Stefano Young didn’t know the difference between Korea, China, and Japan until he was 23 — but then he met a Korean woman, learned to say “사랑해요,” and has studied Korean language and culture ever since. In this occasional series, the Los Angeles Review of Books Korea Blog presents his essays on his ever-deepening experiences with Korean life, culture, and family. Links to previous installments appear at the bottom of the post.
During winter break, I used my two glorious weeks off from the mental gymnastics of graduate school to focus on learning to impress my newfound love with a smattering of “sexy” Korean expressions designed to woo her. I ordered a book entitled Making Out in Korean, full of expressions like “I’m crazy about you” (난 너가 좋아 미치겠어), “Do you wanna sleep with me?” (나랑 자고 싶어?) and “I’m already married” (나 결혼했어). The book itself made Garam chuckle a few times, so I did get my money’s worth, but it seemed geared more toward soldiers and expats than science grad students like myself.
My real Korean education began in earnest that spring. I searched for Korean classes on the university web site, but there were none. I purchased another book, Teach Yourself Korean, which turned out to have hardly any Korean in it: the authors tried to teach with romanized Korean words instead of the Korean alphabet, which probably slowed down rather than helped my progress. Finally I found a Korean 101 class at the local community college which met twice per week for two hours, fitting nicely in between my graduate-level courses. She is gonna be so into me when I start speaking Korean, I thought.
On the first day of Korean class I biked to the campus, which consisted of one large, boxy building with an electronic signboard in front reminding students of important dates for the upcoming semester. I went to the administration desk and received my community college ID card, which I was excited about because it made my commitment to learning the language official. I took a seat at a long table toward the back of the bright, up-to-date classroom with whiteboards spanning the front wall.
“You can call me Baek sonsaengnim, or just sonsaengnim,” said the teacher, a short young woman with short black hair named Jangmi Baek, a PhD student in the Second Language Acquisition and Teaching department at the university. Teaching at the community college was a good way for her to earn some cash while obtaining additional material for her dissertation work. “Sonsaeng means teacher, and nim is the honorific ending,” she explained. Honorific? I thought. I don’t even know you yet. I tried to say sonsaengnim smoothly, but the transition from the second to the third syllable left an odd feeling in my voice box.
Class began with introductions and basic expressions. Sonsaengnim asked us all to state our names and why we were interested in learning Korean. Some younger students were in the class for genetic reasons (“I’m, like, half Korean and my mom speaks Korean at home, so…”), some older ones were there for historical reasons (“I was stationed in Korea in the 1970s, but I forgot most of what I learned on base…”), and some were big K-pop and K-drama fans. Then there was Michael, sitting in the same row as me, who responded, “I play the game paduk, or ‘Go’ as it’s called in English.” Well that’s interesting, I thought, and Michael continued: “Oh, and I’m interested in finding a Korean girlfriend.”
Surprised by his directness, I immediately scanned the classroom to gauge the response. Some of the college-aged girls giggled. None of them looked interested. Michael was the only guy in the class with hairier arms than me, and he sported an unfortunate mullet hairstyle, as well as those single-tone sneakers that senior citizens often wear. He wore a black t-shirt and black jeans and he didn’t look like he showered very often.
Nevertheless, we were the only two guys older than the college students and younger than the military veterans, so we got to know each other a little bit during the course of the semester. He told me that he worked at a gas station and liked to watch Korean TV when he wasn’t playing in Go tournaments. One day, he came to class and offered me a DVD he had burned of a show called Coffee Prince. Assuming it was some sort of twisted Korean anime, I threw it in a desk drawer at my office and didn’t look at it for more than a year. I had seen little Korean TV, and I what I had seen hadn’t impressed me.
One Saturday afternoon, I was hanging around at Chet and Yeejoon’s apartment when Yeejoon called me into his room. “Look at this,” he said, showing me a video on his laptop of 10 Korean girls dancing in a line, looking like an unusually large-budgeted high school dance troupe, moving suggestively to a track that sounded like something you would hear after pressing the “Try Me!” button on a toy at Toys R Us. “Girls Generation,” Yeejoon explained, sitting mesmerized as I stood over his shoulder praying silently for an end to the unbearable noise.
Suddenly, Yeejoon turned back toward me. “What do you think of Garam… do you think she’s pretty?”
I was surprised by the question, and by the hint of condescension in his voice. “Well, yeah,” I replied, “What do you think?”
“She’s not pretty,” he said, continuing to watch the video.
“What, you think these girls are pretty?” I responded, indignation swelling in my chest. “They’re… too pale!” I exclaimed, blurting out the words in defense of Garam’s honor, then feeling disappointed at my lack of imagination. Yeejoon gave me a knowing grin, and I wondered if I had divulged too much. Garam and I had been seeing each other for a little while, and I had learned that the Korean “Mafia”, as I called them, were everywhere. And they talked.
Korean 101 moved on to the alphabet. For inspiration, Sonsaengnim told us what the famous Korean scholar Jeong Inji said about the Korean characters around the time of their invention in the 15th century: “A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of 10 days.” I went home and started reviewing the characters, and by the next day I felt pretty comfortable telling them apart. I patted myself on the back for being only slightly stupid, and Garam seemed pleased when I started writing both of our names in Korean.
Pronunciation was more difficult. There were completely new vowel sounds to master, including a devilish “eu” sound (으), like the noise Lucy made on I Love Lucy in moments of embarrassment. Then there was ㅂ, ㅍ, and ㅃ — the “three P’s,” as I called them. When Sonsaengnim first introduced them in class, I laughed out loud at the preposterousness of having to tell their three similar P-sounds apart, and I wasn’t alone. Many of the students struggled to understand what Sonsaengnim meant by an “aspirated” sound. The class stalled.
“It’s okay if you don’t get it,” Songsaengnim finally said, tired of repeating herself and watching the class disintegrate. “A lot of Koreans have trouble pronouncing them correctly.” The same was true of the “ae” vowels, ㅔ and ㅐ. Songsaengnim had started down the path of distinguishing the two, but when the confusion appeared on the students’ faces she understood the futility an even more difficult pronunciation lesson and simply gave up: “They usually sound the same.” I reviewed the three P’s with Garam later and started to appreciate the differences, but when I asked her about the two “ae” vowels she said, “Oh yeah, those sound the same.” Then why are there two of them?! I fumed.
We had homework assignments in a workbook that involved writing repetition, and through those assignments I learned the prescribed order of strokes for each character. I found following that order cumbersome, and my Korean characters had nothing like the flow and connectivity of Garam’s. Certain tricks, like thinking of the ㄹ as just a backwards “s,” made my writing a little bit faster, but I made my first real strides with writing after learning to type in Korean. I didn’t understand the difference between the Korean keyboard layouts offered on my computer, so I just picked one of them and kept a diagram of which characters corresponded to which keys open on my desktop. It didn’t take long before I was sending such lengthy and important messages to Garam as “보고 싶어” (I miss you).
At the end of the first year of graduate school, Garam and I both decided that we had been stuck in the dormitory long enough. I moved into a shabby old house near a nice park with an older graduate student from our department as a roommate. Garam moved in with two other women in a two-story townhouse with a small patio and very low rent, not far from a great little coffee shop that reeked of roasted beans the moment you walked in the door. Garam liked to rang-de-boo at the coppee shop sometimes, cradling a cup in her smooth, golden-brown hands. I hated coffee, but I liked how Koreans used English words like coffee (or French words like rendezvous) with a funny pronunciation, and practicing those loanwords helped me to gain confidence in my own Korean accent.
One of the first example sentences I had learned in Korean class was “Coppee-ga mashisseoyo” (coffee is delicious). It was a textbook sentence, on par with the dialogue many Koreans learn when they start out in English. (A: “Hello, how are you?” B: “I’m fine, and you?”) To form a question in Korean, all you had to do was change the inflection of your voice. “Coppee-ga mashisseoyo?” I asked Garam, exaggerating my inflection for effect. She giggled, answering in the affirmative: “Ne, coppee-ga mashisseoyo.” I asked her what she liked about coffee, and she said she liked the smell. She drank lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos, any kind of coffee drink with a little bit of milk added.
Summer was the best of times and worst of times for us in the Applied Physics department. Graduate students switched from part-time to full-time in the lab, which brought a much-appreciated salary boost. The weather, however, switched from hot to scalding, so students on campus began scampering from one shady spot to another like a bunch of desert lizards. Garam and I worked in the same building, and on breaks I liked to search around for private spots for us to kiss.
The Applied Physics building had a new wing built just before we started graduate school and an old one from the 1960s. The roof of the old wing was accessible via a glass door on the top floor of the new wing. It was marked “Emergency Exit Only: Alarm Will Sound,” but one day I saw someone accidentally lean against it, and it opened without so much as a peep. The clumsy person sighed with relief, but I had a different thought: Jackpot.
There was an awning on the roof of the old wing that provided just enough shade for a couple to stand under, so I arranged a rang-de-boo with Garam one afternoon on the top floor of the new wing. I led her out through the emergency door and across a narrow walkway between the buildings with nothing but thin steel cables on either side. My fear of heights made me nervous, but she seemed to enjoy the adventure of it. When we reached the old wing, she went straight up to the edge of the roof and looked at the campus stretched out below and the mountains on the horizon.
The adventure and the scenery had the desired effect, and we kissed under the awning to avoid being seen by the powers that be. After locking lips for a little while, we left the shade and turned the corner towards the walkway leading back to the new wing, surprised to see another couple from our year walking towards us and giggling. They were equally startled to see us, but we all soon recognized the situation for what it was and broke into laughter. I told them to enjoy the shade, and Garam and I walked back inside to resume the serious work of our respective labs.
Like many Asian women in their homelands or abroad, Garam spoke to her mother on the phone daily, which let me learn about her family by osmosis. “What was that about?” I would ask whenever she got off the phone, which challenged her to explain the conversation in English. (Her English did improve rapidly as a result, and I liked to take the credit for it.) For my part, I learned that she had one younger sister, that her father was an English teacher — which was encouraging — and that mother, on the other hand, spoke no English at all. Her sister, an elementary school teacher and an avid reader, was pretty fluent in English for someone who had never lived in a country that spoke the language. Garam occasionally passed along her questions about what a native English speaker would say in various situations.
There was some confusion when Korean 101 arrived at the subject of the Korean family. As with the rules of eating, the rules of addressing family members depended on age. To make matters worse, the words identifying the family members themselves were also gender-dependent, which produced, among other complications, three ways to say “sister”: dongseng (younger sister), onni (older sister, if the speaker is female), and noona (older sister, if the speaker is male). The word for “aunt” varied depending on which side of the family she was on (이모, 고모), and there was a similar variety of words for “uncle” (외삼촌, 큰아빠, 이모부). It was a nightmare, and I came out of it positive I would stumble over the vocabulary if I ever had a chance to meet Garam’s extended family.
I scribbled a tall stack of flash cards full of every possible family relationship and all the other vocabulary I’d learned during the class to review in my spare time. Toward the end of the summer we began discussing a potential trip to Korea over the winter break, with me going there as Garam’s “friend.” Her family knew who I was, she explained, but it was too soon to introduce me to the extended family as her boyfriend. Her grandmother’s birthday party would be held in early January, so Garam requested that I make myself scarce for a few days to avoid awkwardness at the extended family gathering, so I planned to meet up with a Southeast Asia-touring college friend in Thailand. When the departure date finally arrived, my white brick of index cards, wrapped in a rubber band and packed in my duffel bag, traveled with me all the way from Arizona to Garam’s family home.
Previously in this series:
Now based in Silicon Valley, Stefano Young reached level-four fluency on the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK) test and appeared on Korean news channels such as KBS and YTN while studying the language in Los Angeles. He is especially interested in historical dramas, the dialect of Busan, and eating vast quantities of bingsoo.