It’s been six days since I touched down on the land of kimchi, covered with snow (yucks).

I can see why Korea is popularly affliated with kimchi, since kimchi is the one food product that can virtually represent the entire korean cuisine, or even the culture itself, single-handedly beating bibimbap (비빔빕), bulgogi (불고기) and banchan (반찬). However, for a language freak like me, Korea is not quite the land of kimchi, but rather the land of hangul (한글). You might have realized how I have added the original hangul characters beside the romanized words, because it has always been a headache for me to figure out how to read romanized korean words, let alone trying to decipher what it means. Perhaps it is because I was taught Korean through a Japanese medium, so I am not very familiar with these romanized ‘hangul’.

Nevertheless, Korea has been very fascinating thus far, probably owing largely to the fact that it is my first time to Korea, after ranting about my desire to visit Japan’s immediate neighbour for three years. I have studied Korean officially, i.e. taking Korean language classes, for two years, after which I kept in touch with it by talking to Korean friends. However, I am often dismayed by the supernatural ability of Koreans to acquire conversational Japanese, in addition to English, which most Korean college students can speak fluently. This largely diminishes my chance of practising my poor Korean with the natives, as they could quickly switch into a language of which both of us are more comfortable with (English or Japanese). In a more determined attempt to improve my faltering Korean, I flew a short two hours flight to Seoul, into the maze of hangul.

Korean is one of those cumbersome languages which uses a unique set of characters. So Korean language learners spend a substantial amount of time memorizing the sounds and strokes of hangul characters. Just when they are about to jump in joy and pop the champagne after being able to read 안녕하세요, their jaws drop wide open as they stare at each other in horror. “So what the heck does 안녕하세요 mean?” In other words, learners need to go through two stages- being able to recognize and read the characters, and the second, to be able to understand its meaning. Thankfully Korean is one of the most logically created languages, it would not inflict more pain and sweat than a Thai learner struggling to read “มหาวิทยาลัย”. (Thai has one of the most irregular writing and sound systems I know.)

And so, when I first landed at Gimpo International Airport, full of determination and motivation to put my Korean knowledge to use, I went to the counter to ask where I could break down my notes into coins so that I could call my friend. To my horror, the lady at the counter stole a glance at my face, before pointing to the money changer and said in Japanese, “両替” (money changer). After getting my coins and calling my friend, I proceeded to the bus stop and waited for the bus that brings me to Seoul National University. I asked the person at the bus stop which bus I should take to get there, but he just asked me to wait there. A few moments later, a Korean lady who probably had seen me asking the question earlier, came up to me and spoke to me in fluent honorrific Japanese, “Are you going to Seoul National University?”

Wait, isn’t this supposed to be the land of hangul? Why does everyone speak Japanese?

Thankfully, my encounter with Koreans who speak fluent Japanese ended there and then. I was able to enjoy listening to Korean conversations in its unique tone and rhythm, as well as reading random hangul on signboards all over the place. I always enjoy listening to conversations in a foreign language, especially in a language that I know, but not too well. It does not only serve as practice, but it gives you the sense of achievement and excitement when you manage to catch a few words or phrases.

After putting down my backpack at my friend’s dormitory (in Seoul National University), my friend and I headed for Ewha Woman’s University. Hmm, you didn’t hear wrong, neither did I. The first place I headed for in Korea was a Woman’s University. Well, not exactly. The streets outside Ewha are bustling with fashionable and stylish shops.

After looking around the shops at Ewha, we decided to enter the University, hearing rumours that the campus is beautiful. Indeed, the campus lived up to its reputations; the buildings, design and architecture were really impressive.

The climax came when I slipped and fell inside the university. Like my friend says, looking at a sea of snow from afar is pleasing to the eye, but try walking on it, and you will find it a pain in the ass. Indeed, it took me a while to master the art of sliding on frozen snow, after looking at how the Koreans do it like Kim Yu Na.

Another thing I like about Korea is how people like to talk. Even in trains, there is almost no single moment of silence, unlike Tokyo. This makes my travelling time more interesting as I can just pick a couple or a group of friends to sit beside, and spend the travelling time eavesdropping on their conversations. Not that I can understand much of it, but well like I said, it is always interesting to pick up a few words and try and imagine the rest by myself.

On the last day of 2010, I was scheduled to go to Daejeon, and so I went to the bus terminal to buy the express bus ticket the day before. There were a few counters open, one of which with a sign saying “for foreigners”. I did not want to make any mistakes in buying my ticket, so I went forth to the one for foreigners and to my utter disgust, or perhaps to my pleasant surprise, the lady spoke to me in korean. There were two things on my mind: “What the heck is this sign for, then?”, or “Oh great! Excellent chance to practise my korean!” Eventually, I managed to converse sufficiently in Korean to get the correct ticket of the time I wanted.

This entry will never end if I continue writing about my trip, so I shall take a break here. Do read my subsequent entries about my Korean trip!

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