Sunday, March 30, 2008


Languages: Aren't They All Strange?

Welcome to this, the first edition of Your Guide to Strange Languages. After all, aren’t they all strange?

Today we’ll be answering questions about Hangeul, the native language of Korea, and how it compares to our own. The author has more than two years experience teaching English to Koreans, and has been studying Hangeul for several months. Through his studies, he has achieved several impressive feats, including learning how to spell his name with their alphabet, how to pronounce his name in their dialect, and how to understand his name when said by a Korean person.

Credentials established, let’s start with the questions:

How different is Hangeul from English?

A lot.

Uh, okay. Are you annoyed with me for asking that question?

Just a little. Why don't you try again, and try to be more specific.

Okay, what are some things that English-speakers don't realize before they try to learn a new language?

Before I matriculated, when I was taking Spanish to fulfill certain high school/college credit hours/language requirements, I viewed it as just another subject and spent as much time outside of class studying it as I did with algebra and European history. In high school, that meant almost no time at all. In college, it meant just enough studying to keep my grade high enough that I wouldn't make my parents wonder if my federal student loan was a waste of taxpayer dollars.

The difference is that when I spent a little bit of time with a subject like algebra I knew how to divide with x's and y's. After I devoted a little bit of time to European history I knew how the events of World War I in turn caused World War II. In other words, since I wasn't planning to specialize in those fields, I had learned all that I needed to without too time-consuming an effort.

However, what is the purpose of studying a foreign language except to become fluent in it? To do that requires devotion of at least an hour a day for at least a year on that single subject. Had I known that when I started Spanish I probably would have devoted a lot more time to those three weekly credit hours.

Then again, knowing my mindset at the time, I probably would've decided that those three weekly credit hours could be better spent somewhere else, like in bed.

What are the first obstacles one encounters when you begin applying the language skills you've studied?

The first thing you have to do is learn the words you will use. The next thing you have to do is begin using them. At first, everyone who tries acquiring a new tongue has to translate the message they want to convey one word at a time.

Even after several months of study, it still takes master's thesis-degree of effort to express messages such as: "I … went … camping ... uhm … two weeks … (what was it?) … (oh, right) … ago." One just has to keep practicing until we don't have to think about each part of the sentence in advance.

What has studying Hangeul helped you to understand about Koreans who study English?

Well, some ideas simply aren't expressed using the same words. In English, we "I took some medicine," whereas Koreans "I ate some medicine." I used to think this sounded silly, and I'd say things like, "Really? Did it come with an appetizer and some side dishes?"

Now I understand that if one were to say "I took some medicine" in Hangeul, a similarly sarcastic Asian counterpart of mine might say, "Really? Why'd you take that, and not the subway?"

So, does that make you a more understanding teacher?

It does most of the time. However, it's still pretty hard not to find it amusing when one of them says something, "Yesterday my friend cut her hair and dyed" (and if you don't understand why that's amusing try saying it out loud to someone).

Likewise, I know that Koreans use adjectives differently than us, so their word for "excited" is that same as their word for "exciting." This understanding makes it no less challenging to keep a straight face when a female student says, "The way you teach makes me very easy."

It also fails to help when a male student comes to you and says the exact opposite thing.

Do you think that you're saying equally funny things when you speak Hangeul?

I don't do so as often, because I’m not even good enough to say things like that yet. However, I wish I had the space and the time to make you understand the similarities between certain Korean words; resemblances which make words easy to mix up.

Then, you'd understand why I have, in the past, intended to ask people if they got a cup of coffee, and instead asked, "Did you get a cup of nosebleed?" You might also understand why, when I attempted to tell certain people that my significant other is a nurse, I actually said, "My girlfriend is a library."

So, just take my word for it: it sounds hilarious to them.

How long does it take to become fluent in Hangeul?

I’ll have to get back to you on that. I will say that, according to the US Department of Defense, Hangeul, is in the hardest class of languages for an English speaker to learn, along with Japanese, Chinese and Arabic. It's harder than learning Hebrew, Vietnamese and Russian, and many untold degrees harder than Spanish or French.

In other words, Hangeul will be the topic in Your Guide to Strange Languages for many weeks to come.

Friday, March 28, 2008


Perfect for Wearing Before a Fall

Thursday, March 27, 2008


I Think I Can't Find It Here

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


The Shirt Wrong

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


The Wrath of Gamgi

She’s been mistreated too long and by too many people, most of them men. Most of those have been men who cared little for her, certainly not us much as they cared for their own money and egos. Now, having tired of their mistreatment, she has chosen to fight back.

The woman I speak of is, in this case, Mother Nature, and the men who’ve treated her so roughly are mostly Chinese. However, like so many women, the ones she harms are rarely those who’ve hurt her, but just any guy unfortunate enough to cross her path.

Here in East Asia, she pours out her wrath into what is called yellow dust, also known as Asian Dust, yellow wind and Chinese dust storms. Yellow dust has been occurring naturally in this part of the world during the springtime for many years. Every year as winter comes to a close, high-speed wind and dust storms carry soil from places like China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan and carry it over Korea, Japan and further east.

However, in recent years, due to an increase in Chinese industrialization, the yellow dust has contained greater and greater quantities of metals which were never meant to be breathed in.

During the past three springs that I’ve spent in Korea, I have been one of those people who’ve been caught in its path. Those of us who are otherwise healthy most of the time often develop symptoms such as sore throats, sinus congestion and asthma. The upside of this is that we generally survive the ordeal.

For those who already have asthma or respiratory problems, the main symptom is, on occasion, death. The upside of this is that they don’t have Koreans telling them to “take some medicine” and “drink lots of water” on a daily basis.

The effects of yellow dust are subtle: one day I’m a regular foreign guy working 12 hours a day, the next thing I know my sinuses start revolting against me and revolting everyone in the immediate vicinity.

Then my voice starts to fade, and I lose the energy to complete even basic task such as washing dishes, doing laundry or yelling “Tell me something I don’t know!” at the natives who tell me need to get rest more.

Indeed, its effects often leave me incapable to doing anything more arduous than lying around at home all day watching Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.

So, after several days of attempting to get well by sleeping more than usual and eating less sugar than normal, I choose to go to the doctor if I haven’t succeeded in feeling better.

After all, this typical foreign guy never used to get this sick at home, and after two-and-a-half years abroad, I ought to be accustomed to this climate.

So, this spring, I went to the physician, preparing for a serious diagnosis, hoping he’ll have the willpower to make the lifestyle changes required to overcome this illness.

“You have gamgi,” the doctor says, using the Korean word for the common cold. “It’s nothing serious. I’ll prescribe you some medicine and you’ll feel better by next week.”

“Oh, and get plenty of sleep and drink lots of water.”

Upon receiving the news, this typical foreign male was even more bothered than he would’ve been had he received a more serious-sounding diagnosis. For one thing, gamgi is far too chipper and jovial-sounding a name for something that totally upends one’s professional and social life.

For another, for this typical foreign guy to be knocked off track for this long by a common cold indicates that his metabolism isn’t what it used to be. Either, or the common colds I grew up with in America are bookish, un-athletic sort of germs, and Korean gamgi are the popular jock germs who steal their lunch money and make the American germs do their homework.

Upon further reflection, there is a logical explanation for the condition. Korea’s winters became oppressively cold by the end of October and continue to be so until the end of February. Just as we think Mother Nature has let up and will let us breathe in the fresh warm air, she sneaks elements of mercury and copper into it.

In my hometown in Tennessee, “the environment” was more of an abstract concept; something we heard people on TV or in Op-Ed pages debating, something they may or may not one day cause polar ice caps to melt and severely handicap the New England area’s ability to produce champion sports teams.

Here, pollution can be seen and felt. When I taught in Suncheon two years ago, I was temporarily forced to go home after suffering through multiple types of symptoms, including laryngitis and a bloodshot eye.

Last year at this time my work schedule was lighter and thus it was easier to stay rested. This spring, by contrast, there are textbooks to develop, an English class to teach, a Korean class to study for, and other social needs to prepare for, all of which makes me more susceptible.

But, unlike two years ago, I have several advantages: I work next-door to a hospital and its easier to take days off from editing textbooks than it is from teaching classes, because classes require substitutes.

Also, I have found the secret to overcoming flu symptoms: it always helps to stay home and watch movies, particularly Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Even Mother Nature and jockish gamgi germs are afraid of Clint Eastwood’s character in Unforgiven.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


New Apartments Come With New Questions

Since I started working for the Seventh-day Adventist Language Institute in Korea two-and-a-half years ago, my housing has been acquired, provided and maintained for me by the institute itself.

When most of the institute’s staff arrives at the place where they are going to work, they are informed of the location of their housing and someone usually helps them to move in. The rent is paid for us, as are nearly all of the expenses. The only bills we have to pay are for Internet service and cell phones, should we request them, and even if we do the institute helps us keep the bill relatively low by ensuring that we work inventive schedules, some of which start at 7 a.m. and ending at 9 p.m.

Also helpful is the church deaconess who comes in to clean once a week. This is especially helpful for male teachers, because by the time the deaconess comes around our sinks are usually about to overflow with dairy-encrusted kitchenware and the contents of our laundry hampers are about to suffer permanent mildew-damage.

There are disadvantages to this arrangement, however. For one thing, those of us who are unmarried have no control over who our roommates are. We know that they will be a) of the same gender as us, and b) Adventist, and not much more than that.

SDA church members are different from much of the general public in that we have a preponderant taste for products made of tofu, but within our membership there exists the same colorful cornucopia of characters. As such, one’s next roommate could be a) a kindred spirit who complements your personality spectacularly, or b) the guy whose hobbies seem to be 1) clearing his throat at all hours of the day and 2) singing The Greatest Hits of Boyz II Men in the shower.

Also, there’s the fact that when your employers own your apartment, they are in complete control of where you live. Certain factors, such the departure of a certain number of male teachers and the arrival of a certain number of females can cause our employers to come to us and say, “Can you pack all of your things and move to this apartment by tomorrow night?”

Also, the departure of a teacher in another city can cause our employers to come to us one day and say, “Can you pack all of your things and be ready to move to this institute four hours away by the day after tomorrow?”

So, this year, after having a lifetime’s worth of living arrangements provided by my family, my university, and my employer, I have resolved to control my own housing destiny. The first thing I needed was a roommate, so, to make a sustained story succinct, I got engaged.

That out of the way, I thought it would be best for me and my future wife to obtain living quarters of our own that my employers couldn’t move me out of when it was convenient for them. And so I began the process of apartment acquisition, by which I, 1) told the future wife that we should get a place, and 2) observed while she acquired it for us.

Since we’re in Korea and she’s a native, I assumed that she’d be better access to the classified ads. Also, I assumed that since choosing a house involves both shopping and large numbers, I’d be useless at it.

So now we have our own apartment in Chuncheon (and since I know certain Adventist church members are reading this, I should now take this time to specify that only she’ll be living in it before the wedding). It has everything a young couple in Korea could want: two bathrooms, a kimchi refrigerator, and a dishwasher, which is a kind of luxury item in this country.

With it also comes the benefit, if it could be called that, of managing one’s living space.

Okay, I guess it can’t be called a benefit. The euphoric heights of apartment ownership are quickly dampened by that epic journey that all new home owners must face eventually: the first trip to the department store in search of supplies.

While my fiancée searched for items such as a shower curtain, nails used to hang objects with, and ornate placement holders for soap, many queries were spoken aloud, such as: “Is this big enough?” “Does this fit?” and “Is this the right price?” Since we were shopping and Korean prices look the same as their American counterparts, only with three additional zeroes, I was not particularly useful at answering any of them.

Besides, internally I was pondering a question of my own: “Is this actually happening to me?”

Before I could solve it, this question splintered into several more smaller but equally complicated dilemmas, such as: “In less than six months time am I really going to have both a wife and a home to take care off?” “Can I make my wife happy enough that we will both feel like living in it?” “Is having to take more responsibility for your home a worthy trade-off for having a place of your own?”

Suddenly, I was interrupted from my inner debate: “Do you want ice cream?” my future wife asked.

Finally, an answer I could give definitively. I suppose all the other answers will reveal themselves in time.

Sunday, March 09, 2008


Driving in Korea Means Knowing Your Physics

The first week that I was in Korea I was in the almost exclusive company of foreigners who were, like me, being trained as English teachers.

In the second week, I was released into the company of Koreans to teach them and learn their ways. After a series of sudden and violent encounters with doorways and ceilings, I think the first question I asked about Korean life was: “I know they’re not as tall as me, but do they have to make everything so short?”

The second question I asked was probably, “Does everyone drive like this?”

When you squeeze just short of 50 million people into a nation that’s got less area than the state of Kentucky, and also happens to be 70 percent mountainous, space is going to be a little tight.

The natives have clearly gotten used to this: they press so closely together when exiting subways that I sometimes wonder if they’re attempting to examine the fabric of my shirt with the naked eye.

Also, they’ve gotten used to navigating multi-ton modes of transportation at comfortable speeds through alleys I would need to map out at least two days in advance. If driven by Koreans, two cars can travel in opposite directions through a pathway built enough space for only one and, somehow, get through safely every time.

Here, I regularly see Korean taxi drivers, most of whose appearances suggest that they live in a state of perpetual hung-overness, using methods that seemed to defy every known law of physics and spatial arrangement when traversing through alleyways.

In addition to the cramped conditions, there are no stop signs in Korea. There are stop lights in many areas, but many other intersections and pretty much all back alleys are regulated by nothing more than a kind of honor system

Watching these things, I was content to outsource the task of commuting to experts.

Then, about a year-and-a-half ago, I achieved that which every foreign male teacher living in this country aspires to acquire: a girlfriend with a car.

Though she says she’s only been driving for about three years, but she’s every bit the master of mere scientific laws that the cab drivers are, and can do it without the 7 o’clock shadow.

But, just over the horizons of my pristine non-driving environment lurked a threat, known by many as the “Korean driver’s license.” I had seen this insidious object force many a non-Korean male not in the possession of a car-owning significant other out of their safe zone onto the mean streets of Seoul.

I thought I would be safe from the ravages of this two-inch long piece of plastic. True, my significant other wanted me to take a larger role in facilitating our commutes, but every time she asked me to see about getting a driver’s license, I could parry the thrust of her request by saying “Okay,” or barring that, “All right.”

Whichever of these words I chose to employ, they suggested that I was open to idea, but that I was waiting for the right time to arrange such an undertaking. After all, I’d probably have to a take a whole day to go to whichever government office was distributing the infernal objects. That, and I’d probably have to take a written test, and not having applied for a license in 12 years, I’d need time to study for it.

Since I am, after all, a busy guy, I believed I could delay the process indefinitely this way. My carefully balanced plan collapsed on a fateful day in January, when she came to see me at my school in Seoul. By chance, we ran into a fellow teacher and (at least so I thought) friend from South Africa, who noticed that she was driving me place to place.

“You know, you can just have your license changed at the motor bureau,” he said. “You don’t have to take a test or anything.”

And with those words, the particulars of my precise plan were perforated. I no longer had an excuse. Surely enough, the next time I had a day off of work, I was told that I had to take a subway across town to the motor bureau, wait in a line to talk to the bureau’s one English-speaking employee, take an eye test (in Korean), all the while ducking my head under various doorways and ceilings.

Fortunately, as my so-called South African friend said, foreigners with a driver’s license from their own country may abstain from taking the written test. All foreigners, that is, except those whose home countries are already abstaining from using the metric system.

In other words, all foreigners except Americans can opt out of the test.

Fortunately, three-quarters of the exam consist of multiple-choice questions such as this:

Which of the following should you not do while driving?
a) Keep a safe distance from the vehicles you are following.
b) Observe pedestrians walking on the sidewalk.
c) Hold small children and pets.

So, after spending four hours at the bureau office, signing my name and writing my address on four separate pieces of paper, I had my own Korean driver’s license. Now begins the next phase of my life abroad: a phase that will probably require me to brush up on my laws of physics.

That, and watch my head when I’m getting in and out of the driver’s seat.


Image Makeover

I'm sure they can help you move. The real question, will you ever be seen again when they're finished?

Saturday, March 08, 2008


Where's an English of speaker when you need one?


Well, if you think I should...

Monday, March 03, 2008


I Believe They Are Our Future

Sunday, March 02, 2008


Revenge of the Democracy Geek

“Where do you register to vote?” the voice on the other end of the phone asked.

It was one of my best and oldest friends, asking a question which many a vicenarian asks when they’re finally old enough to cast a ballot and a year divisible by the number four has rolled around.

These days, I spend quite a bit of time teaching Asian students important things about the English language. They are important tidbits, such as the difference between the phrases “work hard” and “work hardly,” and words like “lice” and “rice” (the main difference being that it’s bad to have one of these things growing in your hair, and it’s really, really bad to have the other thing growing in your hair).

But, every couple of years an election rolls around in my home country and I end up looking back on the days before I came to Korea, when the only people I had to teach were my less politically-astute friends and acquaintances.

This particular friend was calling me because a) I worked at the local newspaper and had easy access to information such as this and also because b) I was what some people refer to as a "big democracy geek" who had known such information for years, even when I cleaned out grease vats on a part-time basis at fast food restaurants in high school.

Now, to be a democracy geek of any size, one needs to vote, and not just every four years. DGs, if you will, should also vote in midterm elections, primaries, and those city or town-wide contests where candidates attempt to use issues like the catching of stray dogs to incite 5 percent of the town or city’s population into frothing partisan mobs.

Big Democracy Geeks, or BDGs, if you will (or if you won’t, for that matter) go a step further. We actually spend a considerable amount of time and a considerable amount of brainpower considering who we should vote for. We carefully analyze the pluses and minuses of the candidates who are on the ballots before choosing who is most qualified to manage the country/state/city/half-dozen voluptuous blondes who staff that particular congressional office.

There are downsides to the meticulous approach that BDGs take to governmental affairs, of course. Colleagues are perplexed as to why you don’t have much to say about Monday Night Football, friends from high school and college don’t understand why you can’t get into certain TV programs, parents wonder if you’re ever going to start dating, etc.

Perhaps the greatest disadvantage, at least in recent years, is that carefully examining the positions and background of the different candidates in order to determine is best qualified for office has come to feel a bit like carefully examining the contents of mausoleums to see who has the best chance to become Miss Universe.

However, there are certain advantages to being the one who will take the time to compare the cadavers … I mean candidates. Once BDGs have proven their political well-versedness, their peers look to them for insight on that subject.

For example, I was not quite finished with my undergraduate degree in the fall of 2002 when three people, including one of my English professors, asked me which Tennessee gubernatorial candidate vote for.

Even when I worked for newspapers, I was regularly called upon by co-workers to explain things, such as, why the Republicans were trying to ban filibusters or why there was malignant-looking Democrat speaking at the Republican National Convention.

These are the moments BDGs live for: we know our peers and co-workers won’t ever ask us for first-date ideas, how many mega-pixels their digital camera should have or why certain red lights are appearing above their dashboards.

However, we can be counted upon for knowledge about certain things, such as where to vote, which is why my friend (remember him, the one I mentioned several paragraphs and handful of tangents ago?) called me at work.

This BDG told his friend that he could register to vote at the office of our county’s election administrator. What this BDG didn’t tell him is that, in most cases, you need to register to vote at least than 30 days before Election Day in order for your vote to be counted.

I also didn’t tell him that it was already Election Day, because 1) I was sure that he already knew the date, if not it’s full significance, and 2) I thought that for him to attempt voter registration on the day the actual voting was supposed to take place would be a valuable lesson for him and a humorous mental picture for myself.

As the ancient proverb says, “Teach a man how to vote, and he will remember how to do so on that day. Embarrass a man thoroughly when he tries to vote, and he will remember how to do so for a lifetime, provided he ever tries again.”

Another ancient proverb says: “Always be nice to Big Democracy Geeks.”

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