Another Korean Summer…


The monsoons started last week and we probably won’t be dry for at least six weeks.  It’s not too hot yet (in the mid 20’s) but the humidity is really high after the rain and not NOT looking forward to next month at all!  I always feel bad for the kids here – they finally get summer break from school and it’s raining the whole time!

Last year it was still raining into September, washing out many crops due to be harvested. Supposedly another typhoon is supposed to break landfall tomorrow, but I don’t know where it’s supposed to hit.  Somehow I lost my $5 plastic raincoat (which only dorks wear but I think are kind of cool – like the one in Blade Runner) and it’s impossible to hold an umbrella while riding a bike, and never covered me right below the waist while biking, so am looking everywhere for a polyester or nylon poncho, and it seems like I’ll have to order one from Japan, as raincoats or ponchos aren’t all that easy to find in Korea.

This one is from an on-line marketplace in Japan called rakutan and it even ships to the U.S.  It’s too short for my bike-riding purposes, but isn’t it cute?  And there are my biker boots I left in America.  (sigh)

Speaking of Japan, our little town has got its own Daiso now.  The shelves are stocked and they were erecting the sign today, so it should be open on Monday.  I hope I can resist the temptation, as I’ve got enough small things in my tiny apartment already, although I will be sure to look and see if there is a rain poncho… Also is a new, non farmer’s co-op bank, and a new supermarket to add to the two new phone shops, a couple new one level high commercial buildings and a big ugly new apartment complex going up by my school.  Plus, a lot of the dead shops are changing hands.  Maybe the town is growing, I’m not sure.

Yesterday I met four other foreign teachers in my area at an open classroom, which is that demonstration class the school district forces everyone to do, which the Korean English teachers get all freaked out about and pressure the Native English teachers to create lesson plans which don’t reflect what they do in the classroom at all and then everyone is subjected to peer criticism in the presence of a school district rep.  These are a total waste of time, except for the opportunity to meet other foreign teachers and compare their situations.

This time one of the foreign teachers was also a Korean adoptee.  Atypically, he was born in Canada, relinquished in Canada, and totally disconnected from all of the international adoptee community, which he doesn’t seem bothered by and which is probably a good thing.  Unlike me, all the other foreign teachers get plenty of translation from their co-teachers during conversations with colleagues and at lunch, etc.  I still don’t understand why mine are so unwilling to bother…

Also in my Korean class is another adoptee from Denmark.  I approached him and asked if he was an adoptee or gyopo, and after it was determined we were both adoptees, that was the last we spoke.  He seems a little like me:  not interested in making that similar circumstance be the raison d’etre for a constructed brotherhood.

Again, both these adoptees are the age of my children.  The vast majority of returning adoptees to Korea are between the ages of 20 and 30.  The ones that aren’t seem to be resolving issues because they are making their own families, or if they are older and single and living here they tend to be maladjusted in any country, in perpetual mid-life crisis, and running with the spring break crowd of 20-something adoptees can perpetuate that into some weird alternative lifestyle.  No thanks!

I passed into the next quasi-level of Korean (barely).  Seriously, my inability to learn how to COUNT (how stupid and basic is that?) is what got me in trouble.  Always had trouble with numbers in any language.  For example, I never learned the 11 and 12 times tables…and I’m an architect!  Thank God for calculators is all I can say.  All the Korean counting numbers I can remember are 1-6, and that’s because I learned them when I was at that Korean Heritage camp when I was 15 (or was it 16?)  Anything over that I have to look up and only remember it for five minutes.  Numbers, years, dates, names.  I’m retarded when it comes to memorizing those.  Failed a whole section on my SAT’s because I couldn’t remember the quadratic equation, even though I’m good at math…

The fun part about learning a foreign language for me is the grammar.  The un-fun part about learning a foreign language for me is new vocabulary, because I have an inability to remember things without a meaningful experience to go along with it. Grammar is also, especially learning Korean in Korea, the crazy-making thing when you need to converse but are taking a formal class, because I’ve come to believe that Koreans are obsessed with rules and order (though you’d never know it by their yards or their total insensitivity to context and harmony [the paving patterns and masonry clash to a stomach-wrenching degree] in an urban environment).  So a lot of time is spent on grammar rules which really don’t need to be analyzed with a microscope.  Now I know why Koreans can’t learn English – they hate the grammar but they’re the ones who made it an ordeal to begin with.

Take, for example, infinitives, which consists of a root verb with da as an ending. Then once the verb is conjugated, the root verb is altered and the da  is removed.

to drink  마시다  (ma shi da)        conjugates in simple present to:

drink       마셔요 (ma shyeo yo)

Well, after a few of these I began to wonder why we were learning the infinitives at all, since most of the time the verb would always be used in a sentence where it was conjugated.  Isn’t this a huge waste of time?  (at least in the context of this particular class lesson)  So I asked the instructor, when/how would we use these infinitives?

Say you want to say the following sentence:

I want to drink beer.

S   V      Inf.      Obj.

She explained that in Korean, it’s

I beer drink want

S Obj.    V2     V1

So you never use the verb in its infinitive form?  “no.”

So we’ll never see da on the ends of verbs?  “no.”

We just spent half an hour learning all the different replacement endings for all these verbs and had to follow that with exercises in changing vowel endings.  Why not just learn drink  and drunk  in a sentence we’ll use?  These kinds of things drive me insane…

Another example:

Nouns are just words in Korean, and so you literally have to attach a sign word, called markers, to them so people understand what they are being used for.

In English, we’d have:

This is a chair.

S       V      Obj.

In Korean, you’d have:

This (S) ga (subject maker) chair (Obj.) leul (object marker) is.

But besides Subject markers (S) you also have Topic markers (T).

Okay, so I asked my instructor, so how do you know when a noun gets a subject maker or a topic marker?   ‘Cause they’re all nouns and they could theoretically be either one, and what, exactly is the difference between a subject and a topic?  Long pause.  “that’s advanced, and hard for even Koreans.”  Try me…

Turns out it’s whatever gets most emphasis.  It’s like INTONATION is used in English.

THIS is a chair.         Vs.       This is a CHAIR.

(use subject marker)          (use topic marker)

Not so hard, why not explain that?  To my credit, or maybe to my handicap, the rest of the class didn’t learn the above stuff and are blindly learning many rules on how to conjugate and haven’t stopped to think about the distinction between a subject and a topic, while I am both more frustrated and more informed by questioning things.   (ha!  an analogy for my whole stay in Korea, probably!)  Anyway, I really like grammar.  Too bad learning it this way robs me of the speaking practice I need to actually USE the language.

Oh yeah, the other thing that got me was bad graphics.  There’s What’s this (by me) What’s that (by you) and What’s that (far from us).  Well, their What’s that (by you) image had the thing drawn exactly the same distance between person A and person B.  Consistently.  So I never saw that it was closer to A or B, so I always got it wrong.  I guess the logic is that if it’s not closer to yourself, then it has to be What’s that (by you).  But then what if it’s really not by you but is equidistant between both of you?  I guess it’s still supposed to be What’s that (by you), but they never made that clear.   I hate learning negatively like that…

Tomorrow I take the kitten to a babysitter because I have to attend a foreign teacher orientation for three days.  Except for the opportunity to meet other foreign teachers in your area, these things are a total waste of time.  Thank God for foreigners networking on the internet, is all I can say.  So MoMoMo (which means blah, blah, blah – the other way to interpret . . . dot dot dot  or jeom jeom jeom) and I will get on a bus for a 2 hour ride to Cheonan to stay with a Canadian woman who owns 2 dogs and 3 cats.

Kitty is going to be a great lap cat soon.  She’s finally able to jump up there by herself!  I’m pretty low-key, so don’t PLAY as much as she’d like, but after she’s worn herself out a little all I have to do is ignore her and she’s interested in just hanging out quietly wherever I am.  She’s still having behavioral issues with my sheets, so I’m hoping our time apart will make her forget and that the three other cats will school her where I fail.  She also still nurses my earlobes and I just gave up and let her, even though that seems really weird.  Fortunately, she’s less ferocious about it and let’s go after awhile and then just naps or cuddles after, so I’m hoping she’ll just grow out of it and it won’t seem so pressing to her.

Strangely, having her company has made me a little lonely for human company.   I stay in weird positions too long to accommodate when she’s close, and instead of doing things I end up watching t.v. in order to get my fix of physical contact.  And I ponder my pursuit of excellence and resolution of issues, missing my kids, the jobs and relationships I passed over and the timing of everything and wonder about all I gave up to get here and whether or not the price was too high.

I think about people like that guy named Brad, who worked at the Globe vegan restaurant, who fell in love with me and played piano for Sara and who made excuses to take out the trash just as we were leaving so he could awkwardly  knock on the car window and shyly ask if he could see me again, and I had to explain that I already had a partner, and then on the drive home realizing what a shadow of a partner I’d had for so many years and wishing I could go back and cuddle with that guy who loved girls who loved their children and played them songs at humble restaurants and would be a fool for love. Gosh, that must have been 18 years ago.

And then there’s the sandlot boy, and the boy with the withered hand who welded my name on a steel plate and all those little meaningful moments that I didn’t/couldn’t partake in because  I had to come here, to this place, in this way, in order to appreciate all I don’t have.    I hope it’s not too late for me.

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8 thoughts on “Another Korean Summer…

  1. I’ve always thought that truly understanding something as complex as a language is to know it in the most simple of terms. And those are often not the official rules or the proofs that constructed them.

    Then again for a while I thought I could learn all of the rules and parts of Korean. Then I tried to learn how to speak it. Ouch.

  2. Wow, you know Korean?

    Speaking Korean I think, like any added language, requires more hearing of it than we’re exposed to, and a supportive environment where you can make mistakes out loud.

    It also is really cultural, so divorced of culture, one can’t add all the pantomime and inflection.

    For example, I was at Pizza Hut ($$ mistake again) and registered in my head the way in which service Korean sounds so different than conversational Korean. And Korean of the older, lower-class sounds so different from upper class cosmopolitan Korean. And (smack me) girly girl Korean sounds so freaking annoying and child-like. They could all be saying the same thing, but the characterization is necessary to get the sound right.

    I think it’s all about speed, which is dependent on comfort, which needs that supportive environment. So basically, new learners who aren’t full-time students are screwed here. But the live exposure to these characters is, of course, priceless, even if you can’t interact with them.

    I think commitment to learn Korean is a life-long thing that for the foreigner takes decades and benefits from a combination of distance and proximity – possibly going back and forth in waves. I like comparing the differences in the way we communicate, but not convinced it’s of value to me personally without any Koreans in my life.

  3. Know it? No, but I have studied it since becoming a parent. I guess I figured it would be good expose my children to as much of it as I can, though that’s turning out to be harder than I thought. They’ve gone to Korean language classes many times. But those are mostly just spending time immersed in Koreans and they seem to love that.

    At this point my nine year old pushes back on any involvement on my part. I do as he asks and only work with him when he requests it.

    I’m actually happy that he owns it instead of wanting it from me.

    I’ve met people that have learned very different languages to the point where they can live in it, but I would guess they are the exception. My wife speaks several languages, including fluent Spanish, which she learned over a single year of living in Mexico. I am in awe of her ability to learn.

  4. Suki, you’re such a beautiful writer: “And then there’s the sandlot boy, and the boy with the withered hand who welded my name on a steel plate…” There’s always poetry when we’re in solitude at the threshold. I’m glad that you came to Korea, because you made a huge difference in others’ lives because you focused on your own. I am looking forward to seeing you soon in a few weeks!

  5. Thanks, JKD!

    But I’m a documentarian, not a poet. But I suppose the things that stick in my brain can sometimes be poetic. Unfortunately, they escape me when I’m faced with them. Hopefully I am becoming more mindful as I age.

    Hopefully.

    Anyway, I think we are due for some makkolli…

  6. Pingback: Spring Break Ideas

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