Learning Korean and Expanding Horizons
Source: COSMOH LOVE on Unsplash
I still remember rolling that word around in my mouth for the first time, like a foreign but easily acquired taste. Embarrassed giggles resonated throughout the classroom, accompanied by little shuffles as we shyly turned to look at our friends. Everyone was starting on a clean slate, like new-born babies, and the atmosphere felt fresh and bright.
For me, looking back on this memory is like cleaning my room and rediscovering something I didn’t know I had misplaced. Three years on, I find myself beginning to grapple with imposter syndrome as I take my Korean language learning to new heights and face new challenges. But has language learning ever not been about pushing boundaries? Learning a new language thrusts you into a whole new world, and to become any good at your target language, you have to take the plunge.
Making friends and shedding some shyness
“If you want to make close friends in university, just take a language class.” These were the words of my brother, who often told tales of the shenanigans he got up to with his German language classmates. Seeing how they kept in close contact over the years became in part an inspiration for me to take some language classes myself.
In my first year, I definitely took my brother’s words with a handful of salt — I felt like I wasn’t able to connect with anyone on a deep level. Things took a turn for the better, perhaps ironically, when the COVID-19 situation worsened and classes had to be shifted online. I was able to engage with others more easily, since I could see everyone’s names on the screen at a glance. The constant shuffling between breakout rooms also beat the experience of only interacting with the same people seated around me in a physical classroom. It was during this time that I made my first close friend from Korean class — I decided to message him over Zoom one day, and before I knew it he soon became one of my closest friends.
Reaching out to someone so proactively like this would have been unthinkable for me in the past. I used to be a lot shier, but having to speak up so much in Korean class changed that for me. Being expected to volunteer answers and getting called on at random forced me to be unafraid of making mistakes. From having to act out skits, to filming videos and giving presentations, the various kinds of assignments pushed me to build up my confidence as well.
These skills became increasingly important as I moved up the levels, as the class sizes naturally grew smaller and more intimate. At the time that I’m writing this, Level 7 Korean is posing a myriad of challenges for me. But I’ve cozied myself into our little class of nine people, and the warmth from my fellow classmates and teacher has laid down a safe space to make mistakes and grow. The joy of connecting with one another through a language so dear to all of us alike overcomes any worries about grades or fear of failure.
7/9 of us at the opening of the Singapore Korean Film Festival 2022 :-)
Culture shock and acceptance
Learning Korean was quite like making a new friend in itself; in fact, it was much like welcoming a new roommate. As I showed this roommate into my space and interacted with them, I slowly began to learn of their living habits and practices. Needless to say, some of these surprised me, but I would go on to embrace and even love some of these things that had shocked me before.
As language carries culture on its back, I naturally had to acquaint myself with Korean culture if I truly wanted to understand the language. This did not come without its challenges, particularly since I found Korean language and culture to be very different from those of Malay. For one, wrapping my head around the usage of honorifics was a struggle for me. The emphasis on seniority that accompanies most Asian cultures was not unfamiliar to me — just as Korean has words like “oppa (오빠)” and “unnie (언니)” to refer to a slightly older person, Malay too has words like “abang” and “kakak”. But the distinctions between casual and formal, as well as polite and impolite speech were a whole new world. Establishing age differences and closeness precedes every conversation, and titles and honorifics are necessary when you’re tip-toeing around trying to be inoffensive.
Being exposed to a wide variety of contexts over time has accustomed me to honorifics a little more, even though staying actively conscious of them remains slightly challenging. But even if you’ve mastered honorifics, there’s a lot of attention that needs to be given to one’s body language and gestures. Yet even with the complications surrounding formalities, I’ve grown to deeply appreciate and understand this culture.
Observance of others’ seniority is constantly practised, even through the depth of one’s greeting bow. The bigger the gap in seniority, the deeper the person of lower status bows. | Source: 비즈폼
Processing Korea’s drinking culture was also challenging for me at first. While drinking has never been a habit I’d hold against others, conversations about drinking used to evoke some discomfort within me. I didn’t want to hear about the silly things people did when they were intoxicated, and I wanted even less to be surrounded by drunk people. I had always understood the appeal of alcohol, but I hated the way it made people unpredictable.
Although I still don’t drink for multiple reasons, learning more about Korean culture opened me up to understanding the culture around drinking. As I watched different kinds of Korean programmes to improve my language skills, I found that drinking was a theme of these shows that recurred so often I eventually stopped trying to avoid it. In fact, one of my current favourite series is “Nothing Much Prepared” hosted by rapper Lee Young-ji, who interviews guests while drinking with them in the comfort of her home. It’s safe to say that while drinking is still a part of Korean culture that I find so different from my own, I’ve come to fully understand and accept it.
Lee Young-ji (right) with guests Chaeyoung and Nayeon from K-Pop girl group Twice (left). | Source: 차린건 쥐뿔도 없지만
Crossing (literal) borders
Still, there were frontiers yet to be traversed — namely, the ones that physically separated me from the Korean Peninsula. I travelled to South Korea for an exchange programme, and I landed when winter was still slowly feeling its way into spring. I still recall the surrealism of walking the grounds of Incheon International Airport, as I had only studied and used Korean on a sunny little island six hours away. I had only sat on the steps by the Singapore River confessing to a friend that I feared that Singapore would be all I’d ever know. Yet soon enough, I would find myself watching the lights on Banpo Bridge, fighting tears as I mourned my last few days in South Korea.
Funnily enough, I didn’t make a single Korean friend; instead, I made many Korean-speaking friends from all over the world. I enrolled myself into an intensive 10-week Korean language programme which consisted of daily 4-hour classes, and I would do it all over again if I could. Except for two classmates who were both from Mongolia, each of us were from a completely different country. Every presentation and conversation was a little peek into someone’s hometown, what they did growing up and what they loved about their own countries. I managed to connect with most of them over Instagram, and their every post is a tiny window into their everyday lives either back in South Korea or the towns they grew up in.
Although these whimsical little exchanges are heart-warming in themselves, what I’ve always found most touching is that I wouldn’t have made these friends had I not decided to pick up the Korean language. Korean has connected me to so many other people in a way that I had never experienced before, and the love that results is truly unique and irreplaceable.
Finding connections, and then finding myself
There is a quote by Hoshi from the K-Pop boy group Seventeen that hangs on my wall: “If you dream it, it will come true. The power of positivity is real.” One of the things I love most about these words is something that doesn’t reveal itself immediately in its English translation. When Hoshi describes the “power of positivity”, he actually uses a verb conjugation that implies that one has personally experienced a certain past occurrence or event. In other words, the second part of the quote in its most accurate translation would read like this: “The power of positivity is real[; I have seen this for myself].”
"If you dream it..."
Being able to understand lyrics, quotes and just words in general said by people I really admire and even consider as role models has been so special to me in my Korean language-learning journey. I always feel a deeper connection to words that I found I’d grown to understand upon revisiting them. As someone who loves to write, learning Korean has nurtured my appreciation for word choice in both prose and song. I could honestly wax lyrical about all of my favourite lines from various Korean songs, but it would need more than all the time in the world.
Making greater sense of words and people through new eyes and creating meaning of the world around me for myself this way became important in developing my sense of self. Korean language and culture became a particularly distinct part of my life, especially because it was so different from my own mother tongue and home culture. The friendships I have made because of the Korean language, or where Korean culture is a strongly shared interest, feel like special bonds that are totally separate from other parts of my life. As time passed, it became increasingly clear that Korean language-learning was a strongly personal pursuit and choice for me.
I’ve given so much time, energy and love to this language, but what it’s done for me simply cannot compare. Embarking on this language-learning journey seriously has opened me up not only to new worlds and new people, but to a whole new part of myself that I have come to love.
Just like how I was learning to say “annyeonghaseyo” like a baby in that classroom all those years ago, learning Korean has brought new life for me. Expanding my horizons comes with its challenges and overcoming my own limits has its difficulties, but I’m still enjoying the journey this language continues to take me on — so very much.