Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Mandarin proficiency is a plus when it comes to learning Korean. I can guess the meaning of many Korean words by simply matching their pronunciation to Chinese words of similar sound. Since I know the meaning of most Chinese words, it saves me the trouble of looking up Korean dictionary frequently for the meaning of unknown words. But sometimes, matching can go wrong.

Take "향수" (pronounced "hiang soo") for example, I was quite certain it means perfume since I matched it to "香水" (pronounced "xiang shui"). It was only logical that when I came across the word "향수병", "香水瓶" (perfume bottle) came to mind. But the problem was, the context in which I saw "향수병" wasn't talking about perfume, fragrance or anything closely related to it. On checking the dictionary, I found out "향수병" is not only "香水瓶", it's also "鄕愁病" (homesickness).

"独在异乡为异客,每逢佳节倍思亲" (poem) - "When you're alone in a foreign land, you'll miss your family even more during every festival". One of the ways to mitigate the pangs of homesickness is to eat some good home food. That was what I thought when I visited Kopitiam in Seoul hoping to taste some good old kopitiam coffee and crispy kaya toast. I don't think I need to describe how the food tasted. Suffice to say, I should have known earlier that the place is meant for Koreans and not for some homesick Singaporean.

Kopitiam in Seoul is not kopitiam at home. Don't get homesick in it.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

쓸쓸한 삶

“삶은 쓸쓸하다. 또는 쓸쓸하지 않다” - 《두 겹의 노래》 이문열

"Life is lonely. It's also not lonely." - "Twofold Song" by Yi Mun-yol

G.K. Chesterton defined paradox as "Truth standing on her head to get attention." Such is the power of paradox - it tells the truth and gets your attention at the same time.

Why is life lonely? Life is lonely because of alienation. Karl Marx believed that alienation is a systematic result of capitalism. Why is life then not lonely. Because it is never meant to be.

P.S. This posting is inspired by a email from a friend who has just read Yi Mun-yol's "Twofold Song". The picture of street lamp (above) was taken in Bukchon. Somehow, I felt it was 'lonely' ... or was I 'lonely' ... in a capitalist society?

Friday, January 07, 2011

도대체 왜?

My teacher asked my US classmate to explain the word "도대체" (都大體) in a sentence that we just read. He said it is something like "욕" (辱, expletive). My teacher and the rest of my Chinese classmates was puzzled by his interpretation. I was alone in nodding my head in agreement because I knew exactly how he arrived at that conclusion.

The dictionary's translation of "도대체" is, "(what, how, why) on earth". However, a more crude translation, "what the *beep*" makes sense too, if not more. Sentence like "도대체 뭘 하는 거예요?" can be translated as, "What the *beep* are you doing?" So, if  "what the *beep*" is not "욕" than what is? My US classmate has every good reason to believe so.

My Chinese classmates did not form such connection because "도대체" is translated as "到底" or "究竟" in Chinese and both words are in no way connected to expletives. Sentence "도대체 뭘 하는 거예요?" translated as, "你到底在干什么?", conveys a sense of agitation but nothing profane.

Korean dictionary gives two definitions for "도대체":

1. Definition 1: mainly used in a question to mean "keep to the important points"
e.g.  도대체 뭘 하는 거예요? (Tell me only the important points, what are you doing?)

2. Definition 2: mainly used in negative-tone (부정) sentence to mean "completely"
e.g. 네가 하는 말은 도대체 알 수 없어요 (I totally cannot understand what you say)

Like Chinese, Korean definitions of "도대체" carry the same sense of agitation but nothing more.

The 'Hanja' of  "도대체" - "都大體" is no longer seen in modern Chinese literature. Based on its Chinese characters, 都大體 can be explained in its two root words "都" and "大體". "都" means "all or total" and "大體" means "important points". The meaning of the two root words matches very well with the two Korean definitions of "도대체".

That should explain why my teacher and Chinese classmates were puzzled by my US classmate's unexpected answer. "도대체" is not an expletive but due to translation, it becomes one. What can be say of this episode is, the actual meaning of things can be lost in translation. The more diverse the cultures, the more difficult it is to have faithful translation.

At the end of the class, my US classmate spoke to me, "Isn't 도대체 what a *beep*? Isn't it a expletive?" I agreed with him, "Yes, in some way, it sounds like an expletive but the others won't understand." I misled him but not on purpose, because that was actually what I  thought back then before I checked the Korean definition of the word.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011


After laying off my Korean books for more than a year, I think it's time I reopen them. Fortunately, my Korean language skills weren't wasted away during the 'dormant' period. On the contrary, I think my listening and reading skills are much better now than before. It helps that I watch Korean programmes and read Korean news quite often. To start off, it's back to basics. There's something new which I learn about the word '당신' and '말씀'.

As a beginner, I thought the second-person pronoun 'you' can be translated to either '당신' in honorific speech or '너' in casual speech. Now I know I was misled. I have narrowed down the cause of my misunderstanding to some poorly-published Korean language self-help books which I bought when I first started to have interest in the language. Those books use '당신' so freely as if Koreans use it all the time. Actually, the correct use of '당신' is restricted to only two kinds of situation. Outside of these two situations, the use of it is simply inappropriate.

Situation 1 - Between husband and wife
e.g. 여보, 당신은 어제 뭘 했어요?
(Darling, what did you do yesterday?)

Situation 2 - Between two persons who are in heated argument or are quarrelling
e.g. 당신이 남의 일에 끼어들지마
(Hello, you better don't interfere in other's business)

For '말씀', all this while, I understood it as the honorific form (높임말) of the word '말'. However, what I didn't know is, it can also be the humble form (낮춤말) of '말'. In Korean language, there are two ways one can show respect to other - one is to 'elevate' other by using '높임말', the other is to 'degrade' oneself using '낮춤말'.

Situation 1. '말씀' as a '높임말' to 'elevate' other
e.g. 부모님의 말씀대로 저는 열심히 공부하겠습니다
(I will study hard according to what my parents said)

Situation 2. '말씀' as a '낮춤말' to 'downgrade' oneself
e.g. 제가 말씀을 드릴게요
(I shall give my speech)

Apparently, my foundation in honorific is still in need of more hard work. I used to lament that Korean language is so 'troublesome' because of the need to use honorific. I didn't mean to be disrespectful by saying that but learning to use the right honorific for the right situation is indeed a lot of hard work for foreigners. It's quite laughable now to know that I once thought honorific is just adding ~세요 to the end of each statements plus changing a few words here and there. That just shows how much I skimmed through the foundation part. But sometimes, certain fundamentals are not easily understood at the beginning. You may have to go one big round and back to really appreciate them. So, that's why I'm back to basics.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

안녕 2011

Hello friends and strangers, Happy New Year! It is another year. I hope we are all wiser by a year, but the bad news is, we are also closer to the end by one year. As they say, you gain some, you lose some.

I do not believe in making new year resolutions. It is not because I do not have the resolve to achieve anything, rather, I do not think life should be led based on a list of checkboxes. So what if I have all the checkboxes ticked at the end of the year? Am I a better and happier person than the year before? What about the things I lose in the process? Checkboxes do not seem to take care of that. All said, I still do believe in making some plans so that I know where I should head toward.

I managed to watch "Hello Stranger" over this long new year holiday. It is a Thai romantic flick made in Korea and it is slowly gaining popularity through words of mouth here. Thailand is better known for its horror flicks but "Hello Stranger" is about to make change to this long-held impression of movies from the land of thousand smiles. The storyline revolves around two strangers who fell in love in Korea after being dumped by their lovers. Since they did not know each other's real name, they greeted each other, "hello, stranger" or in Thai's pronunciation - "In Dee Tee My Rojak". You will hear more of this expression in the 1st music video below.

After the show, a question suddenly popped up in my mind - what is the difference between friend and stranger? Sometimes, friend feels like stranger while stranger feels like friend. In some instances, I felt I have more things to talk about with a stranger than a friend. I think it could be that stranger is not likely to carry any bias of me and so, I may be less inhibited to reveal some of my innermost feeling. So, have you ever wonder why some people would rather call up some strangers in the radio station to talk about their problems than to discuss them with their family members or close friends?

Definition-wise, friend and stranger are as different as day and night but feeling-wise, I cannot differentiate both clearly. What this means is, even if you do not know my real name, we can still be good friend. "In Dee Tee My Rojak" ^^

Two very nice music videos from the movie, "Hello Stranger".

ยินดีที่ไม่รู้จัก (pronounced "In Dee Tee My Rojak"), Hello Stranger

รักไม่ต้องการเวลา, Love does not need time