Monday, April 27, 2009

My Inevitable Quantum Of Confusion

Well dear readers the moment has come that everyone warned me about.  The feeling that my conscious mind told my unconscious mind to not even think about or else it'd get got when I began this madcap and rash journey.  I am homesick.

Really, really homesick.

It started kicking in about three weeks ago when I woke up on a Saturday morning to a huge spider bite in an area that spider bites should never, ever, besiege young men.   Nothing life threatening or challenging if treated with a trusty dose of strong rubbing alcohol I thought.  That started the sojourn over to the ridiculously huge shopping complex about a half mile down the road from me named Lotte Mart.  This complex has a massage suite, hair salon, Best Buy style electronics booth, Culture Center/daycare, eye-doctor, dentist, fully stocked grocery, five different floors, and not one single Goddamn bottle of rubbing alcohol anywhere on the premises.   

I asked tellers for it.  I asked the women at the cosmetic counters putting make-up on customers.  I asked those customers.  I asked the women wearing thigh high white stockings and red aprons roasting pork on a small grill for samples.  I asked the security guards in navy blue blazers and secret service style white earpieces.  I asked the information desk which in turn told me to ask someone else.  I spent over two hours walking around this colosseum to capitalism and left with nothing but a bunion and a thorough understanding that I can't speak {CENSORED}-ing Korean.  No one understood a thing I was saying and I defy you to come up with the charades equivalent of "rubbing alcohol."  

I decided to then just go exploring.  I walked to every outdoor market I could find, every 7-11, every Family mart.  I spent literally six hours looking for something that I could have fallen backwards blindfolded and found at home.  I was directed to everything other than what I was looking for like umbrellas or latex condoms slathered in numbing cream.  I gave the counter guy that one.  Rubbing probably brings this to mind but just saying alcohol kept getting me sent to the beer locker.  

I was literally lost in translation.  

This actualized the growing frustration that had been boiling inside me to this point.  The novelty of living here had started to wear off and up until this point I was subconsciously trying to avoid it.  Sure there were fun times and great new friends but there is also a constant sickness as my biology adjusts to this new environment, the stress of working for a Korean school that does not have our concepts of break-time or sick-time, and the budding loneliness of knowing my best friends are thousands of miles away and I'm pounding the pavement doing charades at confused strangers for a bottle of rubbing alcohol.  Which, it turns out, they do not even use in this country.  I was starting to feel at a loss.

After a couple more weeks of internalizing these feelings I started to observe my habits in my traveling journal.  I was no longer trying to learn Korean.  I was hanging out with other Westerners only and watching Western TV and drinking any found bottle of Budwieser like it was a good and fulfilling investment worth 10 bucks.  I was shunning the country I had moved Heaven and Earth to uproot and live in.  This just will not do.  

After actualizing my struggles to another person, making them tangible, I felt the space to research what the hell was going on with me.  One quick Google search later (hey, remember learning the Dewey Decimal system?  When knowledge required a library card?) and found a study done in 1954 published by Bobbs-Merrill that details the 5 distinct stages of culture shock.  Lo and behold, not only was I not the uncanny exception to the rule I always favor myself to be but I am smack dab in the middle of stage three: The Regression Phase.   

First things first, lets break down the stages.  Stage one is The Honeymoon Phase.  This is when everything is new and weird and awesome and exciting and comes with a sense of euphoria after overcoming anything mundane in this new paradigm like ordering food or getting a taxi.  Then, once "the newcomer," as we're called, has to face the problems of this new situation including not knowing directions, diet changes, or not finding a single {CENSORED}-ing bottle of rubbing alcohol any {CENSORED}-ing where in this Goddamn country we immediately slip into stage two, The Rejection Phase.  

Here "the newcomer" starts to dwell on the negative aspects of the new country and rejects their host country because, basically, it ain't home.  The interesting part of the study shows that you either toughen up and get stronger or your body starts to fall apart health-wise and you go home.  I did the former.  I started working out more, got a Wii Fit, ate like a monk, cut tons of weight, and felt like a finely sharpened blade.  Yet internally I was still going crazy and it was boiling over leading to sore throats, anxiety, zits, and overall exhaustion after work.  Then, almost overnight, I found a can of Pringles at a small market hut and ate the living hell out of it.  I found chicken like they do at home and started making that for dinner more.  I even found broccoli and asparagus and was back on my diet instead of constant Kimshi, sushi, and kimbop.  Now here, dear readers, is where I reside, knee deep in stage three: The Regression Phase.

This is when you remember home as this fantastic shangri-la where all the little things that used to piss you off are suddenly no big deal anymore.  Where all the difficulties you might have had there seem marvelously silly and you spend most of your time wondering why you would have ever left to begin with.  This is not reality of course but an illusion created by the internal crisis of your subconscious mind going "I am freaking OUT here man!" and your conscious mind countering, "s'all good, I'm a world traveler.  Ain't no thang, I don't scare easy.  It's this stupid {CENSORED}-ing country that doesn't have any rubbing alcohol, not me."

If one can make it through this third stage, then we enter stage four, The Recovery Phase.  This is when things are still odd, you don't get the culture necessarily, but you can deal.  The novelty aspect of the honeymoon phase returns but with a more capable approach of being less anxious and able to communicate within the society a lot better.  The start of my third month is right around the corner and I can feel myself edging slowly towards this phase already.  I have been studying Korean again and enough that I can read the alphabet now, albiet like a newborn baby, and thanks to the Korean lessons I am having very simple conversations with natives like: "My name is Alan.  I am an English Teacher.  I would like one order of kimbop and a coke.  It's a pleasure to meet you."  It goes a long way to edging the anxiety.  Also, the work environment has edged off with a new teacher starting this last week giving all of us a break.  Finally.  Now instead of teaching all day with only three ten minute breaks I get an hour break between the morning and afternoon classes to finally grade papers and correct essays at school and not have to take it home with me anymore.  This is huge.  

The thing that really gives me hope in this study is that in stage four you get your sense of humor back and can laugh at yourself again.  I have just recently begun being able to look at things objectively and not desperately.  There are zits from stress, I could stand to put back on a pound or two that I've lost, and I am constantly fighting some kind of subtle malaise from the pollution here, but at least I can look back on that Saturday clocking over 6 miles on my pedometer making obscure gesticulations at strangers for a bottle of something they have never even heard of as truly hilarious.  They gave me a box of condoms with numbing cream on them for Christ's sakes.  

"Numbing.. cream?" I remember saying to the clerk, totally exasperated.  "I thought these things numbed you enough already."  He just smiled nervously and nodded his head up and down quickly, going, 'N-aye..n-aye.." (Which means "yes" here.)  

That's comedy.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Fascinating Shit #287: Learning Korean

Hello and welcome to another installment of Fascinating Shit.  In this weeks episode, we'll go on an exciting and unique adventure into the heart of the Korean alphabet and what secrets lurk on the other side.  Grab a glass, fill it with something good, and settle in while we prepare to blow your mind.

Look at this word if you please:


Gibberish right?  To the western eye this will no doubt make little to absolutely no sense.  To my geeky eye it looks like some kind of alien language passed down to us from the stars centuries ago.  Or, to the grounded in reality, it will appear like characters in the Hangeul alphabet.  I happen to like my interpretation better but that's besides the point.  Let's analyze this puppy.

First the mechanics:  The Korean language does have single letters and those letters are compacted in order to produce syllables.  What you are looking at is six different letters put together to form three different syllables.  The way the syllables go is consonant-vowel.  Sometimes it can go consonant-vowel-consonant but that's the max.  Three letters at the most will form a syllable.  So for this lesson we're doing a very easy one with just two letters, consonant-vowel, forming each syllable.  So look at it again:


What are the letters then?  The vowels each have a specific sound that they make while the consonants can play double duty.  They can be different letters in the western alphabet depending on their position in the word itself but both the letters come from the same place your tongue hitting the roof of your mouth can produce.  Hence, this is a very phonetic language with emphasis on how the sound is produced in your mouth.  For example, the first syllable is:

The first character is a consonant as we know and the second is a vowel.  The consonant is an R (or can sometimes also be an L) and the vowel is A, pronounced like "Ah."  Therefore 라 is pronounced R-Ah.  Now the second one:

The consonant is a D sound (or can sometimes be pronounced as a T, notice how your tongue is in the exact same position on your mouth for either letter?) and the vowel is an I sound that is really pronounced like EE.  So  is pronounced D-EE.  Now the third and trickiest syllable:

This gets a little weird so stay with me.  The circle on the top of the stem is called the vowel consonant.  As I said, the formula for each syllable has to be consonant-vowel so if the beginning sound of a syllable is going to be a vowel, which it is in this case, and there are no more consonants to place in the syllable before it, then they created a fascinating thing called the vowel consonant which is nothing more than a placeholder for the vowel, standing in the place of the consonant, and making no sound whatsoever.  There are two letters in this syllable but only one of them makes any sound.  Weird huh?  Now to compound this that circular vowel consonant DOES make an Ng sound if it is at the END of a syllable, but since it is in the beginning it is voiceless like the k in the beginning of knife or knight.  So with the first consonant silent the only sound left is the vowel (which is an O) and sounds like OH.  Therefore  sounds like OH.


라  =  R-AH

디  =  D-EE

오  =  OH

Can you see it now?


Fascinating shit right?  Of course not everything is as literal, mainly only things that came from other countries still have their own words broken into Hangeul.  The alphabet was created in 1444 during the reign of King Sejong in the beginning of an era known as the Joseon Dynasty, which lasted from 1392 to 1910!  Before introducing the alphabet the only people who were literate were leaders and members of the elite class and even they had to use complex Chinese characters.  King Sejong presided over the simplifying of the alphabet into 28 characters and the actual title of the alphabet literally translated into "the correct sounds for the instruction of the people."  The modern classification of Hangeul was coined by Korean linguist Ju Si-gyeong in the late 1880's.  

This has been another installment of Fascinating Shit.  Go on and copy this word down and impress your friends.  More to come as my Korean lessons continue of course.  

As always, stay classy San Diego!