Elwood 5566

Fulfilling a Promise to my Mother – The Lessons of ‘Filial Loyalty’ (孝 – 효도)

Posted in Comparative, customs, Five Second Hanja (Theme) by 노강호 on March 22, 2012

filial loyalty 효도 – 효

Because the characters for ‘filial loyalty’ comprise of only a few strokes, well, seven, it is among the first hundred or so you learn when studying hanja. However, your introduction to it is probably via the two, simpler, three stroke characters for ‘son’ /’child’ (子), or girl’/’woman’/’daughter (女). When combined, the two characters, comprising either ‘filial son’ (孝子) or ‘filial daughter’ (孝女), appear fairly early in the hanja learning process partly because they are simple characters, and also because ‘filial loyalty (piety, duty) are central Confucian values. It will be seen that in the character for ‘filial loyalty’ (孝 – 효도-효), the character for ‘child’ appears in the bottom right and in this case is the ‘radical’ by which characters are grouped in dictionaries. The character can be interpreted as the child carrying their father or mother on their back.

Hanja is the name for the Chinese characters still used in South Korea and they are regularly seen in everything from newspapers to restaurant menus. They are especially popular in inscriptions and the use of hanja plays a role not too dissimilar from that of Latin, in the West. ‘Do your best,’ ‘to kill two birds with one stone,’ ‘like father’ like son,’ and ‘distinct as black and white,’ are just a few examples of the many available. In particular, 4 character hanja, such as  ‘one stone, two birds,’ often deriving from an ancient book, known as the ‘One Thousand Characters’ (천자문), are particularly common. Around 1800 characters appear in the school curriculum, 900 in middle school and 900 in high school. However, not all Koreans, even well-educated ones, have a good knowledge of them.

‘village of the filial loyal children and wives’

In a high school in which I taught for a year, I became well acquainted with the characters for ‘filial sons’ because it was engraved on a huge boulder just inside the school entrance. And, on my walk into town, it appeared on a set of murals painted on a wall. The character is also memorable because of its confusion with that for ‘old, venerable’ (老 – 늙은 -노).

‘filial loyalty – duty – piety’

Despite its frequent appearance, I really only had a vague understanding of the concept. Okay, I understand the idea of duty to your parents, in a loose, western way, being respectful, thoughtful, etc, but let’s face it, in the West we’ve become fairly adept at ignoring the needs of our parents, especially as they get older. ‘Caring’ for your parents, and respect towards older people, and this does not necessarily mean only those of advanced years, has a far greater significance in Korea and the Confucian informed East in general. The Confucian notion of ‘filial loyalty,’ among other things, includes taking care of one’s parents, bringing a good name to them, supporting them, not being rebellious, showing love and respect, courtesy, upholding fraternity between brothers etc, and performing sacrifices after their death. Though traditions are gradually changing, Koreans often live in extended families. I have one friend who lives in a large five-room apartment with his wife, three children, sister, sister’s husband and two children, and his mother and father. Recently, they moved house and prior to this were able to decide whether they wanted to continue living together; they chose to continue cohabitation. Another friend, who is in his late thirties, lives with his invalided father who to say the least is cantankerous and unfriendly. He continually berates his son for not being married despite the fact that he is probably the cause of this.

ancestral graves on the mountainside

Additionally, Korean ‘filial loyalty’ goes beyond the grave and honoring one’s ancestors, back to at least five generations, is an integral part of the Korean yearly cycle. Recently, my sister traced our family tree back 5 generations and I visited a number of cemeteries in rural Britain. Standing on the edge of my great-great-great grandfather’s grave didn’t really move me and I’d felt more emotion next to the graves of those I felt I knew better, such as Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Bruce Lee and Benjamin Britten, and with whom there was no genetic bond.  It was as a dreary, drizzly, winter afternoon that somehow suited the visit; all the graves, even those of not much more than fifty years old, were flaking, unkempt and covered in lichen. I seemed more aware of the gulf of time that separated us than any awe that we were related.  In the absence of any rituals of remembrance our ancestors and our family histories are forgotten once out of living memory and then have to be rescued and resuscitated by genealogical research. And it isn’t just distance that breaks the bonds between us; one of my relatives lives only a few miles from his great, great grandmother’s grave and not only does he not no where it is located in the cemetery, but has no interest in knowing so.

the cemetery where my great, great, great-grandfather is buried

We British mark the graves of our loved ones with a stone plinth the engraving of which will just about remain legible and decent during living memory and during that period the grave may be tended and flowers or tokens dedicated to it. Then, when there is no living person to remember the grave’s owner, the weeds spring up and the lichen takes its hold.  One rarely sees a name on a Korean grave yet on the mountain sides, on gentle slopes facing the east (to conform to the principles of Feng Shui, 風水地理 – 풍수지리), you will find countless ancestral graves but far from being abandoned, they are usually tended and cared for. The ancestors of most British people seem so deader than in Korea where ‘filial loyalty’ prescribes ‘remembrance’ of their having been and in doing so connects both individuals and families with history, location and community.

an example of ‘filial loyalty’

Recently, one of my friends explained to me how his father, suffering from terminal liver cancer, wanted to die. I was apologetic but he laughed and told me he wasn’t distraught or sad, indeed he was somewhat happy for his father. I didn’t quite understand and asked for clarification; how can you be a ‘little happy’ your dad is about to die? And so, he explained how he’d been waiting for his father to die for fifteen years, not because he wanted him to die or was angry at his father’s addiction to soju, but because his father was tired of life – especially life without alcohol. Indeed, his father had been ‘welcoming’ his own death for years. Content in the knowledge he’d been a good parent, husband, grandfather, as well as a good son; had brought three children into the world, made sure they’d been educated, guided them in their moral development, supported his family and honoured his ancestors, he had nothing else to live for. But what was also touching was the way my friend put the happiness of his father, before his own. Yes, his father had flaws, some might argue major ones, but he’d done all that was required of him in terms of ‘filial duty’ and if his father was ready to depart and eager for his own demise, then he shouldn’t let his own sadness over shadow his father’s potential happiness. I by no means think this a common way to view the death of a parent in Korea not do a I particularly agree with it but it is interesting because for some, ‘filial loyalty,’ filial duty’ is a clearly a moral yard stick by which to judge earthly performance.

honouring a father on New Year’s Day (lunar)

My mother died over fifteen years ago. Like all our mothers, she was a wonderful person and a fantastic parent and I often said to her that after her death, which at the time never seemed a reality and was always years in the future, my sister and I would open a bottle of wine beside her grave, have a couple of drinks and reminisce as a way of celebrating the life we’d shared together. I even said I’d pour some drink onto her grave – she loved a glass of wine!  How Korean! Yet this was before I’d even visited the country and before I knew anything about ‘filial loyalty.’  Somehow, it simply seems not just the logical thing to do but the most natural response to the death of a loved one.  However, sitting graveside in a British cemetery, with a bottle of alcohol, could be construed as almost sacrilegious, it’s not the done thing and I’ve generally been dissuaded by convention. So, I’ve promised myself that on my next visit to the UK, I’m going to spend sometime with my mum and dad, not with a heavy heart and  flowers that so quickly wilt and add even more poignancy to a grave, but with a bottle of  homemade makgeolli and a smile.

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©Bathhouse Ballads –  努江虎 – 노강호 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

Further References

One Thousand Characters (천자문 – Bathhouse Ballads, July 2010)

To Kill Two Birds with One Stone – Five Second Hanja (Bathhouse Ballads, June 2011)

What Character is That? (Book review – Bathhouse Ballads, May 2010)

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Interlude (9) Wank

Posted in Interlude (Theme) by 노강호 on December 31, 2011

'wank' is very popular in Germany where Wankum, in North Rhine- Westphalia, is close to the municipality of Titz.

For many years the  word ‘wank,’ along with other obscenities with which British school kids are acquainted, such as ‘toss,’  or ‘bollocks,’  were absent from the American-English lexicon.  As a boy, I can remember being very amused at a Lost in Space episode in which featured a character named Captain Bollocks. British movies such as Austin Powers have since introduced such words to wider audiences and it would seem that in North America the term ‘wank’ is now commonly understood. For any reader unsure of the others terms, ‘bollocks’ is a slang term for testicles and ‘toss,’ is synonymous with ‘wank’ and it’s various other meanings.  For British people living in Korea, the Toss English Academy franchise is an amusing title. I did once try to explain to a bus driver for the Toss Academy near my one room, the amusing name of his school and ended up embarrassing myself (‘Toss English’ Bathouse Ballads June 2010).

‘Wank,’ like ‘fuck’ is a highly versatile but I have only ever heard the Korean equivalent,  ddal-dda-ri, (딸떨이) in a boys’ high school when it was often the response from others boys, when I asked someone what they’d done over a weekend or vacation

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©努江虎-노강호 2012  Creative Commons Licence.

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Screw the air con! Give me some Korean lessons!

Posted in Education, esl, Korean language by 노강호 on September 22, 2011

Speech impediments have always amused me and as a child I knew a shop in Edinburgh, where I holidayed every summer with my sister, that provided us a double treat because not only was it a sweet shop, but the owner had a massive problem pronouncing sibilants. Visiting her shop for a bag of cinnamon balls and some sour plums was one of our first adventures when we arrived in the city, for summer.  Even to this day, my sister and I still reminisce about the, ‘Yesh lady,’ and the various means we used to illicit her to say ‘yesh’ or ‘shower plumsh.’

don’t expect to be ‘fed’ in return

If I still had a childish sense of humour, and was ignorant to the detrimental effects such humour has on successful second language acquisition, I could have such fun taking the piss out of badly pronounced ‘Engrish.’ Let’s see, ‘I’m pine!’ is a very common blunder. Then there’s ‘I like flied lice’ or ‘egg flied.’ ‘Pacuum-creaner’ always fucks them as does ‘pish and chips.’ Unfortunately, my professionalism stifles the potential for amusement.

But have you noticed that Korean kids will take the piss out of your attempts at Korean. Almost on a daily basis I will hear students commenting on my pronunciation and even mimicking my attempts. Okay, the kids I can tolerate but when adults do it, though never ill-intended, it gradually grates. I have numerous friends, truly good friends, who nonetheless will ridicule my best efforts. I’ve even had friends write down my mistakes so they can subsequently recount them. Some of my gaffs concern confusing ‘eagle’ with ‘oak’ and ‘ginger’ with ‘thinking’ which have resulted in my asking for ‘eagle curd’ and ‘thinking’ in the supermarket. Then there is the confusion between ‘Dan Goon’ (단군) the legendary founder of Korea and ‘dang geun’ which is the common garden carrot! Indeed, the moment you start to use any languages that veers from the basic, especially idioms or snippets from the Thousand Character Classic  (千字文 – 천자문), and you can guarantee you will deemed highly amusing.

robot English teacher

And if I make an amusing cock-up the chances are its nature will be shared with every class in my school. I don’t mind someone having a giggle at my gaffs but have the decency, after you’ve had a laugh, to help me correct them! I used to criticise those foreigners who’ve spent ten years in Korea and can’t string a sentence together and now I am approaching my sixth year on the peninsula I am beginning to realise that it’s probably much easier to learn Korean back in England than it is in Korea.

As a nation, Koreans are immensely selfish at turning every encounter with a foreigner into an opportunity for them to learn English. How many times have I discovered a Korean who spoke little English and could tolerate my ponderous Korean only to have them ask several days later, if I could teach them English. I’m sure a great many friendships between Koreans and native English speakers are inspired through the desire to extend English speaking skills and though I admire conviction and single-mindedness, some of my friends have forgotten the original ‘contract,’ namely, that friendship was mutually beneficial in terms of our respective languages. In more than one case, I have friends who used my help and years later are now competent English speakers while I’m still waiting for my first lesson. And the boredom that flits across their faces if I ask a Korean-language related question deters all but the most important inquiry.

It might be assumed that living in Korea would be a massive advantage, and it probably is if you are working or studying in a Korean speaking environment, but for English language teachers it is often the case that they are dissuaded from making an effort to learn Korean. The less Korean you speak the greater your value for money and the less you will understand your working life – something which seems to empower some bosses.  On ESL job boards for China or the Middle East, lessons in the native language are often included in the employment package along with other standard incentives such as internet connections or air conditioning. In Korea however, though there are exceptions and more enlightened employers, there seems a complete ignorance that many westerners come to Korea not just because it’s a job but because they want to experience and better understand Korean culture.

Koreans treat language as an academic tool, as almost exclusively a qualification the mastering of which provides a rung up the academic and social ladder. This is evident by the structuring of Korean-English exams where the emphasis isn’t on an ability to communicate, but to identify and correct grammatical errors.  Occasionally, the questions that have to be answered would puzzle and bewilder the most proficient and articulate of native English speakers. Recently, a top Korean school attempted to change the nature of its instruction and to focus on effective communication. Parents however, weren’t happy and demanded a return to rote learning and grammar because English in Korea is not about communication and is treated in much the same way as classical Latin or Greek, in other words, as a ‘dead language’. Not forgetting that both the USA and UK have the world’s poorest second language acquisition, there are westerners on the Korean peninsula for whom learning Korean is not an academic tool but a means of communication which has the potential to help better understand Korean culture and the Korean psyche.

How Koreans perceive second language acquisition has been influenced by their experience of the language learning process.   If language is about grammar, is predominantly written rather than spoken, if it is taught in isolation of history and culture, it if is about grades and exams, if  written English is given more importance than spoken English,  then it is understandable why they should be so negative or dismissive of a foreigner’s interest in learning Korean. Of all the potential approaches to the study of a language, Korea has managed to extract and venerate the most boring and I would imagine the learning of classical Greek or Latin, where at least you are treated to primary sources, would be more engaging. Considering the number of years Korean kids learn English, I rarely meet ones whose command of spoken English impresses me. On the other hand, a great number of them have superior writing skills to their native English speaking peers.  And we should not forget, Koreans do better job learning languages than we do in dumbass Britain where a recent report claim 10% of ten year old boys have the reading age of a seven year old – and that’s in their native language!

In Korea, if you want to learn Korean you’re very much on your own!  And though you would think it easy to find a Korean student or adult to help you in your quest, the reality is few have sufficient free time. Koreans are either too obsessed with the development of their own English skills, too busy using you to earn money, or too constrained by other pressures, to help you learn Korean. Of course there are exceptions! Korea is an amazing country but personally, of the numerous places I have lived for an extended period of time, Koreans have been the least helpful in improving my skills and the most demanding in the pursuit of improving their own. And if you find a Korean friend who has not the slightest interest in learning English, and they do exist, you are truly blessed.

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

A Cake of Soap and Korean Hierarchical Collectivism

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, customs, Education, Korean language, podcasts by 노강호 on July 25, 2011

podcast 87

A few weeks ago, I was showering in the bathhouse. The soap is always provided which is something which irks many westerners. Somehow, we seem to find pollution everywhere but on ourselves and are quick to condemn a number of Korean habits, including the ones concerning communal hard soap as opposed liquid soap.  I have cited, on numerous occasions, the research on the hygiene of British people where a culture of super-clean toilets seems to mitigate the need to actually wash your hands. When you take a dump in a nice clean toilet with white tiled walls, devices that automatically jettison a fragrance into the air to mask unpleasant smells, and mop up with two ply, scented toilet paper, it is easy to forget how dirty shit is. In 2008, a major British study revealed 25% of those tested had faecal matter on their hands and 33% of home work surfaces were contaminated by faecal matter and strains of E-coli (Daily Telegraph). It is no exaggeration to say that British people have so much shit on their hands they might as well have mucked themselves out manually especially when international research ranks Britain as the third most contaminated society after India and Malaysia and more contaminated than Arabic countries where one traditionally cleans their bum with a hand and water. So, among Brits at least, I always titter when they bang-on about how dirty it is to use communal soap because only 43% of British mothers see fit to wash their hands after changing their baby’s nappy. The chances are, a great number of people who condemn communal hard soap are the same people who ‘shit and go,’ without bothering to wash their hands.

So, there I am using one of a hundred bars of communal soap and I notice it is rather hairy; in fact it’s so hairy I can feel the coarseness on my skin. For a moment, and it is brief, I am repulsed but then I’m pacified by the thought, it’s only hair, Korean hair and in that moment, not only do I continue using it, but I start to reminisce.

My family shared soap in the bathroom as well as towels and I can even remember we shared bath water. Back in the 60’s you didn’t shower every day, but on a weekly basis. For many children of the 50’s and 60’s, Sunday was traditionally bath day and for me that meant stepping into second-hand, scummy-gray water and wanting to get out as quickly as possible; not because the water was gross, but because by the time I got to use the bath the hot water had expired.

Maybe it’s the memory of the bathing experience as a child which makes me wallow in the luxury of a Korean bathhouse. I am not surprised we bathed on a weekly basis and hated the process. In the days when central heating was an emerging luxury, and before double glacéing and hot-water-on-demand heating systems, bathing, especially in cold weather, was unpleasant. Then there were the damp towels, the dubious face cloth and sponges whose possible journeys and uses, as a child, I never contemplated. Eventually, when the final dregs of gray scud whirled and gurgled down the drain, the final bather had to prostrate themselves at the edge of the bath, Ajax in hand, and scour away the crusty tide mark.  Drying my face with the ‘family’ bath towel and detecting an odour, the origins of which I don’t wish to recall, was an experience a lot less traumatic than had the odour belonged to an outsider. I think most of us are more tolerant of ‘dirt’ and ‘pollutants’ when we are either related genetically or are familiar with the owner. In sexual relationships, most people will happily rub their faces in the gutters of the human body but the moment they have to wash their hands with a communal bar of soap and they are offended. I have known numerous dog owners who would happily let their dog lick their face and lips, or lick their ice cream, after it had sniffed and tasted the back-end of every other dog in the neighbourhood. Familiarity has powers of sanitation far superior to the most stringent bleaches and cleaning agents, and as for sexual passion, the atomic bomb of hygienics, in its radiance all filth and the veiny, mucous-lined channels from which it oozes, are deified.

I want to see that bar of soap as a Korean sees it, not because I want to be Korean but because in its comprehension lies something of the mystery of what it means to be Korean as a Korean and which as a cultural phenomena, eludes  all outsiders. How Koreans perceive a simple bar of communal soap, I am beginning to think, shares a proximity to communal plates and bowls, the communal bowl of odeng which has almost disappeared, the act of drinking a shot of soju from another person’s glass, sharing water in the bathhouse, dipping your toothbrush into a communal bowl of salt, and cascades down through various other social interactions far removed from ablutions and yet intrinsically connected through their relationship with the community. This is not to say Korea doesn’t have taboos and social mores, it does. You can cough in someone’s face and share food from the same plate, picking at it with your chopsticks, but suck the end of your pen and you’re ‘dirty.’

 The bar of soap reminds me how human reactions to ‘pollution’ are affected by familiarity and hence a mother will find the contents of her baby’s nappy much less disturbing than if it belonged to that of a stranger. I have quite often seen Korean men pick an Italy towel or razor out of a bathhouse bin and proceed to use it and indeed, some of my friends do this. It’s easy to condemn this as a disgusting act but we have all used each others’ Italy towels and razors and the only difference between using your friend’s towel and a discarded one, is that your friend has a relationship with you and you know for sure they haven’t got face fungi.

Korean society is far more homogeneous than that of the UK where our gene-pool has been thoroughly mongrelised. Many Brits, often comment on how ‘orientals’ all look alike but the fact is Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Thais etc, all have their own distinguishing features and it is only ignorance and lack of familiarity, which masks them.  I can tell apart a Korean from a Chinese or Japanese person, with far greater accuracy than I can a Russian, Frenchman, Englishman or German. And the process of mongrelization in Britain, started well before the Viking raids and French conquest of 1066. That Koreans are more homogeneous genetically, plus their isolationist past, the influences of Confucianism and recent history in which their national identity was suppressed, have conspired to produce a society with a strong sense of group identity.

There are many points at which you can observe Koreans expressing their identity through a shared framework and one of the most obvious is through the values surrounding education. Regardless of social position, every Korean parent has much the same academic expectations for and of their children. In Britain, educational values, and sometimes the lack of them, tend to divide society.  Other examples, if practiced in the UK would be deemed archaic, even invasive. I don’t think I have ever heard a British school child talk about their future aspirations in terms of ‘their country’ but Korean students often tell me they want to do something to ‘help’ or ‘better’ their nation.  The National anthem is not only heard more often that it would be in the UK but most people can sing the verses. The national flower, the mugunghwa (Rose of Sharon – 무궁화), is a well know image. National Service is often perceived by many, though indeed not all, as a duty towards ones country. Even kimchi and Korean martial arts are important facets of Korean identity. Perhaps, because the formation of modern Korea and its struggles with both foreign aggressors and internal political fracture, are relatively recent events, the important historical figures, the Korean founding fathers, are well know to all Koreans. If you should praise Korean society, many Koreans will be quick to thank you. Meanwhile, back in the UK, political correctness has tarnished the Union Jack and anything British with slurs of imperialism, racism, and oppression. Indeed, I think it not wrong to claim that in Britain, British culture is a dirty word and British culture the most inferior of all the cultures now inhabiting the British Isles.  Meanwhile, the influences which shaped European and British history have been discarded and the significance of Marathon, Thermopylae and anything else pertaining to ancient civilizations are deemed crusty, boring and thoroughly elitist.

In western society, we value individuality and see its development as worthwhile and important and whenever we cooperate or interact with others we very much do so as individuals working with in a group. And if a person were to exhibit characteristics which conflicted with the group, their subsequent labelling as ‘an individual’ could be very positive. We respect ‘individuality’ even if we don’t agree with its content. For westerners, it is possible to develop as a respected individual without any need of group associations and one can forge an identity in isolation. For Koreans however, it is the group which defines their roles and gives them their identity and they can be quite lost without the security of its parameters. I have on numerous occasions seen students ‘shut down’ or socially paralyzed because group dynamics weren’t quite right.  Identities articulated around work, the army, school and university, ferrying individuals through the various stages of life are integrally important, lifelong points of reference.

And at all times in Korean society, you notice the importance of hierarchy. You can chuck western kids together, mixing ages, abilities and gender randomly and they will basically work but Koreans are likely to suffer almost a trauma if the groups aren’t structured properly. Difference, for Koreans, is much more difficult to deal with. Age cohorts are incredibly important and Koreans constantly refer to their position either currently or in the past, not only through age cohort terms like ‘first grade’ or ‘sixth grade’ but by larger structural ones such as ‘high school student’ or ‘university student.’ That you can address a young person as ‘student’ is reflective of both the pivotal role of education and age banding. I have know a number of Korean high school students who, after spending a year abroad, returned to Korea to be put back a year into a class with students younger than them and they found the experience quite difficult.

The importance of age in Korean society can never be underestimated and it is for this reasons they always want to know how old you are. Without knowing your age, a Korean is not only unsure what language to use addressing you, but is unsure how to act towards you. Knowledge of your age allows them to place you in the appropriate group from which they know how to treat you. And don’t necessarily expect relationships determined by such factors to change over time or with familiarity, as they would in the west. I’ve taught English students who very quickly treated me in manner which in Korean would be seen as intimate; that is they use familiar terms of address and treat you as an equal. But Korean ‘friends’ I taught almost 12 years ago, when they were high school students, still address me as ‘teacher’ and some find it difficult not to. Another, who will use my first name, finds it difficult to smoke in my presence and may turn their head while drinking alcohol. And you will be sorely reminded if you make a blunder and assume students belong to the same age cohort when in fact they occupy adjacent ones.

The Korean Language expresses both collectivism and hierarchical stratification. Indeed, Korean is a language of built-in deferentially and when using it you are constantly aware of your position in relation to others. The terms to address people are rarely their names, but their function within the group.  Koreans rarely uses personal pronouns as these are seen as intimate and in the wrong context rude, and position, rank, family relationships or specific occupations commonly replace these. In terms of collectivism, Koreans refer to their parents, schools, universities and the largest structural unit of all, nation, by way of ‘our’ rather than ‘my.’ Whenever I refer to ‘my mother’ as ‘our mother’ I am a little unsure whether this is correct, or possibly bizarre, as I am not Korean and not part of the collective.

There is probably no better example of the differences between ‘collective’ and individualistic’ ideologies than in the conflict westerners often encounter when the ‘interest’ of the ‘individual’ clash with the ‘interest’ of work. In the west, we are used to a very clear division between work and ‘play’ and it is not appropriate to spring meetings on people at the last moment, ask them to change their plans for that evening, or expect them to ‘stand a friend up’  in order to work. If this is a necessity, financial recompense can be expected. When Koreans expect westerners to behave in the same manner as Koreans, they do not really understand the sacrosanct nature of free time and the importance of individuality as an expression of identity. Koreans however, will suppress all individual pursuits, interests or engagements,  if work requires some additional input. Koreans do not divide work and free time so absolutely and they will work way past their contracted time if the organisation requires this and not expect a financial reward for doing so – though I suspect they would expect their diligence to be acknowledged and perhaps foresee some in-lieu benefit at a future date. (Of course, it is equally as plausible to interpret this work ethic as exploitative and manipulative). And, in terms of obesity, the collective ideology is definitely more judgmental.  I sense, that whenever I am in the presence of a Korean who is proportionally fatter than I, I can relax because it seems a far greater social offence to be a fat Korean betraying the parameters of the Korean frame, than a fat foreigner.

In the West, the rights of the individual are so crucial that it is almost the case that the rights one person can easily trample on the rights of another. I am reminded of the time I witnessed an argument about someone playing loud music at an inconvenient time and where the perpetrator claimed playing loud music was, his ‘right.’  As with many facets of life in Korea and life back home, there is a clear polarization where both extremes each seem too extreme. As much as I love living in a society that is a collective hierarchy, and enjoying the benefits it brings, it is as a foreigner and outsider who is absolved from transgressions and given leniency.  I would certainly hate to be part of that collective and stripped of those component parts which I believe are integral to my individuality and identity.  I actually shudder to think how my Korean friends, and especially my boss, perceive my passions and would imagine that for all the importance I attribute them, they probably view them as trite and puerile and in some way detracting from my responsibilities.

And so my little sojourn returns to the bar of hairy soap where this epic began. I realise of course, that most of the other bars are hairless and that I suspect the hairs are mine. Westerners, we’re gross! I love the Korean physical homogeneity because my western body, my British body is riddled with the mutations of cross breeding, of mongrelism. And, I’ve inherited that horrid propensity for chest hair, and worse, back hair which is just too great a reminder of my primate past. I can tolerate the soap with Korean hair attached, but with those western straggles matting the surface of the soap, I’m both revolted and ashamed. Westerners, we’re just too different, not just physically but mentally. We cling to immobile markers of identity and individuality, our sexuality, our colour, our religious and political affiliations, mountain dew, pop groups, and a ton of other crap, with such passion that our differences and the importance of our affiliations hinder and obscure that which we do share. When we do identify with each other to the extent of it representing some tangible community, it tends to be through trivia such as the royal weddings, football, Big Brother or Pop Idol. For so many westerners, their name and their sexual, political, religious, ethical or sporting affiliations are fundamental components of any social introduction are often of more importance than work. For many Koreans, the most important topic is work and for most adults life comprises of little much else.

And so I come to the conclusion that if my Korean friends can use someone else’s Italy towel, they can just as easily tolerate the hairy soap and do so because they are familiar with the hair’s owner, who was in all probability, a Korean and possibly a distant relative with whom they have much in common.  Meanwhile, the westerner perceives that last person as anything but a relative or countryman and instead a dirty fucking stranger who probably has a hideous skin disease.

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© 林東哲 2011 Creative Commons Licence.

Five Second Hanja (16) – ‘To Kill Two Birds With One Stone’

Posted in Five Second Hanja (Theme), Korean language by 노강호 on June 1, 2011

일석이조

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Translator Technology – The Dixau DX3

Posted in Korean language, Technology, Uncategorized by 노강호 on April 18, 2011

The Dixau DX3, by Unichal

I’ve had an electronic dictionary but got so annoyed with it I hurled on the floor and smashed it. The problem is electronic dictionaries bought in Korea aren’t as useful for the English learner of Korean as they are for the Korean learner of English. I bought it primarily to study hanja and if I were Korean this would be fantastic but naturally, the keyed in hanja produced a definition in Korean.

I was really excited a few weeks ago when a student appeared in a class with a dictionary that sat on your text and was able to instantly scan a selected word and produce not just an LED definition, but spoken rendition. My interest rapidly sank when I discovered the rendition was only in English.  However, as a piece of technology, it was amazing and translates not just English, but German, Spanish and French. As per usual, it is equipped with audio and video playback.

the cute DX2

In 2007, I bought a Nurian translator and at over 200.000 Won (£100), I wasn’t that impressed. It certainly wasn’t top of the range and I’ve seen much sleeker, user friendly models since. I guess mine was an old model. The DX3 is around 2 years old  and the price in Korea, under 200.000 Won. I recently saw one advertised in the USA for $199.

Other similar devices include Wizcom’s pen-scanner, the Quicktionary, which looks like a cross between a tube of toothpaste and vibrator. The basic costs is between $150-200 and different language packages can be bought at around $20 a time. The list of languages available is extensive but as usual, there are no Korean to English versions.

the Quicktionary - clumsy looking

Links to:

Unichal translators

Wizcom Quictionaries

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Five Second Hanja (1F) – Death and its Associates (죽을 – 사 and 넉 – 사)

Posted in Five Second Hanja (Theme) by 노강호 on April 9, 2011

superstition and the number 'F'

During my first year in Korea, in 2000, I studied taekwondo the school of which was situated on the fourth floor of the building. Unlike today, where I can look every anomaly up on the internet, it took me a while before I learnt that the fourth floor was the one designated by an ‘F’. For Koreans and many Asian countries,  the number four, ‘sa’ (사) is as burdened down with bad luck as is the western number ’13.’  The reason for this is that the four and ‘death’ share the same sound, ‘sa’ (사).

'sa' four (넉-사)

Koreans usually avoid numbering floors or houses with the number ‘4’ and in some cases any other number containing ‘4’. While tetraphobia is not as extreme in Korea as some other countries, it is usually either omitted, replaced by an ‘F’ or the numbering reordered, in hospitals and public buildings. In some cases the use of the number can affect building or housing prices. KORAIL (Korean Rail) left out the number ‘4444’ when numbering trains above 4401.

die; death; dead; inanimate; inert (죽을 - 사)

According to Wikipedia, out of respect to Asian customers, the Finnish Company Nokia rarely releases any model phone designated by ‘4’. Their one exception was the Platform 40 series.

For more five second hanja characters:  key ‘five second hanja’ into ‘search’  or select it under the theme ‘Korean Language’ in ‘categories.’

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More Than Words can Say

Posted in Education, Gender, Korean language by 노강호 on March 28, 2011

Preamble. One of my friends, who is actually my boss, has a daughter who has recently been accepted into the top high school for English, in Daegu. Gaining entrance was highly competitive and as such local middle schools can nominate only a limited number of applicants, based on their student population. Her school nominated 6 students but she was the only one to pass the entrance procedure. Not only did she have to compete with a large number of students from her school, but then with students from all over Daegu. Nominated students then had to endure a rigorous selection process held over two weekends the first of which included a fifty minute essay and a question paper. The results of the first weekend provided the final batch of applicants who on the following weekend were subject to group debates and an individual interview.

Korean mothers pray for their children’s exam success

On Wednesday, when the results were released, my boss was hooting with delight and for the remainder of the week the atmosphere in school was hyper. I could probably have canceled my classes and gone home and she wouldn’t have minded. On Friday, I was given a cash bonus and thanked for the extra work I’d volunteered to help her daughter succeed.

Now, this isn’t really the point of this post. After being handed my bonus, as usual in an unsealed envelope and presented with two hands, we walked to a nearby cafe and on the way my boss stopped on several occasions to talk to women she knew and during each brief interaction told them of her daughter’s success. Suddenly my sociologist’s head was activated as I noticed some fleeting, but very interesting behaviour. Perhaps mothers share a special empathy but on two different occasions the conversing women held their clasped hands to their chests and emitted this strange squeal. I noticed it instantly and almost asked, ‘what the fuck are you doing?  Perhaps it was just coincidence or maybe it really is a shared habit – I’ve no idea. The squeal, sounded in unison lasted only a few seconds and is quite hard to describe. It was certainly joyous but in a totally feminine manner. Being a musician, I have a fairly good ear and the strangest aspect of each occurrence was how their squeals rapidly attuned themselves to one pitch so that for a few seconds both were squealing the same note. In that instant, and it was an instant, they seemed to share an understanding, to mutually empathize.

All cultures have their own variations of body language and of sounds, guttural and otherwise that can’t be  located in dictionaries. Probably the cutest Korean one I know is when someone doesn’t know something or is unsure and they the touch the back of their head and inhale slightly between their teeth.  In a very strange way the shared squeal, their faces and the way they preciously clasped their hands at their chests, conveyed far more emotion and intimacy than their spoken words. Was it a coincidence or is this a gender based, non-verbal, socially shared form of communication?

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Five Second Hanja (13) Gate; Family (문-문)

Posted in Five Second Hanja (Theme), Korean language by 노강호 on March 25, 2011

 

gate, door: family, school, sect (문)

This was the first hanja character I learnt as being sat next to the emergency exit on my first flight to Korea, it stared down at me for some 12 hours.  As a pictogram it is self explanatory.

 

door to attaining peace and harmony

winter scene

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A Tale of Philosophers and Carrots

Posted in bathhouse Ballads, Education, esl, Korean language, taekwon-do, taekwondo by 노강호 on March 8, 2011

podcast 74

There is a Korean ‘idiom, dang-guen-i-ji (당근이지 – that’s the carrot, or absolutely!). Now, this isn’t directly borrowed from English but is apparently a development, by children, of dang-hyeon ha-ji (당연 하지 – absolutely!) If you say them repeatedly and alternatively, dang-guen-i-ji is definitely easier.

dang-guen (당근) the carrot, a familiar Korean crudité

So, one day I am buying something in a shop and use my newly acquired idiom and proudly ‘joke, ‘ ‘dan-goon-i-chi ‘(단군이지). The old lady serving gives me a funny look, no doubt amazed at my ability to use colloquial Korean. That day, I use the phrase several times and not just overdo its use but probably use it in slightly odd situations and this, so I believe, accounts for the bemused faces it induces.

Dan Goon (단군), legendary founder of Korea, 2333 BC

A week or so later, I use it after having my hair cut and then I discover, I’ve been confusing the Dan-goon Wang-geom (단군왕검), the revered emperor-philosopher with dang-guen (당근), the common carrot. In translation, I suppose Dan Goon-i-ji might be rendered, ‘that’s the Socrates,’ or ‘that’s the Wittgenstein,’ depending on your current taste in philosophical schools. I should have realised my mistake earlier as I have a long history of confusing the legendary founder of Korea with Bugs Bunny’s favourite crudité.

Part of the course in learning a language is that you make mistakes and some of them can be amusing even if they do cause embarrassment.  I’m probably quite famous in the area in which I live for entertaining locals with my bumblings.  One of the local Monday morning market vendors was very bemused when she realised that the ‘eagle jelly’ I was asking for, was in fact ‘acorn jelly’ and on more than one occasion I’ve asked for, ‘some thinking,’ rather than ‘some ‘ginger.’

I’ve been there so many times! (link to Lulu)

In English the sounds ‘kan’ (간) and ‘kang’ (강) or  ‘tan’ (탄) and ‘tang’ (탕) are very easy to distinguish but this is not the case in Korean. For years I’ve heard and read silly arguments between western taekwondo students quibbling about the transliteration of terminology into English without realizing that the relationship between many Korean letters and English ones is an approximation and that many simply cannot be effectively captured with a letter of the English alphabet. English script isn’t adequate enough to differentiate the sounds  of its own language let alone those of another  as is borne out by the discrepancies between the ‘a’ in ‘cat and ‘father’ which result in disagreements between those speaking northern  and southern variations of British English.  Koreans for example, finalise a word ending in ‘n’ with the tongue between their teeth and distinguishing between some sounds often necessitates watching the mouth closely. So, I often mispronounce ‘soy-sauce’ and end up asking for ‘liver sauce’ and confuse ‘soup’ with ‘briquette.’ ‘The reason I’ve spent so long mispronouncing Dan Goon (단군) is because it was one of the first 10 Korean words I learnt some 30 years ago when I began training in taekwon-do. Many non-Korean TKD teachers mispronounce the word because the transliteration often rendered it ‘Dan Gun.’ If you want to pronounce Korean accurately you have to learn the Korean script or at least study the systems of transliteration used closely so as to avoid simply producing ‘approximate’ pronunciations.

Tasty!

And then there’s ‘ddong’ ( 똥 – shit)!  A westerner only has to attempt the combination ‘dong’  (동 – east) to elicit laughter and hence ‘dong-sa’ (동사 – verb) and ‘dong-wui-o’ (동의어 – synonym) have the potential to temporarily disrupt English lessons.  Maybe it’s just my lack of ability, but it seems no matter how hard you try, Korean kids seem to choose to hear ‘dong’  (east) as ‘ddong’ (shit).

and I love mandu

Some Koreans, can be quite cruel in their derision should you attempt to speak their language and even ‘sounding’ a word  or phrase in a Korean manner, can elicit sniggers and subsequent mimickery.  I’ve even known friends write my blunders down so they can  narrate them to others but I don’t mind as I too have learnt such blunders, regardless of nationality, are cute and on occasion my pen comes out to record  mistakes.

First, there are the obvious ones:

I’m fine – I’m pine

I like fish – I like pish.

Last week a new student appeared in a class and a student informed me, ‘there is a new pace in the class.’

‘I like crab’ usually always sounds like, ‘I like crap.’

And there is always the older boy who tries to impress you with his knowledge of ‘naughty English’ and proudly states, ‘puk-you! On the subject of four letter vulgarity, ‘vacuum cleaner’ becomes ‘pak-um creaner.’

How about, ‘make a mistake,’ which students often repeat as ‘make a steak’ or similarly, ‘be careful,’ which becomes ‘big apple.’ I hadn’t thought of combining the two but there’s a  laugh  when I want to exact some revenge; ‘be careful not to make a mistake’ – ‘big apple not to make a steak.’

However, the one I remember best was years ago when a colleague was teaching a class to sing, Queen’s, ‘We Will Rock You.’ The kids were thoroughly enjoying the sing along as they loudly sang,  ‘we will, we will LOCK you.’

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