The most useful phrase to know in Korean (and any language)

Literal ‘did that just happen?!’ moment last week.

A friend of mine reached out to me last week, saying a coworker of hers needed help placing an order for 떡 for her child’s 백일 from a Korean bakery in Santa Clara.

I’m not sure what this person’s situation was–whether she was Korean(-American) or married to Korean(-American)–but I was more than a little baffled when my friend reached out to me.

Turns out this particular bakery (for fellow South Bay residents it’s 이화당 떡집 – Ehwa Dang Rice Bakery down in Korea Town Santa Clara, if you’re curious) isn’t English-friendly. It seems that they don’t have any English-speaking employees at all, in fact, which I found astounding–but I guess that just shows you what an arrogant American I am. Heh.

Anyway, said coworker’s dilemma was three-fold: her Korean wasn’t good enough to place a phone order with them, the owner’s Korean was too fast for her to understand, and her Korean relatives couldn’t help because they didn’t understand her English. So, I guess that’s where I came in.

She emailed me a bunch of specifics for her order–the date of the event, preferred pick up time, amount she required, questions about payment, etc. And I made the call to the bakery.

Making phone calls in English gives me anxiety, but making this phone call in Korean almost gave me a panic attack. There was a very real possibility I would ruin this complete stranger’s child’s 백일 forever, and that was terrifying.

But long story short, I was able to place the order according to all the specs I was given. And few days later, I heard back from my friend that her coworker’s party was a success!

The whole thing was kind of a small victory, but it made my week nonetheless. It also made me realize something.

The phone call in Korean was a challenge, but not so much as I feared it would be. The thing that helped me get through the anxiety was just staying humble while I was on the line. Instead of pretending like I was totally fluent in Korean and stretching myself to the max of my ability, I downplayed it and really made sure the bakery employee and I understood each other.

I started out in Korean, explaining my situation that I was trying to place an order on someone else’s behalf. And then I said the one phrase that has pretty much helped me in every challenging Korean speaking situation that I’ve been in:

저 한국말은 잘 못해요…

“I’m not that good at Korean….”

Nine times out of ten, if you’re in a situation where you have to speak Korean but you feel intimidated or overwhelmed, this phrase works wonders.

I was amazed how the bakery employee (who, indeed, spoke incredibly fast) just slowed down and listened a lot more carefully, let me finish my sentences without interrupting, and encouraged me when I stumbled, after I told her that I wasn’t that good at Korean but that I would try. She encouraged me to use the little Korean that I knew, instead of struggling to communicate in English. And she even used the opportunity to teach me some new words!

Admitting that you don’t know Korean that well often triggers one of two scenarios: 1) The individual you’re speaking with switches to English because they’re more confident in their English skills than your Korean skills or 2) The individual trusts your basic Korean ability and continues to speak Korean, but it’s less stressful and the interaction turns into a learning opportunity for the both of you.

That latter scenario was definitely what unfolded for me during the bakery phone call; I walked away from that conversation feeling so much more confident in my speaking abilities.

***

Ever since TOPIK II, I’ve been…. feeling really apathetic toward Korean. It scares me, because I used to be so invested in the language and culture. I still am, to some extent, but the 욕심 is gone.

Self-studying a language in a bubble is challenging because you’re not only expending energy studying on your own, you also have to actively pop the bubble you’re in and create an environment where you’re immersed. And lately, I’ve been redirecting that energy into other things.

Helping out this stranger with her bakery order was the first time in a long time that I did something related to Korean outside of books and the Internet. It reminded me of the ‘humanness’ of language, so to speak. And it made me really really want to go back to Korea. Maybe some day soon.

태몽

Another tidbit I learned from my language partner.

We were talking about names and such and she said that her own name was rather unusual by Korean standards.  When my language partner was born, her father legally named her this somewhat odd name without consulting her mother, which upset her mother so much that she called my language partner an entirely different (more common) name  for most of her early childhood.  The reason her father named her thus was because of 태몽.

태몽[胎夢] breaks down to 胎 (아이를 배다 태) and 夢(꿈 몽).  The definition is easy to figure out from the Hanja – 태몽 is a dream about a child that is about to be born.  This dream is sometimes dreamt by the mother herself but can be dreamt by close family members as well – the father, grandparents, aunt, uncle, etc.  Traditionally, the content of the dream is supposed to tell you something about the gender, nature, and/or future successes of the child.  Sometimes, as in the case of my language partner, parents name their child based off 태몽.

For example, suppose one dreams about a dragon.  Supposedly, if one sees the horns or head of the dragon, the child will be a handsome boy; if one sees the tail, the child will be a beautiful girl.  Regardless of the child’s gender, a dream containing a dragon is considered very auspicious since dragons symbolize power and authority.  Dreams about tigers are also considered very auspicious.  Since tigers are considered companions of the Mountain God, these types of 태몽 indicate that the child will be very noble and mighty in nature.  Dreams about riding tigers, being bitten by tigers, or being embraced by one supposedly indicate the child will be a boy whereas dreams about tigers entering your home indicate the child will be a girl (source).

This was just a sampling, but there are tons of stuff about 태몽 interpretations out there.  If you’re curious, just type in ‘태몽 풀이’ into your favorite search engine and read away.  It’s quite interesting and will give you insight into what certain animals, fruits, etc. symbolize in Korean culture.

I’m not sure if there’s anything similar to this in American culture and I’m fairly certain there isn’t anything like this in Indian culture.  Interestingly, my family believes in something like the opposite of 태몽.  My parents and grandparents often say that when a person passes away, his/her spirits says its final farewell by visiting close family members’ dreams.  A rather interesting, unexpected parallel!