soohyun is stealing the screen, blazing as the young, bitter king whose heart longs for the girl he loved as a boy.

The drama is garnering shockingly high ratings week after week; whether that’s to be attributed to the pure genius that was Tree With Deep Roots or the Joseon crack that was The Princess’s Man or perhaps the popularity of the novel itself, it’s hard to tell.  For me, however, the magic is more in the novel than the drama.

The novel takes place during the Joseon dynasty, so there is quite a bit of figurative language and historical words that I’m not familiar with (and also a lot of words that I just don’t know in general; unsurprising, considering the fact that I’m attempting to read a historical novel barely two years into learning the language).  The incredible thing is I can understand most of the plot despite my extremely limited vocabulary and, while I’m at it, I’m gaining such an appreciation for the beauty of “old” Korean.

Personally, I find contemporary Korean more poetic than English and speech during the Joseon era, especially royal speech, even more so.  Unsurprisingly, this novel is filled with absolutely gorgeous language.  Metaphors and motifs galore and, my personal favorite, parallel structure, which is just as pleasing to read in Korean as English.  I plowed my way through book 1 and I’m halfway through book 2, but at this point, I’m reading more for the language than the plot.  In terms of the plot itself, well, I will suppress my inner literature bitch.  It’s little more than Joseon flavored cotton candy fluff but it’s addicting and definitely worth reading for the language.

Mom and I were talking a few days ago about reading in different languages.  My mom’s trilingual in English, Marathi, and Tamil.  She grew up reading novels with ease in both  English and Tamil.  I asked her if she ever had a weird out-of-body feeling when she was reading in either language because I experienced that several times while reading 해를 품은 달.  I’d be sucked into the story for several minutes and then I’d stop and marvel at the fact that this story is written entirely in a language that was unknown to me for 20+ years.  And I was understanding it.  Not only was I understanding it, I was having a visceral reaction to it.  For the first time since I started learning Korean, I was doing more than just comprehending.  I cried during the sad scenes, blushed during the romantic scenes, bit my nails when things were getting intense.  I always thought that no matter how long I study Korean, I would never be able to shake off that element of “foreignness.”  But the fact that I’m getting to the point where I can react to a story written in Korean the same as I do when it’s in English is yet another indication that I can be comfortable enough in a “foreign” language to the extent that it doesn’t feel “foreign” any more.  Amazing!

Mom said she never felt like that when she switched between reading in different languages, probably because she grew up learning all three at the same time.  Sometimes  I wish I had grown up knowing multiple languages just as well as I know English, but then I guess I would miss out on experiencing a transition like this!

새해 복 많이 받으세요.

Happy new year to my friends, readers, and fellow language enthusiasts!  새해 복 많이 받으시고 올해도 건강들 하세요.  좋은 일만 생기길 바랍니다.

I still have a lot to learn about Korean culture, but I do know that one of the major New Year’s traditions in Korea is to watch the first sunrise of the new year.

My friend (the same one I skyped with a while back) told me that he and his father would be going to 강원도 to see the sun rise by the beach.  I told him to take lots of pictures and Kakaotalk with me if he was bored of waiting, and he did exactly that (photo credits go to him).  He arrived at 3:00 AM and had to wait five full hours (in the cold!) for the sunrise.  I asked him why he couldn’t just wait inside somewhere but, clearly, I had no idea about how many people actually did this every year.

He complained that it was so cloudy that you could barely see anything, but his dad managed to take a rather beautiful photo.

They also climbed to the top of a very slippery mountain.  I can’t imagine doing this in warm weather, let alone freezing winter weather.

It was a lot fun Kakaotalking with him while he was there!  It made me feel like I was there too.  Although, if I were ever in Korea during New Year’s, this is probably one tradition I would shy away from.  I prefer waking up warm, cozy, and sober on New Year’s Day.

Best wishes for 2012, everyone.

Skype call in Korean

It’s been nearly two years since I first started learning Korean.  I’m not sure if I’ve spent this time effectively enough or if I even have anything to show for it – all I know is that I’ve enjoyed every single step I’ve taken to get to where I am today.  I’m really grateful for all my fellow bloggers and friends who’ve encouraged and helped me in every way.  Hope you are all having a very happy holiday season.

This week, for the first time since I started learning Korean, I spoke in Korean to a Korean friend of mine through skype.  Usually, I’m pretty paranoid about giving out my contact information and/or talking to people I’ve just met over the internet but I had met this particular friend through me2day over the summer and we’d talked on and off.  He seemed quite nice!  He usually commented on all of my me2day posts, engaged me in conversation, and always offered to help me whenever I had questions about Korean.  I learned about 수능 through him as well, since he was a 수험생 this year.  After he got a smart phone, we chatted a lot with each other using Kakaotalk, which really helped me think on my feet!

Anyway, we’d been talking about skyping for a while and he kept saying that we should do it at a time that was convenient for me but, to be honest, I was incredibly nervous and so I kept blowing him off.  Until finally!  I decided I should just do it.  As much as I think reading+writing+listening+speaking are all important components of language learning, speaking has always been something I disregarded because there was just no opportunity at all to practice speaking in Korean where I live.  I didn’t know a single Korean person and all my Korean-American friends were more comfortable speaking in English.

But I’m so glad I took this opportunity to skype with my friend even though I was so so so incredibly nervous at first.  For the first five minutes, all I could keep saying was “어 진짜 어색해 ㅠㅠ” over and over again.

To that my friend replied, “누나 진짜 한국사람 같아!”

Heh.  Well, that was pretty generous of him but it gave me a lot of confidence.

Frankly speaking, my spoken Korean is very BAD.  Like, horrible.  According to my level of experience, I’d say my writing is above average but my speaking is way below average.  That being said, my friend spoke to me entirely in Korean and I managed to speak in a weird mix of Korean and English ( 영어+한국어  = 영국어?) and I consider that somewhat of an accomplishment.  Haha.

The entire experience was kind of surreal because, for the first time, I was actually saying all these words that I’d read and used in writing and utilizing them in a conversation.  I’m quite proud of my listening abilities too, since I was able to understand pretty much everything my friend was saying to me.

I really do have to give most of the credit to my friend, though.  Despite being much younger than me, he seemed to know exactly how to hold a conversation at my level of Korean.  If I couldn’t understand a question, he rephrased it using easier words.  If I didn’t know a word, he’d define it for me using really simple Korean.  We talked about a lot of different things – really basic stuff like what we did that day, our hobbies, music, dramas, language in general (he kept saying he was envious of my English pronunciation haha), how to improve my Korean and his English.  The amazing thing is that he understood what I was trying to say even if I screwed up the grammar or the word.

We managed to talk for an entire hour like that.

Honestly, I was completely like “신기해!!” the entire time.  I remember feeling the same way when I left a comment in Korean for the first time ever at TTMIK and Hyunwoo replied back in Korean.  The fact that I am getting better and better at interacting with others in both written and spoken Korean is somehow slowly stripping the language of its “foreignness” to me – and that’s a really great feeling.

Looking forward to speaking more Korean in the new year. ^^


Where O where has the time gone?  In the one-and-a-half months that I’ve been at Stanford, I have come to terms with the harsh reality that graduate school leaves you little to no time for hobbies.  BUT.  I refuse to let that be an excuse for my lack of Korean studying.  If you’re passionate enough about something, you will find time for it, no matter how busy you are.

However, as per usual, I’ve reverted back to my lackadaisical methods of “studying” Korean – that is, by watching more things without subtitles, reading more primary material, and writing a bit here and there.  Lately, though, I’ve found a new way to improve my Korean listening skills – 엿듣기 (eavesdropping)!

There are A LOT of Korean folks here at Stanford and, when I’m on the bus, I often catch a few words of Korean being spoken here and there.  So far, I’ve eavesdropped on conversations about wifi speed, moving to a different apartment, an internship at HP, home towns, and a couple other things.  I guess if these conversations are within earshot, it’s not really eavesdropping, is it?  Heh.

Thus far, I’ve only really gotten listening practice from dramas, variety shows, and TTMIK ‘s 이야기 series so it was definitely a welcome change to hear some natural Korean conversation that wasn’t entirely subject-oriented.  Of course, that made it harder to follow since the topics were shifting naturally through the course of the conversation.  I realized that my listening skills are really not that good at all haha.  It’s definitely motivating me to study even harder. :)



As you can see, I changed my theme.  I love the simplicity and color palette of this theme much better than my last one (which honestly looked too cold).  The font size is a bit big and maybe there’s a way to change that but I’m too lazy and computer illiterate to figure it out.  At least it’s easy on the eyes?  Well, in any case, I think I’ll stick with this theme… at least for a few months or so.

I guess this is a timely change because the new theme is accompanying the start of a new chapter in my life.  This Thursday I will be flying off to San Francisco, settling in my own little studio apartment, and embarking on graduate school life at Stanford.  Needless to say, I am incredibly nervous – but excited at the same time.  So many things are changing so quickly for me and, for a person who doesn’t handle change very easily and who prefers routine to adventure, things are going to be very tough for the next few weeks.

Korean is the only constant in my life these days.  No matter how busy I am, I make sure to involve myself in something related to Korean every single day, even if it’s just listening to Korean music.  (Though, to be honest, I’m kind of losing interest in K-pop these days.  Does anyone know of any good K-rock bands or indie bands?  I’m always on the lookout for new music.)

I’ve been telling myself this over and over again but I’ll say it again.  Passive studying (e.g. watching K-dramas, listening to Korean music) isn’t going to cut it for long because I feel myself plateauing already.  I need to challenge myself in a more active, productive way but, at the same time, I’m also afraid to move on to more difficult areas of Korean.  Maybe I’m not looking at the right resources, but I always find material that’s either too easy for me (as in, I either understand everything or only need to look up a few words here and there to understand everything) or so difficult that it’s discouraging.

I think my transition to more challenging levels of Korean is just as rough and uncomfortable as my transition from dependent to independent life.  Maybe that’s part of the reason I’ve been avoiding the books.  Waaah.

Anyway, I hope to get back to blogging once I’m settled in California.  Till then~ to my lovely friends and readers, take care!  (P.S. Don’t lurk!  I’m a nice person.  You should talk to me. ;A;)

Graduate school

This is an off-topic post but it’s such a big part of my life that I have to blog about it at least once.  (If you follow me elsewhere on the web, you may already know about this, so apologies for repeating myself!)

Starting this fall, I will be attending Stanford University (School of Medicine) to pursue a PhD degree in Immunology!!

Graduate school application is a long and tedious process here in the States.  Let me briefly summarize the events that lead to this.  (I was, of course, very bad at planning and procrastinated a lot so the entire process was stressful.)

  1. September 2010 – Took the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) which is an annoying standardized test that everyone has to take to get into an American graduate school.
  2. October 2010 – Wrote my personal statement, which was basically an essay about my current research and how that ties into why I want to pursue Immunology in graduate school.  (Immunology = study of the immune system).  As a microbiologist, I’ve always been interested in host response to bacteria so I thought this would be a great field to pursue.
  3. November 2010 – Asked 3 professors to write my letters of recommendation.  Started the online application.
  4. Early December 2010 – Finished my applications for 6 universities (Duke, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Stanford, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and Brown)
  5. Mid-December 2010 – Received interview invitations from ALL the universities I applied too!  Duke and Harvard were my first interview invites (within 10 days of submitting my application) and Stanford my last.
  6. End-of-January to Early March 2011 – INTERVIEWS & ACCEPTANCES!  My first interview was at Harvard at the end of January and my last interview was the first week of March at Stanford.  Interview weekends were so much fun!  They lasted 3 to 5 days total.  Usually we had faculty interviews for 1-2 days with different professors.  I interviewed with just 3 professors at Harvard (fewest) but with 8 professors at  Duke (most).  The rest of the time was spent exploring the city we were in, going out for dinner with faculty members, going on housing tours, and going to bars with the current students!  It was so much fun and I made some great friends along the way.  I was accepted at 4 schools and waitlisted at 2!  (I was very grateful and lucky to not be rejected anywhere).
  7. March 2011-April 15, 2011 – After hearing back from all of the schools, it was time to decide.  April 15 is pretty much the standard deadline to inform most U.S. graduate schools about whether you’re attending or not.  Basically, you have to decide among your acceptances where you want to attend.
  8. April 15, 2011 – I decided to attend Stanford!  I can’t wait to move to beautiful California.
And now, some pictures of my future home.  (None of these pictures are mine.)
The Main Quad
Li Ka Shing Center
James H. Clark Center

One of my professors swore that it was the most beautiful campus in the U.S.  I think I’ll have to agree.

My penpal

Compared with my reading and listening comprehension skills, my Korean composition skills are pretty much laughable.  I tried to translate a relatively simple English song into Korean and while I think I got the grammar right, I managed to suck all the emotion out of the lyrics.  Sigh.  Anyway, I’ve been trying to improve my writing ability by commenting on TTMIK, tweeting some native Korean speakers, and emailing my Korean penpal, Dina.

Dina (her Korean name is 도희) and I have been penpals for about a year now.  She was actually my younger sister’s friend back when they were both in the 1st and 2nd grade here in the States, but she moved back to Korea at the end of 2nd grade.  She’d been in touch with my sister and when my sister mentioned my interest in the Korean language, she immediately said she wanted to be penpals with me.  So we’ve been emailing back and forth since then and it’s amazing how my emails have progressed from being half in English, half in Korean to almost 100% Korean.

We talk about random things.  Mostly about things like school, food, and the weather.  I also learn a lot of interesting words and slang and emoticons from her as well.  For example “바2” and “빠빠이” are both cute ways to say “bye.”  Once I tried to fangirl about boybands (i.e. Big Bang) with her but clearly she’s more mature than I am because she said:

나는 boyband에 관심은 없지만, 빅뱅이 좋아~~ 언니는 멤버 중에서 누가 제일 좋아?? 한국 친구들은 빅뱅 중에서 g-dragon을 제일많이 좋아해!

관심 없다고?!  How is that possible?  Haha.

I love being an 언니 to my Korean penpal and I hope we can stay friends for a very long time!

Learning Korean Through Translation

I’m a huge proponent of learning a language through translation.  In fact, most of the vocabulary and grammar structures I know now are thanks to my attempts to learn Korean by “translating” K-pop songs.  Not only did I learn new things, I also figured out what the song meant!  But, please note, these are all still amateur translations.  A successful translation captures both the meaning and style of a work and if you use translation as a means to learn a language, you can only hope to master one aspect at the beginner level (meaning).  Once you’ve mastered the language (if there is such a thing), you can learn to capture the style of the original work as well.

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How I learned 한글

Rote memorization would probably be the simplest way of learning a new alphabet. Take some flashcards, write the character on the front, sound on the back, and then drill yourself until it’s branded into your memory. I tried this with the Japanese syllabaries and it worked. I tried it with Hangeul and failed miserably. No matter how many times I went through it, I would get ㅏ and ㅓmixed up, ㅗ and ㅜ mixed up and, sometimes, if the cards flipped directions as I shuffled them, I would get all four mixed up with each other. With Hiragana/Katakana I could make a sort of visual-auditory connection because the letters looked so different but Korean was too difficult. So, I ended up learning Hangeul in a weird, roundabout, organic kind of way without really TRYING to learn it through rote memorization.

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Why Korean?

That’s a question I get a lot these days, especially at graduate school interviews.  Why Korean?  I have no family ties to Korea, I don’t live in a place populated by a lot of Koreans (and those who are Korean prefer to communicate in English), and I don’t plan on visiting or living in Korea any time soon.  Sure, there are K-dramas and K-pop which I love and obsess over 26 hours a day but that’s not the reason I started learning Korean.  So what was it exactly?  I’m not even sure I know myself.

Continue reading “Why Korean?”