Tag: Korean

Sweet potato vs. lemon-lime soda

A couple month ago, I wrote about how invested I’d become in Korean webtoons. If anything, I’ve become even more invested in recent months, after starting my part-time freelancing gig with Lezhin.

From a language-learning standpoint, this is actually great because aside from webtoons, I read mostly academic essays and literary fiction in Korean so, uh, I don’t have a great grasp on how conversational Korean sounds. I have no idea what idiomatic phrases or colloquial expressions are commonly used, much less slang; webtoons have helped me learn more about that world.

I also lurk in the comments, absorbing the brave new world that is Korean colloquialism and internet speak. That’s where I learned 고구마 and 사이다.

First, I present to you, choice comments from the Naver webtoon 옆집친구. These comments were for a chapter in which a third-wheel character was prevented from complicating the main couple’s hard-won relationship.

You might be able to guess what this means if you’ve ever eaten sweet potato or had a drink of Sprite (er, Chilsung Cider).

고구마

고구마 literally means “sweet potato.” But figuratively, it describes a frustrating situation or feeling being stifled.

In watching or reading something with romance, 고구마 could be used to describe a situation where the main couple’s love is thwarted, usually by something really stupid, like a misunderstanding or miscommunication. It’s that feeling of aaarghhhh! that you get when all you want the characters to do is kiss, but something happens to prevent it.

In other situations, 고구마 can be used to describe a feeling of frustration or your hands being tied. My teacher described it as a 체한 느낌, like when you keep having the same, annoying, circular argument with your boss.

사이다

사이다 refers to any kind of carbonated lemon-lime drink, like Sprite, Chilsung Cider, Mountain Dew, etc. Figuratively, it describes a sense of pleasant relief, especially after a frustrating situation (고구마!) has been resolved.

In a romance drama or webtoon, 사이다 can be used to describe a relationship that’s moving along smoothly or is finally reaching a satisfying, lovey dovey end after lots of pointless shenanigans (see above).

In other situations, I like to think of 사이다 as the relief you feel after a nice burp, or the crisp, sharp lemon taste on your tongue. It’s the feeling of 속 시원함 — both revitalizing and relieving.


I feel like my life is all 고구마 right now. It’s been 67 days since shelter-in-place orders were first issued in my county. Everyday I wake up with a sense of dread, rather than a sense of possibility. It’s all very weird. My thoughts go out to all of you.

Korean words for the pandemic

What can I say that hasn’t already been said? It is April 2020, and we are in the midst of a global pandemic.

I’d been paying attention to the virus since December, mostly out of an academic interest (in a former life, I was a graduate researcher in the field of immunology), but I still didn’t worry about Covid-19 as much as I did seasonal influenza.

When the virus hit Seoul in full force, I checked in with my friends in Korea and started to keep an eye on the news, but my life in California continued uninterrupted. I’d started the new decade with surprising momentum. I was in an essay writing workshop, honing my own narrative voice with the help of some incredible peers. At my day job, I was in the process of transitioning to a new team and was, for the first time, excited about the possibility of a real, long-term career in tech. Even more excitingly, I was hired as a part-time translator at a major webtoon portal and had just been contracted my first work.

In the part of California where I live, the first case of community-transmitted Covid-19 was discovered the last week of February. Right around then, an unrelated family emergency took my parents to India and brought my younger sister to live with me and my husband.

Less than three weeks later, several Bay Area counties, including mine, were ordered to shelter in place. While my parents were stuck in India indefinitely due to a country-wide lockdown, my workplace transitioned to being fully remote; and the team I was so excited about joining unexpectedly dissolved.

This is petty in the grand scheme of what’s happening in the world right now, but it feels so unfair. It feels so unfair that I was finally starting to get up after being so emotionally pummeled in 2019, and then this happens.

Continue reading “Korean words for the pandemic”

9 Naver Webtoons I read in 2019

When I think of my evolving relationship with Korean pop culture, I think I will remember 2019 fondly as the year I committed myself to Korean webtoons.

Webtoons are online-first original comics optimized for mobile consumption. (There’s an interesting article that came out earlier this year contrasting webtoons to Japan’s print-first manga culture.) A number of content platforms publish webtoons, but I’ve stuck exclusively with Naver, for no good reason except consistency; I’ve been using Naver for all Korean-related things (news, dictionaries, and its online translator, Papago) for years.

Continue reading “9 Naver Webtoons I read in 2019”

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.

Relieved

It’s been a weird year.

My husband and I had our wedding in March. Not a big deal, except that in the months leading up to it, I developed severe anxiety, a sleep disorder, and, most unsettlingly, a hypersensitivity to certain kinds of sounds (a symptom of anxiety). I stopped being able to listen to a lot of music I used to enjoy in the past.

In January, I came across old seasons of Hidden Singer on Netflix. That’s where I first heard Lee Juck’s 다행이다.

다행이다,” from his 2007 album 나무로 만든 노래 (Songs Made of Wood), is one of Lee Juck’s most well-known songs, written for his now-wife while she was studying abroad. It’s also one of the few songs I could listen to without experiencing panic attack-like symptoms. I listened to it on repeat for months. And, as is the case with most of my favorite songs, the lyrics struck me deeply.

다행히/다행이다 is not a complicated word. It’s commonly used in daily Korean in a number of situations. And yet, that’s exactly what gave me pause.

다행(多幸) is literally ‘much luck/fortune’–that’s the same 행 as in 행복, 행운, 불행, 요행. I’ve seen this song title translated as “It’s a Relief,” “Relieved,” “Fortunate,” “It’s Fortunate.” The phrase 다행이다 could also mean “thank goodness,” “how lucky,” “thankfully.” All of those words and phrases have their own specific nuances.

I used to feel helpless translating, at times, even a phrase as basic as 다행이다, which seems to carry several layers upon second glance. How do I know which is the right interpretation? What did the artist or writer intend? I’ve stopped thinking like that for the most part. My translation can try to be true to the original writer, but ultimately it is most true to myself. It’s a mere snapshot of my self, my feelings, at one particular moment in time. Through translation, I often uncover hidden truths about myself.

Listening to 다행이다, I thought of the phrase “What a relief.” But I didn’t think of a person. I thought about Korean. The sound of the language, the words, the grammar, Hangeul itself.

What a relief, that I had even just one ever-present, constant thing that I could rely on during that time in my life. What relief, that there was at least one thing I could delight in when it felt like I was disappointing everyone around me. What a relief, that I’ve had the privilege to pursue this language purely, doggedly, for so long. 다행이다.

What a relief”
Lee Juck (translated by me)

What a relief it is that I can see you and run my fingers through your hair
that we can sit face to face and breathe the same air
that I can hold you and let myself cry when things get too hard
What a relief
that this beautiful world exists with you in it

Even as the wind whips fiercely around me
and even as the roof I stand under drips with rain
What a relief it is that I’m not abandoned here alone
My weary daily life and my struggle to survive
isn’t in vain
because an astonishing person like you
is always by my side

What a relief it is that I can see you and we can share a meal together
that I can clasp your aching hands in my own
that I can hold you and comfort you as best I can
What a relief
that this beautiful world exists with you in it

Even as the wind whips fiercely around me
and even as the roof I stand under drips with rain
What a relief it is that I’m not abandoned here alone
My weary daily life and my struggle to survive
isn’t in vain
because an astonishing person like you
is always by my side

What a relief it is that I can see you and run my fingers through your hair


Header Photo by Issara Willenskomer on Unsplash

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”

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.

jungyumi2

Continue reading “Interview with Jung Yumi (Elle Korea 2018)”

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.

EvoBEATYG_screenshot
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.

20180419_205544
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.