Let’s talk about Korea

I have plenty more but this will do for the moment.

Living in Korea

My experience in Korea — 1990 to 2004 — is probably different from other people who answered for the following reasons:

  • Korea in the 90s and early 2000s was different from today.
  • I stayed there a long time.
  • I arrived in Seoul being fairly fluent in Korean, and left being quasi native. This is important since I understand what people say (although Yankee Go Home! doesn’t require any language skills).

Koreans were — and, from my frequent trips after I moved out, it seems still are — very nationalistic, bordering on xenophobic. It doesn’t mean they’re not interested in what happens overseas, it’s just that they think Korean XXXXX (replace XXXXX with anything from food to women) is best, bar none. At the same time, I was often asked by Koreans Why would you come, as a French, from such a great country, to our little shithole? There was indeed an inferiority complex back then thrown into the mix. This seems to have disappeared, leaving just the Korean Pride™. One of the things I hear/read from Korean tourists visiting places like HK or Singapore is It’s not really that special, and The Korean food there is really so-so. Never mind that there’s plenty more than Korean food out there, and that shopping shouldn’t be the main focus of a trip abroad…

Korea has little in terms of natural resources. After managing two companies there, I can tell you the best natural resource in this country is the women – at least in the workplace. They are the most dedicated workers I’ve worked with. Men, on the other hand, are a crapshoot. I’ve had stellar male employees, and a shitload of lazy, drunk misogynists, who count on the age-seniority system to get promotions, and pass over women — who will at some point marry, get pregnant and thus leave the company.

Koreans have a very uncanny predilection for high-rise apartment buildings, where they cram as many people together in vertical cities of gawd-awful designs. We have them in HK too, and many other places I believe. The odd part is that these places are the most expensive — and gain value over time even though a couple of generations of shoddy construction culture would make them doubtful investment choices anywhere else in the world…

Korea has probably one of the best customer service I’ve seen – much better than anything I’ve seen in Europe, of course, but even above Japan’s, which is saying something. It is partly rooted in the pit bull mentality of many (female) shoppers. Korean customers are very demanding, and the only way to gain and retain clients is to going the extra mile or two. As an anecdote, the English loanword service means “something for free” – like a plate of dumplings when ordering food from the local “Chinese” restaurant – because service is free, right? This caused us immense headaches with corporate customers when they asked us to waive things like service fees, with the outraged question Why should I pay for service? And when you’re a service company, it’s kind of hard to waive a service fee…

The food is also on top of my “pros” list. You have to like garlic and chillies, and a somewhat monotony in the genre – rice, soup, kimch’i of some sort, and varied small dishes making up the blueprint of all Korean meals. But what a meal it is!

Internet is truly a joy. And did I mention good customer service? When something doesn’t work, it doesn’t take weeks to get it fixed…

Winters are crazy cold. The wind blowing from the north clears the skies — beautiful blue skies indeed — and the temperatures go way below zero (Celsius) or single-digit (F). Korean traditional houses had/have floor heating, so modern housing followed this tradition. In winter, Korean homes have boiling hot floors, and you have to take off your shoes when you go inside a Korean home, and the rooms are suffocating. I’ve been in many places — both homes and offices — where the temperature reached 30C/85F while outside it was -15C/5F. Imagine the thermal shock.

Summers are hot, and extremely humid. 장마/Jangma, the rainy season, lasts a month or more, and the rains are torrential. The A/C is on for 4 months non-stop.

Spring is lovely but very short. Autumn ain’t that long either, but the weather is beautiful, and the colours are on par with the best Canada has to offer. Postcard perfect. One of my Korean PhD advisers told me once Korea is a place worth living in because of autumn.

Seoul plus its suburbs is a very very large megalopolis, home to about half of the Korean population — 25 million out of 50. Traffic is not as bad as Bangkok or Jakarta, but not by much. The subway system has vastly improved since the 90s, and is quite convenient, although there are still large swaths still uncovered by the subway. Also, the mean distance between stations is about 1.5 km/just under a mile, so be prepared to walk/take a taxi/bus when you get off. Your destination is rarely right next to the station.

There are two airports. Gimpo (GMP), which used to be first a military airport (and like most civilian airports in Korea still partly is), and the main International+Domestic airport. When the airport was relocated to Songdo, off the coast on the Yellow Sea, GMP was transformed into an awkward shopping mall, while still serving as a Domestic airport. In the last 10 years, due partly to congestion at ICN, the new airport, international flights have reopened, mostly to similarly “demoted” airports – Haneda in Tokyo, Hongqiao in Shanghai, Songshan in Taipei.

Speaking of airports, never ever ever take a taxi at the airports. Taxi drivers, while being moderately honest in general, are the scum of the earth in ICN and GMP. They will try to cheat you and make your life miserable. It was true in 1990, it still is today. Downtown it’s mostly better, although there’s plenty of misery to be endured there too. Many individual taxi drivers (개인, as opposed to drivers employed by a company) are former prison inmates – it’s very hard to find a job in Korea if you’ve been in the clink. Until the late 1990s there have been reports of rapes/kidnappings by taxi drivers. It seems to have quieted down a lot in the last 15-20 years. Whether it’s because it’s hushed, or less frequent, I’ve no idea.

While burglaries, especially during chuseok and Chinese New Year, are very common, there is little physical violence in the streets, and Seoul is comparatively safe. This changes during economic crises, which is usually endured with more alcohol than necessary, and resentment against the rest of the world vented out more forcefully.

One thing about alcohol consumption — it is omnipresent, often a social requirement, and doing something foolish/stupid/rude while being drunk is automatically excused. From fondling a female worker, to barfing on your boss’s shoes, to calling a random foreigner words that could get you shot in other countries, everything is excused. You have to forgive him, see, he’s drunk!


About learning it. For me it was first college and grad school, in the 80s, with Fred Lukoff’s Introductory Course first, then other materials, like the Reader. That was good to get a good foundation in grammar and vocabulary.

Then came “real life”, living in Korea in the 1990s and 2000s. When I landed in Seoul, I had a very academic knowledge of Korean, and, to quote many friends, spoke like a book. So I decided to eavesdrop on every possible conversation. Listening to people talk in the bus and subway, listening to radio (that was before the Internet…), listening to friends while they chatted together. Every bit I understood was filed away under “oh, so that’s how you say this”, to be reused appropriately. One good practice was listening to subway announcements, since they’re regular and predictable.

And of course you have to use what you learn. So I would welcome every opportunity to express myself, from a friendly if nosy taxi driver (I don’t know how many times I have answered the same questions about age/country of origin/marital status etc, but it has to be in the 5 figures), to having a verbal/physical fight with a drunk middle-aged man who was displeased to see a foreigner. And everything in between. That’s the key point. You have to practice, make mistakes, and learn from them.

Being a Cantonese speaker won’t help. Considering Cantonese and Korean have very little in common, Cantonese won’t be much of an advantage. Now, 30 years ago, the knowledge of Cantonese (and thus of Chinese characters) would have helped tremendously. Back then, Chinese characters were still used (sometimes, not by everyone, but it wasn’t an oddity either), and they could have helped a little. It would have been a help to remember a large part of the sino-Korean vocabulary.

Sino-Korean has, with a few changes that can be codified, preserved the final plosives of Middle Chinese, which makes its pronunciation close-ish to Cantonese. 韓國 han’guk vs hon4 gwok3. N vs L as initials would be an issue, as Koreans are unable to pronounce L as an initial, turning it into an N, whereas Cantonese do the exact countrary. 勞動 is nodong in Korean ☺ Except for North Korea, but it is another subject (more political than linguistic). 法律 is beomnyul, written 법률 beop lyul (final -T in Middle Chinese is -L in Korean. And 法 had a final -P, not -T, in Old Chinese). Initial L after a consonant turns into an N. The final -P is nasalized before N. That’s the “few changes” I was mentioning before…

Korean has no tones, so knowledge of this tough topic doesn’t help – and being a native speaker is an impediment, as you’ll often try to put tones on Korean syllables…

As for grammar, you’re up shit creek with the rest of the world, aside from Japanese, Mongolian and Manchu speakers (and, maybe, at a lesser degree, speakers of Turkish, Hungarian and Finnish)… Cantonese and Korean grammars have zilch in common.

So all in all it’ll take you as a Cantonese speaker the same time as another person with the same talent for language as you, who wouldn’t speak Cantonese. It took me three years of study back home to become conversant, and about 10 years to be really fluent. I’m still working my way towards native after 27 years…

About the writing systems and Chinese characters. Everything, or close to it, was written in Classical Chinese in Korea until the late 19th Century – early 20th century. There’s a bunch of libraries full of them. Most of what was written in Classical Chinese is comprehensible to Chinese contemporaries, provided the content wasn’t obscure/related to Korea-specific events. Today, it is indeed harder, for everyone, as Classical Chinese and Modern Chinese differ greatly. It requires years of study.

Also, there’s a subset of books that use Chinese characters that are not written in Chinese, but in Korean, using the Idu, gugyeol and hyangchal systems, which use Chinese characters either for their sound or their meaning to write Korean sentences. This lead to the creation of Korean-specific Chinese characters to represent Korean sounds that don’t exist in Chinese, like 乲 jal, good, 乫 gal, to go, 乭 dol, stone, etc.

Some Chinese characters are indigenous to some southern Chinese dialects, like 冇, 嘢 etc… In some cases the characters do exist, albeit rare, like 唔, which means no/not in Cantonese but means generally in Chinese “hold in mouth” and can be pronounced 오/o in Korean. But you could say that an immense majority of Chinese characters have one (or more) Korean pronounciations.

Personal names

Family names are all derived from Chinese. Some personal names are vernacular names, ie hangul-only names. Most of the vernacular names are post-birth. Kids, or not so young people, deciding that they want a “real” Korean name. They go to the court, and file for a change. The first case I know of was back in 1992, by a left-wing extremist, Pro-NK, pro-한글학회, Yonsei Korean Language Dept woman. She was considered a tad “out there” even by her peers, let alone the gen pop.

My best friend gave his two kids a vernacular Korean name. To his defense (or maybe to add more evidence on the prosecution side), he’s not only another Yonsei Korean Language Dept dude with left leanings, he’s also a foreigner who speaks Korean better than most Koreans. So he’s also damaged goods, and I say this with the greatest affection. And when he went to register the birth of his kids, 3 years appart, the Korean civil servants tried to make fun of him (that didn’t go too well for them either).

There will be more vernacular names given at birth. But I’d say for the moment, such names on birth certificates represent a fraction of a percentage point. I’ll ask my friend whether he knows where to find such stats.

And from naming habits we move on to culture — and the spread of the so-called Hallyu, the Korean wave, blergh. It has become relatively successful mostly because it is showcased in dramas, where only the best parts of Korean culture is shown, and all the crap stuff, inherent to every culture, is swept under the rug. Korean dramas sell a Disneyland version of Korea that’s much more palatable and much easier to daydream about than reality.


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