Page Seven
Learning 'han-guk mal'

Damn!! Day two of getting up at the crack of dawn and I was already about to strangle that freakin' rooster. The 15 hour first day and six hours of sleep had totally ‘cured’ my remaining jetlag. It was also starting to work on my attitude.

The one thing that got me out of bed on that second teaching day though was that this was to be our first day of Korean class. I was tired of feeling illiterate and figured classes couldn't hurt when it came time to apply for grad school. John had set up five or six of us teachers with our own class at a nearby Korean language institute. Hardly a month out of college and I was already heading back to school . . .

Studying Korean was still a pretty unheard of thing at the time. There were almost no schools, few books, and almost nobody in the 'outside' world who thought it would be a useful language to know. The other teachers thought we were nuts to waste the (nap) time and money (nearly twice what our students paid to study English), but we each had our own reasons.

Mine was to make this experience related to my (Asian History) major so it would help me get into grad school. Todd, in Korea to hone his already considerable Taekwondo skills, wanted to be able to talk to his Korean masters and learn the original language of Taekwondo. Ian just felt it was rude to live in a country without trying to at least pick up some of the language. Pete, our resident Canadian party king, wanted to widen his circle of possible lays to include women who couldn’t speak English, “it worked for me in Japan!”

Later that morning after we’d finished our first shift of classes John led us all over to our newest school, the Seoul Korean Language Institute, SKLI. The first and most interesting thing I noticed about this school was that it was managed and staffed only by female teachers. The only company I have ever come across anywhere with women in all the management positions. The staff was made up entirely of ex-professors from Yonsei University[1] who, according to John, had founded the school a couple of years before after having been fired for staging an ‘illegal’ strike at Yonsei. Yonsei’s loss was our gain.


John got us all signed up and before we really knew what was going on we were sitting in class with 'Teacher Yoo'. None of that informal American business of calling teachers by their first name, or even 'Mister' or 'Ms'. In Korea it's either son-seng-nim (teacher) or kyo-su-nim (professor) followed by the family name, which of course is not the last name but the first name. This was made clear from the first by both John, with a "don't embarrass me, I know these people" tone and by Teacher Yoo herself when we started class.

I don’t think she really knew what to do with us after that. From what I was able to observe over the following weeks and months we were among the first of a new wave of Korean language students. Before our class composed solely of English teachers (all from the same school at that) most of her classes, at either Yonsei or SKLI, would have been a mix of overseas Koreans back to learn about their native culture, expats and their spouses, the occasional academic and US soldier (John's original case), plus a smattering of English teachers. From about this time however our, all English teacher class, began to be much more common.

For us, good intentions aside, Korean class was a nice break in our schedule that allowed us to get away from ECC and blow off a little steam about our own classes and new life abroad while still feeling like we were learning something. Perhaps as a reaction to our own quiet and subdued students, and because we already knew one another, we became the opposite - we were considerably louder, rowdier and a lot less studious. We became the ideal students for our own classes – outspoken and talkative.

This was a major shock for our teacher. A full blown pack of Westerners let loose in her classroom spewing out English and poorly pronounced Korean was not her idea of a language class. Trained and proficient in Yonsei’s and Korea's far more formal academic environment where grammar was the first, middle and last part of any language education program, Teacher Yoo had her work cut out for her. Not only was she teaching an entire group of people who’s main focus was far and away on actually speaking and communicating, these same people, having seen everyday in their classes the problems of the traditional Korean system, were adamantly opposed to her accustomed method of grammar-centered instruction. It is a testimony to her professionalism and dedication that by the end of the month we could actually speak, read and write some Korean.[2]

Not a lot of Korean mind you, but enough to impress the other teachers and wow our students. Of course just learning how to say ‘thank you’ or being able to use chopsticks was enough to wow our students. Never quite figured that one out:

“How long have you lived in Korea?”

“About a month.”

“Can you speak any Korean?”

“Sure, uh, . . . kam-sa-hap-ni-da.”

“Whoa!! You can say ‘thank you’ already?!?”

The strangest part was they weren’t kidding. They were actually surprised and impressed that you could, and I quote, “speak Korean so well in such a short time.” I always tried to imagine myself getting away with the same thing in France:

“Hey, Parisian dude, I’ve only been in France a month and I can say merci!”

"Shut up and die American bastard."

In Korea though, people ate it up. As I’d learned on that trip to the Secret Garden, any foreigner who took the slightest interest in learning about Korea scored huge brownie points. I was reminded of this later when I told my evening students about my first Korean class. They were really surprised I was even taking a class. When I went and wrote out the Korean characters for the 10 basic vowel sounds they were absolutely floored. How could I learn so much so quickly?

Actually it hadn’t been all that hard. Teacher Yoo had drilled us for most of the two-hour class on the symbols for the 10 basic Korean vowel sounds. Two hours of "a, ya, aw, yaw, ew, you, oh, yo, e, ee," was really thrilling but had actually begun to stick the letters into our heads.

I’d read before class that a lot of international linguists regard the Korean writing system as the most scientific in the world[3] and, in all honesty, it probably is. Unlike the ridiculous hieroglyphics still used in Japanese and Chinese the Koreans had actually sat down and designed themselves an alphabet back in the 15th century. The king, King Sejong, had established a scientific commission tasked with simplifying several thousand Chinese characters into a small, easily memorized alphabet so the commoners would have a way to become literate. The group proved so successful that the Korean writing system used today is almost identical to the one designed by Sejong and his commission nearly 700 years ago. Oddly enough though, once they were finished all the upper-class men went back to writing in traditional Chinese[4] until the latter part of the 19th Century. Hangul was left to women, a few people in the lower classes and the occasional government edict.

After they’d thought about it for awhile most of the students seemed to decide that rather than showing any aptitude for language learning on my part, memorizing 10 vowels in one class was just another reflection of the greatness of good old King Sejong and his royal language commission. That probably made them happier than anything I taught the rest of the month - with the possible exception of when I told them my Korean class was costing me almost twice as much as their English lessons.

On the bus home that night the other language scholars and I tried to show off by reading parts of the signs as we drove by. It must have been truly ridiculous to the Koreans onboard - listening to a bunch of foreigners yell out badly pronounced vowel sounds from passing billboards. Yell them out really slowly to – it took us forever to remember which sound went with which letter:

“Is that an ‘A’ or a long ‘O’?”

“Actually I think it’s a ‘U’.” 

“Right, damn. All these squiggles look the same.”

“Can’t wait until we learn some consonants. Might even be able to read something.”

I would like to say I went home and studied that night. Then prepared for class. I'd also like to say I can fly like Superman and that there's a naked model sitting on my lap as I type this. Unfortunately I just slumped exhausted into bed after another 15 hour day.

We started on consonants the next day. Took it a little slower this time – since it was day two we couldn’t forget to spend half our time reviewing day one. Especially since none of us had exactly been burning through our homework the night before. The fact that not a single one of us had done a bit of the homework got us a brief look from the teacher and then a whole lot of review. Our schedules were going to lead us to be pretty much classroom-only learners. Great while we were all in the same class but a problem as we moved down the road and started to mix with other actual students who did things like prepare, bring pens and do homework.

Anyway that second day went pretty well. We learned the Korean equivalents of ‘K’, ‘N’ and ‘D’ – the first three letters of the alphabet. By combining our three consonants with our vowels we could even write and read (albeit very slowly) some basic words. We were on a roll. She even mixed in some numbers and basic grammar. So we could really wow'em back in our evening English classes.

A side benefit of going to class was the actual path we took to get there. It took us straight through Tapkol (or Pagoda) Park, one of Korea’s most historic places. The home of nationalist sentiments during the Japanese colonial period (1910-45) it’s still one of the most common demonstration sites in Seoul[5]. Walking through here was a lesson in history that seemed perfect for putting someone in the mood to study Korean.

The problem came later, after I could actually understand some Korean. As the cradle of Korean nationalism Tapkol Park was extremely anti-foreign. You could hear people whisper all kinds of things under their breath as you walked past. I remember overhearing one word and, keeping it in mind until class, asked my teacher what it meant. With a gasp and pale face she asked where I’d heard it. When I told her she seemed less surprised. Nothing like being called 'foreign bastard' a dozen times to make you change your route to school.

A couple of my night classes became rather interested in my daily progress through their language. Whenever I would ask for questions someone would invariably inquire as to what we’d learned that day. It made for a nice study review (for me anyway) in front of a very discerning audience. It also killed a few minutes of class time, which, on some of the slower days, was damn nice.

By the end of the week being able to kill some time, any time, was sounding better and better. Teaching six classes a day, everyday, then going in for a two-hour Korean class was wreaking havoc on my strict, 10-hour-a-day collegiate sleep schedule. Now I was lucky to get six. Plus seeing so many of the other teachers head home for a nap every day was fast destroying any desire I had of becoming a Korean linguist.

What saved our little group of geeks was how much we learned that first week - it had truly done wonders for our Korean. We hadn’t covered all the alphabet yet but we’d done a good portion of it. In addition to some standard phrases we’d also begun to learn how to count. What’s the point of being able to ask how much something costs if you can’t understand the answer? At some point during the week we got to where we could ask the price of something and, as long as the clerk spoke to us like children, understand the answer.

Usually though they just got frustrated with saying, “Two . . . long pause until recognition dawned on our faces . . . thousand . . . another long pause for us to cycle past ten, then hundred, then finally to thousand, . . . three hundred . . .” and just wrote it down for us. The guy who ran the store in our basement initially got a kick out of it but the novelty wore off in a hurry. He got so burned out on us that he took up English lessons and forced us to address him that way. It took a good two years of study before he decided my Korean was decent enough to deign to speak to me in his native language.[6]

Another key change that first week was in my relationships with the other teachers. Once training was over and we started teaching Ian and I quickly became just two more players on the team. Like it or not the teachers (especially those of us in the same Korean class) spent a lot of time together. We lived and worked in the same buildings, commuted in the same buses, grabbed lunch in the same restaurants and talked incessantly about all of the above.

Even the ‘experienced’ teachers, for the most part, had only been in Korea a month longer than Ian and I. We were all going through the same things, often at the same time, and bonds formed quickly and easily. By the end of the first week it felt more like walking into an office of friends than coworkers. Some closer than others of course but the newness of the environment for everybody tended to mask, for a time, individual differences under a bond of shared experiences. Things changed later as people got more settled in and we got to know each other’s ‘true’ personality but at the beginning (when it most counted) it really smoothed over the adjustment and acculturation process.

Riding home that first Friday night with a bunch of the other teachers after a post-class bar hop the States and graduate school were the furthest things from my mind. I hadn’t realized it yet but I’d probably made the smartest decision of my life. There were no doubts that things were shaping up a lot better and faster than I had expected.

One of the teachers brought up that the following weekend was actually a three day weekend because of a Korean national holiday. Wondered what we should do. It was Nick (he of diving into the table fame) who came up with the idea of taking a trip out of town. Some students had told him how nice the east coast was and he wondered if anyone else was interested? Shit yeah, Ian and I jumped at the chance. It sounded like a great way to spend three days – get in some beach time, see some of the countryside, get out of the crowds for awhile. We were definitely in.

[1] One of Korea’s best universities, Yonsei (like many other Korean schools) had been founded in the late 1800s by American missionaries. As one of Korea’s finest schools it’s also the home of one of the first (and most widely known) Korean language programs. up

[2] As strange and difficult as it must have been for her it turned out to be good practice for everyone. Within two years SKLI would be bought out by our English institute’s parent company and moved into their building. Over the ensuing years the vast majority of a greatly expanded student body would prove to be English teachers. The director of the new school? Teacher Yoo. up

[3] Which I was to have proudly pointed out to me about 75 billion times during my first couple of months in the country. Seems Koreans are so proud of the king who designed ‘hangul’, the Korean alphabet and writing system, that he’s regarded as pretty much the top king. His name has become synonymous with dignity and respect. It’s his likeness emblazoned on the country’s most valuable currency denomination (as well as several schools, a college, a major Seoul hotel, etc . . .) up

[4] Oddly enough, hangul was given perhaps its biggest boost by Western missionaries in the late 1800s looking for an efficient way to spread literacy to the masses. They even tried modifying it and taking it to China to give that language a modern alphabet. Unfortunately (for me anyway) to this day a South Korean is not considered truly educated unless they know a thousand or so Chinese characters. Which makes life a real bitch for students of Korean . . . up

[5] There are demonstrations/gatherings there every Thursday afternoon year round. Whatever the weather, whatever the political clime if you go to the front gate on a Thursday afternoon there’ll be a group of people and a loudspeaker loudly protesting something. It might be an environmental message, trade policy, anti-U.S., pro-farmer, anti-child abuse, the list is almost endless. up

[6] Later he pulled me aside and asked about some English lessons for his family. Turns out he’d decided to parlay his experience in dealing with foreigners into emigrating and opening a store in Canada! up

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