Tag Archives: language

Mad World

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I took a TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) today.  TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) isn’t much of a big deal for me, so TOEIC isn’t too hard either, if not easier.  Listening and reading boring 200 questions can be tiresome though.

These tests are not big deal for me, because I grew up in the United States and got good education, thanks to my parents who were dedicated and could afford to do so.  But for many others, these tests are big deal.  A lot of people did not have same experience with me (which is why I dislike people who credit no one else but himself for good outcome).  So far, I took TOEIC twice in Seoul – one in a high school building right next to my home, and another high school a bit away from my place.

These are 4-stories building, and I think their capacities are about 3-500.  Every single time I take TOEIC, the whole building is full.  The entire classrooms and wings are posted with test room numbers.  As the test is finished, a big crowd heading down to the 1st floor fills the building.  Many of them are college students, taking TOEIC for their job application (and this is why I took TOEIC, too – they just need it).  I saw more than five people, talking on the phone, saying things like “oh shi*t, that was so tough,” “How was it? I frigging bombed it.”  The sight of it makes me frustrated every time.

This just shows how system in South Korea is massively flawed.  English is a language.  It is a tool for certain purpose.  For instance, based on our common sense, someone who works in a domestic sales or teaching young students does not use English on daily basis for her/his job.  This person doesn’t really need to be a good English speaker.  Or, a college student who majored in Classic Korean Literature probably won’t need good English skill either.

The opposite is truth in South Korea, though.  You just have to have that TOEIC number even to apply for…everything.  A reporter once asked several Korean companies why they require TOEIC/TOEFL for candidates, and the candidates would actually use English on daily basis if hired.  Not one company could answer.

There is no evaluation system to make a good analysis of each candidate.  Well, to begin with, many of them don’t know how to write a job description, let alone the necessity of it.  So the only “standardized evaluation” they depend on is TOEIC and TOEFL.  How sad.

This is the core of problem in South Korea and its education.  It is so competitive.  Failure is not an option – especially in a world where certain behaviors and positions are expected depending on one’s age and gender, and being different is frowned upon.  So people end up spending loads of money, time, and energy on their kids, to make sure their kids to go to high-ranking college.  The finished products are dozens of test-taking grinders, who can’t do anything but getting a good grade and excel at tests.

The Korean public education is destroyed long before, but the government is turning blind eyes.  Sick and tired of the situation, the parents who can actually afford it (or have a chance to do so) send their kids abroad.  Those who can’t send their kids even temporarily, even if it’s not developed countries.

It’s more of “looking good” than the quality.

Mad world, it is.

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My Last Blind Date and Some Scary Wedding.

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Today’s posting would be something of girly and not very important personal update with Korean flavah.

Do you remember this post?  Yes, the wedding has happened and I went there with my family.  I could see they spent fortune on this wedding.  But the quality was…disappointing.  I know Korean wedding (to be more specific, Korean westernized wedding) is not the most exciting event in your life.  Invitees bring some money for gift, the couples just do ceremony in white dress and all, people clap, some boring and politically correct speech by someone with nice title and connection with family, maybe a song or two, everyone rush to the canteen/catering, eat and leave.  Sometimes the venue staffs will herd you out, so they can have multiple ceremonies per day.

Based on the venue, gossips, make-up and dress rentals, I wouldn’t be surprised if they spent one million hundred KRW (about 87,000 USD) in total.  I don’t want to comment on the amount of money – I didn’t pay it, they never asked me to chip in so I don’t get a say.  But if you spent that much money, you either expect a breathtakingly beautiful decorations, or 5-star rating food or…I don’t know, Adele singing live?  None of that happened. In sum, it was expensive yet totally tasteless wedding.  Expensive yet out-of-place Emanuel Ungaro dress, not-so-great food, whole bunch of mismatching flowers…My family all thought, “it’s just waste of money, I feel really bad for them…but they didn’t have any taste to begin with, no?”

Now, after the wedding, I keep hearing about the landmines that’s waiting to explode between Marza, Marza’s family and her husband’s family.  Well, well, fingers crossed (this is cynicism).

Since I am writing about wedding, I think this is a nice Segway moment to talk about adult man-woman relationship and marriage in Korea.  I know a lot of you American folks are cringing at “arranged marriage” and think it’s some barbaric custom.  But I, an Asian who grew up both in no-Asian town of America and Asia, am not too averse of it.  There are different “kinds” of arranged marriage.  Basically, the core of arranged marriage is your (or the date’s) parents get the potential date for you.  If you have laid-back parents who places priority on their kids’ emotion, then it’s not required to get the marriage date ASAP.  Now, if you have parents who are really anxious, the pressure is on, obviously.  Overall, the pressure increases as you get older – Korean people have problem accepting their children’s choice of life when it isn’t the norm, at least to them.  And there’s the notion thinking “my child doesn’t know better” – Amy Chua didn’t make up her Tiger Mom story.

Maybe it’s because there’s no such pressure on me (or any of those around me) yet, but anyway, I’m okay with it.  What’s to lose by meeting more new people? And they are recommended by people who know you very well.

So I had one of this nature last weekend (note: other than general background and contact information, our parents’ involvement was next to nothing, which was good.  Really, it was just like any other blind date).  The guy – let’s call him Peter – was recommended by my mom’s friend, who is a fine, gentle, hard-working person.  Korean Korean.  All I know is Peter’s family has been working as oriental med doctors for more than 100 years.  Though their earning is good, they still follow their ancestor’s will: that is not to move away from its original place, and keep the business at manageable size.  That deserves massive respect.

We texted to arrange a meeting place.  He just kept asking this and that in text, making me think “he can just call….” but then I thought maybe he doesn’t feel it’s appropriate.  Okay, whatever.  He suggested a Japanese dining bar.  I thought it a bit unusual – usually you are going a bit of high-end place for your first blind date, no? Ohhh, maybe he wants it to be casual.  I guess it’s not a bad idea to have first date over a cool pint of beer.

The date has come and I was there.  I was on time, but I wasn’t sure Peter – today’s “host” – is here yet. I called.

Ceberus: Hello? Hi, this is Ceberus, the person you are meeting today. 
Peter: Yeah.
Ceberus: I’m at the place, right outside. 
Peter: Yeah.
Ceberus: Are you in?
Peter: Yeah.
Ceberus: Okay I’m going in, see you in a minute.
Peter: Yeah.

Honestly, I was a bit off at this point.  This already sounds odd, no?  If a man is thirty something, I expect him to be able to respond to the “business” calls in formal manner.  How hard is it to say “Hi! Good evening! I’m in so come on in!”?

Anyway I went in, and I asked him to suggest/order for me because it’s my first time here.  He just ordered foods.  Fine – but if you are just going to order foods, what’s the point of meeting at izakaya?  We could’ve gone to the other Japanese restaurant.  Since the host isn’t ordering, I couldn’t either.

We started chatting.  I found that he served at public service unit (all Korean men has to serve in military: if your physical condition prohibits to do so, such as bad waist or terrible eyesight, you are usually placed for public service), so I brought up some of my guy friends doing the same thing.  Then for some reason, he started to talk about some fist fight initiated by Korean age hierarchy.  Which is hardly a good topic to start if you want to leave someone a good impression.

We soon started to talk about our majors.  His major was oriental medicine (in Korea, oriental medicine courses are treated similarly with western med schools and they are officially doctors, subject to medical insurance).  Surprise.  I said my major was political science.  Then Peter looked very excited, saying he wanted to study politics but couldn’t do it due to his father’s objection.

Oh, this may be a good sign.

No it wasn’t.

His question: “so which political party do you support?”

….I thought politics, religion and abortion are big no-no in any kind of first meeting, regardless of country.  What the heck is happening.

I had to find a way to answer this politely, so I just said “well…they all look same!”

Peter said he wanted to study politics because his childhood home was near to the Blue House and envied the president’s parade.

Fine, this I can take as a sweet childhood memory.

Then he said, all man should aim for being a president before dying.

Fine.  But you are thirty.  Time to wake up.

I really wanted to talk about other stuff, but he was too excited and went on. He said Korean race is the best and brightest in the world and he supports nationalism.

Oh fug.

You are talking to a TCK, people in general hating nationalism and ethnicism.  And this is 21st century, the era of globalization.  What time are you living in?

So finally I had to say: “Peter, honestly, having been grown up in one of the most diverse countries in the world, I don’t really sympathize with nationalism and ethnicism-centered education of Korean history.  In fact, I really don’t like nationalism.  IMO, it’s the seed of all wars and hatred.”

He looked startled, and said, he thought I would be interested because I’m…politics major.  Again, I had to explain: “there are two kinds of politics major students. One is those who want to change the world with their hands; another is those who likes observing the whole situation from background and analyze the data.  I’m the latter.”

I don’t think he was too happy with it.  Same here anyway.

At least he was well behaving, so we had a tea, and he drove me back to home.  In his car, he talked about his studying.  I chimed in.

Ceberus: It sounds like your dad is oriental doctor, too.
Peter: He is.
Ceberus: Oh, that’s wonderful!
Peter: No, not really.
Ceberus: Why?
Peter: Well, dang, I want to play but it’s impossible to skip my study and lie since he knows everything.

I’m speechless…

So that was the end of my blind date.

Someone said: the more blind dates you do, the list of awful man increases.

Sometimes though, I feel like Korean men, in general, are immature than American guys.  I think I know why.  In the States, kids – men included – are encouraged to live independently.  People rarely live with their parents (and there’s some stigma attached to those who do, though there is increasing number of kids who are doing it due to recession).  For most people, they live away from their family and do a lot of things on their own once they start their college education.  Meanwhile they have experience of earning money on their own.

For Korean guys, this isn’t the case.  Since their birth to college, majority of people live with their parents.  They’ve never done things by themselves – doing laundry, preparing meals, earning stipends, repairing their bike, etc.  A lot of them live off from stipend given from their parents.  It’s pretty obvious who matures first.

I understand why.  But I just can’t sympathize with them (I bet I startle them too).  Maybe it’s one of those pains of hidden immigrant.

Maybe I Should’ve Gotten an English Name.

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Unlike most Korean-American or Korean students in English-speaking country, I don’t have English name – like Sarah Lee, Jay Kim, and so on.  Sure, there was a time when I wanted one, because it looked fancy.  But then, for some reason, all the names I wanted to take were already taken by someone around me.  My name isn’t too hard to pronounce compared to many other Korean names, though I have to admit it’s always my name when DMV or local city hall admins screw up.  It worked fine in Japan, too (which I have to thank my grandfather, who named me).

Ironically, ever since I came back to South Korea, I start to think maybe I should’ve gotten an English name.  It seems like no matter how I “hint” or directly say to people that I grew up in the United States, not in California, New York or New Jersey where there are loads of Korean population, people don’t understand my upbringing, or why I behave in such a way.

I’ve ranted on my blog many times.  I don’t deny that I am Korean.  All I’ve been saying is that I grew up away from Korea, so please don’t frown upon me if I make a mistake.  It’s just that I don’t know and not used to, like blue-eyed foreigners they love.  But, for them, I HAVE to be 100% Korean.  After all, I look like Korean, with small eyes and dark hair, have Korean name, do not have foreign citizenship, have Korean parents, and – lo and behold – she speaks damn fine Korean, knowing the pop culture references and slangs!  Of course she HAS to be 100% Korean, just like us!

So while other foreigners are excused from dreadful, soju-bomb exploding 3-hours-long hweshik (roughly translated as “social drinking,” which is the most important ritual in Korean business culture – google it and you’ll get some idea), I have to go because I am “Korean.”

When other foreigners say they don’t want to join the forced drinking because of their personal preference/health/religion, they are fine.  When I say I can’t join the forced shot drinking because my body doesn’t process alcohol well and often causes 2-weeks-long rash all over my body, they think I’m either exaggerating or lying to get out, or being really rude.

When other foreigners say “I think this can be a problem,” they listen.  Or at least they pretend to listen.  When I say “I think this can be a problem,” all of sudden I’m a brat.

Here’s something I go through on a daily basis.  Few days ago, I was at my friend’s party.  There were some Korean guys on my table.  Naturally, we introduced each other and started talking (in Korean).

Guy 1: So where are you from?  Are you Korean American?
Me: I’m Korean but I grew up in States.
Guy2: Okay, so when did you go to the States?
Me: 13.
Guy1: Oh wow. But you speak really good Korean?
Me: Haha…well my parents are Korean?  And I came and go all the time?

Then another guy made some kind of joke with Korean pop reference.  Of course I understood so I laughed.  Then the guy looked pretty surprised.

Guy1: Oh so you know XXX? (The reference)
Me: well, yeah.
Guys: Oh then you are like full Korean!  Okay, we’re not worried then.

I don’t even try anymore.  It’s quiet common to see major newspaper articles here saying “this foreign person eats Kimchi well!!  He/She can take hot peppers too and soju!  With Korean spouse!  He/She is pure Korean!”

I wish the world is that simple.

Back to the name business,  sometimes I think if I had an English name, maybe it could have been worked as a convenient shield for me.  Upon me saying “hello, my name is Grace Lee” or something of that, then locals here would feel me more “foreign” and grant me more space and time.  Or, maybe it would’ve been better if I spoke far worse Korean than now.  Then I don’t even have to try.

If only people can understand how it’s okay for someone to be less than 100% Korean – or be a bit different from the rest.

I just like movie, that’s it, so stop making a big deal.

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“I didn’t know you liked movie that much.” said my dad.  I just shrugged and answered, “well, who doesn’t like movie?”  I expected this movie conversation to end at this point.  Instead, my dad turned to my mom, and kept going on.  “Since when did she watched that much movies?  Was it from junior high, or highschool? college?”

Now my mom was confused a bit too, just like me. “Well…” she said, “she was in Midwest, and there’s not much to do except sports and weekend movies.” I nodded too.  It was a small, suburban Midwestern town.  You don’t have that much option on entertainment, unless you have a car, or can do drug or drink loads of alcohol.  I did neither of them – I did not want to get kicked out from school.

So I couldn’t really understand why my dad started to have this idea of me being a big film fan.  Sure, I like movie, but I don’t think I like movie more than average people.  If you think that’s wrong because I talk about this strange Asian movies and Hong Kong film stars, well, I’m Asian living in Asia. Duh.  I took a film class in college, but that was just for one semester.  I didn’t hate it but I didn’t love it either.  I am nothing like Tarantino or Spielberg, who loved movies so much that they started making their own film from teenage times.  Besides, if I really liked movie that much, I would have gone to New York University.  I couldn’t help wondering what gave him such an idea.  But I couldn’t really ask him directly, since I was scared of “offending” him again.

It turned out that since I memorize all the western names of American/British actors so well, he thought I am a big movie fan.

Understandable, but really, me memorizing western names so well isn’t because I’m a big movie fan.  I grew up in States.  Almost everyone around me had names such as John Radstone, Skyler Woskobski, Sarah Crnich, Tim Schnake, and so on.  Kims and Chois make minority.  Compared to other Koreans, those “foreign names” are not that foreign to me.  So name like Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Armitage and Jake Gyllenhal aren’t big deal to me.  Frankly speaking, I feel like I get the western names more quickly and easily than Korean names.

“Er, dad,” I said, “it’s not that I am a big movie mania.  I like movies but no more than average.”

“But how come you memorize all those western names?”

“She’s just used to it.” My mom intervened.

“Yeah, like…I spent so much time in Midwest so I’m used to hearing and memorizing all the western names.  And I watch more American and British TVs than Korean.  That’s it.  It’s not like I am a passionate movie fan or anything.”  I said, and looked my dad’s face.  He looked pretty confused and disappointed.

I couldn’t help thinking about a fellow TCK (Korean background)’s blog posting.  After she came back to Korea, she kept bombing her English exam.  Her parents thought something is definitely wrong with her – their daughter was speaking fluent English, but kept failing her English exam!  The thing was, she could not understand any of the grammatical terms in Korean.

Time passed, and she started to learn another language other than Korean and English.  Then everyone, including her parents, started saying, “oh, it would be easy for you, you speak some foreign languages already anyway.”  She was confused, because she never really thought of herself as speaking a foreign language.  She grew up, living with English language.  One day, as her dad sad another foreign-language-thing, with a lot of gut, she said to her father:

“Dad, I’ve never spoken in foreign language in my life.  Not once.”

You can pretty much imagine her father’s face.

Free English Teacher?

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An article submitted to JoongAng Daily‘s Opinion section, written by Park, Jae Young, the editor of Korean Doctors’ Weekly.  He pretty much said everything I wanted to say.  Originally written in Korean.  English translation done by myself who is totally not a professional translator, so please don’t throw me any rotten tomatoes for mistakes.  If you are to take this posting to somewhere, please cite the sources.  Thanks.


A native English-speaking language instructor, who is teaching at a local hagwon, told me a story.  He assigned a short English writing homework to his students.  Topic: the number of foreigners living in Korea is increasing.  What’s your opinion?

Original: http://news.joins.com/article/aid/2010/01/18/3600343.html?cloc=olink|article|default,

Two kinds of opinion were most visible on the submitted writings. “They come in and take Koreans’ job away, I don’t like it,” and “we get more chances to practice English for free.”  He was stunned.  The English teacher, who is white American national, added, “I have experienced racial discrimination here and there ever since I came to South Korea.  I can only imagine what would it be like to live here as black or Southeastern Asian from the third world.”

translated by https://kumasim.wordpress.com

I, too, was shocked as much as he did for two reasons. First, his students’ English skill was better than I thought.  I did not get to see the real copies of their writings, but according to what this teacher told me, their English skill exceeded my expectation.  Second, their thoughts on foreigners startled me.  Students who assumed immigrant workers from Southeast Asia, Africa or China upon hearing the word “foreigner,” thought foreigners as someone who take the job away.  On the other hand, students who imagined white native English speakers clearly see them as “free English instructor.”  Is this really what they think? Or did they ask their parents what to write for the sake of homework?  Whatever the answer is, this is worrying.  The Koreans’ prejudice against foreigners is already becoming a major social problem; and now I could see that prejudice will be bequeathed to the next generation.  Gloomy future.  If majority of opinions were “we should be thankful because they do all the dirty and dangerous works for us,” I would be less distressed.

The people of South Korea take loads of trip abroad and watch loads of foreign-made movies and TV shows.  Besides, South Korea’s oversea trading volume is gargantuan.  It has not been a long time since the last group of  South Koreans worked in oversea, facing many hardships and racial discrimination.  Moving out to foreign country is not an extraordinary affair anymore; today, it is common to see someone who has relative living in a foreign country. But why do we keep ignoring foreigners, if not exploiting them?

Many researches show South Korea has a very low score on international competency.  This is true for not only the country itself, but also for universities, business firms and other categories.  Would having millions of advanced English speakers bring this score up?  Can changing regulations and system, based on so-called “global standard” help?  Or, how about perceiving foreigners as friend or colleague, rather than alien from outer space?

At this point, the foreigners make up 2.2% of South Korean population.  As of Seoul, the percentage rises to 3%.  Cities known for high competency – New York City, London, Hong Kong – have each of 34%, 31%, and 40% of foreigner population.  Unless there is a big change of tide, we will be exposed to more foreigners in this land, and it will be even more so for next generation.  If it is difficult to stash away our prejudice, then maybe we should do our best to not to pass this prejudice on to our children.

Language and Attitude

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To people who have some knowledge of Asian language, the term “honorifics/formal” and “non-honorifics/casual/informality” would sound familiar.  In Korean language, the former is called “존댓말 (Jon dat mahl)” and later is “반말 (Bahn mahl)”.  Basically, if you are talking with your elder, senior, have never met before, and/or someone of higher position, you speak in honorifics.  If you are talking someone who is very close with you, you speak in non-honorifics.  Generally.  Sometimes you hint non-honorifics to enhance friendliness.  The honorifics have different nouns, endings and verbs – and this usually drives people of Latin language as their first language absolutely crazy when learning Asian language.

My parents value the good manners a lot – I mean a lot.  Consequently I am somewhat neurotic when it comes to the correct time and usage of honorifics and non-honorifics in Korean.  Therefore, for me, it was uncomfortable when HS started to speak in 반말 to pretty much everyone in the office within a month she joined the office.  Sure she is older than everyone.  I do understand she wants to be friendly as much as she can, under the new circumstance with new people to work with.  Maybe I am just too sensitive on good manners and etiquettes.  But it’s almost like my natural instinct/subconsciousness- it’s just disturbing.  For those of you who are not familiar with Asian language structure, think it this way: a person you just don’t know that well starts to call you as “dude, what up, man” and such, wrapping his/her arm around your shoulder.  I’d rather have a person leave me alone, and speak to me in correct language.

Being active, open and social certainly helps a lot.  However, thanks to human nature, a “newbie” who runs around yelling “Me! Me! Look at here! Let’s do this!” and cuts off someone else’s words (especially in the middle of talking) is not favored.

There was a weekly meeting.  Since this year has been a hectic one, some managers started to talk about a nice meal out and/or visiting a coworker who is on maternity leave.  As the talk progress, HS’s voice got louder and louder (not to mention 반말) and she even snatched the schedule table, writing things on it as if she is the ultimate decision maker, pointing others as she talks.  I do not know what others thought, but to me it was just unbelievable.  Pretty much same thing happened during the lunchtime, too – she kept pointing at a menu and repeatedly said “I’m for this, I’m for this!”  I don’t think she was high on sugar or caffeine.  Yes, we hear you so you don’t have to say it for three times.

After lunch, I, HS and EH happen to walk together – which was fortunate, because I like EH.  HS started to complain how her Uniqlo wool sweaters got messed up after washing it twice.  If it were only HS and I, I would just smile and answer “oh, too bad,” unwilling to continue the conversation.  But I did not want to cause awkwardness when EH was present.  So I decided to keep the conversation light (=meaningless, nothing important) just so not to cause the awkward silence.

I: There are lot of different kinds of woolen, and Uniqlo has variety of wool products.  Like they have their other wools and Merino w- *intervened*

HS: It’s all same wool! Right? I used the woolen detergent too! All the time! More than twice!

Lady, I am not finished, and I was speaking fairly slowly.  And it is not nice to cut off someone else’s words.  I was annoyed, and if I were in a worse mood, or away from EH, I would have given her an evil look or smirk.  I almost had the words out from my throat: I am not finished, 人の話を終わりまで聞けよ、馬鹿者Only because there were others around us, I gave her a nice advice on difference between wool categories and product information anyway.

Being friendly, active and cheerful is good.  Being young at heart – to some degree, immature – is a generally positive thing.  But there is a fine line – once you cross it, it annoys the heck out of others.  Language and using it well is such a sophisticated art.  Though a word means same thing, a small difference can cause a vastly different emotion and reaction.  Even if it has a positive meaning, using it in a wrong time can be a disaster.  Even if you did not mean such a thing, a slight misuse in language can build a Great Wall of prejudice in less than a minute.  Maybe that’s why the word in Japanese is called 言葉 (kotoba, literally meaning “leave of human sayings”) and ancient Japanese’ belief in 言霊 (kotodama, literally meaning “word spirit”).