Thursday, July 31, 2008


The Age of American Unreason

Click here for my review of Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason.

Sunday, July 27, 2008


How to Learn Languages Outside the Classroom

Welcome to the latest installment of Your Guide to Strange Languages, where we’re still looking in vain for one that isn’t strange in some way.

Today, your host will be taking questions about learning outside the classroom. Having studying Hangeul, the language of Korea for six months in a university course, we’ll give you the chance to catch up with him on the progress that can be made without spending a massive chunk of your paycheck.

Let’s take the first question.

Q: Can you recommend a practical way to learn a foreign language without taking a class or living studying abroad?

A: Before I answer, let me ask you: Do you have a natural gift for languages?

Q: Well ... no.

A: Then the answer is: Definitely not. I’ve heard that question asked by Koreans who wanted to speak better (or at least some) English, and by Westerners in Korea who got tired of using their fingers to signal that they wanted chopsticks, only to have scissors brought instead. If every Westerner who said, “I want to learn Korean” actually did so, the natives of this country wouldn’t be nearly so impressed every time one of us said “Thank you” in their native tongue.

In fact, everybody who wanted to learn a new language could do something “practical” about it, then they wouldn’t call it “the language barrier,” would they? They’d call it something less austere, like “the language sliding door” or “the language public bathroom.”

The truth is that there’s nothing practical about learning languages. All of our thoughts and lot of the instincts we develop in the first couple decades of our lives are influenced by the words we use and the way we form sentences. Learning a new language means changing how you think, and for most of us that requires a lot of time, a lot of money and perhaps a drastic change in area code.

Q: Haven’t you ever met people who managed to learn without taking classes?

A: Yes, I’ve met a couple of people here in Korea who seemed to pick up on Hangeul quickly. In just a year or so they were able to understand what the Koreans around them were saying a lot of the time and express themselves effectively. These people, however, are unique. They have a talent for languages, which makes them the kind of individuals the rest of us can only admire (or, depending on your personality, envy with an undying loathing).

Q: Outside of the classroom, what are the methods you’ve employed in learning Korean?

A: First, I tried reading Korean children’s books with the aid of an electronic dictionary. It was very hard to understand at first, because the words were conjugated grammatically in ways I wasn’t familiar with. There were also idiomatic expressions I’d never heard before, and some Korean words have about 12 different definitions, and I could only guess as to which is the correct one for the given sentence.

However, with the help of some supportive coworkers/significant others, I managed to at least decipher the plots of the stories. One was about a tiger that saves a traveler from a ravenous pack of nine-tailed foxes. Another was about a pet rabbit that went through its owner’s house trying on their clothes while they were away. The last was about the ghost that haunts the traditional Korean outhouse.

Q: What was the main thing you learned through this method?

A: I learned that Koreans tell some very odd stories to their children.

Q: Have you talked with the Koreans around you for conversation practice?

A: At my last job, I used to eat with my coworkers in cafeteria that served Korean food. I told myself that I would speak no English between 12 and 1 p.m. As I ate with these ladies, most of whom were significantly older than me, I found myself saying, almost exclusively, sentences beginning with “I am …”, “I was …” and “I will …” Virtually all other types of sentences were beyond my ability, but I didn’t mind that. Even the fact that I understood almost none of the questions they asked me was endurable.

What I did mind was the general sentiment of these ladies, which was that I, a red-blooded, six-foot-three-inch American male in his late twenties, was simply the cutest thing ever when I tried to speak Korean. Thus, I learned from this experience to practice with those closer to my age and also closer to my gender, if possible.

Q: Have you attempted conversation practice with anyone since then?

A: Not really. I suppose it would be easier if conversation itself were one of my favorite things to do. Personally, I don’t think conversing for no reason for its own sake is or ever will be one of my top 10 pastimes.

I also suppose it would be best to find guys my age that I could relate to and try talking with them. Unfortunately, I can’t related to most of the Korean guys my age, because they want to talk about how much they want to get a new job/better job/job they don’t hate so much, and then go into detail about how they plan to get drunk on the weekend.

Q: So ... is learning a new language even worth the effort?
A: That depends. Have you got something better to do?

Sunday, July 20, 2008


The Foreigner vs. the Gochu

The waitresses bring us everything we need to enjoy a Korean meal: a spoon, some chopsticks, rice and some apparently-pickled vegetables that we can taste if the food gets to hot and/or spicy.

And, perhaps to ensure that those apparently-pickled vegetables will be used, she brings us the gochu. The word gochu is used to describe the hot pepper that Koreans use to make gochujang, a kind of hot sauce used in a large number of Korean meals.

I always eye the gochu suspiciously, wondering if I should take a bite. Perhaps this restaurant serves the sanitized, foreigner-friendly version of the gochu pepper, as opposed to one that tastes like live ammunition.

My relationship with gochujang is not nearly so complicated; at least not anymore. When I arrived in Korea about three years ago, it certainly wasn’t easy eating it with just about every meal – constantly reaching for napkins for my nose/eyes/mouth, asking to have my water jug refilled seemingly dozens of times, all the while having worried natives ask me if I was okay, or at least going to be.

Within a couple of months I came to understand why the salt, pepper and grease content of Korean foods is so low. Once you’ve gotten used to gochujang’s taste, not to mention the sensations it brings, a condiment that doesn’t make your eyes a little red becomes a disappointment.

Gochujang is seemingly required in order to make most Korean foods unique. Without it, bibimbap would be little more than salad with toasted rice, seolloengtang would just be beef and noodles, and dakgalbi would be little more than rice cakes mixed a possible source of Avian flu.

The gochu itself is another matter. Whereas gochujang mixes the pepper’s natural flavor with soybeans and glutinous rice, the gochu is pure and unfiltered. I’ve tasted green gochu in the past and received no abnormally strong sensations. The problem is that you won’t know the potency of this particular pepper until it’s perhaps past the point of protecting yourself.

Eventually, curiosity wins out and I have a single, small bite of the pepper. It tastes no better or worse than any other green vegetable on the first sample, which leads me to try another. At this point, I’ll begin to notice a rise in the room temperature.

Convinced that I can handle it, I decide to take a third taste. I can only imagine that this sensation is similar to biting a landmine. I immediately lunge forward, dominant hand covering my mouth, holding its contents inside because, despite the excruciating discomfort, I know that spewing the pepper now will do little to improve my disposition.

The Koreans nearby offer a variety of remedies, such as whole jugs of water, the apparently-pickled vegetables, and their hands with which they offer to fan my mouth. After a few minutes, when all of these efforts in tandem have succeeded in containing the spread of oral napalm, I feel tempted to have another bite. After what I just experience, I’m sure the worst is over.

Unfortunately, my disinclination regarding math has lead me astray once again. Rather than adding to the spiciness, each bite taken actually multiplies it. Therefore, this fourth bite is actually eight times stronger than the first, and someone's going to have to call the waitress to a) bring more water, b) bring more of the apparently-pickled vegetables, and c) join my eating companions in fanning my mouth.

After the fourth bite, I generally elect to stick with different side dishes the rest of the way. The rice and other assorted vegetables are just fine, though I feel the occasional phantom pain when I catch sight of my Korean dinner companions dipping the gochu into a different kind of a hot sauce and proceeding to eat the entire offending piece of plant life.

Is their entire digestive tract made of lead, I think to myself, or just the part that swallows? And what, exactly, do they eat for dessert? Bleach?

I had hoped at some point that I would’ve subdued the gochu and been able to endure it, much as I have endure the taste of other spicy dishes. Lately though, I’ve become convince that it’s too tall a hill to climb for this foreigner.

Now, my only concern is for my parents. Very soon I’m getting married, and they’ll be coming to Korea for the occasion. What will they eat during that week? Snack crackers?

I’ve become so accustomed to the gochujang that I could easily forget that it’s included in a meal they’ve never tried before. How will their thoroughly American digestive tracts respond?

"Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it,” I’ll probably say as they work through glass after glass of water. “I don’t mean that it’ll be more tolerable for you after just one week; I mean that you’ll get used to feeling like your gums have been carpet bombed. I did.”

Sunday, July 13, 2008


Physical Jerks and Funny Names

While living and working in a metropolis as large as Seoul, there are a handful of options one may explore when one needs to get around.

While living in Tennessee, virtually everyone employed the same method of transport: learning to drive the two or so tons of carbon footprint we call automobiles. We all learned to drive at the approximate age of 16, provided that by then our parents had mustered enough courage to take us out for plenty of driving practice and had stopped yelling at us to use our turn signals long enough for us to concentrate.

Once our nerves had settled enough for us to acquire our driver’s licenses, we could then begin transporting ourselves from place to place, hopefully not being obstructed by obstacles such as traffic and $2-a-gallon gasoline.

Driving in Seoul, however, is not so ubiquitous. For one thing, as much as gasoline prices have risen in America in the past few years, Tennesseans probably pay as much for fuel in a month as Koreans pay every Wednesday. For another, those who do drive in Seoul are at the mercy of the other 12 million or so people who live there, a good percentage of whom might enjoy driving home at roughly the same time as you.

Fortunately, I don’t yet have a family and therefore have a perfectly good excuse for not driving (an under-abundance of money to spare is also a useful justification). For all those who don’t drive, a city as large as Seoul has convenient public transportation. Cheap modes of cross-town travel are not widely available in Tennessee (unless you count pickup truck owners named Jethro who’re more’n happy to help you out when your engine makes them funny sounds), so using it takes some getting used to.

Those who enjoy public transport are generally divided into those who enjoy taking the subway or taking the bus. Some who swear by the latter, since you don’t ever have to transfer and it costs the same amount of money, no matter what distance you travel. It is true that those who take the subway are often charged a little extra money is their train goes an especially long distance.

It’s also true that traveling by subway often requires one to transfer, which may not be much fun if you’re a foreigner trying to figure out if you should switch to the blue line with the funny sounding names on it (like Cheongnyangni and Sinseoldong) or the green line with the funny sounding names on it (like Sindaebang or Yangcheongucheong), all the while dodging the trampling herd of Koreans, all of whom seek the intangible benefits of being the first to arrive at work and start their 12-hour shifts.

Taking the bus is inconvenient in other ways, though. For example, when you’re starting to use it, you can try listening closely to speaker system, which will inform you of the funny-sounding name of the stop that is now approaching. However, at about the time you are approaching the station you need to use, the speaker will almost certainly experience some kind of techy malfunction lowering it by several octaves. You may strain your ears and concentrate, certain that the voice is definitely saying words, but you will still be trying in vain to decipher what those words are when you’re stop has gone by.

While taking the bus, you must also contend with the jerks. Not the kind of jerks who take long lunch breaks or bring up memories you’d rather forget at high school reunions; the bus routes through Seoul cause actual physical jerks that can, in an instant send you careening across the length of the vehicle, crashing into someone much smaller and more feminine, thus requiring you to say you’re sorry in Korean.

The jerks can take place at the most inconvenient of times: you might have a secure grip on one of the handles, then suddenly receive a phone call a split second before one of the jerks takes place, putting you off balance and sending all of your weight crashing down upon the high heels of a nearby woman you’ve forever lost the opportunity to ask to dinner later.

“I’m sorry in Korean!” you might say, but the damage is already done. You, the foreigner, will be ostracized for the rest of the 15- to 20-minute bus ride. That, and by the time you’re able to exit the bus, the frequency of the jerks may compel your breakfast to make its own exit, the same way it entered.

For its additional comfort, I prefer the subway. Its added stability is also beneficial in another way: you can read on the subway. Doing so can keep one interested no matter how long the trip lasts, and you can fill your head with all kinds of interesting information you can share with co-workers later.

“Did you know that Bertrand Russell said that Catholics who give up their faith sometimes turn to communism because they miss the support structure of large groups?” you might say, to which your coworker might react blankly. He’s Korean after all, and probably gave up studying English 14 years ago.

He will probably then mutter something in Korean, probably meaning: “Why don’t you get a car?”

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


Your Government Failed You

Click here to read my review of "Your Government Failed You" by Richard Clarke.

Monday, July 07, 2008


Dedication Needed to Learn Korean

Click here to read my piece on those who've had success in learning Korean.


It Could Be Worse

We're number 11! We're number 11!

Sunday, July 06, 2008


Korea: Not Known for Good Weather

The list of things one might find enjoyable about Korea would probably include the industriousness of the people, the family-centered structure of society, and the natural beauty of the country, provided one can accomplish the not-so-easy task of getting away from its urban areas.

The list would probably not, however, include Korean weather. At least from a superficial standpoint, Korea’s weather is similar to my home state of Tennessee, in that it four seasons, at least technically speaking. However, by the time a Tennessean has spent his or her second year here, a few differences in Korea’s and Tennessee’s respective climate patterns begin to emerge.

Let’s compare the two places, season by season.

In Tennessee – The Fall:
Near the end of September, the weather begins to cool, driving residents to wear shirts with longer sleeves, particularly in the evenings. The leaves on the trees begin changing colors, residents of all ages and lifestyles start sporting their favorite football team’s jerseys, and the agricultural industry kicks into high gear to collect its ripening crop between outpourings of rain.

In Korea – The Fleeting Period of All-Around Pleasantness:

Also around late September, it becomes possible to walk outside or leave one’s air conditioner off while inside and not acquire noticeable sweat spots on the front of one’s shirt. It rain periodically, but not in oppressive downpours. While the common cold may afflict certain people, especially foreigners, it is possible to sneeze into a tissue without seeing tiny grey evidence of Chinese industrialization. Then October passes, and so do the enjoyable conditions.

In Tennessee – The Winter:
By the start of December, the temperature will have dipped considerably, requiring not only long sleeves but heavy clothing designed to keep one insulated from the cold. The weather will occasionally fluctuate, however, bringing relief in the form of autumn-like (or perhaps spring-like) conditions. There will be the occasional snowstorm, sometimes heavy enough to keep children out of schools and significantly restrict traffic. This is a rare occasion, though, and snow passes within a week or so. The pattern will hold until March, at which point the temperature will become consistently warmer.

In Korea – The Four Months of Darkness:
Bring out your long johns early, because the Korean air has teeth that it begins to bare come November. Coats which cost north of $100 are not a luxury here; any outer garment not insulated with some selfless animal’s former hirsuteness will be insufficient. Let those in more temperate climates develop cases of acute empathy with other, hairier species’; those who’ve lived through the Korean winters will assume that more-externally adorned animals gladly give up their lives to help poor mostly bare-skinned creatures such as ourselves survive in these conditions.

More sleep is generally required at this time due to the psychological effects of only experiencing daylight between the hours of 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Koreans also sell vast quantities of the humidifier appliance, something I’d never so much as heard of in Tennessee. Apparently, during the summer months Mother Nature uses up all the humidity she had budgeted for Korea during the year. Humidifiers in Korea cost between $40-$200, all of which are prices generally preferable to waking up with a nosebleed every morning.

Winter months in Korea are a kind of initiation, making the typical foreigner wonder if March will ever come again. During this time, the foreigner will find his or herself doing things he/she never imagined before leaving his/her home country, such as wearing a scarf, wearing a stocking cap everyday, and employing Korean gojujeong (red pepper paste) as a daily anti-cold-and-flu remedy.

In Tennessee – The Spring:
The cold weather subsides, the flowers begin to bloom, and the young people begin wearing short pants. Rain comes in April, foreshadowing the lush vegetation to come. Farmers begin preparing the crops they will harvest for the fall, and moods begin to rise in parallel with the temperature.

In Korea – The Time of Even Worse Than Average Quality:
Korea is never known as a particularly great place to breathe. This is especially true in the spring, when residents, especially foreigners, their confidence soaring alongside the rising temperatures, step outside to enjoy weather they can experience without wearing the remnants of a furry animal, and promptly inhale untold amounts of microscopic metals picked up at Chinese factories and carried thousands of miles away by gusting winds. The Koreans’ entrepreneurial instincts were prepared for this occurrence when they developed cotton face masks that locals are often seen wearing at this time of year. Foreigners sometimes do also, after having swallowed a considerable amount of those small metals, and no small amount of pride.

In Tennessee – The Summer:
The temperatures here hover at about 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the humidity rises, making it uncomfortable to remain outside for long periods of time. Rain is infrequent, a major stumbling block for the state’s agricultural backbone, but the evenings usually strike a temperature just nice enough for all to enjoy.

In Korea – The Seasons of Endless Rain/Almost Unbearable Humidity:

What virtually all Americans regard as the summer season is actually broken down into two distinct events in Korea. First of all, at the start of June and continuing through July is the rainy season. It may not rain everyday, but it rains often enough that a foreigner who is unfamiliar with the season may be trapped in his place of employment and have to borrow an umbrella from a female coworker. Her umbrella is likely to provide head-and-torso coverage, but leave the arms and legs soaked until he can find another one more befitting his size.

Before the coming of fall, however, the rains will eventually pass, leaving the Season of Almost Unbearable Humidity in its wake. The Korean umbrella industry manages to turn a considerable profit at this time, as these instruments are employed as a sun shield. Korean women, having been born with the kind of skin tone that your average American woman spends hours inducing cancer upon herself in the hopes of achieving, wants nothing less than to get darker through the sun’s rays.

Sports drink products such as Gatorade, Powerade and the Japanese Pocari Sweat also do very well at this time, since it is very difficult to walk from one place to another during the day without needing electrolyte replenishment. If you’re ever in Korea, feel free to strike up a conversation with a local whenever possible while buying sports drinks.

“Where are you from?” they might ask.

“Tennessee,” you might reply.

“What is it like there?”

“The weather’s great,” you might say. “I’d love to take you there sometime.

“All of you.”

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


New Writings

At The Korea Herald's web site, you can find my story about the July 4th festivities in Seoul, and my review of Fareed Zakaria's "The Post-American World."

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