Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Forming views on Korea, Part II : Reading, Korean Language

I wrote earlier that the sheer diversity of people I met in Korea had a huge impact on how I came to form my views on both Korea and Koreans. It’s tough not to stress how large of an impact this has had. Yes, I was born into a family of Korean immigrants and raised in Southern California with her huge Korean community. I was also raised in large part by my grandmother who speaks only Korean. Yet, it would be easy to say that just as English spoken by Kiwis (a term for New Zealanders I picked up in Seoul) is part of the larger English speaking language, Korean-Americans are a rather small (yet very influential) segment of the larger Korean community. For example, there's an article in the New York Times, that says Los Angeles has the highest population of Koreans outside of any city in Korea, but if there are 1 million Korean-Americans in all of Southern California, there are about 50 million in just South Korea where Korean is the dominant (and pretty much, only) ethnicity -- South Korea is more than just Seoul. Some of the things I took for granted that all Koreans might feel was just not there in the Koreans I met in Korea. For example, if I had to single out the most shocking thing I found out after first getting there, then it would undoubtedly have to be the Anti-Americanism. Before going there, I thought, why would anybody in South Korea hate the U.S.?

With all this, I would say the general life experiences I have had as a Korean-American in the United States and in South Korea goes hand in hand with the books I have read in forming how I view both Korea and Koreans.


Unfortunately, I don’t read books in my spare time anymore (most reading I do is done online now). Outside of school, I have not purchased a book since moving back to the States. I’m not sure why I don’t read as much now, but it would be hard not to stress how large of an impact the books I have read have had on forming my views. I’ve created a link that has the books I have read.

All the books I read are in English. My knowledge of the Korean language was so terrible when I first got to Korea; conversational Korean was so difficult such that reading college level books was simply not an option. Even English loan words (of course, now a part of the South Korean variant of the Korean language) were pronounced differently there. For example, the word for “camera” in Korean is just the Korean pronunciation of “camera.” Of course, there are multiple ways to pronounce it, but only one way that’s actually a part of the Korean language and could be understood by Koreans. I pronounced camera Kae-Meu-Ra (케므라 versus Ca-Mae-Ra, 카메라 ) at first, and, of course, nobody would understand. And then, there is an unwritten social rule where you simply can’t say “Camera” in English while you speak Korean in South Korea (and there’s a good chance it wouldn’t be understood either).

So, to put it mildly my knowledge of the Korean language was even worse; I never attended Korean language school when I was growing up. Many words that I had learned from my parents while growing up were also no longer in use (elementary school 초등학교 vs 국민학교, yellow radish 단무지 vs 다광(sp?)). When I took courses at Yonsei University’s Korean Language Institute during the early part of my stay in South Korea I was taking introductory language classes (Level 1).

But, while in South Korea, things were different. Maybe, it was the culture there. A few years back, when a friend from back home was visiting, I remember going to casually grab some coffee only to go to Kyobo Bookstore (Gangnam, Seoul) right after. I remember actually sitting down and reading. My friend found some books on poetry and spirituality and was reading those (Rest in Peace Brother). We sat there and just read. We were there for I’d say about a couple hours, but if we were at the Kyobo Bookstore in Gwanghwamun with its much larger selection, I bet we would’ve stayed there longer. The books made a huge impact on my views on Korea.

Back then, there were two major English dailies, the Korea Times and Korea Herald. I almost exclusively read the Korea Herald on a daily basis. The newspaper along with an mp3 player and a book were all essential parts of my life back then. Public transportation in Seoul is very well developed (I remember spending KRW550,000 or about $500 at the time to buy my first i-pod – the 2nd generation one).

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