Sunday, September 23, 2007


How Do You Say "Back to School" in Korean?

The reasons I have for wanting to learn Korean are many. Next year I plan to get married to one of the locals, and when speaking to her non-English speaking mother, I want to be able to communicate with some semblance of articulation and sincerity. Occasionally I can get away with memorizing short sentences, but it's much easier than you think to mix syllables and mispronounce vowels. One of my greatest fears is that my mother-in-law-to-be will ask me why I want to marry her daughter and I will say something like, "I love her because she is a knee."

Also, of my fiancee's many friends and family members, only a few speak English with something resembling fluency. She's more than happy to introduce me to them, but once perfunctory greetings are finished all we can do is perform the timeless art of intercultural communication, meaning we share awkward glances that translate into "I'm trying to remember something, anything I know in your language that makes sense." We usually remain at a stalemate until I receive a decisive elbow in the ribs from my significant other, signaling that it is high-time I practiced that Korean I'm supposed to be studying.

"Hello," I say, trying to emulate that throaty, chain-smoking accent that so many Korean men possess. "My name is Rob. I ..."

"I know," her friend/family member says. Instantly I am deflated and lose the will to speak. On the mental plain, however, I'm full of serrated ripostes that would certainly shame her, could she a) read minds and b) read English thoughts.

Of course you know my name is Rob, I think. That's not the point. The purpose of this is to show you that I care enough about your friend/family member and your culture that I'm trying, bit by incremental bit, to communicate with you.

If my non-language-specific mental counterattacks counted, I would surely be an international debate champion. Since they don't, I have chosen to take Korean classes. Two nights a week I ride a subway for roughly one hour to Seoul National University so that I can practice Korean with those at a similar level to mine. This is worth the effort because Seoul National University is the most renown school in all of Korea.

Virtually all students in this country study night and day for the first 12 years of their schooling, hoping they will one of the fraction of a percentage point of all natives accepted there. Foreigners, on the other hand, are able to take language classes if they can prove a) that they've graduated from high school, and b) that they are, in fact, permanent residents of another country.

This inspires me because I'm envisioning a day: not the day I graduate, but the moment a native asks me where I learned Korean. At this prompting, my chest will inflate immediately.

"I studied at SNU," I would say in a nearly perfect Hangeul accent. "You're probably investing the GNP of a South American country in your child's education in the slim, oh-so-slim hope that they will get to attend there, but all I had to do was photocopy my passport and pay the $15 entrance fee."

"Ha ha," I would probably add.

Between now and that moment of chest-swelling there are sure to be many incidents of difficulty and confusion. The first of which is, of course, the very first day of class. Graduating from a university takes years, thousands of dollars and an untold number of caffeine-induced late-nighters preparing for tests and/or projects. Upon receiving the diploma, one of the easiest things in life to do is say that you plan to continue your education in order to get ahead at work.

It's significantly more difficult to actually do so. You have to budget a few hundred dollars more every few months, and decide how many more caffeine-induced all-nighters you can survive. Then, you have to actually show up.

Thanks to my active imagination, this is considerably harder than it sounds. One reason I never pursued an MBA is because I pictured walking in to classroom full of people wearing ties that match their suspenders, while they enthusiastically compared the TCOs of their respective MNCs before they became OBE.

I have, on the other hand, taken graduate courses in the liberal arts. In that case, my paranoid imaginings involved, and not unjustifiably, walking into a classroom full of men/women who adamantly refused to shave their faces/underarms and would greet me by asking how many Bengalese children it took to assemble my running shoes.

As a first-time student in a Korean language course, my fear was that I would arrive in our introductory class and find that, due to a processing error, I was the only one in the class who was not a graduate student in the process of translating his organizational development plan or anti-capitalist polemic into Korean.

I needn't have worried. Of the 14 or so students in the class, all but a few are just that: university students. They come from all over the globe and nearly all of them have been in Korea for less than a few months.

"Why are studying Korean?" the teacher asked each of us on the first day.

"I'm planning to get married next year," I said. "My knee is Korean."

It can only get better from here.

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