Friday, April 17, 2009

On learning Korean part three

The language stories I shared in the previous posts are a dime a dozen. Sometimes I forget they are funny, they just seem commonplace. So here is the question this blog aims to answer, "With so many hazards associated with not learning Korean, why doesn't everyone just shut up and learn it?" This is a multi-faceted answer so bare with me.
Most Koreans have never heard a none-native trying to speak their language. English speakers are used to a myriad of accents and slang that bitch slaps the Queen's English with phrases such as "Hella good." When I approach, blond hair ablazing, I send Korean listening comprehension running for the hills. Here is a typical scenario, I have taken many liberties but trust me none of the awkwardness is hyperbole.

Scene three: Leslie walks into a restaurant, parched looking to order water. She sits at a table, and a Korean waitress begrudgedly approaches.
Leslie: "Mul juseyo (I would like water please)"
Waitress stares silently at Leslie half shielding her eyes. A voice from off stage narrates the waitress's thoughts.
Waitress: "Ah my eyes! Is all blond hair so reflective? I wonder if it is real, maybe she won't notice if I touch it."
The waitress reaches out and rubs Leslie's hair between her thumb and index finger. Leslie notices, yet reiterates her request.
Leslie: "Mul juseyo."
Waitress: "The hair is definitely real. She is going to expect me to speak English. I hate speaking English, I'm so terrible at it, this is so embarrassing. What is she doing here, I bet she teaches English. I love her nose, I wish my nose was so big. Oh man is she talking again."
Leslie (a little more desperately): "Mul juseyo"
Waitress: "Wait was that Korean. Maybe... I can't tell... it almost sounded like it."
The waitress shakes her head at Leslie and leans in closer. Seeing she finally has the waitresses attention, Leslie repeats her question for the fourth time, pronouncing every syllable and straining her vocal cords with the added effort.
Waitress: "Yes that was Korean. Wow, I'm so happy she is learning our culture, I bet Korea helped wean her off the drugs. Hmmm, but why is she asking for cigars."
Leslie stares at the waitress, dehydrated and dejected. The waitress stares back, dazed and confused.
Leslie (in English): "Water, please!?!"
Waitress (out loud): "Oh water!"

End scene.

Jokes aside, this is my life. I spend a lot of time trying to learn Korean. It is almost an obsession. I can't stand not understanding the people/world around me. I read children's books to my co-teacher, listen to Korean tapes and complete lessons on Rosetta Stone and Live Mocha. It took me a month just to realized all Koreans were not actually yelling at me. Here are some of my challenges.
There is at least three different ways to say the same thing, which phrase you say depends on who you are talking to you. Lets say someone asks me where I am from. If they are older I have to say, 'Mi guk es aw wa sub ni da." If they are my peer, "Mi guk es aw wa saw yo." If they are younger, "Mi guk es aw wa da." So if I finally retain a phrase, I can only speak to one third of the population.
Koreans pronounce double consonants that do not exist in English. These are called aspirated consonants. The ssal/sal: rice/flesh story is a perfect example of the folly when these consonances are mispronounced. Here is the difference between a Korean listener and an an English listener; if someone says "Tanks very much" after I have just opened the door for them, I realize they were attempting to say "Thanks" based on the context of the situation. Additionally, I had heard my language butchered prior to that moment. Koreans are not prepared for me. If every syllable is not perfect, there is no comprehension. It took me two months to actually receive water in a restaurant.
I'm used to English spoon feeding me things such as subjects and contexts. Korean is so implicit even if I know every word in a sentence, I have no idea what it is trying to say. Subjects are optional/nonexistent, and the same phrase can have a completely different meaning depending on the context or tone. The word for eight is also the word for arm, kwuainchanayo is "are you OK?" and "yes, I'm OK". Koreans often times don't understand each other because the meat of the conversation is what is not said rather than said.
It is for the above reasons many foreigners are not a fool hardy as I and don't learn the language. However, Korea has challenged me to a dual, and I will not leave until I am fluent. I have decided to sign one more year at my school, I have become rather attached to sipping cigars and munching on flesh.

On learning Korean part two

Thus far, I have discussed the hazards of speaking Korean, but it is just as dangerous going the other way--when Koreans speak English.
Scene Two: Mike is one of my foreigner friends who lives in Pyeontaek (the city 10 mins from my apartment). He is a huge grizzly bear of a man but most likely has a stash of romantic comedies under his bed. Mike, Misha (my connection to the group) and their Wonderland buddies (a Hogwon/private English school) have dinner at Mike's apartment almost every weekend. Mike has a roof, grill and inhuman ability to create meat marinades. One time, he made barbecue sauce from grape jelly, Tabasco sauce, and a few other secrete ingredients...for the entirety of the meal I wanted to have his cubs, yes folks it was that good.
Anyhow, Mike bought an oven for one of these weekend meals . Ovens in Korea are not standard, in fact, they are a relatively new phenomena. Those few foreigners who have them, are "the cool kids." Mike was in a second hand store, the sales men told him it was an oven, they spoke "good" English, Mike bought the oven and bragged ceaselessly.
Ok the scene is set. I missed this meal I was out of town. Everyone is gathered in Mike's frathouseesk apartment. He makes chicken with his usual divine seasoning then puts it in the oven. He waits thirty mins, the chicken is not cooked. The red light indicates it is working, so Mike waits another 15 mins and checks it again. Still not cooked. Starvation calls Misha into the kitchen, who also checks the chicken. He looks at the oven, then looks at Mike.
"Mike, are you sure your bought an oven?"
"Yeah dude, three sales people told me it was a f* oven, it just takes a while." (note the defensiveness in Mike's voice)
"Mike there are no working parts, you bought a cup warmer."
"No way dude."
Mike inspects the oven with fresh eyes. He silently removes the chicken from the cup warmer then throws it on the barbecue. I wish I hadn't missed this meal, but the moral is...learn Korean.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

On learning Korean

I have started taking Korean classes, this blog is an explanation as to why.
Scene one: I am in the grocery store.
Grocery stores in Korea are like western stores on crack. The constant twitch has left the store's general appearance disheveled; random items are strewn on the floor, including cold products which are often still crated in front of the refrigerated aisle. Frequently, awkward concerts are held on the corner outside the entrance, begging for one more customer-- a desperate plea for just one more bumb. Lastly, there is always a man on a microphone yelling sales with such ceaseless euphoria his energy much be drug induced. This man is the bane of my existance.
I have finally translated my rice cooker, so I go to the store in search of uncooked rice. I have done my homework, ssal aw di eh yo?/where is the uncooked rice? I go up to the slowest of the Sing Sing Market employees. I mean slow in the literal sense of the word-- physically unable to move with speed or alacrity. Korean employees have a tendency to scatter/hide behind anything when they see an English speaker approaching. This poor man's age prevented him from ducking behind the raw fish stand-- no worries though, I am about to speak Korean. "Sal aw di eh yo?" He chuckles (in my opinion too heartily) and takes me to the next employee. "Mat nun mal i ya," he says. I understand he is asking me to say it again, thinking he is so impressed with my Korean, I repeat with added vigor. After, I am paraded to three more employees, all of which buckle in laughter, I know I am missing something. I am mortified, however, when the cracked out man on the microphone is called over and my question is broadcast to the entire store.
In Korean, ssal is uncooked rice and sal is human flesh. The difference to our western ears is relatively negligible. I describe it as; when asking for rice one should sound seven degrees angrier than when asking for flesh. Obviously my pronounciation lacked the proper pathos, insofacto, I'm Hanibal Lecter.
Why, you may ask, don't I simply wander aimlessly and chance taking home the wrong product? Enter Maria stage left. She recently took home a box of questionable cereal, because she lived by the trial and error doctrine. Two spoon fulls in, yes two, she realized it was bird seed.

End of scene one, curtain drops, please enjoy your brief intermission. I must go to bed, just call me Aunt Danette because my bedtime is also 9:30.