I think I’m going to write about language. Hopefully that won’t scare everyone off. As a reward, I’ll also write about my latest trip to Busan. I suppose I can’t prevent you from just skipping down to that, but, you know, it’s the spirit of the thing.
I came with aspirations of picking up a ton of Korean more or less instantly. In my plan, by now I’d be able to carry on a pretty decent conversation. At the end of the year, I’d be able to read sophisticated novels. Maybe I’ll still be able to read some books, but Korean turns out to be a far trickier language than I’d figured on. Of course, every language has its own idiosyncratic difficulties. Russian has a distinction between things you’ve finished doing and things you haven’t finished. Finnish has fifteen cases (for comparison, English has two, and only for pronouns). Japanese has probably the most unwieldy writing system on the planet. Lots and lots of languages have tones, which we speakers of toneless languages just can’t hear. But that’s one or two difficulties per language. Korean seems to have them in every direction I turn.
For example, in Korean you have to think totally backwards. There’s the small matter that the word order is Subject-Object-Verb, instead of Subject-Verb-Object like in English, so you’d say “The dog the man bit” rather than “The dog bit the man”. That’s different, but easy to get used to. There are much bigger issues than this at hand. Like this: in English, if you want to say more about the dog in this sentence, you can say something like “The dog that peed on my lawn bit the man.” But Korean is aggressively right-headed, which means that the most important part of any phrase (the head) has to come at the end (the right side). The dog is the head here, so you have to say it like this: “The peed-on-my-lawn dog the man bit.” This gets really awkward when the sentences get elaborate. “The dog that I bought earlier from the flea market where they have ice cream just bit the man in the expensive-looking suit” becomes “The I-bought-earlier-from-the-they-have-ice-cream-flea-market dog the wearing-an-expensive-looking-suit man bit.” Or, “I dreamt that you were a robot” becomes “I a you-were-a-robot dream dreamt.” Prepositions are backwards too, which means really they’re what you could call postpositions. That “on my lawn” would be “my lawn on”.
Korean has all the wrong pronouns. In a chart of pronouns, there are big gaps in some places, but then in other places there are lots of pronouns all crowded in. There are two ways to say “I” (cheo and na), depending on how humble you’re being. Same with “we” (cheohui and uri). But there’s almost no such thing as “you”. You can say neo, but only to little kids and animals. There’s also dangsin, but that’s only for lovers. If you say either of these to the wrong person (i.e., almost anyone), it’s a grave insult. You have to use their name and then their occupation. If you don’t know their occupation you can call them a teacher (seonsaengnim). If you know them pretty well you’re allowed to forget their occupation and call them ssi, which is more or less “Mr/Mrs/Miss”. So, you actually have to go out of your way to obey this grammar—when Koreans meet a new person, they spend a few minutes at the very beginning asking things like, “What’s your name? How old are you? What’s your job?” If you’re homeless, I assume you’re made to feel like a failure every time you speak to someone.
Or how about this difficulty? The verbs agglutinate, which means you can keep on adding stuff to the end and conjugate any verb in hundreds of different ways. (Theoretically, at least; in practice, most of them don’t come into play, but that still leaves a whole lot of them viable.) There are seven different slots after the stem of your verb, and in each slot you can put nothing at all or any one of dozens of different things. Also, each of those things is liable to squish together with things next to it. So you can outfit the verb ha-da (“to do”) with these options: ha-si-eo-yo. But si and eo combine into e. So it’s “haseyo”. They do this every time they say hello, which is “Annyeong haseyo?” (Is it going peacefully? or literally, Is peace doing?) Or a more formal hello is, “Annyeong hasimnikka?” which breaks down into ha-si-p-ni-kka. What do these little bits mean? Well, si is for politeness. p makes it formal. ni goes with the formal style. kka makes it a question. Three of these four things show politeness, and this phrase doesn’t even take the polite yo on the end that you can tack on in most places. The politeness situation is dire.
Numbers? Yep, those are difficult too. There are two counting systems, one of them native Korean, one imported from Chinese. They sound nothing alike. Take a look: from one to ten, with the native Korean one first, they’re: 1=hana/il; 2=dul/i; 3=set/sam; 4=net/sa; 5=daseot/o; 6=yeoseot/yuk; 7=ilgop/chil, 8=yeodeol/pal; 9=ahop/gu; 10=yeol/sip. When do you use which one? You just have to memorize the contexts. For telling time, you use the native Korean numbers for the hours and the Chinese numbers for the minutes, meaning that 10:10 is read yeol si sip bun (si is hours and bun is minutes). Your age is in native Korean numbers. Money is in Chinese numbers. When you’re counting things in general – well, that’s in Korean numbers, but it’s worse yet. You need something called counters. All right, so in English, we say “three sheets of paper” or “two bottles of water”, but just “five students”. The “sheets” or “bottles” there is like a counter in Korean, but they use them with everything. It’s as if you were saying “five people of student” or “two machines of car”. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of counters in Korean that you have to memorize. Mercifully, you can get along pretty well with a few basic ones, including gae “thing”. (Give me two things of chair, please.)
Even just the sounds are hard. They have, for example, g, kk, and k, and all three sound like an English k. The double and single s seem to be nearly identical (in fact, I hear even some Koreans have stopped trying to keep them from merging). The vowel eo sounds like the vowel o, but you have to be able to tell them apart, because for example there are two neighborhoods, Sinchon and Sincheon, and while the first one is a hip party area, the second one is full of businesses and would be very little fun on a Friday night.
All right, how about something simple, like the word “and”. That can’t be too bad. But you’d be wrong. In fact, there are at least six totally different ways to say “and” in Korean. First, are you joining together nouns or sentences? If it’s nouns, you can use -hago, which you tack onto the end of the first noun. So “coffee and cigarettes” would be keopi-hago dambae. But wait! If you want to sound slightly more colloquial, you can say (i)rang, like so: keopi-rang dambae. Remember to put in that spare (i) if the noun ends in a consonant. Donuts and coffee is doneot-irang keopi. But wait! Are you writing this down? If so, you ought to use (k)wa, which is the kind of and that you use in print: keopi-wa dambae, or doneot-kwa keopi. All of these also mean “with”, so don’t forget that either. All right, and if you’re joining sentences? Oh, well then things get complicated! If you want to sound clunky and totally un-stylish you can put geurigo between the sentences. “I bought coffee and I ate a donut” is Cheo-neun keopi sasseoyo geurigo doneot meogeosseoyo. If you want to do it right, though, you need to conjugate “and” into the verb; in this case “and” is go, as in keopi sago doneot meogeosseoyo. But if you want to say “and so”, you can’t put “so” (geuraeseo) after your “and”; you have to use the special “and so” ending, which makes your sentence keopi saseo doneot meogeosseoyo (that is, “I bought coffee, and so I ate a donut”). I’m pretty sure there are several more of these, but let’s move on.
I’m slowly getting used to these sorts of things, and I can use them in sentences sometimes, although I certainly don’t want to give the impression that my sentences aren’t lamebrain short ones. (I say “Is there X?” a lot. It’s easy: X isseoyo?) And now I can understand, to an extent, why Korean students have so much trouble with English – they have some of the same problems with English, but the other way around. But the real trouble is that I don’t know all the difficult bits, and the Koreans do, and they use them in pretty much every sentence they say, it seems. So I can make myself understood, but figuring out what the hell someone is saying is another matter altogether. I got my friend’s bike fixed yesterday. It just needed a new chain, that’s all. I asked the guy how much, as he was putting on the new chain. 60,000 won, he said – about $50! I told him (in Korean), “That’s a little expensive!” – but then he said something in Korean that was short but went completely over my head. I heard the number 12,000 in there, but that was not the new price. I still had to pay W60,000, because at this point the chain was already on, and I was in a hurry to get back to the house in time to start walking around and looking at the fall colors with everyone. I bet a Korean would’ve paid about W20,000. See if I ever go to his bike shop again, though.
Okay, I promised to write about my trip to Busan. It was for 10/10, you see. 10/10 is Grinnell’s premiere party of the fall semester, commemorating the old days when everyone got their first work-study paycheck on October 10th and blew it all immediately on booze. And it turns out there are a number of Grinnellians here this year, besides Jo. It was thus clearly necessary to recreate 10/10 in Busan. The Grinnellians are people who were in my graduating class but who I never really knew very well. There’s Pat, a Russian major who sort of organized this party; Hoh, a Korean-American with a mind that stays on a single track that may or may not be everyone else’s; Stony, a big guy who loves to party and played sports; Rob, who also is big and loves to party, and additionally loves to dance and be affectionate with strangers; and Erin, whose cat lived at EcoHouse for a semester or so.
I believe I’ve written before about how long it takes to get around this country despite its size. Well, the trip to Busan was a perfect demonstration of that. I left directly after work. I arrived on the Mugunghwa train into Busan at 4:10 am. But the Night 1 party was still underway, and only just beginning to end. We got drinks from a convenience store and soon ended up in a beef stew place, where we all ate a lot and enjoyed ourselves a great deal. By this time the sun had risen and the subway had started running again, so we rode to our accommodations for the night (the morning, really). It was a jjimjilbang – a bathhouse.
I’d never been to one before. It was a very big, very quiet place, and we all toned our voices down several notches as we got our keys from the front desk. Each of us trying to follow the other’s lead in this strange place, we put our shoes in little lockers, then walked into the main locker room, which had lots of lockers and also lots of naked Korean men. Since we were only tired and not even a little interested in bathing or a sauna, we moved quickly through the locker room without even looking into the room full of baths and emerged into the crashing room. I don’t know what it’s called in Korean, but it was a dark, quiet room full of people sleeping on the floor on little blankets. There was a little snack counter too, and the woman behind it saw us looking puzzled and gave us blankets. I stepped out onto the floor. It was heated, but hard. But at 7:00 in the morning, I didn’t care about the hardness. I got a little cubic pillow and slept.
When everyone woke up a few hours later, I didn’t have a hangover, because I’d had maybe two drinks before the beef stew, so I decided to try the main part of the jjimjilbang experience. I stowed my clothes in the locker and entered a very hot room with an amazing amount of water flowing. First there was a bank of showers; it’s expected that you hose down before getting in the water. Next there were four pools, each one a rectangle big enough for a couple dozen people. The pools were arranged in this order: hot; scalding; cold; warm with jets. At the top there was a frigid pool big enough to swim in. I tried them all. My favorite was the hot one. Then I kind of lost interest, or maybe it was just that I felt weird being the only foreigner in the bathhouse. Anyhow, I got dressed and joined up with everyone else and we left.
Hoh was set on having pufferfish. The rest of us didn’t know Busan’s specialties, so we didn’t have strong convictions about what to eat while we were in Busan, and we ended up following him to a small but extremely busy and classy pufferfish restaurant in Haeundae, just a quick sprint away from the beach. To get there we walked through the fish market. This place had everything from the ocean that you could possibly want to eat, and a great many other things that you wouldn’t. Just in the tanks where they kept living things, there were crabs, fish of every description, oysters, eels, sea cucumbers (which looked exactly like disembodied penises), and other things that I’ve forgotten. I have no idea what the other stuff I saw was, the stuff that wasn’t alive. Anyhow, the pufferfish turned out to be unremarkable. The only thing special about pufferfish is that if you prepare it wrong it can be lethal, but as you have deduced, it was prepared right when I ate it, so it was basically just some fish. Not bad, though. It’s just that I think the only reason people talk about it is that there’s a small but non-zero risk that you’ll suddenly die.
Then we hung out on the beach, just talking. I would’ve swum, but I only had long pants. So I stayed dry and talked for a few hours.
As six o’clock got along, we started feeling that it might be time to start the night. I was introduced to the strawpedo, a very effective method of chugging alcohol. Things progressed in this way for quite a while. We moved at one point to Seomyeon, farther from the beach but with an abundance of bars, and we picked up and lost people in a casual way. One who hung on all night was a non-Grinnell friend of Hoh’s, Anthony. We ate and drank and wandered and everything went swimmingly. Rob kissed Korean men and sang popular English songs with them. We ate at a Lotteria – that’s a Korean fast food chain, run by the omnicorporation Lotte – and three Korean men that Rob had befriended earlier bought us milkshakes. Later he danced in the street and it was impressive enough that the crowd cleared a big space for him. None of the rest of us can boast achievements that impressive for the night, although I do have one bit of bragging rights – Anthony and I didn’t feel like going into the last club, mainly because of its W20,000 cover, so we played pool instead at 3 in the morning, and I won one of our two-out-of-three series plus the tiebreaker match we had. And Hoh led us around most of the night, which was an accomplishment given that he was usually trying to take us somewhere we didn’t want to go (most of the night, he was fixed on a sushi restaurant). I had a heck of a time.
We came back to the jjimjilbang and slept. This time there were no blankets left, so I slept on a surreal patch of artificial grass they had on the side of the room. After I woke up, we decided to try and sweat out some alcohol in the sauna, which was a great idea, and then we walked around looking for food. Pizza Hut rose to the call. Then we split up. I went to Busan Station for trains with Stony and Pat. I sat next to Stony on the KTX, Korea’s version of the bullet train. It goes from Busan to Seoul in 2½ hours. Unfortunately, I was unable to appreciate either this speed or Stony’s company, because I slept the whole way, and then my Busan story was over. So that’s all.