Monday, January 1, 2018

How to calculate Korean age.

I have reached that age where, when I see my birthday approaching, instead of getting excited and counting down the days, I get a little depressed at the thought of turning another year older.  This is made worse in Korea, where a person's age is calculated in a way that makes them either 1 or 2 years older than what Koreans refer to as their "international age".  There are basically two rules to consider when calculating your Korean age:

  • Rule #1: the day you are born you are 1.  I realize this makes no sense at all, especially considering that in English we usually clarify our age by following the number with "years old", but this is how Koreans do it. 
  • Rule #2: everyone's age goes up one the same day; on New Year's Day.  Yesterday was New Year's and yesterday everyone in Korea got one year older.
To recap, age in Korea is dependent neither on how many years you've been alive or your actual day of birth, but rather your year of birth.  This means that if you were born on December 31st, then on your second day of life you would be 2 in Korea.

If you want to calculate your Korean age then just follow these steps:
  • Step #1: +1 to your real age
  • Step #2: determine if you have already had your birthday in the current calendar year.
    • if yes, then you have already finished calculating your Korean age
    • if no, then +1 more the number you reached after step #1

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Language Differences

Learning a new language introduces lots of new challenges, especially one as different from English as Korean, which has been ranked one of the top 4 most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn.  These challenges can be frustrating when you suddenly learn there are many exceptions to a grammar rule you thought was simple, and enjoyable when successfully communicate directions to your home to the taxi driver.  Other times it can be funny or just interesting how things translate differently in another language.  Here are a few examples of some of the language differences between English and Korean that I find funny or interesting:

Some notes from an attempted language exchange

"I'm sorry"

This is one of the first words learned in any new language, and so might be surprising that it could cause any confusion any language.  However, whereas in english "sorry" expresses a feeling of sympathy or regret for another person's misfortunes, in Korean it is only used when the speaker is the cause of the misfortune.  More simply, "sorry" in English is used both for offering an apology or condolence, but in Korean it is only used as an apology.

For example, if someone accidentally bumps into you, then it is expected that that person would say, "I'm sorry" whether it be in English or Korean (unless it is a Korean ajumma.  In that case it was likely intentional).  On the other hand, if your friend laments to you that their grandmother just passed away, it is totally acceptable for someone to say, "I'm sorry" in English as they are expressing a feeling of sympathy for your loss.  However, in Korea to say "죄송합니다" ("I'm sorry") would cause confusion and could be interpreted as if you killed your friend's grandma.

Answering Negative Questions
This is one that made me realize how confusing English can be.  Take a second and think to yourself about how you respond to a negative question, such as, "are you not hungry?"

In English, whether you simply answer with a "yes" or a "no" to this question, it would be understood that you are in fact not hungry.  To Koreans it works like a math problem.  A negative plus a negative makes a positive and a negative plus a positive stays negative.  So, if asked, "are you not hungry?" and you are in fact hungry then you should answer "no" making the statement positive, or "I am hungry".  If you are indeed not hungry a simple "yes" is all that is needed in response.  Simple and makes a lot more sense.

Funny Literal Translations
Some words in Korean just have funny or strange literal translations, when translated directly into English.  English has these too, but we just rarely think about them and accept them as the word.  For example, jellyfish and butterflies are pretty strange when you think about it.

Likewise, there are a few Korean words that also have funny, or at least interesting, literal meanings.  The first is the korean word for mustache, which is 코수염 (ko soo yeom), and translates directly to "nose beard".  This such a perfect description of what a mustache is that I am in favor of changing the English word to nose-beard.  I hereby propose that all mustaches hence forward be referred to only as nose-beards!

Another example is the word for blister, which is 물집 (mool jib), and translates to "water house".  I guess you can think of a blister as a little house containing water, but seems like a strange way to describe it.

This last example comes with a story.  When I was first visiting Korea back in the winter of 2013, I was nearing the end of my trip and I hadn't eaten much Korean food, which was unacceptable.  Too unfamiliar with the language and too afraid to just point to something on a menu and hope for the best, I needed some guidance on what to eat.  So on my last night, I decided to ask a stranger on the street to suggest me something to eat.  The first people I stopped were two cute girls (yes their appearance may have had a little something to do with why I chose them).  I simply explained, in English at this time, that I wanted to eat some Korean food and if they knew any place nearby.  To may amazement, they invited me to join them for dinner as they were on their way to eat Korean food.  *Sidenote: can honestly say that it was interactions like this, and this was not the only one that trip, that made me move to Korea! Now back to the story* Completely trusting my new friends, I let them order whatever they wanted and told them anything was okay.  Only after the food arrived, and having already eaten it, did I think it necessary to ask what it was.  Looking confused as she struggled to come up with the English word, she pointed to her stomach and said "shit house.  Chicken shit house".  Of course at the time I found this both a hilarious and repulsive translation (the visual imagery was not pleasant having already eaten it) of what I interpreted to be chicken intestines.  Only recently did I discover that this is the actual translation from Korean for chicken gizzard, which is 닭똥집 or so elequantly put, "chicken shit house".

Every language and every generation has its own slang.  Just in my life time something that you want to describe as nice or cool has gone from: "rad", to "hip", to "da bomb", to "boss" or "beast, to "swag", to "on fleek", to now "lit".  Here are few slang words I have picked up in Korea:

노잼 (No-Jam)
This slang actually combines both English and part of a Korean word.  It takes the "노" (no) from the English word "no" and adds it to 잼 (jam), which is the front part of 재밌어요 (jae mee suh yo), meaning fun, to create "노잼" which means something is lame or really not fun.

화이팅 (hwa-ee-ting)
This is just a Konglish (Korean+English) version of the word "fighting".  You may think it sounds nothing similar to "fighting", but you must realize that there is no f-sound in Korean, so this is how they compensate.  What makes this word slang, is not the word itself, but rather how it is used.  Koreans will say "화이팅!" as a cheer of encouragement similar to "cheer up!' or "you can do it!". So to all my readers out there, 화이팅!

불금/월요병 (bul-gum/wohl-yo-byung)
These two terms help express most people's feelings on both the days that bookend the weekend; Friday and Monday.  불금 (bul-gum) translates to "fire Friday", which kind of indicates it is going to be a hot or lit day.  The flip side of that then comes on Monday, which Koreans express as 월요병 (wohl-yo-byung).  The 월요 comes from 월요일, meaning Monday, and the 병 means sickness.  Combined they form the word "Monday sickness", or what we would say in English as "having a case of the Monday's".

술고래 (sool-go-lae)
This last example of Korean slang just has a funny translation and is an interesting way to describe what it is.  술 (sool) in Korean means alcohol and 고래 (go-lae) means whale, so can you guess what 술고내 means?? 

Koreans use 술고래 to describe a person who can drink well.  Or in other words, a person who can drink a lot without getting drunk.  Don't ask how I learned this word 😉

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

From Soul Food to Seoul Food

Undoubtedly the most exciting part of experiencing a new culture is sampling the food, and if there is one thing that Koreans are most proud about in regards to their culture, it is their food.  Eat Korean food with a Korean outside of Korea and you are bound to hear comments similar to, "it's not the same as in Korea" or, "in Korea it is so much better".  Having now lived in Korea in what is now approaching three years, I too have acquired a taste for the local cuisine (well, most of it).  Here is a list of some of my favorites:

1. 갈매기살 (Galmaegisal)
Grilled beef skirt.  This is not the traditionally most common Korean BBQ food item (that is 삼겹살 samgyubsal) but it is definitely my favorite.  Not only is it delicious but it is a fun social experience as well with friends.

A before and after look.  That is egg with kimchi and spring onion on the outside.

2. 닭갈비 (Dakgalbi)
Mixture of grilled chicken, rice cake, cabbage, and other add-ins coupled with a cheese fondu.  This is certainly my overall favorite Korean dish.

3. 만두 (Mandu)
Deep-fried or steamed dumplings.  This is more of a side or a snack than a meal, but delicious and must be included.  My cousin Hudson was addicted to these when he visited me.

4. 김치찌개 (Kimchi Jjigae)
Kimchi soup.  This is a very basic dish which usually is eaten with rice, however when I ask many Koreans what their favorite Korean meal is this one is the most common winner.

5. 김밥 (Kimbab)
These look like sushi rolls but can have a variety of meats in them.  김in Korean means seaweed and 밥 means rice, so it is no surprise that this is primarily rice wrapped in seaweed with a few different ingredients in the inside.  Typically the inside consists of your choice of meat, pickled radish, SPAM (yes the same SPAM), egg, carrots, and kimchi.  This is basically the Korean equivalent of a sandwich, not because it is anything like a sandwich, but in that it is a common quick packable lunch that people eat when they just need to eat something simple.

No not sushi

6. 짜장면 (Jajangmyeon)
A thick noodle dish covered in a black gravy-like sauce.  This is debatable on whether it is considered Korean, but rather Koreanized Chinese food just like Kung Pao Chicken is Americanized Chinese food.  Despite it's look and my description of it, it is really delicious.

7. 돈까스 (Donkkaseu)
Deep fried pork cutlet covered in gravy.  Another dish that is not authentically Korean, but is quite popular.  This has a Japanese origin, but some might argue that the Japanese emulated it after the German schnitzel.

8. 갈비탕 (Galbi-tang)
Beef short rib stew.  Not much to add here, it is just beef stewed with some veggies but is really good.

The one on the left is 갈비탕, the one on the right is basically the same thing but with a whole chicken.

9. 제육뽁음 (Jaeyook Bokum)
Spicy pork stir-fry.  This is just what it sounds like.  Pieces of small chopped pork bits marinated in spicy chili sauce, stir-fried with some vegetables, and served with rice. 

10. 치맥 (Chi-maek)
Chicken and beer.  Although definitely not authentically Korean, this is a very popular meal in Korea amongst friends.  You cannot walk hardly anywhere in Seoul without seeing competing 치맥 restaurants.  The chicken can come coated in a variety of different sauces, and it is this that Koreans argue makes it uniquely "Korean Style".

No Sauce, Just Plain

11. 빙수 (Bingsu)
Flavored shaved with different toppings.  A popular Korean dessert,  the shavings of 빙수 dissolve quicker in your mouth than ice cream and is a really delicious treat in the hot summer.

Blueberry Cheesecake 빙수

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Strange Popularity of SPAM in Korea

This last week was one of the biggest Korean holiday of the year known as 추석 Chuseok.  This is the equivalent of Korea's Thanksgiving in that it originated to celebrate a good harvest.  It is celebrated the same way as American Thanksgiving as well, with large family gatherings and lots and lots of food.  However, substituting green-bean casserole for glass noodles mixed with vegetables (잡채), buttered rolls for kimchi pancakes (김치전), pumpkin pie for sugary rice cakes (송편), and turkey for SPAM.  Yes, that is right, SPAM.  That can of suspicious meat that most often get associated as "trailer park food" in USA.

Not only does SPAM not have the same negative association attached to it in Korea, but it is loved and almost viewed as a luxury. In my first year in Korea, I was shocked when I visited the local grocery store and found an isle of elaborate and fancy SPAM gift sets.  This, of course, got me thinking, "why is this American product which is mostly viewed as 'disgusting' in its home country, so popular in Korea, especially during its biggest traditional holiday?".  And the most logical theory I could come up with has its connections to the Korean War.

See during the Korean War, South Korea was not the developed modern country that it is today.  It was still very agrarian with many people living in poverty.  It used to be that some Koreans would hang outside US Army bases and collect the food that they discarded.  Usually this would be things like simple produce, but occasionally cans of SPAM would be thrown out as well.  Now to a person from a modern, developed, and wealthy nation, where fresh meat is readily available, it is easy to understand why canned preserved ham would not be very appetizing.  However, to a poor farmer, during a time where meat was scarce, SPAM was a delicacy!

So it really comes down to perspective when the food was introduced, but what I find interesting is how that perspective becomes part of the culture even 60 years later when Korea is a modern, developed, and wealthy nation.  Today, meat is readily available and yet Koreans still love their can of blended pig parts and preservatives and it is all due to cultural and historical perspectives.  Fascinating!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Public Transit

I feel like too many of my posts might be perceived as negative, even though they are intended to be just observations of differences in culture, so I want to talk about some of the good sides of living in Korea.  After all, I do choose to live in Korea so there must be some admirable qualities to life here and I want to show case one of those in this post: public transportation.

I must say not owning a car and not being able to go where you want when you want was definitely an adjustment when moving overseas.  Not only is it more challenging to get places, as you have to walk to a bus or subway station, wait, often make some transfers to other buses or subway lines, but also you are limited by time.  Public transit usually ends around midnight, which means you have to either go home before then, or pay a taxi to take you home, which luckily is not too expensive here in Korea.

However the benefits to not owning a car in a big city far outweigh the inconveniences.  Not having to pay or worry about parking, which is extremely hard to find and is expensive in Korea, is one example.  Another is never having to be stuck in miserable rush hour traffic.  If the bus I am on is stuck in traffic I can get off at almost any stop and still be walking distance to a subway station.  Lastly, I don't have to worry about the extra costs and maintenance of owning a car.

Arrows pointing where to transfer
Aside from the minor challenges mentioned in the second paragraph, South Korea has made living without a car even more convenient with its ultra efficient public transit system.  With almost 300 subway stations (291 to be exact), you are never far away from a subway station.  Once inside a station, it is very easy to find out where to go as each line is number and color coded, there are subway maps as well as that line's map in each station, and signs telling you which way to go depending on which station you are going to.  To transfer at a station is also extremely easy as the screen inside the subway car tells you which stations to transfer at depending on which line you are connecting to, and once off the train you can easily follow arrows and colored path (coordinated to the color of that line) to the next train.  Also the trains run on a consistent schedule everyday, so you can always know exactly when a train will come by learning the schedule and it is always punctual.

Screens tell you the station name, which side to exit, which
lines you can transfer to and even the next few stops

If by chance you are not near a subway, or the place you want to go is not near a subway, then there are always buses.  In many cases a bus can be even more convenient than the subway, even when both choices are available.  For example, I have the option every morning to take a bus or the subway to work, and, unless I am running late, I always choose the bus.  Why? Well I can always get a seat first of all, where on the subway that is rare, and on a bus you can zone out and play on your phone, stare out the window, or do something productive like study Korean without having to miss your stop since you can see where you are.  On the subway you cannot see anything, so you constantly have to keep track of which station you are at in order to not miss your stop, which happens to me way too frequently.  Also, like the subway, they come quite regularly.

One last thing that makes public transit so convenient is technology, specifically in mobile apps.  For the subway there is an app that allows you to search how to go from one station to another.   It will tell you how long the journey will take, when the next trains are coming, the fastest route or the route with fewest stops, how many transfers are made and even which train car to get in to make the fastest transfer at the next station!  They really have it all covered.  Then for the buses there is an app that can tell you which bus to take to go where you want and where that bus is exactly at that moment so that you know when it will arrive.

There are times I still wish I had a car, mostly to travel to other cities, but thanks to Korea's efficient public transit, I am satisfied without one.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Difficulty in Keeping Korean Friends: Korean Education/Work Culture

Some of my Korean friends through the years

Making friends in Korea is not very difficult, as most Koreans are very friendly and fun people.  This is actually one of the main reasons that made me move to Korea after I spent 3 years struggling to integrate myself with many locals in Singapore.  However, I find that my friend list in Korea is a constant revolving door and it is all perpetuated by one common factor; Korea's work culture.

Korea is a very competitive society, and finding a good job is difficult for a lot of Korean graduates.  Because of this, student's education expectations also become exaggerated.  Most High School students do not end their studies until around 10pm and many even study most of their weekends and holidays.  They go to their regular school until about 4pm, and then immediately go to separate academies (called hagwons 학원) to either learn other subjects or to get extra help in subjects they take at school.  They do this all to try and stand out and have a more appealing resume for Korean universities.  However, when just about all students do this, it eventually becomes the norm and the bar keeps getting raised higher and higher.  In universities their studies only intensify to the point where it consumes most of their time.

Upon graduation, most students are again competing for the same few top-end jobs.  Because the supply is so high, companies place unreasonable expectations on their employees that results in many Koreans not finishing work until 9pm and working on weekends.  Not to mention routine work functions called 회식 (hweshik), which is a combination of the Korean words 회사 (company) and 식사 (meal).  At the 회식, which are basically mandatory, employees are often pressured into drinking copious amounts of alcohol, staying out really late, and in some cases going to establishments that they may have a moral objection to.  Then they are expected to wake up and go to work the next day.

Real photo of my students during a 10 minute break during exam week.

As a foreigner and as a teacher, I am not really subjected to this intense work culture, but that doesn't mean it doesn't affect me.  As aforementioned, I am constantly having to make new local friends in Korea all the time as most Koreans eventually get too busy and difficult to meet up with.  My phone becomes an ever growing roll-a-dex when searching for friends to do different activities with.  I never know which friend will be free at what time because neither do they.  It is common for Korean's to tell me they are meeting one of their good friends whom they haven't seen in 6 months or sometimes even over a year, despite living in the same city.

I feel bad for them as it has always been my mentality that I work to live, not live to work.  However, many Koreans are powerless in this regard if they want a decent job in Korea.  This culture has many negative side-effects for Korea.  The first and most serious is the suicide rate among young people.  South Korea has the tenth highest suicide rate in the world, and first among developed nations (WorldAtlas 2015), with the vast majority of these being students.  The reason is obvious: educational pressures.  A society that views not going to university as a disgrace and such high competition for the limited universities, many students who get lower scores feel that their life is over and not worth living.  Even in discussions with my own Korean students I have heard them vocalize that they don't feel that their life could be a success if they don't go to university.  This perception needs to change.

Another consequence of this culture is Brain Drain and a decreasing population.  I am going to bundle these two problems because the source of the problem is the same.  That is, that many young Koreans who get frustrated at the pressures and the rat-race that is the Korean work culture simply decide to move abroad where they find life more peaceful and exciting.  This means Korea, which spent government money educating these students as a future investment to help develop their country, are loosing out on that investment as the students take the fruits of that education to another country and help develop that country.  This phenomenon is known as Brain Drain.  Also, as these professionals develop lives and families in other countries, South Korea's population is decreasing so fast that it is projected to have the oldest average age by 2045!

I know I am a foreigner in this country and have no right to complain and say that their culture is wrong and that many Koreans might be quite angry to hear a foreigner talk like this.  However, this country has treated me really well, I have made many close friends here and I truely do care about this country and the people in it.  Due to this I cannot keep quiet about what is such a self-evident crisis without at least offering my advice.

My advice to Korea would be, "wake up".  Recognize these wounds to your country are self-inflicted.  Educate your citizens about all the opportunities that exist to people with just a high school diploma.  Regulate stricter labor laws that prevent companies from abusing their employees simply because they are expendable.  My advice for Koreans would be "relax".  Learn to prioritize fun.  Your success and your happiness are not determined by the size of bank account.  Your real friends don't care about your GPA or how good your job is.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Korean Professional Volleyball Game: A Story of Foreigner Privilege in Korea

When living in a somewhat homogenous society such as Korea, it is inevitable that I will experience some special treatment.  This treatment is usually unsolicited and innocent in intent.  However, on rare occasions it is nice to be able to use the "foreigner card" to get special treatment.  Whether its getting a little extra food at restaurants (or the occasional free beer), getting out of minor trouble by simply pleading ignorance, avoiding conversations by pretending to not know any Korean or English if that fails, or going onto the court to celebrate the championship of one of Korea's top professional sports with the team that won.  That is what this story is about.

So this Monday, one of my rugby teammates invited me to watch a professional volleyball game with him because he got free tickets.  Apparently the Croatian community in Korea is so small that whenever a new Croatian comes to Korea they instantly bond, because this professionally volleyball team recently got a new Croatian player and my teammate is Croatian and they found each other on Facebook and became friends just because of their shared nationality.  Anyways, he got us free tickets to sit with his wife and child.  Upon arriving at the game I learned that this was the championship finals with the series tied 2-2 in a best of 5 series.  Winner takes all.

The match was pretty intense with each set being very close, but in the end the Croatians team won it.  It was very exciting.  At this point I was ready to pack it in and go home as it was a weekday, I had work the next morning, and still had about an hour long commute to get home.  However, my Croatian friend said, "I want to get on the court and congratulate him."  Speculative in nature, I told him that I don't think we could do that, as it was only for players and families.  This is because I did not yet know the power of the "foreigner card" because I had never tried to use it.  Now I think my "card" will come into play a bit more often, because as we were walked towards the court and were inevitably stopped by security, my friend just simply said, "we are family".  At this, the security stepped aside and we walked past all the adorning fans being blocked off by security right onto the court.  Once on the court we were handed the same championship t-shirts that were passed out to the players.  Being feet away from these professional athletes, dressed in the official championship gear, and being showered in confetti as a part of this championship celebration was a cool experience, and I don't even care about volleyball.