There isn’t actually a subway station in Seoul with that name. However, at least one of my fellow students on this study abroad trip has used Cinnamon Station as a mnemonic device to remember Shinimun ( 신이문 ) Station, the subway stop near our first hotel. Shinimun isn’t pronounced quite like cinnamon, but there is enough of a similarity to make it work. My wife and I used the mnemonic “gye rhymes with stay” to remember which of the Korean farewells you said to a person leaving when you were staying ( 안녕히가세요 annyeonghigaseyo) and which you said to a person staying when you were leaving ( 안녕히계세요 annyeonghigyeseyo). And then upon coming to Korea I had a sudden insight that these were command forms of verbs, one of which I knew.
For one of our lectures during the first week we were given a brief overview of Hangeul ( 한글 ), which is the Korean alphabet. While I already knew how to read and speak the letters it was nice to relearn their names. It also was beneficially for the other students in the program. However, not much in the way of practice for reading or writing was given and the lecture was rather short, so I’m not sure how many of our group came away from the lecture able to read Hangeul. So Dr. S and Dr. L gave an additional lecture on Hangeul later. Below is a replica of the book King Sejeong wrote to teach the people Hangeul.
You can get by fairly well without any knowledge of Korean. Especially in areas frequented by tourists. The subways and buses provide stop information in English in addition to in Korean, though more information is given in Korean than in English. The picture below shows signage at a bus stop. Many in the younger generations speak English because they learned it in school and/or at a hakwon ( 학원 ), which are after-school academies. Other Koreans know a smattering of English. With them conversation becomes a mix of Korean and English with some pantomime thrown in. And with those who don’t speak any English much of the same happens except the English you say isn’t understood and it is through pointing and other hand gestures that communication happens.
I know some Korean, so there is more I comprehend than some of the other students on this trip. But my vocabulary is rather small. So I often feel like a little child or a parrot in terms of what I can say. Listening outside of conversations and reading don’t pose too much of a problem and writing is not too bad–as long as you look past my atrocious handwriting–but speaking proves difficult only because it means I’m trying to have a conversation.
So let us look at some of the language adventures I’ve had so far.
The laundry machines at our first hotel were entirely in Korean. Luckily I had a dictionary to help me decipher the words I didn’t know. However, I thought the wash cycle would only take about 15 minutes and then it ended up taking an hour and a half! The dryer didn’t take as long, but it left the clothes still damp. This might have been because I had done my best to select a low power dry cycle to follow the instructions on the clothing labels. In any case, it was now late and I didn’t feel like staying up any longer to deal with my laundry. As my wife was still in Korea at this point I left my laundry to dry on the spare bed in her room and went back to the room I had for the program to sleep. Having learned my lesson, I started laundry the next time around earlier in the day, so as to not force me to be up past midnight. The wash cycle was still an hour and a half long, but I decided it was worth it for the gentle wash it gave my clothes. Then I tried a different dry cycle, but still geared toward being gentle on clothes. And like last time the clothes were still damp. So I ran them through the dryer a second time on a slightly more powerful setting. They came out a little bit dryer, but remained damp to the touch. So I hung them up in my room on every available space, including draping them over my suitcase.
The above picture shows what happens when you know only some of the words in what you are ordering–you get to eat octopus/squid. This was actually the second time I had this happen to me this trip. The first time my wife was with me and I ordered a rice dish that I didn’t expect to contain octopus/squid. It did and my wife was not pleased. But she ate most of her bowl and fed me the rest. I thought it was delicious, though I had been hoping for non-seafood that evening. This happened because we went to a small family-owned restaurant that didn’t have a picture menu nor an English speaker. Then on my long hike I went into restaurant because it had peppers as part of its logo. And again ended up with octopus/squid. But this time the restaurant owner, who didn’t speak English, called a translator to inform me that not only was I going to be eating octopus, but that the food would be spicy. After hearing this I decided to go ahead with my order, even though once again I had ordered octopus/squid without realizing it. The translator even told me that my decision was a good one as the food sounded delicious!
While cafes don’t carry the danger of accidentally ordering squid, they do create language adventures. Below is a picture of the sign for a cafe I did a little course work in. They had some delicious honey bread there. Mmm. There are two interesting things in this picture. The first is that there is a manhwa ( 만화 ) cafe above Coffeenie Cafe that I never did check out. The second is that the slogan/tagline on the awning mentions the concept of a third place. I found that cool, as I had learned about third places during winter quarter in a class taught by Dr. S, in fact.
This next picture is from the outside of a cafe near Bukchon Hanok village, which I talked about in my previous post. I just find it amusing trying to figure out what exactly spelling on my lazy time entails. As this photo and the one before it illustrate, grammar pedants for English should probably learn to temporarily suspend their pedantry before coming to Korea. For not only are there errors in translation, but there is also what is known as Konglish, or the Korean use of English in ways that don’t match how native speakers of English would speak. Such as the use of handphone ( 핸드폰 ) for cell phone or the use of fighting (spelled hwaiting 화이팅 or paiting 파이팅 due to Korean having no f sound) as a cheer to urge people on and encourage them.
Below is a picture of the outside of the Starbucks in Insadong, a street where many traditional wares are sold. Unlike any other Starbucks that I’ve seen in Korea, this one has the main sign written in Hangeul. From what I’ve been told Starbucks was required to have the primary text in Hangeul to preserve the character of the street. I doubt that it is the only Starbucks in the world to have the primary sign in the script of a non-English local language, but it definitely is fairly unique. While I didn’t go inside this Starbucks, while visiting with a friend in Busan on a free day we went into a Starbucks. I ordered an Avocado smoothie. It was… interesting and probably very healthy. I am curious as to whether or not this smoothie is a regional offering or if it is available worldwide. I suppose I’ll find out when I return!
Below is a picture of the entry hall of Dragon Hill Spa, located near Yongsan ( 용산 ) station. Yongsan translates to dragon mountain, so the spa’s name is a little off if it was going for a direct translation. In any case, the spa is located next to the combined Yongsan subway and train station. One free evening a group of my classmates and I went to experience a Korean spa. It was a lot of fun. Though there were signs in English, the cultural aspects didn’t translate so well. So for some of us it was a surprise to discover that for the spa portion, which was separated by gender, you had to get starkers and then scrub yourself clean before climbing into the spa. For that reason I don’t have any pictures past the entrance. There was a portion where you wore provided tops and bottoms to enjoy the ice room and the charcoal-heated rooms, which looked a lot like pizza ovens, but my camera was secure in a locker at that point.
So those were several of my language adventures. If you ever travel to a place where the official language is not English, I encourage you to venture forth out of the areas where English is spoken for tourists. You may end up with some interesting foods to eat. But the experience of having to figure out how to do an ordinary task in another language can help you appreciate those tasks more and clue you in to the adventures you are living.