Tag Archives: Korean language

Korean in Small Bites

At my university in Korea, there was a tall, quiet Chinese teacher from Inner Mongolia. Li Su, attractive and graceful, showed up one day when I was trying to buy bananas at the grocery store. She interpreted for me when the lady there was trying to tell me I had to buy a certain quantity.

Instead of being grateful, I was ashamed at my incompetence and envious of Li Su. How did she know Korean?

I learned later that she had already spent one year at the university and, more to the point, that the grammar of Chinese, and some of the vocabulary, are similar to those of Korean and Japanese. For these people, learning each other’s languages is like learning French and Spanish for me.

I became friends with Li Su later, when the faculty took an overnight trip to a resort area at the end of the first semester, that is, in May or June. We climbed a mountain together and were hot and exhausted at the end.

These team-building and bonding trips seemed to be quite common. Maybe that’s because they work. After that, I felt comfortable enough to join Li Su for lunch in the cafeteria. We could speak English together; she knew some, and liked to practice. But we had some exchanges in Korean too.

“Tari appayo?” I asked her when we first met after the mountain trip. I had learned the phrase in a Korean textbook. “Tari” meant leg, and “appayo” meant both it hurts and does it hurt.

“Ne,” she said with a smile. “Ne” is yes. “Appayo!” It was our shared experience. She asked me the same question back, and I also said yes, it hurts. Not scintillating conversation, but we laughed. We deepened our friendship.

Another phrase that served us well in the cafeteria was “oepsoyo,” which means there isn’t any, it doesn’t exist, it isn’t here. It’s the opposite of “issoyo,” there is, it exists, it is here.

This handy little phrase could be used in so many ways. We made jokes using it.

We joked about the food. Actually, I loved the meals in the cafeteria, which always included rice, soup and side dishes—for a good price. The Chinese people, though—there were two others—didn’t think much of it. They missed Chinese food, which was so much better, they claimed.

“Gogi oepsoyo,” Li Su would say, lifting her spoonful of soup, shrugging her shoulders. She thought the soup was thin and unsatisfying, lacking “gogi,” meat.

I could show an interest in her Chinese colleagues by asking, “Toksu isseoyo?” Is Toksu here? And she would answer, “Oepsoyo. Onul chip-e isseoyo.” She’s not here. She’s at home today. A whole conversation! These little nothings meant so much to me.

Most language learners want the whole thing, right now. I did too. I became frustrated when I didn’t understand the conversation in a social setting, when I had no idea what the bus driver was asking me, as others waited in line behind me, waiting to get on.

But I also had fun and got such satisfaction using the little bits of language I knew to get what I needed. “Chuseyo” meant please. I could go to the fruit vendor on the street and say, “Kam, chuseyo.” Persimmons, please, “tasot-kye,” and get five of them. She would hand them to me, and I would say “Kamsahamnida,” thank you—and walk away like a normal person.

I could go to a restaurant and order “Keopi, chuseyo.” Coffee was easy. I could ask for milk in it. “Uyu, isseoyo?” I could say thank you, I’m sorry, I don’t understand, and just a minute. These phrases covered a pretty wide range of daily experiences.

Of course, I still had days when shopkeepers gave me blank stares, having no clue what I was asking for, when I thought I was speaking their language. And just as often, times when strangers intervened, helping me in the checkout line, translating the simplest things into English for me. So many Koreans can speak English. They might say they don’t, but when it is clear that your Korean is not even close to their English proficiency, they will come forward and be very helpful.

For a foreign-language learner, persistence, humility and a sense of humor are helpful too.

First Days in Korea–10

March 4, 2000

When you are in a foreign country and you want to learn the language, you have to do things.  I just do little things, though.  Yesterday, I had nothing to do at the office, so I walked around, looking for a post office or mailbox, to mail my letters.  I saw a convenience store behind a classroom building, just perched there behind it, on the hill, along with another small building that looked like apartments.  And it had outdoor tables.  I went in and just looked around at what they were selling–stationery, tea, chips, snacks, soups, noodles, banana milk, some office supplies.  I said to the woman working there, “Eol ma ye yo?” (How much is it?), and she could understand just eol ma (how much).  And I picked up a box that seemed to be tea, so I asked her in Korean, “Cha?”  “Ne.”  (Yes.)  It was.

Just very small things.

Shopping at the grocery store, on the other hand, is a trip, one that I do not like.  I can’t understand the food!  Everything looks different.  They don’t even have normal coffee.  Sorry.  I mean the kind I am used to.

I was waiting to have some apples weighed at the store, when a woman walked up and introduced herself as a Chinese professor at the university.  She helped me, told me the woman wanted me to add one more apple, so I did.  She asked where we were from.  Miguk (the United States) and Chungkuk (China).

The Chinese professor was friendly and nice.  She told me, then, where to pay.  I knew that, though.  I just didn’t know what most of the vegetables were, how to ask for meat, where to find parmesan, how to get coffee for brewing–not instant, and what lots and lots of things were.

Oh well.  I can’t get everything I’d like, but I’ve got food, a roof over my head, and electricity.  I’m going to live another week–and I did get delicious ginger tea, and Diet Coke!  (It’s lighter than ours, but good.)


March 5, 2000

Culture shock is a kind of not finding the usual grooves to slip into, so you feel kind of unclear, ambiguous, floating, hazy.

You really can’t walk into a grocery store expecting to find everything on your list.  You can bring a list, but don’t be set on it.  You will find some of the things, and some things that are similar, but not exactly the same.  In Korea, you can find bread easily.  But sometimes it will have corn in it.  I don’t care for that.  Koreans seem to put corn in strange things.  They love it on pizza.

Some things you won’t find.  Some things will look totally different or have a higher (or lower) price than you are used to.  Many things will be new to you, totally foreign.  But it’s all right.  You don’t have to understand everything now.  You don’t even have to have everything you think you need, not really.  Just make sure you have some things to eat and drink when you leave the store.  And for sure, something you really like, something special for yourself, to cheer you up, even if it costs a little.

I was in a rut.  And now my rut is gone!  I have no ruts to walk in.

Almost every time I ask what time or how much, I can’t understand the answer.  So it’s mostly an exercise.  I have to remember that, an exercise, a learning experience.

First Days in Korea–7

February 27, 2000, continued

Because of the no-shoes thing, you have to dress in a different order to go out–which feels weird, and really is disconcerting.  You can’t put your shoes on until you’re wearing your coat and hat.  Coming home, you remove your shoes, then take off your coat, then  put away your briefcase and the groceries.

I was doing email in my office for about two hours, and it got cold.  The wind was blowing noisily outside.  Before I left the building, I used one of the “eastern” toilets, in the floor, balancing with one hand on the tile.  I managed okay this time, but I don’t know how it could be done with a dress and pantyhose.  I’m not going to try it.

There was no toilet paper, but I had Kleenex.  And there were no hand towels, but I had my men’s handkerchief, thanks to Janet, who suggested buying a supply of them at Wal Mart before I left.  An excellent suggestion!

I think I am going to like it here–except the young people are so well dressed, sleek, thin, feminine women with beautiful hair and long fitted jackets.  And the ubiquitous cell phones.  Yes, I should have invested in them, as that investment broker at home suggested.

I went to the coffee shop again today.  I love it–a couch to sit on, coffee, nice relaxing atmosphere (except the rock music), people to watch, be with, and a great place to read.

My young waiter spoke English shyly, and it was sweet.  He said, “May I please have your order,” or something; I couldn’t quite hear him.  When I said excuse me, he quickly switched to Korean, something ending in “chuseyo”  (please).  I didn’t understand, so he went back to English.  I said thank you when he brought it.  Smiling, he ventured, “You’re welcome.”

When I left, I decided I had to be brave and try Korean, so  I bought a loaf of bread at the bakery on the corner.  I said “Kamsa hamnida” (thank you) and “Anyong hi keseyo” (goodbye).   This is fun!

I miss my daughter though.


First Days in Korea–5

February 27, 2000

Last night, the maintenance guy came to fix my heat. I was so glad! I was rolled up in the fancy bedspread I’d dragged into the living room.  I was watching TV–mostly CNN, but also a Korean game show that featured kids being given clues by adults, and a very strange English lesson that repeated a dialogue:  “Why are you in a hurry?  Because I’m late for work.  Why are you late for work?  Because I couldn’t get up.  Why couldn’t you get up?  Because I worked late last night.  Why did you work late last night?  Because I was late for work yesterday morning.”  The people were British or American, but their  intonation was unnatural, robotic.  The man who was late for work looked like a chronic alcoholic, complete with red, blotchy face.

There’s English and Korean music TV, maybe even French.  One show features dancing that looks Indonesian.  And there are several sitcoms in Korean, which I don’t understand at all.  I watched an Arnold Schwarzenegger/Danny DeVito movie dubbed in Korean–if you can imagine!  Later, an old black-and-white British movie in English with subtitles in Korean hangul.

But back to me, and my problem of freezing to death in my apartment, not wanting to bother Dan.  (He might be drunk or get mad; I’ve seen his temper flare up; no thanks.)  I didn’t want to bother Professor Park either.  But I was thinking I was going to get sick, maybe get pneumonia and die in Korea.

So I’m rolled up in the bedspread in front of the TV, thinking maybe I can survive the night this way.   I think of campers, of Jack London.  I’m an adventurer!  But then, tomorrow’s going to be another day of freezing; why do I have to wait?

I start dozing off, falling forward.  I’m in two straight-back office-type chairs, one to sit in, the other for feet.  It’s my only living-room furniture.  The phone rings.  It’s Professor Park!  She’s calling from her home near Seoul, to ask if everything is okay.  No, I say.  It’s cold.  I’m afraid I’m going to get sick.

Oh no, she says.  What to do?  What to do?

Maybe nothing can be done, I say, regretting my words immediately.

Oh no, what can we do, she continues, thinking out loud.  And by the way, her English is perfect.  Then she comes up with a plan.  Find Korean people in the building (oh my God).  Knock on doors upstairs and down until they answer.  She even gives me the exact words to say in Korean, “Munjeh-ga itsumnida.”  It means “There is a problem.”  She’s terrific!  She tells me to get the man of the house to come and look at it.

Are you sure? I say skeptically.  Yes.  Then call her back.

Gingerly I go downstairs, ring bells.  No one answers.  I come back to my next-door neighbor.  I’ve never seen who lives here.  A woman answers.  She seems nice, lets me in.  I give my message.  She calls Park.

This woman is studying or working.  She appears to be a professor.  Everything is neat and square in her place–stacks of copies on the table, bed, bookcases, and books, almost all in Korean.  These don’t seem real to me, somehow.  But of course they are; I just have no clue what they’re about.

She comes over in her slippers, calls someone, calls someone else–on her little cell phone; I guess everyone here has one.*   She has a little address book with pictures.  She writes down for me, Min Ju Baek, with a number.

I thank her and she leaves.  I think he’s coming but no one comes.  Was I supposed to call him?  I call Park.  In the middle of our conversation, he comes.  Knock, knock, knock.  “School!” he says.

“Min Ju Baek?”  I say, opening the door.  He responds with what appears to be the Korean equivalent of yeah.

He is a far cry from the maintenance men I know at home, with their torn jeans, dirty caps and swaggers.  This guy is well dressed, for one thing. He wears clean, brand-name-embossed sweats, pure white sneakers.   Also, their is no indication that he might be on drugs or hung over.  And he is in such good shape!  He jumps onto the heater with an animal grace.  He moves to the floor where the heat is supposed to be, works sitting back on his heels, then stands up in one graceful motion.  He zooms around my apartment,  paying me no mind.  He sings to himself a little.

We communicate with very few words, me throwing a couple Korean ones at him, he using some English, some Korean.  It’s amazing that we can talk in this way.  When he lapses into Korean sentences and paragraphs, though, I lead him to the phone, and Park.

Everyone is happy–especially me; I finally have heat. And Ji Yeon Park is very relieved.  She’s so nice, sweet, smart–and a really good problem-solver.  I’m so lucky to have her.



* In the year 2000, very few people that I knew in the U.S.  had cell phones.  In South Korea, everyone did–except me.  But I had a land line in my apartment.

First Days in Korea–3

February 24, 2000, 7 p.m.

Random thoughts:  The floor is the warmest place.  I’ll get in shape here, walking up and down the hills to work.  Dr. Park is overworked, and she complains–but cheerfully.  She thinks we work more than at other universities in Korea.  It’s not hard to believe; I’m teaching 21 hours.  She has 14, plus an administrative assignment.

We had a bizarre little English faculty meeting, with some chat in English, some Korean.  At first I was nervous.  Then I realized that I was not expected to participate–and I began to enjoy the positive side of not knowing the language.  It’s kind of fun just sitting there not understanding anything while two colleagues talk.  These faculty meetings are going to be a lot less stressful than the ones at home!

I met Professor Lee, a handsome, tall man, Director of Language Labs; Professor Kim–also some kind of administrator; Professor Kang–Chair of the English Department, pretty, nervous, sarcastic, oddly flirtatious; Dan Lavelle–the returning American professor, dressed in a suit, smelled like booze.

Professor Kang was sophisticated in a grey suit and high heels.  I had chosen a denim jumper and white shirt, which was normal attire at home, but here I felt sloppy.  Professor Park wore a dark-colored pants suit, not sophisticated, but more professional than I.


February 25, 2000

Dan, the other American professor (I’m called Professor too, here; I love it!), told me he asked for fewer hours this semester, acknowledging that it means less money.  He needs the time more, he said.  I could really understand that; it’s what I want too!

But they’ve given me a killer schedule, 21 hours of teaching.  I can’t believe they could be so cruel.  Yesterday I thought, this is going to kill me.  How can I do it?  But I didn’t complain.  How can I complain?  I was depressed last night, thinking, I don’t care about travel one bit, just get me out of here!

This is spring term though.  It has to get better.  The weather will get warmer and prettier.  Life will be easier.  Won’t it?

Some of the challenges here are fun.  I pick up words from conversations--Yongeo, English; chigeum, now; onje, when.  Inspired by my former students in the United States, I walk into stores, speak in gestures and one-word sentences.

The post office lady asked me if I wanted coffee.  “Kopi?” she said as I was leaving.  I said no, flustered and taken by surprise.  Coffee at the post office?  Probably she wanted to practice her English though.  Next time I’ll say yes.

Go! Mrs. Go!–a Korean Drama

house and Namhae scarf 2016 012

My Namhae souvenir bandana

I will watch anything halfway decent in Korean in order to keep up my skill—such as it is—in that language. So I was delighted when I heard about Go! Mrs. Go! My sister said that she and her family were watching and enjoying this Korean drama, or TV series. I was surprised. They’ve been to Japan, and they love things Japanese, but Japan is not Korea.  It must be pretty good for them to like it.

It turned out to be a really good series, which I loved for several reasons, not just the language practice. (Note: There are subtitles, and I use them.)

First, Mrs. Go lives in Namhae, an island to the south of Korea. It’s a beautiful place, and I’ve been there. When I taught English in South Korea in 2000 at Chungwoon University, the faculty took a trip to Namhae. I fell in love with the place because of the beautiful views of the sea.

On the show, the main character, Go Bong Sil, lives in a lovely house there, with a greenhouse where she raises flowers. When her husband dies suddenly, her life changes and she has to figure out how to survive. She is a strong and kind woman. Through her kindness, she takes in a homeless South American man. When he leaves, he gives her a gift of seeds. They sprout and she makes a tea from them which proves to be rejuvenating to a lot of people, almost magical.

Bong Sil decides to move to Seoul, to the Itaewon district. There her adventures, good and bad, continue.

Maybe Bong Sil is a little too good to be true—kind to everyone, honest to a fault. She feeds everyone, always thinks of others, and is always instinctively helpful. Most of all, she has integrity.

But there are people like this, and I admire this fictional woman so much.

She gets to open her own restaurant in Itaewon. We see her cooking, and we learn a lot about Korean dishes. She cooks delicious and healthy food. She knows the health benefits of the various fresh ingredients she uses.

This is not unusual in Korea. One thing that struck me, when I lived there, was that the food was both delicious and healthy at the same time. It didn’t have to be a choice between the two.

South Korea is a traditional society, although it is changing as the whole world changes. Still, when I was there it was unheard of for a couple to show affection in public. This is shown in the drama Go! Mrs. Go!

On the other hand, one of the characters is a transgender female. Her story is touching, and she is portrayed in a very human, respectful way. That was something that surprised me, too, about this Korean drama.

I got hooked on it and found myself binge-watching Go! Mrs. Go! Now I’m looking for another good Korean drama, one that, like this one, appeals not just to youth but to older people too. If you have any suggestions, please let me know!

I’ve Got to Rein in My Punctuation!

punctuation : seamless background with punctuation marks Illustration

Lately I’ve realized how much I use exclamation points, especially in texts, but also in emails and letters. (Yes, I actually wrote a letter yesterday, by hand, with a pen.) I was tempted to put an exclamation point at the end of that statement, but as I said, I’m trying to rein it in. They don’t mean as much when you use them at the end of every other sentence.

My daughter recently pointed out that we both use a lot of them in our texts. She said that when she doesn’t use exclamation marks, her texts seem angry or bored. I knew what she meant. I then tried to write a few with just periods. It was hard!

As I’ve been writing this, I’ve noticed that I’m avoiding not only exclamations, but also dashes. They are another of my punctuation addictions that have to be modified, or curtailed, or abstained from completely. Dashes somehow have become indispensable to me, and it actually hurts, right now, not to use them. This piece would be peppered with dashes if I were not trying consciously to avoid them.

It’s interesting, the way new means of communication are changing our ways of communicating. Besides using btw, lol, and omg, I find, for example, that I now use ellipses more than I ever have, because ending a thread with a period seems rude and abrupt. Ellipses are softer; they seem to indicate a gentler goodbye. We don’t really have words or grammatical structures in English that do this, although maybe in the time of Jane Austen, of more leisurely letter-writing, they did. I’m thinking of long, periodic sentences expressing polite goodbyes along with tender sentiments. Am I wrong?

I am pretty sure that in Korean, which I have studied, albeit haphazardly, there is a structure that allows for a less stark departing comment.

Another thing I use all the time is parentheses. They come in so handy as a way of fencing in digressions, and I have a lot of those.

My writing has become too casual. What if I just went back to commas, periods, and question marks?  It’s an interesting exercise, to try to write without one’s habitual punctuation excesses. I can feel myself taking alternative routes to achieving the same, or similar effects.

I also have a consistent habit of using semicolons, which is annoying to some people. At least, so far, I haven’t taken up the habit of overusing caps and bold. But—as has been explained above—I am not perfect (and never will be)! Bye for now. . . .