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.

First ever Korean class

So after many months of not really studying Korean (despite what it looks like on my blog, I rarely pick up a textbook and study. Almost everything I write about comes from random one-off things I read in Korean.) I decided what I really needed was external motivation to take my skill to the next level.

SO! I signed up for Advanced Korean classes at San Jose Language Center. I really feel like I struck gold here because it’s incredibly close to where I live and it’s a language school designed for adults – which means all classes are after working hours.


There are only two other students in the class and they’re both of Korean heritage. At first, the instructor said she was worried when she saw me (clearly not of Korean heritage) on her roster but we conversed for a bit, and then afterward, she said I might actually be too advanced for the class. Welp?

Either way, I was really nervous about taking an actual class for Korean that’s also completely taught in Korean. In my 7-ish years of learning the language, this was the first time I’d ever taken a class in a formal setting. I also hadn’t actually had a conversation in spoken Korean since my first trip to Seoul about 2.5 years ago.

I had my first class last Friday and… it was really, really great. Yes, I’m fairly familiar with all of the grammar we’re supposed to cover over the next seven weeks, but I’m getting so much more value than that out of this class.

  • Speaking practice: This is a huge one. Since there are only two other students and the instructor, we get to converse a lot amongst ourselves. I’m finally getting some very much needed speaking practice.
  • Proverbs: Yeah, I’m pretty terrible at learning proverbs. I’ll look them up and then immediately forget them. I think learning proverbs and idioms in a classroom – especially in one this small – will be really effective because of all the practice we do with each other.
  • Nuance: In the first class, we covered three different ways to express reason or cause: -느라고, -는 바람에, -고 해서. Though I’m familiar with all three, the instructor provided a lot of insight into the nuances of each and the different types of situations each one would be appropriate for.
  • New friends: Yay new IRL language friends!
  • Expert knowledge: I’m so used to researching/looking up all the questions I have about Korean grammar or vocabulary on my own that it’s incredible to be able to just ask the teacher when I don’t know something.
  • TOPIK prep: Because I hate reviewing TOPIK papers on my own. And (as with any kind of test prep) there are tricks that can help you master certain types of questions that are just not covered in textbooks.
  • Accountability: This is really the main reason why I wanted to take a class – so I’d be forced to study, do homework, review… or else be forever shamed in front of my teacher and peers, heh. Already since my first class, I’ve spent more time reviewing grammar/vocab in the past several days than I have in months. And by the time the course ends, I’m hoping that I will have developed a daily cadence for studying Korean that I will continue to follow.

I’m a huge proponent of self-studying languages and I always will be. If you have the drive and you can find the right resources, I think you can go far studying on your own. But I’ve come to realize (not just regarding language learning, but also other things), if you feel stuck in some part of your life, figuring out a way to shake things up really helps. I realized that I just wasn’t motivating myself to study Korean even though I really want to get better in the language (yay for the 욕심 coming back); getting myself into a classroom setting was the right way to kick my brain in gear.

Language Tag

Well, this is fun! Riccardo of Kaito Monogatari tagged me in this language learning questionnaire. Of all the people I know studying Japanese, Riccardo is the most prolific reader of Japanese literature that I know of. I hope I can be just as good some day.

Anyway, thanks for tagging me, Riccardo! I’m always happy to talk about myself (heh).

What would you consider your native language?

English and Marathi (of the South Indian variety, but who’s nitpicking?). Marathi is my mother tongue; my entire extended family speaks it and I’m still attached to it, though I’m not very good.

What was your first language learning experience?

French class in 5th grade. I don’t know why my elementary school offered a second language, but I’m glad it did, and I learned a lot, surprisingly! Pretty much all of high school  French 1 was a repeat of what I had learned in 5th grade.

What languages have you studied and why did you learn them?

Oh gosh. Where do I even begin.

  • French  – I studied this for four years in high school (and that one year in elementary) because it was part of the curriculum.
  • Japanese – I’ve studied Japanese on and off since high school and took 1 year of it in college. I’m still really really not that good at it. I can speak it well enough to get around Japan and I can read manga more or less, but Kanji kills me.
  • Korean – To this day, I don’t have a straight answer as to why I decided to study Korean. It’s more like… Korean chose me. I started off being intrigued by the way the language sounded and then started actually learning things after listening to TTMIK’s podcasts.
  • Sanskrit – My grandfather is a Sanskrit scholar. I spent a whole summer learning the alphabet and some basic grammar. I have a bunch of books too, but haven’t revisited the language in a long while.
  • Italian – It sounds so beautiful! Also one of my best friends knows Italian quite well so I wanted to learn it too. I’m not that good at it, nor am I learning seriously. I’ve just been playing around with it on Duolingo.

How does your personality affect your language learning?

I lack focus when it comes to my hobbies. I always want to do a million different things all at the same time. When I’m studying Korean, I all of a sudden start thinking about studying Japanese or writing my novel or blogging or coding… my mind starts wandering. I find it really hard to focus in front of a textbook. I basically fail at studying, which means I can never advance past a certain level of fluency in any language. Sigh.

Do you prefer learning a language in a class or on your own?

On my own.

What are your favourite language learning materials?


How much time do you spend on language per day?

I always do something that relates to Korean everyday – whether that’s reading a webcomic or novel, listening to music, watching a variety show/drama. But as for actual studying? Hahaha….

What are your short-term and long-term language goals?

  • Short-term: Pass TOPIK Level 6 in October.
  • Long-term: Become fluent in Korean.

What is your favourite language?


What is the next language you want to learn?


What advice could you give new language learners?

Be proud of every small thing you accomplish. It all adds up!

And now I shall tag some fellow language learning peeps:

Blogging resolutions for 2016

I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions, mainly because I think people can and should resolve to improve themselves throughout the year. (Besides, most people end up giving up on their resolutions mere weeks into the year, so why set yourself up for failure?) Dividing up time into years and such is a human construct and celebrating a new year is actually meaningless.

But no need to get nihilistic about it, right?!

Joking aside, I get it. What with the holiday spirit in the air and days off from work/school and time spent with family, people get nostalgic at the end of the year. They reflect and realize things they could have done better. Things they will do better in the coming year.

On that note, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can be a better language blogger in the coming year. So here we go. These are my blogging resolutions for 2016.

resolutions post

  1. Post more.  I’ve been fairly regular with my blog posts, averaging about 1 a month. What a sad number though. I’m not going to get too ambitious and say that in 2016 I’ll post once a week (though I’d really like to!), so let’s say – one post every 10 days.
  2. Engage more.  If I’m following you, chances are I’m checking out your blog and reading your posts on a regular basis. I creep. I very, very rarely leave comments; when/where I leave comments has nothing to do with the quality of the post either. For all the blogging and social media that I do, at the end of the day, I’m an online introvert so I rarely take the first step to engaging with others. I’ve only just gotten better at replying to comments (I’m not ignoring you – I’m just shy!) and in 2016, I want to initiate more. Honestly, seeing the proof (in the form of comments, likes, sweet emails, etc.) that people are actually reading and getting something out of my blog is one of the greatest feelings in the world and I want to return that to my fellow bloggers.
  3. Update travelogue. It’s been months and I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the stuff I saw and did in Korea (in 2014!) and Japan. I also have a bunch of posts on travel tips that I haven’t gotten out yet. The latter, I think, will at least be useful to people. I don’t profess to be a great travel blogger (let’s be honest – I’m a pretty bad one because I hate taking photos and I don’t post in a timely manner) but at least for the sake of my own memories, I really want to share my experiences in Korea and Japan.
  4. Book reviews. I HAVE SO MANY BOOKS, both Korean and Japanese, that I want to talk about. Some of them are textbooks, some of them are novels, a lot of them have a story behind why I bought them. Each and every one of them is a part of my language learning experience and I think they’re worth sharing with my fellow language learners.  The main reason I haven’t been more diligent about this?  I’m really lazy about taking photos (which you’ll see if you check out my sporadically updated Instagram).  Ugh. I need to get over that. No one likes to read huge blocks of text.
  5. TOPIK preparation. I swear I am cursed when it comes to TOPIK. I have tried for about 3 years to try to take this exam. Other life things have always gotten in the way (graduate school examinations, job search, grant submissions, trips, and – most inexcusable excuse of all – missing the  deadline to apply). It doesn’t help that there are only two TOPIK exam dates in the U.S. This year, I will hold myself accountable by blogging about my TOPIK preparation throughout the year and hopefully take it in the fall.
  6. Single space after a period. English class has apparently failed me all these years.

This blog means a lot to me.  I was scrolling through some of my old posts and came across a post titled “10 Favorite Korean Songs of 2012” and it just hit me like, wow, I have been keeping up with this blog for so long, through so many ups and downs, so many life changes. (And I probably hate all of those songs that I listed in that post. Haha). I don’t care about monetizing or getting thousands of views.  I care most about being a part of this community – making friends and nurturing relationships with people all over the world,  bonded through our mutual love of language. Here’s to 2016.

World Connections

Yes, yes, I know – and you do too if you been following me on Twitter or Instagram – I got back from Japan a whole week ago so where be all the Japan posts?!?  All in good time, friends.  I’m not even done writing about Korea from a whole year ago.  Spoiler alert:  I only slightly fail at writing travelogues.

Anyway, a few days ago, I was at a job interview for a position that is heavily focused on writing and communication (EDIT:  I GOT THE JOB).  One question I got was “Why writing?” – aside from the fact that I must be a fairly good writer, being an ex-PhD student and all (not universally true, by the way), why was I choosing to make writing the focal point of my career path now?

I hadn’t thought about that question at all, really.  The duh answer is that I’ve always loved writing and language.  And writing about language.  Naturally, I brought up this blog.  This blog is the perfect marriage of my two greatest passions and being able to do both in one space gives me boundless satisfaction and joy.  I’ve said it over and over again: I don’t think I would’ve ever entertained the idea of blogging had it not been for the other language bloggers I had silently followed before starting my own.

Blogging hasn’t just brought me personal joy, it’s brought me connections to people all over the world.

Real talk:  By Internet stats, I’m not a popular blogger by any means.  My daily page views are practically negligible and I only have a few hundred followers.  That being said, I’m incredibly lucky.  I have come to know many of my followers through my blog and social media and through language learning itself.  The majority of us may not have met in person, but these are still true, meaningful connections.  Last year, I met my wifey Jeannie for the first time in Seoul after years and years of getting to know her online.  This year, I stopped in Nagoya to meet another online friend in person.


I first met Haruna through Theo’s Japanese-American friend, who had met her through a language-exchange site.  We Skyped a few times after that, talked for a bit on Facebook (she introduced me to Sakanaction hehe) and Line and when I mentioned that I was coming to Japan and would love to meet up with her, she agreed!  Haruna commuted something like 2 hours from her hometown to meet Theo and me at Nagoya station where she took us to eat donburi.

We didn’t get to spend a lot of time together, but it was incredibly touching to know that through my language learning endeavors, I had made a friend in Japan – and we were both really excited to see each other!  She may have plans to come to California next year so hopefully we see each other again.

It just feels really awesome that I have friends that I’ve made through language learning and blogging in all these different pockets of the world.  I feel kinda like a global citizen.

I love writing, but in all honesty, I never thought to make it a part of my career.  I’ve been “writing a novel” since seventh grade or so, and it’s always been on the side.  It never felt like I was doing enough.  Now I know exactly what is so satisfying about writing and why I want to make it the center of my career:  I love that my words can reach other people.  And that we can inspire each other as a result!  That’s pretty damn powerful.


If you’re at the advanced-intermediate-ish level in Korean have a Twitter account, make sure you’re following @urimal365, if you’re not already!  This is the official twitter account of The National Institute of the Korean Language (국립국어원), where they answer several questions on a daily basis about everything and anything related to the language – grammar, usage, spacing, spelling, honorifics, meaning, shortened forms, expressions, etc.

Keep in mind, this is supposed to be for native speakers so all of the questions and explanations are in Korean.  You may need to brush up on your Korean grammar terminology (check out my list – which I need to update) but if you’ve been using Korean websites to help with learning grammar, the explanations are pretty simple to follow.  I noticed that a LOT of questions are about 띄어 쓰기 and spelling.  Some of the questions surprise me because it’s stuff that I actually already know but then it made me realize – there are a lot of things about “proper” English grammar that I don’t know and have to look up too.  Or things that I know but can’t explain very well.  For example, a native English-speaking friend of mine just asked me the other day about the difference between ‘further’ and ‘farther.’  I think native speakers of any language don’t really think about why we say something a certain way and just say what sounds right.  That’s why this Twitter is so great for native Korean speakers.

But, of course, it’s not just for native speakers.  I tweeted them a grammar question today that I couldn’t find a great explanation for anywhere online and got a really clear, helpful answer in return.

I still feel the need to preface my questions with “I’m a foreigner learning Korean…” in case I make a mistake when I’m composing my question or when I’m about to ask something really simple (like this).  I guess I’m still not too confident in myself. ><

Anyway, I’ll have to jot this down in my grammar notebook.  I know it’s easy to go to your Korean friends or teachers or the TTMIK staff about grammar questions, but I’m a really big fan of making a sincere effort in trying to look it up yourself.  I promise you will learn so much more effectively that way.  Really.  The more time you spend trying to look up something online or in a textbook, the better it’ll stick.

But this is still an awesome resource.  I’ll be honest and say I don’t read ALL of their tweets, but when I do, I always learn something.

5 Tips on taking on another foreign language

As I forge onward in my Japanese studies and toy with the idea of dabbling in Italian again (I studied Italian for a couple months long before getting into Korean), unsurprisingly, I find myself faced with road blocks.  It’s not an easy task self-studying one language and it seems counterproductive to study seven or eight at the same time, but I’m sure I’m not the only language learner out there to indulge in the occasional new-language sabbatical.  I don’t know about you, but I really miss that “Everything is New and Shiny and Exciting!!!” phase of language learning.

That being said, these are a couple of things I’m trying to keep in mind as I start to study Japanese in earnest.

1)  Kill two birds with one stone.  If you’re comfortable enough in the first foreign language (FL1) you started out with, try to incorporate it into the new one you’ve decided to tackle.  Again, be logical with this, because it’s probably not a great idea to learn Japanese through Spanish, if Spanish is your FL1.  It might make more sense to study French in Spanish, and just stick with your native language to study Japanese.  Use grammar books, dramas with subtitles (see my previous post) in your FL1 to learn your second foreign language (FL2) and you’ll be learning and reinforcing both at the same time.  Take notes in your FL1.  When I was taking Japanese in college, I went through my textbook and wrote most of my grammar and vocabulary notes in Korean.  This way, you don’t even have to feel “guilty” about abandoning your FL1.  The key is to get comfortable enough before taking on FL2.

2)  Don’t feel guilty.  Did you spend three months on your FL2 and completely ignore your FL1?  Don’t feel bad.  You may have forgotten a few things here and there, but that’s fine.  I’m a big proponent of learning languages because you love them, not because you have some grand goal to achieve (though the latter is fine too).  The difference is that one makes you purely happy and the other has a sense of obligation attached to it.  If you’re like me and you’re learning languages because you just love language,  then learn whichever one makes you happy at that moment.  If Japanese (or whatever your FL2 is) captivates you for a certain period of time, go for it.  Don’t feel like you “have” to go back to your FL1.  Don’t feel like you’re wasting time on a new language when you could be progressing in another one.  No one’s tying you down and forcing you (if you’re self-studying, that is).  Go back when you’re ready.  Chances are, if you’ve spent considerable time with your FL1, you will go back and you will still remember it.  (Again, the key is to stagger your language learning so you have a solid basis in your FL1 to fall back on.)  Enjoy learning FL2 as thoroughly as you can.

3)  Don’t compare language learning experiences.  Are you slower at learning Japanese than you were Korean or vice versa?  Don’t let it discourage you.  It took me a while to understand this myself but languages are obviously different.  And it’s likely that what worked for you in FL1 isn’t going to work for you in FL2.  It’s all about exploring your options and experimenting with different learning styles until you find what works for you in your language of interest.  I learned most of my Korean by reading, but this doesn’t work for me at all in Japanese because Kanji is such a hindrance.  I actually find that I’m learning more Japanese through listening, which, unlike my experience in Korean, is helping my vocabulary grow faster than my grammar.

4)  Don’t overwhelm yourself.  This applies to learning foreign languages in general, be it FL1, 2, 3, or onward.  I’m sometimes guilty of reading or writing something in Korean and being proud of myself for having understood the nuances correctly and/or expressing myself well.  Then I turn around and despair that I’ll never be that good in Japanese/Italian/French/Hindi/whatever else I want to learn.  I’ll never learn to be eloquent, I’ll be stuck with my textbook understanding of the language forever.  Granted, I’m not even that great in Korean, but it worries me that I won’t even reach this level in Japanese, etc.  My advice if you think like this:  STOP.  Remember that you started out with a clean slate in your FL1.  It took you time and effort to get to where you are now.  You’ll need to put in time and effort to achieve the same level in FL2.  Depending on the language (see #2), this might vary, but just because you’re somewhat comfortable with FL1 doesn’t mean FL2 will come easier.  Remember to face that learning curve.

5) Communicate.  This falls in somewhat with #1.  Try to find native speakers of your FL1 who are learning FL2 and try and learn along with them.  If you can meet up with them in real life, that’s even better, so you can practice your FL1 speaking.  Online is great too.  I don’t have any Korean friends learning Japanese at the moment, but it’s certainly nice to be able to communicate with people who started out learning Japanese first.  I follow several people on Lang-8 who are Japanese learning Korean or vice versa and it’s nice (and interesting) to be able to use a mix of both languages to communicate with them.

I’m sure there are a billion other things I could add, but these are the main things I have to remind myself of daily as I study Japanese.  Best of luck to all you would-be polyglots out there! :)