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“Seeing” is the oversimplified verb used to describe traveling to, eating, sleeping, walking, viewing and experiencing a place. You might hear a lusty traveler, replete with camera bag, water bottle, hat, sunglasses and guidebook, declare “I’m off to see Venice” or “I’m off to see Mozambique.” “Seeing” can be done quickly, but shoddily. A careful plan and a little spontaneity can work greater wonders.

I had a problem in January 2009. I had resolved to “see” Seoul, South Korea, during Seolnar, the Korean New Year. I had a five-day weekend at my disposal, but I was at the opposite end of the country—Geoje Island, just off the southern coast near Pusan. Adam, Elaine, and Jeff (three fellow expatriates) and I realized that getting there and back would occupy the better part of two days. That left us a scant three or so to “see” Seoul, a city of over ten million people and 600 square miles. This is how it fell out.
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After a three-hour ride on the surprisingly slow KTX (the Korean bullet train), I found myself standing in at the top of the steps at Cheongdam station, getting my first look at Jamsil, Seoul, in the chilly January breeze. It struck me favorably. The gleaming edifices of high-rise apartments and Nestlé’s Korean headquarters reflected sunlight muted by thin gray clouds. The six-lane avenues were largely deserted in reflection of the holiday. I breathed in a lungful of crisp air, readjusted by camera bag, and went in search of accommodation. Described in the guidebook as being “like an old pickup truck…not pretty, but it gets the job done,” the Tiffany Hotel was just a few notches above being one of the hundreds of sleazy “love motels” that dot major Korean cities. The interior was somewhat shabby and I had to shell out a deposit, but the room itself was clean and bright, and I didn’t complain about paying 20,000 won more than that guidebook said I’d have to pay.
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I dumped my stuff off and sallied back into the windy winter’s evening to hit the first stop on my “see” list: COEX Mall, supposedly the largest subterranean mall in Asia, and a Korean landmark. It was a quick walk over the hill. After a little difficulty finding the entrance (also subterranean) I entered and spent the next five hours roaming the labyrinthine hallways of this massive place. COEX might not be the biggest, but if it isn’t, it’s certainly a contender. There are enough curio shops, clothing stores, and restaurants to keep a generation of mall rats happy for years. In addition to the usual stores, COEX also sports: a duty-free shop (disappointingly filled with designer handbags, shoes, and perfumes); an arcade; an enormous bookstore (Bandi & Luni’s, where legions of studious Koreans were sitting and poring over volumes in both English and Korean); and an aquarium. I saw it all. The aquarium was impressive and included several animals I wouldn’t have thought they’d allow into a shopping mall: penguins, seals, and sharks. Unable to resist the nostalgic allure of the video arcade I got 2,000 won in change and spent a few minutes lassoing African animals, as the line waiting for House of the Dead 4 was prohibitively long. I dined at Uno Pizzeria and Chicago Grill, where only the name was strange. I had pepper steak, a baked potato, broccoli cheese soup, breadsticks, and a Coke. It was a little taste of home I hadn’t had in seven months.
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The following day we were slated to meet up at Namsan Mountain in the center of Seoul. I rose early, caught the subway to Myeongdong and managed to link up with Jeff and his friend Bryan. We had to wait a little while for Adam and Elaine, who had quite understandably been out partying hearty the night before in shakin’ Sinchon (the university district, where all the bars are) and who had woken up a little late. We took a cab up the mountain to the cable car station and rode in a little glass box with 30 other passengers the rest of the way. I nabbed a spot in the front left corner and was treated to a fine view: Seoul under the winter sun and Namsan mountain’s rugged contours in a gossamer gown of powdery snow. The meal at N’Grill, the rotating restaurant which sits atop N’Seoul Tower at the summit of Namsan, was small but tasty. Disappointingly, we were there two hours and rotated through only 270 degrees of the compass.
That night we rode the train back to Sinchon for the best wild night Seoul could offer us. After a few bars and a couple of dives we found ourselves blind drunk in a noraebang, or “singing room,” the Korean take on karaoke. You’re given a private room, a television screen, low lights, as much booze as you can drink and a few tambourines and are allowed to belt out as many songs as lustily as you want. The night ended with Bryan on the couch in a swoon, me reaching for my beer and missing by a few inches, and Jeff videotaping Elaine’s ever-more-heartfelt crooning.

The next morning, my head feeling like it was about to split open, I took a hot shower, ate a hearty breakfast (uh, brunch) at the Sizzler steakhouse across the street, and then walked down to the Han River, feeling somewhat better. It was my intention to rent a bicycle and pedal along the riverside and take some pictures. Here I met my first snag—the bicycle vendor was closed up for Seolnar. Only slightly disappointed, I enjoyed the rest of my unexpected stroll around the riverfront and across the Yongdong Bridge, eyeing the half-frozen river. I snapped a few pictures of Ttukseom Park and the Ttukseom ferry station, which resembles a vast, alien space station constructed mistakenly on an Earthling riverbank, with eldritch domes, protuberances and once-vibrant colors.
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That evening, the last evening in Seoul, I waited until I could see the golden sunshine peeping in my window before grabbing my coat and heading down to the subway station. I boarded the train at Cheongdam and rode two stops east to Olympic Park, emerging from the subway station just as the evening sun’s radiance was taking the park full in the face. The staircase tilted up quite sharply and opened out, making me believe I was about to step off into the brilliant blue sky…but then the impressive façade of Olympic Park reared into view, and the World Peace Gate spread its angular wings to greet me. It was something to behold. Under the gate an eternal flame burns near an inscription, a memorial in six languages to the 1988 Summer Olympics held there. Behind it lies an ice-skating rink (doing good business at this hour), a hill with a half-excavated fortress from the Imjin War, another memorial with flags of all the competing nations arranged in concentric semicircles overlooking the river, and the Olympic Museum (also shut for Seolnar). I took a few pictures, observing loving couples pedaling around on side-by-side double bicycles (insulated from the cold by plastic sheets). I got a gigantic oatmeal cookie with raisin-paste filling at a nearby bakery and went back to the subway in the dying twilight.
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On the final morning, I packed and checked out, and with several hours and a little whimsy to spare, I went to see Bongeunsa, a Buddhist temple indicated on my map a stone’s throw from my hotel. In the soft midmorning light and semi-quiet of Seoul’s family fun district, it was sublime. I bowed to the four Buddhist icons at the gate (as I’d seen the other visitors, reverent Koreans, doing) and strolled through the temple grounds as humbly and respectfully as I knew how. Inside the main temple I observed prayers; people were bowing, lighting candles, and moving enormous floor mats to and fro between the floor and the great piles of them at the sides of the room, watched over by a multicolored, ornately-carved ceiling from which cubes and blocks protruded at geometric angles, and nearly life-size dragons perched on rafters and peered down at the supplicants. Outdoors, I saw other pilgrims meditating in front of a huge 50-foot statue of the Enlightened One on a polished marble platform untouchable by shod feet. On the way out I saw one young woman snapping pictures. That is the generation gap in Korea: either you pray or you take pictures.

Thence it was but a short subway ride, a leisurely wait in Seoul Station, another disappointingly long three-hour jaunt aboard the KTX, and a bus ride from Pusan back to our little town of Gohyeon. As I suspected, though I’d seen and done a lot, I’d only just begun to “see” Seoul. This energetic, Westernized, user-friendly city requires months and even years to “see.” Three days dropped the first tantalizing hints. The full meal lies beneath. It only remains to begin.

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When I called home, my brother asked me how hard it was to learn Korean, and after a lengthy explanation, “But Chinese is easier than Korean.” I concluded. The average person, normal people who haven’t dedicated their lives to being language and martial arts study-monks, would imagine that learning Chinese is about the hardest things someone could do. But two weeks into my study of Korean, I began to suspect that Korean was harder. Six months
later, when I could read and write with ease, and possessed thousands of vocabulary words, and countless grammatical structures, but still couldn’t order off a menu, I was convinced, Korean is the hardest of the ten
languages I have studied.

Set in North East Asia, sandwiched between China and Japan, Korea has one of the most unique languages in the world. Much of the vocabulary is similar to Chinese, while the grammar is similar to Japanese. American words and
cultural influences are unmistakable. Real football (the American kind) and baseball are extremely popular collegiate sports. The players strut around the university sporting letterman jackets the same as back home.

Schools are divided into elementary, middle, and high school. A bachelor’s degree is four years; students have a major and a minor. There is a master’s degree and a doctorate. Basically the whole system mirrors the
American one. The word for pop song is pop song. The word for chicken is chicken. American movie titles are simply transliterated so “Spy Game,” is “Spy Game,” and “X-Men,” is “X-Men.”

At a glance, Korean seems that it should be the easiest language in the world for an English native speaker, who speaks Chinese. But don’t get too comfortable! Everything about Korea, from the culture to the language is
completely Korean. Sometimes the familiarity actually makes things more difficult, as you expect things to be like back home, but you find out they are different. So, when you go out to a ball game you can eat shredded, kimchi and dried squid. I never saw any of that at Yankee stadium.

“Take me out to the ball game.
Take me out with the crowd.
Buy me some kimchi and dried squid.
I don’t care if we ever get back.”

Chicken is chicken, but only when you are buying fried chicken on the street. Everywhere else, chicken is duk gogi. “Spy Game” is “Spy Game,” but spy has no meaning apart from being a movie title. In martial arts circles, the word match means a fight. But everywhere else, you say match and no one knows what you are talking about.

The weird English usage goes both ways. Most Korean dictionaries translate the Korean word PC Bang as PC Room. So when Koreans are speaking English they say they are going to the PC Room and expect you to know what that is, because it is English. It may take a while for an English native speaker to guess that PC room means internet café, a word which doesn’t exist in the Korean collective English lexicon. Another Konglish word is academy. The Koreans refer to the nighttime English schools as hack wans which, in Korean literally means study rooms or study places. But when speaking English, they refer to hack wans as academies. For most Americans, academy means a military training school. So we are shocked that children are sent to an academy at age seven or eight. The English word school is only used for a public or private primary school. If I say I am going to the Tae Kwan Do school, my Korean friends get confused. “But you are too old for school.” Thanks for reminding me about my advanced age. You forgot to point out that
I am a bit overweight too.

One of the easy features of Korean language is that the pronunciation is consonant vowel, consonant vowel. Linguistic scholars maintain that this is the easiest combination to pronounce, which is why German, which can have four or even five consonants in a series, is hard for foreigners to pronounce. As for unique sounds, Korean only has one or two sounds which we don’t have in English, such as giu he, which means church or ui sa which means doctor, the eu sound is hard for us. But once you have mastered these two phonemes, the pronunciation is not an issue.
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The size of Korean words is also perfect. When you are learning Thai it is not uncommon to find words with twenty letters. Korean words usually consist of a combination of two or three syllable. (More on this later.) The best thing about learning Korean is that Hangul, the Korean writing system, is one of the easiest in the world. The Korean writing system is an alphabet, just like the western/Latin script. Hangul was created under King Sejong during the Choson Dynasty (1393-1910). King Sejong is considered to have been the greatest ruler of Korea and is credited with having brought about many positive institutions in Korea such as sunshine and the changes of season. Perhaps his contributions have been a little blown out of proportion, but he did a lot of good things for the country. As a result, the dynasty lasted until 1910. At that time, Japan invaded Korea and the country remained a Japanese colony until 1945.

Korea had been using the Chinese writing system for centuries. The Chinese claim their system is perfect. Although many scholars would disagree, the Chinese system does have one very significant advantage. The strength of the
Chinese writing system is that the pictographs (characters) have meaning, but no sound value. So, anyone, with any native tongue, can look at the Chinese characters and pronounce them in any language. As a result, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Taiwan were all using the Chinese writing system, but pronouncing it in their own language. And all over Asia Buddhist monks were using the Chinese characters and scriptures. The disadvantage of Chinese writing, however, is that it is so bloody difficult. When I was studying in Taiwan I discovered that primary school students spent nearly half of their study time learning to read and write their native tongue. As a result, China has a surprisingly high illiteracy rate given the country’s level of development.

In the 15th century, Korea was also suffering from widespread illiteracy, due to the difficulty of the Chinese system.
In 1446 King Sejong, proclaimed a 28 letter writing system called Hangul. The word Han, meaning Korean. Today, the system has been further simplified to only 24 characters. Most foreigners find they can learn the alphabet in
about a week. Korean children are expected to have mastered the alphabet before they begin school. Being sandwiched between the huge neighbors, China and Japan, the Koreans have developed a pervasive nationalism. They are afraid that if they let their guard down at all, and begin absorbing foreign culture, their unique Korean culture will disappear. Hangul appeals to this nationalism, and is a powerful element of Korean national pride.
Although the Hangul was being taught and used in Korea, it was being used parallel to the Chinese characters. To be an educated person, and a fully functioning member of society, it was necessary to master both. Newspapers
were written in Chinese characters until the early part of the 1990s. Today, medical school, pharmacy school, and several other university departments still use textbooks written in Chinese characters.

If you don’t speak Korean, you may wonder why when you see Korean writing it looks like Chinese type characters instead of a string of letters such as in English or Russian. The reason is that Korean is written in syllables. Each syllable is a tight composition of Korean letters which fit together, like a Rubic’s cube, and look like a Chinese type character. In many instances each syllable does, in fact, correspond to a Chinese character. For example, the Korean word for library is do so guan. The Chinese word is du su gwan. The pronunciation is almost the same. And the three Korean syllables would correspond to the three Chinese characters. Where the language becomes difficult for a student of Chinese language is that in Chinese du su guan literally means study book place. So once you learn the word for library in Chinese, you have also learned the words for book and study. But in Korean, the first two syllables, do so, don’t actually have any meaning at all. The only place where the word so reoccurs for book is in the word so jum which means, book store, but again, the word is obviously borrowed from Chinese, and has nearly no other meaning.

In researching the origins of the Korean language it is difficult, although very important, to be able to separate which similarities with Chinese and Japanese are the result of a common origin, and which are loan words. I grew up speaking both Italian and Spanish. Where the languages overlapped, say 70% of the vocabulary is similar, we could attribute these similarities to a common Latin origin. So, for example kitchen, cucina in Italian and cusina in Spanish, both obviously come from the same place, showing that the languages are related. But the word toilette which is a fairly universal word, used in German and English, is a loan word, a word borrowed from French, and in no way suggests a common origin for the three languages.

(Author’s note: Before you send me any angry emails I would like to say: If we go back far enough in time, we would find that French, German, and English share a common origin. But this is not proved by the common use of
the word toilet.)

Using this type of logic, separating words demonstrating common origin from borrowed words, many scholars maintain that Korean is a completely unique language, although somewhere on the order of 30-50% of the vocabulary comes from Chinese language. One interesting observation I have made, and when I say interesting I mean only for people like me, the Korean word for weekend ju mal contains the components week and end of a time period. The Chinese word jo mo is nearly identical and uses the same Chinese characters, but it has no meaning in Chinese apart from weekend. Could this mean that weekend is a Korean word, written with Chinese characters, which was adopted by the Chinese? Since the Korean government is paying my tuition, I will say, “Yes, it
is.”

Ok, enough egg-headed details about the Korean language. Now let’s look at why learning Korean is such a traumatic experience. First off, Korean is the only language I have learned, so far, where there are two separate counting systems. They have a Chinese counting system (based on Manchurian dialect, not Mandarin) which is used for counting certain things, other things are counted with a Korean counting system. As a student of the language its frustrating trying to remember which set of numbers to use. When reading stand alone numbers, such phone numbers, addresses, ID card numbers and bus and train numbers, you use the Manchurian numbers. When
counting things, you use the Korean numbers. When telling time, however, the hours are counted with Korean numbers, but the minutes with the Chinese numbers. So 5:05 would be dasot shi o bun. Dasot being five in the Korean system and o being five in the Chinese system. Twenty-four hour shops, however, are called by the Chinese number yisip-sa shi instead of the Korean seumel net shi.
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If you have ever taken Tae Kwan Do in the States, the exercises are always counted il, i, sam, sa, o, yuk…but this is incorrect because these are the Chinese numbers. When you study martial arts in Korea, the exercises are
counted using Korean numbers, han, dul, set, net, dasot, yosot… My personal waterloo in learning Korean language is the social register. In Korean language there are special ways of addressing people depending on
their status. So you use one verb form for talking to a friend, and another for talking to your parents. You would use yet another for talking to your grandparents. You also use special forms for talking about people who are more important. Just when I thought there couldn’t possibly be another verb form, I stumbled onto a sentence I couldn’t make heads or tales of. My teacher explained to me, “this is how a mother talks to her son, if she is talking about the grandfather.”
Of course!

In addition to the various address forms, Korean is the only Asian language I have studied which has a full compliment of grammar. In addition to having numerous verb tenses, Korean also has grammatical moods to convey concepts such as probability, suggestions, orders, requests, doubt…and then each of
these moods will have various forms dependent on who you are talking too. Chinese is simple in comparison. Almost everything is in the indicative and there really aren’t any tenses. Once the tense has been established, you
no longer need the various indicators. Korean also has particles which follow nouns to tell whether the word is a
name or an inanimate object, a subject, an object, plural or, a single subject which is similar to a subject already mentioned.

And so I sit, frustrated. I have memorized, at this point, literally more than one thousand main words, verbs, nouns and adjectives. And yet, every time I open my mouth I have to think, who am I talking to? What are we talking about? How sure of this am I? When did it happen? By the time I sort out all of these details, the person I wanted to talk to is home in bed. And I am left alone and speechless. The good news is, the average American male has a life expectancy of 78 years, so I still have 38 years to learn to speak Korean. Maybe by then I will have learned to like kimchi.

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I’m a software consultant by profession. I started ‘serious’ travelling for professional reasons at the age of 23 (in 1994) when I went to Hong Kong/South Korea for a business visit for one month. I did not speak Korean and did not know anyone else who spoke Korean. Being a vegetarian compounded the problem as I struggled to get the message across in hotels.

But it amazes me how human mind works. On my second visit to the restaurant, I again faced the problem of what to eat. I took the paper tissue kept on the table and drew a chicken on it. Then I put a BIG cross on it. Then I drew a four legged animal and again drew a cross across it. Then it was turn of the fish and again a big cross. Then I drew an Egg next to the chicken I drew earlier and put a big YES tick on it (like the Nike logo). Then something with leaves again a yes there. The waitress could not believe what was going on, but at the end of it she was amazed and gave a huge smile that she understood.
She also called her manager to see this weird fellow’s drawings and both of them laughed and put fingers on some menu options on the menu card. I ordered one of it and found that I indeed got an egg fried rice.

However later I got better. Next day, I requested one of my colleagues who could write a bit of english to write some common things for me in Korean (including one that said ‘I’m a vegetarian – no meat or fish for me. Egg is fine’) and later on only thing I had to do was to carry that paper with me and show the message. In my next trip to South Korea in 1995, I had managed to buy English / Korean book of common phrases and had picked up the Hangul script. So I could easily write and read things correctly, although I could not tell what it means due to my limited vocabulary.