Tag Archives: Korean

Korea impressions

Last year was unique for me for several reasons, one of which being that it was the first time in my life I stayed, well lived more like,  in a foreign country for more than an ordinary vacation-taker’s 14 days. 5 weeks spent in Korea are certainly worth a lot more than a handful of posts about the classes I visited (those were precious and invaluable in every single way!).

 

I lived a life and that life did not remind me of a life of a tourist. There was no rushing in the mornings to make it to a breakfast in a hotel. There was no hotel, in fact. I had my pet. There were no excursion buses to hop on/off for cookie-cutter excursions “to get the best of the city”. There was me and the whole of Seoul to explore, at my own pace, at my own time, with my spontaneous choices oftentimes made right there at an exit of a station I’d picked to go to, on the spur of the moment.

 

There were things I wanted to do – walk up and down the hills, wander around neighbourhoods, take turns left and right without knowing where I’d end up. I stared at people who almost never looked up to meet the eyes of a stranger. I stopped in front of tiny workshops with doors ever open and businesses being done right there on the pavement. I bought several bags of tangerines from an elderly man in the street, because it was a discount but I didn’t quite realize what he was saying to me and actually only needed one of those bags (also never learnt the numbers and counting in Korean). I learnt to pick, taste and like street food. I enjoyed fresh pastry and I hunted for tea only to find that “tea” in a coffeeshop can be anything BUT tea, for what I know tea to be. I struggled with metal chopsticks when eating noodles. I loved, loved my Korean meals.

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I learnt so many things about the places and the people that it’d take tens of thousands words to write about them. All the notes you’ll now see below were made in Korea and have now just been elaborated with extra commentary. Somehow it’s all still painfully fresh in the mind. “Painfully” because I took to Korea in a very special way which I’ll only be able to analyze and comprehend fully after a longer while. For the moment, it feels like this experience was grand, different, spicy, probably life-changing, certainly unforgettable. I’m running out of adjectives that would do their job well, so here are the notes and some pictures. Enjoy.

Warning: if you’re based in Korea, you’re likely not going to be taken aback by any of these notes. They were taken by a tourist, even if an observant one with plenty of time on her hands, after all.

 

***** Notes and opinions about Korea, in no particular order, on all areas at once *****

1. Seoul subway cars have a colour marking on the floor, a wide stripe of the same colour as is the metro line itself. Clearly, such a simple thing to do and so nice for passengers. The cars themselves are also much wider, let alone cleaner, than in Moscow.

2. In the metro, as the train approaches, people do not rush closer to the glass doors preparing to get in. But as soon as the doors open, people at the station and those getting out of the car *imo very rudely* ignore one another and simply push their respective ways in and out. Moreover, if you are inside the car and need to get off at the next station, it’s your problem how you’re going to manage that. People won’t make way for you. It’s not common practice to ask people in front of you if they’re going to get off (like it is in Moscow). Fight your way through to the doors all by yourself, you and your elbows, I’m afraid, you’ll have to. The doors, by the way,  can be quite entertaining. There’s also music announcing the approaching train, and melodies in different cities are different.

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3. In many cases public restrooms are not to be found inside cafes or restaurants but for the whole of a building, which could, naturally, house several various places on its floors. You’ll have to ask staff – and hope they will explain it in English.

4. There was something that completely blew my mind, and please don’t make the trite comment that Russians shouldn’t be afraid of cold weather. Girls in Korea in the chilly, sometimes windy weather of the second half of October were not noticed to be wearing tights while strolling around in super mini skirts and shorts. Similar thing was noted in November (!) in Japan. My granny would tell them all off right there in the street when she spotted one.

5. Square shaped leather bags of a rucksack style are popular for both girls and boys. I won’t mention couple clothing, as it was already mentioned here.

6. In your local neighbourhoods, just off the noisy, busy main street, there would be a man in a van. He would be slowly driving around the area in his van full of vegetables. He would have a megaphone. He would offer cabbages, potatoes and what not in a monotonous mullah-like voice, stopping here and there. I’d never seen anything like it, or felt like wishing to buy a sack of carrots in a street.

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7. Koreans don’t care (or don’t show they care or notice) you are different. Let’s face it, I am plenty different by my looks. Maybe it is Seoul but in fact I never felt “alien”, or weird, or stared at, let alone treated badly (with a few minor exceptions, which might actually prove the general trend and were more funny than unpleasant)).

8. I spent a lot of time commuting around the city on the subway, so that’s where I made a great deal of my notes, watching people. Koreans on the subway sometimes seemed pretty much like Russians by behavior to me – pushing, not saying sorry for stepping on your feet, or for anything, for that matter. And yet they somehow didn’t leave a strong impression of being rude. They might not have looked or made a recognizable impression of being friendly either… but they did get nice. =) Like once two old ladies invited me to take a seat near them (those reserved for the elderly). It was a sudden and pleasant gesture, even if I refused.

9. As I’ve already mentioned it above, it struck me to see the life of small businesses out there in the street. Tailor shops, car repairs, toy makers, sellers of all possible useful and useless things, old ladies’ eating places – in tiny, not necessarily clean rooms, with doors wide open, these were always tempting me to sneak a look inside. The city life is out. That’s such a different Seoul than that of Gangnam, and the feel it has is warm and welcoming.

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10. What feels so unmistakenly mine in Korea is the combination of green mountains, pine trees of their sprawling shape, and Asian architecture forms and colours. The simplicity of wood and stone and gravel wrapped up in the green of those pines blew my mind, no less. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that a few times I actually caught myself holding my breath. The nature aesthetics of Korea brought peace to my mind even when I was not feeling exactly peaceful.

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11. Korean girls use lipstick (a lot) and apply it in a special style which is called “gradient lips”.

12. Despite expectations, I didn’t notice Koreans to be emotionally reserved. On the contrary, I saw people (younger ones, to be fair and precise) expressing their feelings affectionately in public.

13. People do not interact with strangers either verbally or with eye contact. It was so unusual for me especially, since I was constantly staring at everything around me, including people. I wonder if that behaviour came across as impolite or embarrassing.

14. Koreans love hats. And cats.

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15. It’s fine or a cultural habit (norm?) to brush teeth in public places (restrooms, naturally). I’d never seen anything like it.

16. Sooo many Koreans wear trainers! I realize it’s the trendy thing to do now but I found it almost obsessive. In this way, I can’t help drawing another comparison with young people here in Moscow – so many of them look the same, from season to season, in similar outfits “inspired” by all similar glossy mag pictures. It was far more exciting to watch people in Tokyo =)

 

 

That’s about all for now. I wish I could sum it all up in a beautiful paragraph. Is it really possible to piece together these fragments of culture and impressions they made on me? I won’t even start doing that. The bits and pieces of scattered observations are part of my Korea, the first country I got to look at from within and took to pieces so scrupulously.

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My time in Korea would’ve been completely different had it not been for the amazing people there who took care of me in so many ways. I owe my discoveries to the time I spent and conversations I had with Josette LeBlanc and her husband, Anne Hendler, Michael Griffin, Michael Chesnut, Nina Iscovitz, Ran Kim, David Harbinson, dozens of students and teachers I had the pleasure and luck to meet. You all made a big, big difference, bigger than you realize for sure. More on that maybe in future posts. Thank you!

And thanks for reading.

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What happened to my Korean in Korea, and a little more.

I’m in Thailand now, with my face freshly burnt red and with my mind both relaxed and agitated just the right amount for catching up on my multiple drafts from Korea. Let’s see what comes out of it. This post will be the updated and seriously revised version of a thing I almost published two weeks ago. But what does it matter, here it goes.

 

 

 

Roughly n weeks ago I wrote the following paragraph for the “Teachers as Students” issue of iTDi Blog:

“On October 1st I’ll arrive in South Korea and will be staying there for over a month. In  view of that, I thought it respectful, good manners, and actually practically useful to study Korean. I don’t set objectives for myself higher than merely being able to read hangul, the Korean script. Ideally, I’d also learn to say a few touristy basics, realizing all the time that saying something in a foreign language is just part of a communication situation, and not even half of it.” (all 15 paragraphs I wrote can be found here).

 

So that was a scene set. It’s been 2 weeks I’m in South Korea (UPD: I’ve left Korea now). One of the most amazing and useful (for me) features of blogging, or writing of any form, for that matter, is that it allows you to read into your own mind of weeks ago. Moreover, it prompts asking yourself questions, such as:

– Can you read hangul?

– Was/ is it useful?

– Have you learnt a few touristy basics? How many is “a few”? What are they?

– Do your few touristy basics help you in your touristy communicative situations?

 

These are the questions you can ask me. In this post I want to speculate about my hangul’s worth, describe my encounters with the language, and in general share my thoughts about the languages that surround(ed) me in Korea..

 

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My prep for visiting Korea did include attempts to learn the script, and I can say that I diligently and enthusiastically managed about 2 weeks of self-study using apps and videos (which have been very helpful and I still aim to continue watching the lessons, mostly for the nerdy fun of it). As a result, I am not frightened of the look of most street signs. I am, though, feeling quite insecure when I see this:

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I consider myself very lucky to have rarely needed to face this on my own. When on my own, though, I resorted to choose places with pictures and/or English menus.

What’s wrong with this one if you claim to be able to read the script? – I ask myself. Here’s when I’ll get to write about skills and competences and the mess they make.

 

On reading.

So yes, with the exception of uncomfortable vowel combinations, 4-letter blocks (닭), numerous (luckily not endless) pronunciation rules when sounds of separate letters blend together to make something totally different from what I’m seeing – with the exception of those, I can read hangul, the Korean script. In practice, that means I can try to give the sticks and circles a sound equivalent. If that word happens to be of an English origin, I’ve nailed it. I can figure out that 커피 is “keopi” (coffee) and 오렌지 is “oraenji” (orange). At this point I start feeling masterful and very linguistically talented. In this fashion, I can read = pronounce metro stations, names of attractions, separate words on product labels, anything Korean which makes it no more than a line of lexical items at a time. How useful that is without knowing what the words actually mean, I have little clue. In that menu above, once I regain confidence after first-minute shock of looking at the paper, I might recognize rice rolls, ramen and soup, because I know those words. Otherwise I’m lost and being able to pronounce the stuff doesn’t guarantee ordering the stuff I’ll feel like eating.

Bottomline on reading: it feels very nice to be able to associate symbols with sounds. Reading practice itself is hard when we’re talking beyond  word/ collocation level.

 

On writing.

I was not at all surprised to find that the skill I’m so fervently preaching to be particularly effective in learning a language (as it’s proven to be that to me in my own experiences) is actually worth all the fuss in Korean, too. If I don’t write it, or type it, odds are high I’ll forget it the next minute. So that’s what I’ve been doing:

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For a little while I also played with writing hashtags for my Instagram pics in hangul. That’s one of those little, seemingly unimportant and unimpressive things that, in my opinion, assist quite a bit in getting your confidence when dealing with a foreign language. Tiny steps made up of no more than words, repetition, playful use and no rules – it works for me.

Bottomline on writing: it is key for me, be it English, Japanese, Korean or other. I suppose there must be scientific evidence (and published papers) that language produced by/ registered with the help of fingertips has better retention. The little data I have speaks in the favour of this statement.

 

On speaking.

As it happens, I can only say (1) what I’ve previously written down; (2) what I’ve written down and read to myself and aloud several times; (3) what I’ve written down, read aloud and practised saying to myself. The saying-it-to-myself part is as necessary to me as it’d look ridiculous: I must feel at ease with myself pronouncing the foreign sounds, hearing myself uttering them, first shyly and quitely, then possibly louder. In the end, I might finally feel brave enough to try sound the “goodbye” out at an appropriate moment. I’ve noticed, though, as there’s hardly ever any reaction following my “goodbye”(since I’m saying it when going or almost gone), I’m not motivated to keep saying it. I suppose if I were to stay in Korea for a while longer, I’d have braced myself for learning more meaningful vocabulary and actual expressions I could use in a variety of situations. Otherwise, it’s just words alone, and even then I’m not sure how well I’m managing. Last week at a bus station in Gangneung I tried to ask for tea at a cafe. I thought the Korean for tea is “cha”, which it is. I tried both “cha” and “tea” and gesticulation. The lady’s face was blank on all occasions and I felt quite dumb for a second there.

Bottomline on speaking: it’s thrilling to find yourself able to express yourself, however limited the way is, in a foreign language. It’s painful, too. I believe I’m very forceful as a teacher.

 

On listening.

Well, this paragraph will be really short. It’s just terrible.

It’s just terrible. It’s impossible for me to break down the Korean I hear into any intelligible parts, something I would be able to write down. As soon as I arrived, I had this idea in mind to ask every person I talk to to teach me a word/ phrase in Korean that’d be interesting, useful for me. Not even once could I catch what they were saying from merely listening to these good people! Not even when I asked them to repeat, not when I stared into their mouths trying to grasp the sounds from the movements of their lips and identify the corresponding letters to spell the things out. In the end, it was always the same – I asked the person to type it for me in my phone notes (which you can see above).

Bottomline on listening: it is a sad realization that my ear is so unresponsive to the language I hear around me for whole 30 days. It made me think about the ways I teach listening and also promise to myself to do more (and regular!) listening for my Japanese.

 

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These are my thoughts on my *progress in* Korean this past month. I’m going to be back to Seoul for a week soon, but frankly speaking I don’t expect myself to learn much more in that time. Besides, I really miss studying and focusing on Japanese, which I’ve neglected for 2 months. I enjoyed tackling Korean as I love the look of it and I still believe my decision was right, however little the progress. I had fun and I’m happy to officially announce my viewpoint that learning languages is exciting, and could be an especially great experience if in your learning you open up to people speaking the language in question.

 

As usual, I’ve got some random notes to share at the end of my post plus a little treat at the very bottom.

1) During my visit to one of Seoul palaces, the following conversation happened:

– Hello!

– Hello!

(silence, hiding behind the statue of a dragon)

– Here Korean king (pointing to the palace).

– Oh! Korean king lived here?! (smiling and overly enthusiastic about the fact shared)

– Goodbye.

– Goodbye.

 

My conversation partner hiding behind the statue of a dragon, then staring at me  and taking the time to formulate his 3-word *almost* sentence, was a five/six-year-old boy. I found this interaction beyond cute, and especially so when I tried to imagine a Russian kid of the same age approach a foreigner with a travel guide type comment in English. I just don’t see it happen.

 

2) Nobody I asked to teach me some Korean found it an easy task. Nobody ever taught me how to say YES or NO.))) I would still like to know how to say “I like it”.

 

3) ㅋㅋㅋ (“k k k”) standing for “hahaha” is fantastic and weird. From the little Korean laughter I heard here and there, their real laughing is pretty normal.

 

***** The Treat *****

Thanks for reading my post. Now I invite you to lean back in whatever furniture item it is you’re sitting on and enjoy the hilarious linguistic landscapes of Korea. I’d heard of them before I came to Seoul but I could hardly have imagined the immensity of the scale. They’re one of a kind, if you ask me. I don’t offer any analysis (though I’m very much interested in that and I have formed some opinion on that) or ideas how to use that in class. You can check the links shared at the very very bottom of this post to learn more about linguistic landscapes, which seem to have grown to be a thing in online ELT world. Otherwise, just enjoy the hilarity.

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(there’s some school bag..)

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I hope that was somewhat enjoyable. You can read more about linguistic landscapes here, here, here, and also here. You can rummage twitter for #LinguisticLandscapes. You can join this Facebook group. You can look around and see how the linguistic landscape in your country cannot compare compares to the one in Korea. Russian certainly does not!

 

Thank you for reading.

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