Category: Reviews

Japanese words to understand the Japanese mind

We recently got back from a trip to Tokyo, and half of my heart is still there.

This was my third time in Japan and Theo’s sixth; between the two of us, we’ve explored most of the touristy metropolitans on Honshu, so we were content to just stay put in Tokyo, visiting museums and parks, eating soft serve, and making late-night trips to Family Mart.

Sunset over Setagaya Park.

People are always surprised when they find out that I keep going back to Japan though I only know the most basic of conversational Japanese, and yet I’ve only been to Korea once despite being fairly fluent in Korean (going on my ninth year of studying)!

The reality is, I’ve been your typical anime, manga, and (later) JRPG nerd for far longer than I’ve been studying Korean. I loved Pokémon in elementary school, watched English dubs of Rurouni Kenshin, and ate up the most ridiculous shoujo manga I could borrow from my friends. I taught myself kana when I was in high school and studied the language for a year in college — in a lot of ways, Korean was the interloper in my Japanese studies, heh.

That said, I’ve never been good at learning Japanese, even though I keep coming back to it. (I recently had an epiphany about this but that’s another blog post).

Learning Japanese through Korean (kinda)

As I got better at Korean, I wondered if things would stick better if I learned Japanese in Korean. To some extent, I was right; it did make learning grammar easier since there are a lot of grammar constructions that have a one-to-one equivalence between Japanese and Korean. But then I’d always feel like the two languages were competing for my time — and I would always choose Korean in the end.

When I told my Korean teacher about my upcoming trip to Japan, she asked if I wanted to spend a few minutes every class doing some basic Japanese, and I figured it wouldn’t hurt.

(As an aside, I’ve been taking private lessons in Korean for about a year now and my teacher is phenomenal. She’s done academic research in linguistics as well as technical translation work from Japanese into Korean, and she is trained to teach Japanese. She’s currently studying to get her TESOL certificate too. We have the nerdiest conversations about language and culture in Korean and it’s brilliant.)

In any case, I decided to show her some of my notes from a Japanese book I picked up on a whim when I was there in 2015.

My Japanese notes are in a mix of Korean and English.

Much like I’d started out learning Korean, I brute forced my way through the text, looking up every unfamiliar Kanji, unknown vocabulary word, and grammar point I didn’t know. I even made index cards to flip through on my commute to work.

But then my teacher suggested we try a more inductive approach to learning Japanese. So rather of meticulously going over grammar point by grammar point, this is what we do instead.

  • I read through the Japanese text on my own out loud (yes, stumbling over all the Kanji I couldn’t read)
  • My teacher then re-reads each sentence out loud, and then translates it into Korean.
  • We go over some key vocabulary and phrases in the text.
  • We discuss the text together in Korean.

Even though our discussion (and my comprehension) of the text is largely in Korean, I find my ear becoming more and more attuned to cadence of Japanese sentences; I’m even retaining more words and improving at reading. Most importantly, I feel myself getting better at Japanese, while also getting to practice Korean.

Two birds! One stone! I finally feel like I’ve found a sweet spot for learning both Japanese and Korean.

My teacher has been incredible; she basically lets me set my own curriculum and follows me patiently wherever my language whims take me. Obviously this wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for her. But! There’s something also to be said about this book I serendipitously picked up four years ago

日本人の心が分かる日本語: a mini review

I didn’t know anything about this book when I spotted it in the Japanese language section of Kinokuniya’s flagship store in Shinjuku, but the book’s subtitle caught my interest: “A book for foreigners wanting to read between the lines to see what the Japanese really think.”

The book is made up of short essays (3-4) pages on specific words related to Japanese culture and etiquette. Each essay is structured the same way:

  • A few introductory sentences defining the word and its origins
  • Several specific example scenarios, usually in the form of dialogue, illustrating different nuances of the word or the concept it represents
  • Each example scenario is followed by an explanation
  • Each essay has an additional section called もっと深くwhich goes deeper into the topic using more advanced Japanese
  • Finally, each essay ends with a list of key vocabulary words. These words tend to show up in subsequent essays.

I haven’t taken the JLPT exam, but the essays are probably at an intermediate to upper-intermediate level in terms of grammar. The vocabulary felt more advanced than the grammar, though the book does a great job of referring back to and reinforcing the key terms that were introduced in earlier sections of the book.

Here are just a few of the topics covered in this book:

  • しつけ
  • けじめ
  • 遠慮(えんりょ)
  • 気をつかう
  • がんばる
  • 無理
  • 空気を読む

So my teacher and I discuss these essays in a mix of Japanese and Korean, and the great thing is, I’m learning a lot of basic things about Japanese culture that I didn’t know before, while also using Korean to compare and contrast it with Korean and Indian culture. It’s stretching my brain in fun and exciting ways.

Speaking of brains, I think I’m feeling my mind sort of… unlock(?) itself to Japanese lately. It’s easier to learn and retain new things. I feel energized by studying Japanese — that’s something I used to only ever feel with Korean.

외눈박이 물고기의 사랑 – 류시화 시집

Way back when, I read a poem by Korean poet Ryu Shi-hwa.  My friend and language partner at the time, Kwang-im, suggested him when I was suddenly struck with the desire to read Korean poetry.  Now, I’m not inherently a lover of poetry but through my many years as a student of English literature (which came to an end right before college), I’ve managed to amass a few favorites.  Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allan Poe, T.S. Eliot, to name a few.  And, having scoped out as many poems as I can find by him, I can now add 류시화 to that list.  His poetry is simple, yet deep and ponderous at the same time.  A fellow poet describes Ryu’s poetry as such:

“류시화 시인은 일상 언어들을 사용해 신비한 세계를 빚어낸다.  바로 이 점이 그의 시의 중요한 미덕이다.” – 이문재 (시인)

Poet Ryu Shi-hwa evokes the mysteries of this world using everyday language.  This is the most significant virtue of his poetry.  – Lee Moon-jae (poet)

When I went to Korea back in September 2014, I was thrilled to finally add one of his anthologies to my Korean literature collection.

The title of this particular anthology translates to The Love of the One-eyed Fish.  The titular poem is actually one of my favorites.  This is the first half of it:

외눈박이 물고기처럼 살고 싶다
외눈박의 물고기처럼
사랑하고 싶다
두눈박이 물고기처럼 세상을 살기 위해
평생을 두 마리가 함께 붙어 다녔다는
외눈박이 물고기 비목처럼
사랑하고 싶다

<외눈박이 물고기의 사랑>에서

The poet wants to live and love like a one-eyed fish.  Why?  Because in order to live like a normal two-eyed fish, two one-eyed fishes have to stick by each others’ side and swim about together.  It’s a poem about longing for companionship in life.

In this particular anthology, and in most of his other works too, Ryu’s poems are rooted in nature.  Trees, birds, rain, fish, etc., sometimes anthropomorphized, nearly always complimented with a very human emotion or desire.  Nature and humanity are often inextricable.

여우와 여우 사이
별과 별 사이
마음과 마음 사이

그 사이가 없는 곳으로 가고 싶다

물과 물고기에게는 사이가 없다
바다와 파도에는 사이가 없다
새와 날개에는 사이가 없다

나는 너에게로 가고 싶다
사이가 없는 그곳으로

<여우 사이>에서

In this excerpt, the poet laments there being a “distance” between everything in the world – between vixens, between stars, between hearts.  But he soon realizes there are some things that are truly inseparable – there is no distance between fish and the water they swim in, between the ocean and its waves, between a bird and its wings.  Likewise, the poet wants to exist in a place where there will be no distance between himself and his lover.

What I love about Ryu’s poetry is how deeply I can feel in response to it.  Many of his poems are tinged with a wistfulness, a slight melancholy that makes you introspect on your own life, your own mistakes and regrets.  Every one of his poems has touched a visceral sadness within me.  But at the same time, they are not depressing.  Rather, they let you embrace and accept the emotion and move past it in some way.  Perhaps that’s just me.

소금별에 사는 사람들은
눈물을 흘릴 수 없네
눈물을 흘리면
소금별이 녹아 버리기 때문
소금별 사람들은
눈물을 감추려고 자꾸만
눈을 깜박이네
소금별이 더 많이 반짝이는 건
그 때문이지

<소금별>

Reading this one makes me think of Le Petit Prince.  You know that saying that says the saddest people smile the brightest?  That’s what I thought of when I read this poem.  This poem is for the people whose eyes shine bright with tears held back, because shedding them would mean shattering the illusion of contentment they’ve worked so hard to build.  Ah yes.

Toktogi: A Korean-English pop-up dictionary

For a couple years, I was a faithful user of Naver’s English Dictionary extension for Chrome, which works by bringing up a side panel window with the definition of any Korean word that you double-click on.  It was nice, but I have a bad habit of highlighting and unnecessarily clicking on words while reading stuff online, so more often than not, I’d end up triggering the extension on an English word or a Korean word that I already knew.  That meant many instances of loading multiple windows, having to exit out of those windows, using up memory, and slowing down my internet speed.  Eventually I got to a point where I could understand 80% of the content I was reading on the internet (i.e. manhwa, celebrity interviews), so I deleted the extension and got by using context clues and the Daum dictionary webpage when needed.

The problem is, I’ve basically reached a vocabulary plateau with Korean because I keep reading the same type of thing time and again.  So lately, I’ve been making an earnest effort to read more diverse content…. but that meant having to look up a lot of new words.  Instead of going back to the Naver extension or choosing to laboriously look up each word I was unfamiliar with on the dictionary webpage, I’m utilizing a really awesome new Korean-English popup dictionary extension for Chrome.

This extension is super convenient.  All you do is hover your mouse over a Korean word and the English definition pops up in a tiny blue box below it.  No new browser opens, there’s no delay, and you can toggle the extension being on/off on a page quite easily.  This lets me read more quickly and smoothly than I ever have before.  Overall, there’s really not much to criticize.  As of now, the definitions only appear in English and there’s no way you can toggle to Korean definitions (sometimes I find it easier to understand the nuance of a word when I read the definition in Korean), nor can you look up the Korean equivalent of an English word, but the extension is still rather new so I’m sure there’s room for improvement and refinement in the future.  Now I really have no excuse to not read more Korean.

EDIT:  Here’s a link to the extension in the Chrome Web Store.

Book Review: 옛것에 대한 그리움

Before I start, an extra special shout-out goes out to my loveliest of lovelies, Jeannie, who sent this book along with a stash of other goodies from Korea.  She’s forever spoiling me with gifts.  I am so lucky to know you, dear – and not just because you’re my Sugar Daddy.  Haha.

I have to admit, I distanced myself from Korean culture and history during my first year of studying the language because a part of me felt that if I learned too much about it, I might come across as a Korean “wannabe.”  As it is, I still keep my passion for Korean a bit under the wraps, but I’ve come to realize that one cannot divorce a language from its culture.  The better I get at Korean, the more I want to know about Korea itself.

And on that topic, a few weeks ago while I was watching 아랑 사또전, I decided I wanted to know more about 고수레, or food that Koreans put out to appease ghosts.  I googled it, browsed  few websites, and eventually came across an excerpt from a book called 옛것에 대한 그리움.  The same site had posted other excerpts from this book and all of them seemed to be about certain aspects of Korean culture.  It looked really interesting and informative!

Author Kim Jong-tae’s primary aim in writing this book is to preserve Korean history and tradition in the current day and age.  In the face of rapidly evolving technology, our fast-paced, modernized selves often forget the religious or cultural traditions of our parents and grandparents – which means they will be equally missing in our children’s and children’s children’s lives as well, perhaps gone for posterity.  This book means to save that on the behalf of present day Koreans.  In fact, the whole book can be summarized succinctly by the its tagline:  잊혀져 가는 거의 모든것의 아름다운 풍경.

The book is divided into five sections, each having a certain theme, and each section contains several different Korean cultural/traditional points.

Each topic gets about a four-page passage dedicated to it, explaining what it is, where it originated from, and what its significance is.  Below is a snapshot of the pages describing 고수레.

Some topics even have photographs accompanying them.  This one was from the passage describing 쪽 (a woman’s chignon).

Other passages include 장승, 소리 (an entire section about onomatopoeia!), 바구니, 봉숭아, 놋그릇, plus tons more.

This is such a lovely little book.  A good, informative read, and definitely a good way to spruce up one’s vocabulary.  I definitely recommend it to anyone who has an interest in Korean traditions.

Book Review: KLEAR Integrated Korean

About three weeks ago, I was super excited to finally get my new Korean textbooks!  I’d heard a lot about the KLEAR Integrated Korean series from a number of Korean learners online so I was curious to give it a try.  I know a lot of people have already reviewed this book but just thought I’d throw in my two cents.  Tons of pictures ahead…

Continue reading “Book Review: KLEAR Integrated Korean”