Some (Mis)Adventures with Korean

This is written partially in response to a challenge issued by Loving Language about telling our language stories. It was also inspired by his most recent post regarding language preconceptions (the first anecdote, anyway).

Before I begin, it is important to note that I am not Korean. My ancestry comes entirely from north-western Europe, and I do not – in any way, shape or form – resemble a Korean person.

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When I was about twelve, my family went to South Korea for my uncle’s (wi sukbu) wedding. Most of my mother’s extended family was there, and one night, we went out to dinner with the soon-to-be-in-laws – Uncles First to Third Brother and their wives and children.

After dinner, the children left the hotel’s dining room to sit and play in the lounging area. We had a range of ages, but for the most part we all had “doubles”, new cousins of our age and gender. One of the pairs were two little girls of about three, my cousin (imo’s daughter), who – as is crucial to the story – was adopted from China.

At one point in the evening, Hyon-Ji wandered away from where she and Peng-Peng were playing near the wall of glass which passed as a window in the hotel. I can’t remember what for – perhaps to talk to one of her sisters – but we definitely had clear view of both of them.

While Peng-Peng was by the window, ostensibly by herself to any onlookers, a Korean woman came up to her and started addressing her in Korean – I presume to ask where her parents were. Peng-Peng just looked back at her in confusion.

Sensing a situation, I went over to try to do something about it. Unfortunately, Peng-Peng and I do not look like we’re related.

“She is Korean.”

“No, Australian. Hoju. My sa-chon.”

“She look Korean.”

“She’s from China originally. Jungguk. She’s Australian, though.”

“Australia?”

“Yes, hoju. She’s my sa-chon.”

The thing is, Peng-Peng doesn’t – and didn’t – look Korean, either. But I suppose she didn’t look like she belonged with all the white Australians in the room, especially given she had been playing with a quite obviously Korean girl.

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About a year later, I had started high school back in Australia and International Day was swiftly approaching – the day when the student body (hailing for more than sixty countries) got together with other people from that country in order to represent that country in a big festival on the oval.

At that point, with my weeks in Korea fresh in my memory, I talked about it a lot with my friends – one from China, one Chinese-Australian, one Vietnamese-Australian, one Indian-Australian, one French-Australian, and me, whatever I am. For the purposes of several discussions we’d had about westerners being unable to tell different nationalities of Asian apart, westerners being unable to use chopsticks, and my strange obsession with bulgogi, let’s just say I’d played up the “Korean relatives” thing a bit.

Anyway, in home group, discussion about going along to country meetings and representing countries reigned supreme. It turned out that we had a Korean in the class – one of the boys to whom I’d never payed much attention.

“I’m not actually Korean,” he pointed out, “But my parents are from Korea.”

“That’s Korean enough to go to the meeting,” Thuy-Anh informed him. “I’m going to the Vietnam one. Rachel’s Korean.”

The boy – Andrew or Anthony or something – was rightfully confused about that statement. “No, she’s not. She’s Australian.”

“Yes, she is,” another of my friends insisted. “Her family’s Korean.”

“Actually,” I pointed out – and it should have been just as obvious as Albert thought it was – “I’m not Korean. I just have Korean relatives.”

As it turned out, I went along to the Great Britain meeting and ended up dressing in tartan on the day.

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Several years passed, and for some reason, I didn’t lose what little Korean I’d managed to gain in the lessons my family had taken before we’d visited. If you’re going to learn a second language, I don’t recommend you start with something as different to your own as English and Korean, because I was eleven, it was the first language I’d seriously tried to learn, and I didn’t learn much.

I know as much Korean today as I did when I visited Korea – which means I can read the alphabet and know a handful of phrases. Some of my sister’s friends took advantage of this a couple of times, writing down things in Korean and getting me to read them out before collapsing into giggles – they knew full well that I was just reading the sounds without any comprehension of what it meant.

When I was sixteen, I volunteered as a bunkhouse leader at a local youth camp. Two years in a row, I had the same girl in my bunkhouse – a Korean who called herself Amy (I knew several Korean Amies at that point). She told me towards the end of the first camp in my bunkhouse that her real name was Su-Mi, and I dutifully wrote out my own name in Hangul for her – Le-i-chel (yes, I need to do something about my name.)

At her second camp in my bunkhouse, there were several Korean boys she knew in another bunkhouse who were – if we’re being honest – very much our problem campers, constantly getting into mischief. Almost every time we were near them, Su-Mi would sidle up to me and whisper, “Rachel, he said a bad word in Korean!”

Things came to a head on the second-to-last day of camp, when they were making nuisances of themselves at dinner, talking to each other loudly in Korean, safely assured that quiet Su-Mi was the only one who could understand them. (Which was true – although her little voice in my ear assured me that what they were saying was rude).

My table ran out of water, and I leant across the aisle in the dining room and tapped one of the boys on the shoulder.

“Mul ojuseyo?”

The two boys went so pale! “You speak Korean?”

The answer is ‘no, not really’, but I didn’t let that stop me. “Nye, gulochyo.”

Silently, they handed the jug of water over.

Su-Mi didn’t tell me they were swearing for the rest of the camp.

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It’s been eight years since we were in Korea, and a lot has changed. When we first came back, there was just one Korean restaurant in Adelaide, and no-one had heard of Korea, kimchi, bulgogi or bibimbap.

Somewhere along the line, K-pop became the newest fad in Australia, and suddenly every teenage girl around was an officinado of Korean culture, music, and kimchi. A lot of Korean takeaway shops opened. I stopped talking about Korea – and bulgogi – quite so much, because I didn’t want to look like I was just following the latest fad.

But I’m still a massive fan of bulgogi – even though I don’t really like kimchi – and given that I’ve overfilled myself on ₩2000 of actual, genuine bulgogi with rice and lettuce and banchan sitting on the floor of a hole-in-the-wall establishment somewhere in the back-streets of downtown Daejon, I have a limited tolerance for the rice-and-meat-in-a-plastic-box combination that Korean takeaway shops in Adelaide try to pass off as “bulgogi” (or, even worse, with the English translation of “beef teriyaki”).

So sometimes there’s nothing for it but to visit one of the local Happy-Go-Lucky Marts and buy a bag of thinly-sliced beef and a jar of bulgogi sauce (yes, yes, I know, dear sister, that this creates sub-standard bulgogi and I should make the sauce myself) and make myself banchan and peel myself lettuce and eat Korean food the proper way.

With thin metal chopsticks, not with round wooden throw-away ones.

I’m planning a massive bulgogi (with banchan! with banchan, I tell you!) feast for the next weekend and made one of those trips into my favourite Happy-Go-Lucky Mart this afternoon.

It may be my favourite, but I only go in once or twice a year, and there’s always someone different in there. You know that feeling when you walk into a shop and you know you don’t belong? It wasn’t very full – there was only one other customer – but eyes followed me, thinking, “What is this white woman doing here? Should I ask her if she’s lost?”

I didn’t want much – just beef, bulgogi sauce, savoury pancake mix and puffed rice honey sticks (ssal-gwa-ja) – but there weren’t any rice sticks and I had trouble finding the pancake mix. I toyed with the idea over going over the counter and asking “do you have any pancake mix?”, but I didn’t know the word for “pancake” and asking “pancake mix issoyo?” is just confusing, because in Korea, pancakes are savoury and have vegetables in them, but in Australia, they’re sweet (in Korea, “hotcake”).

I eventually found the pancake mix and made my way over to the cash register to pay. The interaction was silent – they never know what to make of me – and as the man handed over my shopping, I bowed and murmured, “Kumsumnida.”

With K-pop and all things Korea so popular, I wonder every time why they’re so surprised every time.

“How do you speak Korean?”

“I was in Korea once when I was a child. My uncle lives in Daejon.”

“This is very good! Very good!”

“Chonun hanguk-olul haji malhanda.” (Officially the longest sentence I know, and probably wrong).

“Very good! Very good Korean! Here, is free!” He handed me a packet of squid-flavoured two-minute noodles, “Free for speak very good Korean!”

“Kumsumnida, kumsumnida!” More bowing as I leave. “Annyonghi kyeseyo! Kumsumnida!”

“Annyonghi kaseyo!”

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When we were in Korea, free things came to us because we had small blond(e) children with us. Here in Australia, I get free things because I know a handful of phrases in Korean.

The area where I grew up – at the time, almost entirely Italian – is now the largest concentration of Koreans in the state. It’s a little sad that a white “local” knowing a few greetings in Korean is such a rarity that it warrants such excitement.

I can’t stand K-pop, just for the record.

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Five Foreign Foods I Really Liked, And Five I Didn’t

Just as it says: five foreign foods or drinks I really like (and wish would become a thing in Australia), and five I really didn’t like. In no particular order.
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The first item on my list is Currywurst.

Currywurst is a German invention, consisting of chopped-up sausage (usually Bockwurst or pork sausage, I think), topped with tomato sauce and sprinkled with curry. I’m don’t know whether this sounds nice to you or not, but believe me, it’s yummy.
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I just can’t believe it hasn’t caught on in the Hills, at least – you can get just about every other sort of Wurst in Hahndorf.
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The next item on my list is Fruit Boba.
Passion fruit slushie boba & strawberry banana smoothie
It took some searching to find that name. I’d just been calling them “those Fruit Slushies from Singapore“. Obviously, they’re from Singapore, and they’re a brilliant idea.
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The basic principle is simple: Somewhere in the shopping centre or market place, you will find at least one stand with an amazing array of fruit (and sometimes vegetables), usually in slices or chunks, on display behind the glass bit. You point to whatever combination of fruit (and/or vegetables) you want, and the person behind the stand sticks it all in a blender with some ice cubes, blends it up, and puts it in a plastic cup with a straw.
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And away you walk, basking in the awesome cool sweetness of blended-up fruit and ice in the sticky Singapore heat.
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The third item is Mosto.

Mosto

Mosto is a Spanish drink; basically sweet grape juice. Now, I don’t usually like grape juice, but for mosto I make an exception. The best part is that it comes in both blanco (white) and tinto (red), just like wine.
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The fourth item is Bulgogi.

Now, this is something which, over the past few years, with the rise of K-Pop, has become a thing in Australia. However, it’s very hard to find anywhere that does it right here. Most places (and there’s now a Korean food shop in just about every suburb) will give you a plate with rice on one side and bulgogi meat on the other side. Some do it better than others. Some places will even add a little kimchi and maybe soupy stuff.
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But this, to me, is not true bulgogi. To me, bulgogi means going into a little hole-in-the-wall place on the backstreets of Daejon or Pusan, paying somewhere around the equivalent of $7 for four people, and being shown to a knee-high table surrounded by pillows. It means sitting down on the pillows on the floor, and being given a huge pot of bulgogi, a frying tray thing, another huge pot of white rice, more little bowls of condiments than you can count – purple rice, yellow rice, horseradish, black bean stuff, kimchi, all sorts of other things I can’t even name – and a plate of lettuce. It means grabbing a huge lettuce leaf, nestling it in the palm of your hand and filling it with rice and meat and condiments by means of thin metal chopsticks, before wrapping it up and trying to shove it all in your mouth at once.
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Since bulgogi was the only thing we knew how to ask for, it’s pretty much the only thing we ate in Korea. We got so sick of it while over there, but when we got back, we can’t get enough of it!
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Another Korean dish, which I’ve actually found some pretty good versions of in Adelaide, is dolsot bibimbap.
You can get just plain bibimbap, but that’s not as exciting – dolsot bibimbap comes in a hot stone bowl. Basically, it’s a bed of rice, on which you have bulgogi meat, grated carrot, cucumber, and various other condiments, all topped with a raw egg. (Or a fried on, in the case of plain old bibimbap).
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The final item on my list of stuff I like is Frozen Yoghurt.
This is something I tried in Spain, but I don’t think it’s a Spanish thing (ice-cream stands were a lot more common over there, from what I could see. I’d include the ice-cream I had over there, but I’m out of space). My host sister told me that it’s quite popular in Brasil.
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Anyway, basically what happens here is that you get a huge squirt of frozen yoghurt, which looks a lot like a soft-serve in a tub. But tastes a whole lot better. Then, you can pick your choice of toppings – bits of fruit, nuts, chocolates and sweets – and finish it off by drizzling it with flavoured topping or caramel. Yum.
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Okay, now onto my list of stuff I don’t like.
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I’ll kick of the list with two things: Sauerkraut and Kimchi.
I’ve put these two together because I really can’t tell that much difference between them. Sauerkraut is more finely chopped, and kimchi has copious amounts of spices in it, but the basic principle is the same: fermented cabbage. Oh, I know people who swear by kimchi and claim it has all sorts of amazing properties, such as fending off swine flu, and I’ll even have a little kimchi on occasion (very little) – after all, the spices mask the taste of fermented cabbage. But basically, I don’t like either of them.
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The second item on my don’t-like list is Paella.
To give it its due, I’ve got to admit that my dislike of this iconic Spanish dish probably stems from my dislike of seafood, but really – paella, to me, seems little more than watery fried rice with oversized prawns.
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The third item on my list is Root Beer, Doctor Pepper, and Spezi.
Pretty much the only reason Coke and Pepsi aren’t on this list is because they’re (very) common in Australia. The others aren’t.
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If you’ve read The Idiot’s Guide, you already know my opinions on Root Beer and Doctor Pepper (both American beverages). If not, you can read it here: https://coveredrachel.wordpress.com/2013/07/02/the-idiots-guide-to-the-usa-drink/. Basically, the conclusion my family came to after trying those two beverages was that Root Beer tastes like a hospital (with black food colouring) and that Doctor Pepper is made of cough medicine, thinned out with added black food colouring.
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Spezi, on the other hand, is a German drink, and is made by mixing Coke (or Pepsi) with Fanta. It’s probably not too bad if you like both of those drinks, but I don’t like Coke.
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The fourth item on the list is Macaroni and Cheese.
To be honest, I have no idea why I don’t like this signature American dish. After all, basically all it is is pasta with cheese sauce. I have that all the time – with added tuna and vegetables, of course, making it tuna mornay. But the point still stands that, by all sensible reasoning, Macaroni and Cheese should be something I love.
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And the truth is, I did. For the first two mouthfuls. And then it got thick, and rich, and I felt sick.
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So who knows? I had it at a couple of places over there, and the same thing happened every time. I don’t know why, but for some reason, Macaroni and Cheese makes it onto the list of foreign foods I don’t like.
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And the final thing on this list is Summer Pud.
Summer Pud is an English dish, a dessert, and I think my dislike of this dish comes from my utter repulsion for soggy bread.
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Summer Pud basically consists of bread and stewed fruit – strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries. Actually, the inside is quite nice. Anyway, it steeps for a couple of hours and is served with fruit, juice, or cream.
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So, there you have it: five foreign foods I’ve tried and loved, and five I’ve tried and hated.
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What about you? What are some foods you’ve tried overseas? What did you think of them?