Tag: Korean language

On reading Han Kang

I’ve been writing this post on and off since February this year, ever since I finished reading 흰: The Elegy of Whiteness by Han Kang, and here we are, finally.

흰 (English title: The White Book) is the third book I’ve read by Han Kang, and the first I’ve read in the original Korean. A few years earlier, I had picked up Han’s Booker Prize-winning work 채식주의자 (The Vegetarian), mainly out of a curiosity for the novel’s British translator, Deborah Smith, who had only begun learning Korean seven years prior to the book’s publication.

Reading The Vegetarian was a milestone in my literary (?) Korean journey and education. Prior to it, I prided myself in being able to read Korean literature in the original language, when others had no choice but to rely on translations. What better way to show the world just how fluent I had become! At the time, I didn’t see translation as an art or science in and of itself, only as a means to an end. I’ll remember The Vegetarian as a novel that challenged all the ill-informed notions I’d had about foreign language, fluency, and literary translation.

I found The Vegetarian eerie and bizarre, but Human Acts shook me to the core. It was the first time I had read any literature about the 1980 Gwangju Uprising—nine harrowing days during which the South Korean martial government open fired and otherwise violently suppressed pro-democracy protesters, most of whom were university students.

I read this book during a time in my life when it was hard to feel anything, and, oh, did this book make me feel. The novel is a series of deep-punching vignettes about the atrocities that took place during the uprising and the shadow it continues to cast on Koreans 5, 10, 20+ years later, including Han herself. To date, Human Acts remains one of my favorite books, simply because of how much it hurt to read.

Soundlessly, and without a fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke. Something that, until then, I hadn’t even realized was there.

Han Kang, Human Acts (tr. Deborah Smith)
안개

The White Book is a series of interconnected meditations on the color white. It is a slim volume, just over 100 pages, interspersed with black-and-white photographs. Each “chapter” is rarely more than two pages long.

I thought, naively, that this would make reading the book in Korean simpler. Honestly? I should have known better; both The Vegetarian and Human Acts were short novels, but quite difficult to read, even in English.

Each moment is a leap forward from the brink of an invisible cliff, where time’s keen edges are constantly renewed. We lift our foot from the solid ground of all our life lived thus far and take that perilous step out into the empty air. Not because we can claim any particular courage, but because there is no other way.

–Han Kang, The White Book (tr. Deborah Smith)

When I read The White Book, I felt a kind of desolation. It wasn’t agony like Human Acts, but a quiet, persistent sadness. The color white often represents purity, light, innocence. In The White Book, we experience the color white in its other forms: the chill of a pale corpse, gauze covering a wound, snow and ash falling on a quiet city, bones in an x-ray, white-hot pain, ghosts, fog.

The phrase “하얗게 웃다” was one of Han’s white things that struck me as especially poignant. Laughing whitely, it is translated into English. I always equated this to “laughing innocently” or “laughing cheerfully/brightly.” But according to Han, there’s a fragility in the expression, a trembling feeling, as if you were smiling through tears.

하얗게 웃는다, 라는 표현은 (아마) 그녀의 모국어에만 있다. 아득하게, 쓸쓸하게, 부서지기 쉬운 개끗함으로 웃는 얼굴, 또는 그런 웃음.

너는 하얗게 웃었지.
가령 이렇게 쓰면 너는 조용히 견디며 웃으려 애썼던 어떤 사람이다.

그는 하얗게 웃었어.
이렇게 쓰면 (아마) 그는 자신 안의 무엇인가와 결별하려 애쓰는 어떤 사람이다.

Last month, I went to Seoul for a week by myself. I’m not great at sharing travel stories, but one thing I did do was visit a lot of bookstores because that’s what happens when I go anywhere by myself. On my last day, at Thanks Books in Hapjeong, I spotted a single copy of Han’s 2013 debut poetry collection.

Yeah, I bought it.

There’s no English-language novel that I’ve read so far that captures such intimate suffering as does the three novels I read by Han Kang. Her work is beautiful, but her writing can sometimes be inscrutable. I certainly felt the gaps in my knowledge of literary language (insofar as that can be generalized) while reading The White Book. If you’re studying Korean, and are starting to think about reading literature in Korean, I recommend reading Han’s works in translation first. Put it on your list, regardless.

Tips for improving Korean essay writing

After more than a year of attending advanced Korean classes and regularly writing and reviewing 500-800 character essays with my teacher, I’ve accumulated a few useful tips for improving long-form writing that I thought I’d share here.

I’ll preface this by saying few people write well in any language, even among native speakers. I’m a writer and storyteller in both my professional and personal life and I know just how hard it is to build compelling rhetoric using effective, engaging language on any topic. So, following these “quick tips” won’t make you a good writer in Korean — that will take years of practice reading and writing, just as it would in English. But it may help you get started on the road to sounding more natural.

Caveat: This is only one language learner’s experience (mine) and one language instructor (my teacher)’s advice, so take with a grain of salt.

Continue reading “Tips for improving Korean essay writing”

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.

먹칠하다

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.

Continue reading “먹칠하다”

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.

What I learned from taking TOPIK II without studying

I almost didn’t even show up for the exam. Aside from a couple hours of reviewing grammar back in January, I didn’t prepare for TOPIK at all. I didn’t even spend time looking over old tests. But, as painful as I knew it was going to be, I knew there was still value in just taking it, regardless of whether I do well or not. I paid for the exam, might as well try to learn something from the experience. So… it happened, and these are the things I know I should work on for October.

  1. Spend more time studying for the listening section. I consider listening one of my strengths in Korean, but this section made me realize I need to diversify the topics I listen to. (Granted even our test proctor said she found some of the dialogues difficult to understand!) Listening to the news more would definitely help, for example. I need to make a serious, focused effort to study for the listening section. I have a lot more resources for studying grammar and vocabulary, so it’ll be hard to not spend all my time studying for the reading section. Speaking of which…
  2. Learn how to speed read. The reading section could have potentially gone worse–I had to guess on like 5 questions near the end because I didn’t have time to read the passages. I’m hoping this won’t happen once I’ve practiced more with past exams and once I’ve started reading more without looking up every single word I don’t know. I think my reading speed has actually gotten worse over the years since I started prioritizing learning vocabulary (i.e. looking up every single word I don’t know, writing it down, etc.) over overall comprehension. Speed reading would’ve also helped me a ton in the listening section, so I could have better scanned the answer choices while listening to the dialogues.
  3. Practice writing on 원고지. I think out of all the sections, I did best in writing. Time was the biggest challenge. I know I would have done much better (and written more) had I practiced ahead of time writing on 원고시. I also didn’t know that you use special pens for the TOPIK (yes… they actually say ‘TOPIK’ on them). I found them pretty easy to use, but it wouldn’t hurt to practice with the next closest thing–Sharpie pens, in my opinion–to really emulate the testing environment.
  4. Take more practice tests. Even though I have a couple of great books for reviewing TOPIK grammar, I think the number one way I can improve is simply by taking more tests. Pretty much every type of skills exam–SAT, GRE, etc.–has its own style and vocabulary and by focusing on that content, I can focus my studying. It’s tempting to spend hours and hours just studying everything I don’t know, but it’s just as important to study how to take the exam.

Overall, it was hard, as I expected it would be. But I’m glad that I decided to take it. As our test proctor said, regardless of what scores we get, just showing up to the exam was impressive enough.

I’ll preemptively say that I won’t publicly post my results for this exam or for future exams, but I will try to post tips and progress updates as I study (in earnest) for the October exam. Onwards!

볼장 다 보다

Sometimes there’s nothing harder than being honest with yourself.

As much as it pains me to say it, looking back on the past couple years or so, I’ve noticed my… 욕심..? for Korean deteriorating. I’m frustrated by my lack of improvement. I’m at a level where improvement doesn’t come in leaps and bounds anymore; it comes from dedicated, daily study, which I don’t make an effort to do. Korean dramas don’t hold my interest as they used to, I barely listen to Korean music or podcasts, and I can’t focus long enough to start and finish a novel in a decent period of time either.

Leaving Seoul after my first trip there, back in 2014, was far more depressing than I thought it would be. Immersing myself in the language was so effortless there… then coming back to the U.S. where I had to make an active effort to immerse myself everyday… Bleh.

So in an effort to stop whining and being lazy, I thought I’d kick myself into high-gear and sign up for TOPIK. The good news is, this year I actually submitted my application in time to be accepted for the April exam. The bad news? I studied for two consecutive days and then never picked up a book or looked at a practice exam since.

The actual exam is in less than a week.

I’m at a point where the following idiom has become sadly, hopelessly relevant to me.

볼장 다 보다

(사람이) 관계하던 일이 더이상 어떻게 해볼 수 없을 정도로 잘못되다.

Basically, everything that can possibly go wrong in a situation has gone wrong and you’re finished. Done. Ruined. Screwed. The jig is up.

This is kind of an interesting idiom because, when you consider the literal definition, you’re basically using it ironically. Literally, the phrase means ‘to be done with everything that needs to be done.’ Note: 볼장 is written together often enough that it’s found in the dictionary–it means ‘something that needs to get done’–but it’s easy to parse out the meaning if you write it with the correct 띄어쓰기, i.e. 볼 장.

So, literally, the phrase has a positive connotation. You’ve done everything that needs to be done. The idiomatic meaning comes from using this phrase ironically. When you’ve messed up something so bad, that there’s nothing else you can do to mess it up, that’s also 볼장 다 보다. You’ve done everything that can be done wrong, wrong.

So… that’s why this idiom struck a chord. Every place I could’ve fallen short in my preparation of TOPIK, I fell short. I didn’t do anything to prepare. Possibly the only thing I can do worse is spend hours cramming the night before the exam.

I’ll still take the exam, though. I’m hoping maybe that’ll be a wakeup call and get me to prepare for the October exam better. Meanwhile… I’m still in a slump. I don’t know how I can reconnect with the language. Maybe putting pressure on myself to do well on TOPIK is actually pushing me away from what I love about Korean? I don’t really know. What I do know is that I sorely miss this community of language learners and language bloggers! Thanks for sticking around while I’ve been MIA.

2014: A Year of Change

Stuff happened in 2014.

So.  Much.  Stuff.

When I think about growing up and taking on responsibilities and such, I think this is the year that I really threw myself into the ocean of adulthood and taught myself how to swim.  It wasn’t easy.  I’m fairly sure that I cried more this year than I ever have in my recent past and was almost continuously sick because of stress.  Nevertheless, 2014 is a year that I will look back on fondly in the future.  These were the highlights of my year.

Continue reading “2014: A Year of Change”

꿀잠을 자다

On the unofficial list of nerdier things I love in life, I have to say that idioms rank pretty high.  I like discovering Korean idioms through reading them in context but, just as in English, the disconnect between the literal and figurative meaning often makes me scratch my head confusion.  Many of them prove challenging to learn and retain, but once in a rare while I come across one that makes me go, “Aha, I totally get this!”

That’s exactly how I felt when I stumbled upon this particular idiomatic expression.

꿀잠을 자다.

You know that overbearing feeling of doom and stress that you get during midterms or final exam week?  During which you study for hours upon hours and then take back-to-back exams for two straight weeks?  More important, you know that feeling after your last exam?  That’s when the pure adrenaline you’re running on comes to a crashing stop and wave upon wave of fatigue from all those lost hours of sleep washes over you and your eyelids feel so heavy that they feel like they’re made of lead.

(…Yeah, the last time I actually had a final exam week like that was 3 years ago and I still can’t get over the feeling.)

The night after the last exam of finals week, right before glorious winter or summer break, is the night I sleep so deeply and soundly that I’m pretty much lost to another dimension.

‘꿀잠’ is essentially that type of unadulterated, deep slumber.  Breaking it down, it’s easy to see where the meaning comes from.  ‘꿀’ means honey and ‘잠’ means sleep, so putting that together, you get honey sleep.  Sleep that is so sweet and satisfactory, it’s like honey.  That’s pretty close to what the Korean dictionary from Daum defines 꿀잠 as: ‘아주 달게 자는 잠.’

꿀잠을 자는 코니 ㅋㅋ
꿀잠을 자는 코니 ㅋㅋ

Obviously, the ideal situation is that you get a good night’s sleep every night and don’t pull all-nighters, but let’s be real, when does that ever happen?  Heh.  Now that I’m out of school, I usually experience 꿀잠 the night after big presentations (i.e. lab meetings and talks) and project deadlines.  Even though it’s unhealthy and stressful (and I don’t condone it!), procrastinating actually helps me deliver a better product more efficiently…. And nothing is sweeter than the 꿀잠 I have the night after it’s all done.

Daum’s Easy English (금상첨화!)

So much about language learning is about individual perspective.  For example, my own mother tongue, culture, and the values I was brought up with influences how quickly I learn certain Korean phrases or bits of Korean culture.  Needless to say, the things I can identify with, I learn more quickly.

That being said, although I use Marathi and my Indian background to connect to Korean, English is clearly my stronger language.  And as my Korean inches beyond the intermediate stage, I find myself reading more and more about English in Korean and I’ve actually learned a lot.  I began to pick up so-and-so Korean phrase is equivalent in meaning to blah-blah English and that’s really helping my writing and communication.  A fair warning though:  I’ve looked at a few “teach yourself English”-type books in Korean and am often baffled by the expressions and example sentences in the books.  Most of them are just BAD.

Now, I’m a steadfast Daum user (pretty sure I’m in the minority, but I can’t stand Naver) and I love the Daum 어학사전.  Recently(?), I found even greater reason to love it.  Daum’s Easy English series (which you can find on the 어학사전 home page) features some of the best and simplest explanations of English phrases and idioms I’ve seen to date.  The Korean explanations are easy to understand and the examples, for the most part, natural in both English and (I think) Korean.  The best part is they provide a really great Korean counterpart to the English phrase being defined – that means I usually learn something too!

daum

I recently learned a very relevant 사자성어 from one of the Easy English posts.  I’ve been kind of… skirting around learning these four-character idioms but my language partner Kwang-im actually uses them a lot (she also insists that I should know them because I’m a graduate student and thus should use ‘high-level’ Korean heh).

Anyway, the phrase is in the title of the post:  금상첨화 [錦上添花] basically means ‘the icing on the cake.’

Breaking down the Hanja we have:

  • [비단 금]:  silk
  • 上 [위 상]:  on top of
  • [더할 첨]:  to add/increase
  • 花 [꽃 화]:  flower

Together, you get the Korean definition of the phrase:   ‘비단 위에 꽃을 더한다는 뜻으로, 좋은 일 위에 더 좋은 일이 더하여짐을 비유적으로 이르는 말.’  (Adding flowers on top of silk – that is, having something good happen on top of something that’s already good in the first place.)

Flowers on silk, icing on cake.  Same meaning, different metaphor!

I’ve always liked Daum but the fact that it has this really great series, 진짜 금상첨화이다!