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.


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.)


Continue reading “Interview with Gong Yoo (Elle Korea 2018)”

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).



사람이 온다는 건
실은 어마어마한 일이다.
그의 과거와 현재와
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
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
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.


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.


It’s been a few years now since I stopped being excited about my birthday.

Every year, the weight of my disappointment in myself grows heavier; all of my numerous, unrealized goals come rushing painfully back at me. Responsibilities grow, conflicts become more convoluted, and meanwhile it gets harder and harder to stay true to my own sense of self.

Maybe that’s just growing up?

But maybe it’s a sign of personal growth that this year, I tried hard not to be moody and taciturn around my birthday. I know that the people who send their greetings or think to get me gifts do it because they care. So, I try to be kind to myself on my birthday and grateful for the love others have shown me.

I made a rare trip to Koreatown in Santa Clara to visit a bookstore that I haven’t been to in years, since my language partner moved away. If you’re in the South Bay, 서울 문고 종교 서관 has a limited quantity of new releases, all-time bestsellers, and Korean books on religion. But the real gem is the used books collection. I spent an unreasonable amount of time combing through the shelves until deciding on a couple birthday presents for myself.

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Yes, that book on the left is a history book for elementary school kids about 사서 (四書), or the Four Books of Confucianism. Since Joseon-era scholarly study was almost entirely rooted in Confucian teachings, I learned some relevant Korean words on the topic while reading 성균관 유생들의 나날. I figured I might as well pick up this book to learn a bit more.


I haven’t really looked through the book, but I can say that while the writing is quite simple, and I’m surprised by just how much detail is packed in a book for elementary school children. There’s a separate section for each of the four books (논어, 맹자, 대학, 중용) and places where they break down Hanja.

The second book is a collection of essays by bestselling author 공지영. I don’t know if  I can say I’m a fan of her work (too damn depressing), but I do admire her writing. I’ve been doing a lot of writing in Korean and I’m trying to improve not just my sentence structure and vocabulary, but overall composition; I figured I should get in the habit of reading good, creative nonfiction as a first step.


(This book’s table of contents is so weirdly cute.)

After books, I stopped for coffee and deliciousness at Cocohodo. Cocohodo is famous for pretty much one thing: 호두과자, or Korean walnut pastries.

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호두과자 is a walnut-shaped pastry, with a bready outer shell made of dough containing pounded walnuts, and filled inside with red bean paste and walnut chunks. In its entirety, it tastes like I’m eating a soft, sweetened walnut… which was confusing for my brain because a walnut-shaped pastry, made of walnut dough, filled with walnut chunks, which tastes like a walnut but that isn’t a walnut….! Heh. Anyway, it was my first time trying it and it was quite incredible with black coffee.

This post is late. I’ve been 28 for a few days now. It’s still hard to shake the feeling that it’s not just this post, or this blog, but that I’m late at everything I set out to do. But I know that’s not true. I know I’ve accomplished a lot in the past year, both related to Korean and not. I know I’ve achieved things I never even had a goal post for in the first place. So I’ll continue to tell myself, at least until the birthday-ish feeling wears off, that there’s really no reason to be so melancholy.

육예 – The Six Arts

I’ve learned a lot about Korean Confucianism reading <성균관 유생들의 나날>. The main point being, everything academicincluding the meritocratic Joseon governmentwas rooted in the teachings of Confucius (공자). Even “extracurriculars,” like archery had deep philosophical meaning.

대사례 [大射禮], for example, was a ceremonial archery demonstration that scholars partcipated in alongside the King. The act of doing archery alongside the King, after having passed the civil service examinations, was supposed to further cultivate and reaffirm one’s class and rank.

Sungkyunkwan Scandal‘s Yeorim (Song Joong-ki) during Dae Sa Rae.

In fact, there’s a part in <성균관 유생들의 나날> where the main character, our cross-dressing female scholar Yoonhee, gets huffy about practicing archery. Sunjoon replies:

“활쏘기는 선비라면 반드시 익혀야 하는 육예 중 하나요. 우선 바른 자세를 만들어 주고, 그와 함께 정신도 가다듬게 하오. 이것을 거치지 않는다면 활을 쏠 이유가 없소.” (p. 255)

Archery, he says, is part of 육예, and therefore something all scholars must be familiar with.

육예[六藝] literally translates to the Six Arts. (You can intuit the meaning easily given the Hanja. is 여섯 륙/육 and  is 예술 예.)

The Six Arts were the six main “subjects” that made up a proper Confucian education:예학 (ceremonial rites), 악학 (theory of music), 궁시(archery), 마술 (charioteering), 서예 (calligraphy), and 산학 (mathematics). Those who mastered all six arts were known as 군자[君子]a gentleman, or man of virtue.

The novel mentions calligraphy and archery, and eventually the four main characters also form a mathematics club (which becomes a big deal because it includes members across political factions.) But I haven’t read our main characters having to deal with any of the other 육예 yet.

Given that pretty much everything that the scholars did had something to do with Confucianism, I wonder if there’s some deep philosophical explanation of 장치기 (a street hockey-type sport from Joseon Korea which the main characters play in the novel) or was that something that people maybe actually played for fun?

I still can’t believe that <성균관 유생들의 나날> was one of the first Korean novels I ever bought back when I started learning the language seven (!!!) years ago. It’s taken me years to get to a point where I can not only comfortably read it, but also research the things I don’t know and learn from them. Ugh, now I just want to keep reading historical novels forever!

(Header: 송풍수월 )


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”