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.

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Interview with Jung Yumi (Elle Korea 2018)

I’ve liked a lot of projects that Jung Yumi has been in, but the one I can’t forget is Que Sera Sera, her first TV drama. It’s possibly one of the most horrifying and hard-to-stomach (i.e. amazing) melodramas I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen it 2.5 times myself and the opening song still always gives me goosebumps.

That said, I think it was her role as Joo Yeol-mae in I Need Romance 2012 that really made me a fan. I was surprised at the frankness with which that show addressed love and female sexuality and relationships that didn’t conform to societal norms; plus, I have a soft spot for shows with female leads who have close circle of girl friends. Writing aside, I adored Jung Yumi’s punchy line delivery and the spark she gave her character. [Shameless plug: I’m currently captioning I Need Romance 2012 in Korean on Viki if you’re looking for a fun drama to study with.]

Last month, Jung Yumi wrapped up filming Live, her small screen comeback after four years. She was interviewed in this month’s Elle Korea on her past projects and her acting style in an article titled ‘정유미의 호흡’ (translated below).

Now, I’ve translated the article’s title (maybe too literally) as ‘Jung Yumi’s Breathing.’ 호흡 is an interesting word. It literally means breathing or respiration, but in the context of the article, it’s more referring to Jung Yumi’s laissez-faire way of doing things. She goes with the flow, marches to the beat of her own drum, so to speak.

Disclaimer: All copyright belongs to the original source. I am not profiting by this translation and cannot guarantee its accuracy.

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Throwback to my K-pop listening days

Confession time. I tend to get defensive when people ask me if I’m learning Korean because of K-pop. That’s because 1) K-pop was never a motivation for me to learn the language; it was a side-effect, and the better I got at Korean, the less I started to like idol music anyway. And 2) the stereotype of a typical K-pop fan these days is less than flattering.

That said, yes, I too had a rich, happy K-pop phase. I used to be a huge DB5K fan and then Big Bang, and had my phases with SHINee, Infinite, B.A.P., and B2ST (which UM WHAT apparently a lot has happened with them since I last checked).

Anyway I found my interest in K-pop rekindled when a friend of mine told me about YGE’s official rhythm game BeatEVO YG. The app has been absolute shit since its recent Android update so I can’t in good conscience recommend it, but I got addicted anyway and am now super nostalgic for 2006-2010-era Big Bang. All of a sudden, I’m back to listening to 하루 하루, 거짓말, 마자막 인사, 나만 바라봐 on repeat.

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The lyrics to this song are so horrible and yet….

I think now, listening to those songs, a lot of the nostalgia I have has to do with how much those songs influenced my learning Korean. I really don’t think I give K-pop enough credit for the role it played in my early Korean learning days, but it was a critical source from which I absorbed tons of new grammar and vocabulary.

A few days ago, I was digging through some old notes from that “exponential” phase of my Korean learning days and found a three-ring binder full of K-pop lyrics and language notes.

I used to print out the lyrics to a song I liked and then painstakingly look up every single noun, verb, particle, connector, and sentence ending I didn’t know using either Talk To Me In Korean, Clare You & Eunsu Cho’s Online Intermediate College Korean, and/or Korean Wiki Project. I’d break up the lyrics into stanzas and under each stanza, type out all of my language notes, and then write up a rough translation of the lyrics in English. And then I’d compare it existing translations out there.

And then, I’d memorize.

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My language notes from Big Bang’s ‘Haru Haru.’

 

It wasn’t a perfect or even efficient method, and there were definitely pitfalls I had to watch out for. I risked learning grammar incorrectly, or learning weird slang words/expressions and skewing my developing vocabulary to words related to love and heartbreak. English translations that existed online were mostly terrible, so using those to help me grasp word usage and nuance was probably a bad idea. The potential to learn something wrong and then struggle to unlearn it later on was very, very high.

And yet.

This way of learning Korean through K-pop somehow made Korean feel like a more tangible and comprehensible language to me than reading about it in a textbook. Over the years, through reading a wide range of material and, yes, suffering through textbooks, I’ve managed to correct some of those things I learned incorrectly while gaining a deeper understanding of others I had oversimplified. But, for sure, if I hadn’t started out teaching myself like this, I don’t think I’d be at the level I am now.

I might be reluctant about admitting it these days, but I look back on my K-pop fandom days with a lot of fondness, both for how much I enjoyed the music itself and for how much it built my foundation for Korean. Those were good times.


Okay, so, a funny, unexpected side effect of playing so much BeatEVO YG — I’m really into Sechskies now???? Yep. The real reason I don’t listen to K-pop any more is actually just because my taste in idol music is stuck in the 90s-00s. 😂

Thoughts on literary writing in another language

Last month, I told my Korean teacher about staying up really late to finish an assignment for an online YA fantasy writing course I was taking, and she semi-jokingly suggested that I should try writing a novel in Korean.

Now, I don’t think this is something I’ll ever do or even be interested in doing — it’s hard enough to write a novel in English and I’ve been trying for a decade! — but it did make me wonder about bilingual writers who choose not to write in their mother tongue.

In the case of the diasporic writer, I get it. You become more fluent in English or the primary language of wherever you are educated. But what about writers like Yann Martel (Life of Pi), Nabokov (Lolita), and Jack Kerouac (On the Road), who chose to write in English when they were more than literate in their native languages?

Granted, you could argue that choosing to write in English is a practical move since it makes your writing accessible (and marketable) to the broadest possible audience… but as much as writing is a business, it is also a very personal and emotionally taxing endeavor that language has no small part in.

I thought back on the times that I’ve been compelled to write in Korean, not just for the sake of practicing writing, but because Korean came intuitively to me in that moment. Sometimes it was because there were specific words or sentence constructions that fit what I was feeling more closely in Korean than English. Most of the time, writing about my fears, my insecurities, and disappointments came difficult in English and more easily in Korean. As limited as my writing ability was, I found it easier to be honest with myself and express myself feelings in Korean than English.

In her memoir, Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, who chooses only to write in English, perfectly captured what I was beginning to realize:

When one thinks in an adopted language, one arranges and rearranges words that are neutral, indifferent even, to arrive at a thought that one does not know to be there.

When one remembers in an adopted language, there is a dividing line in that remembrance. What came before could be someone else’s life; it might as well be fiction. Sometimes I think it is this distancing that marks me as cold-hearted and selfish. To forget the past is a betrayal, we were taught in school when young; to disown memories is a sin.

What language does one use to feel; or, does one need a language to feel? In the hospital, I visited a class of medical students studying minds and brains. After an interview, the doctor who led the class asked about feelings. I said it was beyond my ability to describe what might as well be indescribable.

If you can be articulate about your thoughts, why can’t you articulate your feelings? asked the doctor.

It took me a year to figure out the answer. It is hard to feel in an adopted language, yet it is impossible to do that in my native language.

—Dear Friend, From My Life I Write To You In Your Life by Yiyun Li

There is definitely a sense of detachment and distance that I feel when I write about something intense and/or emotional in Korean. In English, the same sentiments come across as strangely warped or fake because it’s difficult, in a way, to properly admit that I feel those things. Conveying a worry or a painful memory in an adopted language might feel almost dissociative, but it’s also relieving.

(Side note: There’s a great line in Li’s memoir where she writes about finding comfort in Katherine Mansfield’s journals: “Is it possible that one can be held hostage by someone else’s words? What I underlined and reread: Are they her thoughts or mine?” This is exactly how I felt reading Li’s entire memoir. I have something highlighted on almost every single page. I highly recommend it, especially if you’re a lover of reading/writing and have struggled with mental illness.)

In fact, a few days ago, I wrote a short poem in Korean about why I write in Korean. It’s not very good but it surprised me that I even wanted to do it; it’s the first time I’ve ever written anything in Korean that’s not a journal entry, a translation, or a TOPIK essay, and I haven’t written poetry of any kind since high school. Something about writing it in Korean made it feel more sincere and natural.

As a reader, I’ve always found poetry difficult to enjoy because bad poetry is really really bad and good poetry is usually too honest for me to stomach. But I’ve now come to enjoy the works of certain Korean poets, and many Korean writers as well, whose works I would have found difficult to get through in English. Their subjects and themes resonate strongly with me, yet also more remotely.

A lot of bilingual writers have said some variation of what Li says in her memoir — that writing in a non-native language offers them a sense of distance, that words have less personal context and therefore less “baggage.” Maybe there are some stories and subjects that fit with some languages more naturally than others.

Either way, it makes me grateful to know another language — that as a writer and a reader, I have that much more opportunity to be moved by literature.

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.

Interview with Gong Yoo (Elle Korea 2018)

Gong Yoo is one of those actors who consistently takes me by surprise and I’m not really sure why. He’s good and he picks pretty solid projects. I’ve seen (ahem!) five of his dramas and three of his films over the years and every single time I’ve found something beautiful and moving in his performance.

I’ll admit that I still have an embarrassing soft spot for Biscuit Teacher and Star Candy, but Coffee Prince is the one that will continue to stand the test of time. I still recommend it to Korean drama neophytes when they ask me for recs.

Speaking of time, good grief, how can it already be TEN YEARS since Coffee Prince aired?! Elle Korea published a brief interview with Gong Yoo where he reflects on one of the most beloved Korean dramas of the past decade and as well as his most recent success with Goblin.

(Disclaimer: All copyright belongs to the original source. I am not profiting by this translation and cannot guarantee its accuracy.)

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That poem in ‘Because This Is My First Life’

There are a lot of reasons I loved Because This Is My First Life. Like, a lot.

One of them is Jiho’s penchant for making literary allusions and using extended metaphors to express her complicated thoughts and feelings. This was a nice bit of character development, I thought; even though Jiho doesn’t work as a writer for a good chunk of the show, that side of her still comes through to the viewer.

There are two main works which Jiho alludes to in the show. One of them is the poem <방문객> (“The Visitor”) by Korean poet 정현종. The poem appears in his 2009 anthology <섬> (Island).

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방문객

사람이 온다는 건
실은 어마어마한 일이다.
그는
그의 과거와 현재와
그리고
그의 미래와 함께 오기 때문이다.
한 사람의 일생이 오기 때문이다.
부서지기 쉬운
그래서 부서지기도 했을
마음이 오는 것이다―그 갈피를
아마 바람은 더듬어볼 수 있을
마음,
내 마음이 그런 바람을 흉내낸다면
필경 환대가 될 것이다.

The Visitor

The coming of a person
is, in fact, a tremendous feat.
Because he
comes with his past and present
and
with his future.
Because a person’s whole life comes with him.
Since it is so easily broken
the heart that comes along
would have been broken ― a heart
whose layers the wind will likely be able to trace,
if my heart could mimic that wind
it can become a hospitable place.

[I’m appending a million caveats onto this translation because I feel that translating poetry is sacrilegious unless you truly, truly understand the nuances of the language and the cultural/historical context of the poet — neither of which I can claim to be any kind of expert on… and yet here I am. I did read a few analyses of this poem; while my translation is a little graceless, I think it gets across the main point of poet. Take it with a grain of salt, use with caution, etc. etc.]

For what I know of the poet (Romanized as Chong Hyon-jong), his works reflect the challenges of connecting with oneself and others during this age of materialism, but mostly end on an uplifting note.

The titular poem, for example, poignantly captures this sentiment with just two lines:

사람들 사이에 섬이 있다.
그 섬에 가고 싶다.

Island

There are islands between people.
I want visit that island.

Because This Is My First Life isn’t only about marriage and love in the modern age (though it does do an amazing job at addressing that). Like these poems, I think the show as a whole tries to capture the profundity of human interaction. Knowing oneself isn’t easy. Knowing others is almost impossible. But despite this, the fact that humans are able to come together and communicate and coexist is a truly tremendous feat. Everyone comes with their own ‘baggage’ — their own past, their own present, their own future. It’s not something to downplay or ignore. To accept them as a person is to accept all of their weight; that, perhaps, is the best comfort that one human being can offer another.