Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Nope, it’s a Language Plateau!

When I tell people I’ve been studying Japanese for 5 years now, most of them expect me to be fluent. While this can be reasoned away with a short explanation of difficulties of Japanese for English speakers and my meager beginnings, there’s still a little voice in the back of my head whispering, Yes, but shouldn’t you be?

That voice has gotten progressively louder over the past two years as I’ve been taking proper (rigorous) courses in Japanese since freshman year of college and studying abroad in Japan. I took CET Osaka’s fourth year class last summer and passed with flying colors. While my conversational ability and listening comprehension sky-rocketed, my reading comprehension had not improved enough to land me in Yale’s fifth year Japanese class. However I did have a chance to audit the class and it wasn’t that I couldn’t understand the material, but it was that I couldn’t properly express my own opinions on more serious issues such as politics. So, sophomore year I took Yale’s fourth year Japanese class along with those who hadn’t studied abroad (ouch, my pride) in which I also performed relatively well because I invested so much time into memorizing kanji and writing example sentences like a good student. However it became pretty apparent that I was learning kanji and vocabulary to get the grade, not to dedicate those words to memory. I was reading to get the gist so I didn’t look dumb in class, not to deeply understand. I did enough to get by, but not  enough to make permanent improvement. To this I thought, “Well, my attention is so divided because I’m working on so many other classes/projects/clubs. I simply don’t have enough time right now…” It was easy to forgive myself when I was acing the class.

Now I’m studying abroad in Japan yet again and the error of my ways is glaringly apparent. Though technically I’ve taken fourth year Japanese twice I’m stuck in Nanzan’s fourth year Japanese class AGAIN. With people who just started learning Japanese two or three years ago (how do you like that cookin, pride?). I’m not doing poorly, but my performance hardly reflects the time and energy I’ve invested into Japanese thus far. In class I see kanji and grammar structures that I’ve seen before or that I used to know. If I have to learn how to present graphs and charts in Japanese one more time I think I’m gonna scream. I should be able to understand the news with high percent accuracy or give an impromptu speech on a familiar topic in class without it turning to gibberish halfway through.  My language learning experience now is one big deja vu: Haven’t I done this before?! Why haven’t I gotten it?

What am I doing wrong?

It’s sad that it took me this long to realize that I’d hit a language plateau and I’ve probably been stuck on one for the past calendar year despite taking more challenging classes. Thanks to our good friend Google, I learned that I’m not the only one who hit a brick wall in language learning. There are tons of personal blogs posts and academic-sounding articles (with graphs!) from people who have hit the same brick wall but after some self-reflection took a few steps back a deep breath, a nap, a bowl of Wheaties and vaulted themselves over it. I’ll spare you the inspirational details and cheesy motivations (if you want them, click here and here) but by surfing through these websites I’ve found a few useful things:

Japanese language learning has become routine. I have been stuck in a classroom the past two years taking kanji and vocabulary quizzes, reading short stories and articles aloud and answering reading comprehension questions. Sure, teachers are doing their absolute best to vary the material and projects (to include speeches presentations popular media, so on and so forth) and while it was challenging and new at first, once I mastered the motions to get through Japanese class, I figured my Japanese was good enough, so I subconsciously stopped trying to get better.

The general attitude during this “autopilot” mode is: My Japanese is good enough for the teacher and native speakers to understand the gist of what I’m saying, so that’s good enough. This attitude was only cemented last summer when I realized I knew enough Japanese to get by in Japan or watch a movie completely in Japanese. Wasn’t that the goal? No one in Japan expects my Japanese to be perfect and no one is going out of their way to talk to me about deeper topics like international politics, Japan’s aging population or social hierarchy, so why should I bother in the first place? I don’t even talk about those things in English.

Which leads to another good point mentioned in both articles: marginal benefit, and diminishing return: “The law of diminishing returns is actually taken from the field of economics, but when applied to language learning it means something like this: the more effort you put into learning a language over time, the smaller your increases in fluency become. The more time you invest, the smaller your returns on investment become.” (From Lingholic.com)

The Japanese I’ve been learning the last calendar year has been grammar, vocabulary and kanji found in newspapers or academic articles. As great as it is to learn these words for the sake of literacy, I simply don’t use the grammar in everyday conversations and especially because I don’t live in Japan, these are not kanji and vocabulary I would encounter on a daily basis. So I get less use (“return”) out of these words, and I’m more likely to forget them as opposed to basic vocab and grammar structures.  It’s like taking a step forward only to be pushed three or four back. And it sucks.

A lot of people give up at this point, apparently, and I certainly understand why. Every day I ask myself if I really want to continue. Is it necessary for me to be perfectly fluent to land a job? Can’t I just be happy with where I am now?

…But wouldn’t it be a shame to come this far only to stop? I don’t think I could live with myself if I did throw in the towel. I would probably run into this same problem with other languages (like Korean) so it would probably behoove me to learn how to divide and conquer now.

This requires some thinking, planning and re-assessment: I’ve got to rekindle my motivation for learning Japanese, isolate my weaknesses and tackle them one at a time. Find some new study methods. Keep it interesting. Hopefully there will be a series of posts mapping out my divide and conquer strategy. We’ll see.

Advertisements

Nanzan the Tortoise

I should have taken the hint during the application process when several of my emails requesting a paper copy of the Fall 2015 Nanzan CJS application went unanswered, neither confirming that the application had been sent nor the time I could expect it to arrive. Yet again when I wired the tuition fees to the overseas account, I received no notification that it had been received, dues and fees paid, or that my spot in the 2015 Nanzan program had been confirmed. In both instances, it was weeks after deadline that they sent me a polite email apologizing for the delay in responding and affirming, yes, the application had been sent and my tuition had been received. My first few interactions with Nanzan set the tone for the rest of the semester.

A little background: I chose to study at Nanzan University this fall semester because it was one of the few programs approved by Light Fellowship that offered Linguistics courses that would count towards the major at Yale and I’d heard nothing disparaging about their Japanese language program. Specifically, they offered a course on the comparative phonology of Japanese and Korean, which would suit me just fine as I’d just spent three months living and studying in Seoul. In a nutshell, I saw this as an opportunity to explore Japanese or Korean linguistics coursework which is not available at Yale.

Upon arriving at Nanzan, I was made to endure the longest, most boring orientation of my life. Ten days of events, speeches and lectures that could have been summarized in a few simple words; some days they just read the student guide to us word by word. If the agenda for that day was supposed to end at 4pm, sometimes they would end early at 1pm or so, saying more information would be covered the next day. Why? Why not just talk about dropping-out policies now, while you’re on the topic of academic honesty? It’s on the exact same page in the manual. Please, spare me the pain of having to show up early tomorrow just to hear you tell me something that’s already written in the guide. Eight days into this pointless orientation, we finally got to register for classes, I quickly checked the classes I wanted to take and was ready to hand the form in to my section’s representative Nanzan CJS staff member. When she saw me approach, she flailed a little bit before asking me several times if I was really ready to hand in my form and when I assured her that I absolutely was, she mumbled a string of ‘um’s before calling someone else over to take a look at it. A man came over, checked everything and accepted the form in under a minute. The woman (keep in mind, this is supposed to be her job) then asked him to double check every single form from there on out. Are you kidding me? That just extends the whole process into a gross amount of time. But that’s just the way things are done here. I’ve never seen so many worker bees look so busy to accomplish absolutely nothing. Am I being overly critical? Sure, I know I am. Sorry, I’ve been getting in touch with my inner Virgo lately. We are an efficient people.

It may be harsh to call them completely ineffectual. It’s just the Japanese way to be very by the book, following all the long-established laws and policies to a T and sometimes to a fault. Occasionally this may seem ineffective to outsiders like me who are not familiar with or sympathetic to the system. If something about the system isn’t at its best, naturally, I want to optimize it even at the risk or throwing out methods that have worked for years. (But that comes with its own problems…) Their by-the-book mentality and attention to detail does have its benefits when it comes to teaching traditional textbook learners like myself. Though the readings in Nanzan’s Japanese classes are much shorter than the ones we received at Yale (the course packet is laughably light) the teachers spend careful minutes on each sentence of the text, stopping to ask questions about meanings and nuances of adverbs that students thought they knew well. Because there’s no rush, no one feels bad for asking clarifying questions or for further examples. It’s just what I need to improve my reading comprehension skills. The teachers are very sensitive to the students’ needs, sensing when we really not understanding even when we say we are and also sparing the students embarrassment in class when it looks like we don’t know the answer to a particular question. It’s a slow and steady learning environment.

The elective classes are a different story. Only after leaving Yale did I realize the rigor of the classes and exactly how much of a heavy workload i’m used to handling. Besides two intensive Japanese courses, I’m also taking Japanese Language and Society (which is really more like a watered down socio-linguistics class) Japanese Religions and Japanese Syntax. That class I came here for? The Korean-Japanese Phonology one? Yeah, it was one of two or three classes that got cancelled. Just my luck. The one class I was looking forward to the most got cancelled and I’m stuck with two other pseudo-linguistics classes taught in very slow English designed for students who’ve never taken a linguistics class. I feel a terrible intellectual itchiness, here and in a very Carmen-like fashion, I’m setting out to scratch my own back: finding texts on Japanese and Korean phonology, finding the original books the required reading articles come from and doing all the supplementary reading. I guess no matter what, you can’t take the nerd out the girl.

Japan Round 2

As my friends celebrated Round Three of Yale with triple-filtered posts on Instagram of residential colleges and selfies with friends they haven’t seen in months, I was tearfully packing up my life in Korea, not to return home to celebrate with them, but to study abroad in Japan for the second time. I wish I could’ve been excited, but more than anything I was overcome with nostalgia for Yale and sadness as I left Korea. Fittingly, I know the perfect word for this in Korean now: 섭섭하다. While that old saying “distance makes the heart grow fonder” is definitely the case for Yale and eventually will be for Korea, this is not the case for Japan. Well, I suppose the saying is ‘grow fonder’ so one would have to hold a certain fondness in the first place. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Surprise: I didn’t exactly enjoy Round 1 of Japan. Summer 2014. Carmen vs. Osaka, I was immediately KO’d. My bravery lasted for all of two weeks before the rose-colored glasses were smashed into pieces, breaking my nose and reducing me to a puddle of regret and tears. Yes, I cried. Yes, I wished to go home. And why shouldn’t I? When the culture you’ve spent most of your adolescent life learning to respect and understand does not offer you the same courtesy, who wouldn’t beat their chests savagely out of grief and loneliness and wish for all the time back that you felt you’ve lost? The language barrier was not the cause of my alienation, because I was proficient enough to hold a conversation and also discuss societal issues such as the treatment of women in the workplace and the aging population. But these conversations never happened because no one wanted to get to know me or what I thought or who I was. The people I encountered just wanted to take a selfie with me because I looked weird, or point and laugh like I was an exhibit at the zoo. Language is not the only necessary thing to bridge gaps between human beings, I learned. Putting aside languages, you also have to extend love, understanding, empathy, some degree of kindness. A smile would be nice. Every time I smiled at someone, they ignored me completely or turned away. That’s just the culture. Since I felt no one was even trying to meet me halfway, I shut down and let the whole bridge crumble.

I boarded the plane to Japan not expecting Round 2 to be anything spectacular. I’d already started a countdown calendar, trying to think it shorter: it’s only one semester. 107 days to be exact. I don’t have to stay here for the rest of my life. By Christmas, I’ll be at home stuffing my face with buttery, mouth-watering, artery-clogging, seasoned to perfection Southern food. I won’t have to pretend I don’t want or need, or pretend that the hole in my gut is hunger when it’s actually something darker and deeper. And best of all: I won’t have to separate the garbage after all the eating is done.

Recently, I’m taking comfort in the fact that time in Japan will pass regardless of how I feel. Whether days are crappy or awesome, they’re just hours, minutes, seconds. The two minutes I spend willing for my host family’s dog to catch fire could’ve been two minutes spent laughing at Engrish on a T-shirt. What a terrible waste of a semester it would be, to come halfway across the world only to wish to go home. Surely there are others who want to be in my position; though I can’t imagine it now, there will come a time when I’ll wish I’d taken full advantage of this opportunity. So here I am, a week into my study abroad semester trying to change my attitude towards it all.

The Great Bingsu Review [August]

It is with a very heavy heart that I post my last bingsu review (for this year at least). I had a lot of fantastic bingsu this month, because I know how to pick ’em now! Here’s the final round, Round 3!

11169063_934571199915311_1760969442237865286_n

6.5/10

This is a Royal Milk Tea Bingsu from a famous bingsu place in Ichon. Famous as in, we had to wait in line for 20 minutes just to get a seat, and that wasn’t even their busiest day. In my opinion this should be called Sundae bingsu because it features bananas, chocolate syrup, coconut flakes, walnuts and almonds, and ice cream. Where is this supposed milk tea flavor, you might ask. Well, I was asking that too. BECAUSE IT’S NOT THERE. Hahaha, I’m kidding. Kind of. It’s waaaaay down at the bottom under the mountain of useless toppings that do nothing but keep me waiting in needless anticipation for the advertised milk tea flavor. And it’s not even that great by the time you get there. I spent so much time waiting to get to the flavored ice that I didn’t even pay attention to how finely the ice was shaved and the overall mix-ability of the entire dish. My advice if you go to this shop? Don’t get this one. The strawberry looked fabulous though.

7.5/10

Mango coconut bingsu from Meet Fresh. This huge mountain of fluffy coconutty goodness is best shared among 3 people. There’s mango syrup layered throughout the ice, but largely the dominating flavor is coconut. The sad dollop of mango sherbet and the actual mango (which was really fresh by the way) just felt like another attempt to balance out the coconut. It didn’t work. I had to search for the mango sherbet hiding behind the mountain of ice, and since you have to carve the mango pieces out to eat them, you end up losing a lot of it. I really enjoyed the coconut flavor of this one, but the lack of balance (of mango/coconut flavor and of ice and toppings) isn’t going to get it on my favorites list.

7.5/10

Isn’t this cherry blossom bingsu just darling? The ice is pretty standard and plain on the outside, but the middle is softer and sweeter like milk had been poured over it. There are two layers of cherry blossom paste: on the top and another halfway through. (Not sure if those flowers on top are supposed to be edible or not….) The crumbly-looking flower pieces have a more intense flavor than the paste. It’s hard to describe the cherry blossom flavor to someone who’s never had it, but it’s kind of like rose + strawberry, maybe? I dunno. Floral flavors are hard to describe. Anyway, this bingsu is light, delicate and refreshing. It’s the kind of bingsu you eat while writing poetry. Makes you stop and appreciate the little things. It’s definitely cute and charming, but more of a novelty. I don’t think I’ll crave this one, but the time we spent together was nice (read: romantic and confusing) while it lasted.

8/10

This injeolmi bingsu is from a cafe near Sungshin Women’s University. With real milk ice, two layers of injeolmi goodness, and plenty of red bean to go around, you don’t even need condensed milk to power through this bingsu. The milk ice and sprinkle of soybean powder strike the perfect balance between earthy and sweet, and the red beans keep things mildly interesting. Plus, no danger of choking on a spoonful of powder! Yay! In a nutshell, this bingsu has it together. It’s professional. Solid. Dependable. It’s the bingsu in a well-tailored black or navy blue suit. The kind of bingsu that could do your taxes.

8/10

This is a mango cup bingsu from Meet Fresh, and may I say that it is the most attractive and impressive of their cup bingsu selection, judging by the display at their store. This is the only one that comes with sorbet and other non-fruity goodness on top. The quality of the ice is the same as any regular Meet Fresh bingsu, so texture does not disappoint. However, the flavor at the top is very weak, and I had to rely on the actual mangoes for most of the flavor. They were so sweet…too sweet….and a little mushy. As in, 5 seconds away from being rotten. Some were even turning brown. About halfway through the bingsu, however, is another layer of sorbet (I’m guessing) which is flavorful enough to revive the body of the whole dish. Basically, this one started off a little shaky, but definitely gets better as you eat it. And the improvement happens fast enough so that you don’t throw in the towel early. Maybe just go to a store with fresh mangoes. Because this Meet Fresh was not so fresh.

8.5/10

This is an Earl Grey bingsu from a cafe called Goddess near Ewha. The ice is beautifully shaved into fancy layers; though the ice may look a little brittle, the layers fall away under the spoon smoothly like over-priced Urban Outfitters curtains. Don’t mistake thin ice for weakness of flavor. This was truely like eating a (sweet) London Fog, and the blueberries on top are a nice touch. It looks bare because all the toppings came on the side: crunchy rice granola, red beans, and frozen cranberries (read: they were more like pebbles.) Usually, I love toppings but these conflicted greatly with the smooth, light texture of the bingsu, so I did without them. Even the condensed milk (which I love) seemed to overpower the Earl Grey flavor. It’s hard not to feel elegant when eating this bingsu. So classy y’all.

9.5/10

This is the specialty bingsu from 별다방 미스리!  I had this bingsu for the first time in early June, before the bingsu diary existed. It’s only fitting to close my last bingsu review with this one. This one includes a hodgepodge of toppings: watermelon, kiwi, bananas, Chocolate frosted flakes (??), almonds, granola, rice cake (떡), red beans and (I think) vanilla ice cream. Basically, it’s a whole lot of EVERYTHING and is sure to please even the pickiest of your friends. Eat it section by section, mix it together….the possibilities are endless. The fruit is sliced into small pieces for maximum mix-ability. Every spoonful is delightful. With so many toppings, it’s hard for me to comment on the quality of the ice in detail, but I can say it’s not crunchy. It kind of stays in the background. Most of the sweetness in this bingsu comes from the ice cream, so when it melts, the vanilla flavor permeates the entire dish and it’s just sooooooo great. No condensed milk needed. No complaints here. Nope. None. This felt like eating a big bowl of cereal, actually….I like extravagant breakfasts okay? Don’t judge me. That’s rude.

There were a lot of fantastic bingsu recommended to me, and several shops I saw myself that I didn’t have the opportunity to visit; I’m positive there are billions of bingsu treasures hiding somewhere in Seoul and all over Korea. (I’m looking at you, Jeju.) My bingsu review days were cut short by my departure from Korea, but be rest assured, my bingsu mania still lives on! I shall return!

So Long, Sogang

It’s difficult to believe that my 10 weeks at Sogang have come to an end when I feel like I just arrived in Korea yesterday. Final exams and interviews were held this past Monday and Tuesday and by Wednesday the culmination of all our (hard?) work was handed to us on a single sheet of paper. My test and interview scores were high enough to land me in Level 3 if I were to continue studying at Sogang, which I severely regret not doing. Each Korean program approved by Light Fellowship has its pros and cons: After seeing Ewha’s campus, and hearing about their classes’ cultural excursions, I regretting not going there; after envying the improved vocabularies of friends who had studied at Seoul National, I wish I’d chosen the university closer the the glitz and glamor of Gangnam. Sogang has its weak points, but I see why it would be perfect for those having finished L1 and L2 Korean at Yale.

The focus on listening comprehension and speaking quickly produced results outside of the classroom. As time went on, my ear steadily began to untangle the gibberish of my host family, Koreans on the bus, waiters and waitresses into long strings of distinct words, many of which I did not know the definition of, but I could parse sentences and identify grammar structures to look up on my own later. The grammar you learn in Level 2 at Sogang is very common “building-block” grammar, so whatever I learned in class naturally made its way into conversations at home as well. There’s a noticeable difference in the way I communicate with my family now. Actively listening, asking small clarifying questions about the meanings of words and of course inserting remarks like, “oh, that must’ve been tough” or “you must be relieved.” I certainly feel friendlier and more equipped to talk to native Koreans.

My conversation skills better have improved, considering 2 of the 4 class hours are dedicated to speaking. In this class we read and reread and reread the book dialogues before practicing them with our tablemates, classmates, and the teacher. We spent the other hour making our own sentences using the featured grammar points, usually aloud with a partner or as a class. Writing the sentences on paper was something we could do on our own time, but it wasn’t required. This class was more or less predictable and the example conversations very staged. I wish there had been more variety in the activities we did, like board games or other methods (besides repeating the dialogue) to help the vocabulary and grammar stick.

The other two classes were also repetitive, but the writing class more so than reading/listening. The entire writing class was basically spent using featured grammar to make longer descriptive sentences. We pretended to be journalists and wrote articles, we crafted stories and wrote about many unfortunate circumstances and memories, both real and imagined. Everyday it was the same pattern: practice sentences in class and brainstorm ideas for a specific topic, and then write on that topic for homework. Lather, rinse, repeat. The reading/listening class was slightly less repetitive only because it alternated between listening exercises and reading comprehension. This was also the class which introduced us to facets of Korean culture from superstitions, fairy-tales and traditional culture, to manners, food and the processions of Korean weddings and other major holidays. Occasionally aided by a powerpoint and other posters and pictures, the teacher of this class was the most lively and the hardest to understand because she didn’t dumb things down as much as the other two. It is a listening class, after all.

I would also say it’s true that Sogang’s program is less intensive than the others on Light’s list. Classes aren’t difficult. If you pay attention, you’ll be fine. There wasn’t much homework other than daily writing and completing the workbook, but again, this wasn’t absolutely required (aka: a very, very, very small percentage of your grade) However, doing the work certainly helped me feel better prepared for the exam (especially the writing one). I would also say the pace of the class is medium-slow. We spent way too much time practicing a fixed conversation with our partners instead of learning new things. But this is strictly my opinion; others in my class felt differently. Some thought we didn’t spend enough time on the grammar or that it wasn’t explained well. There was a lot of irritation and rants about potholes in the program that I had to grin and bear. I feel like a jerk for saying that it was actually a pretty smooth ride. I’d already learned a decent portion of the grammar from Yale’s Korean teachers, who threw in extra grammar just to keep things interesting. It was easier for me to remember the Sino-Korean words because of my background in Japanese; in fact I think we could’ve learned more vocabulary. By the end of the summer I felt my ability to use grammar had improved, but I didn’t have the words to put into the grammar structures.

Light Fellowship already knows this and had set up an individual class for over-ambitious students like me, who wouldn’t know how to shut up and take a gut class if lives were threatened. I met two hours a week with a Sogang instructor from Level 4 who tailored the individual class towards what I wanted to do. But she did it her way. I told her about wanting to learn more vocabulary, so she brought packets of vocabulary words from Level 3, explained them to me in Korean, made me memorize them and then tested me on them within the same hour. And then again the next time we met. It was a lot to do that I didn’t want to do. I could sit down and memorize vocabulary words myself, and it kind of bugged me to have to learn these words on her time and then watch her suck her teeth if I missed one on a quiz. I don’t mean to vilify her. She was actually a lovely and very funny woman who laughed with her whole body. Slap the table kind of laughter. She had to take off her comically-large glasses and wipe off her eyes kind of laughter. But I didn’t like being force-fed vocabulary when I’ve already spent all day repeating after teachers and reading from lists. The last thing I wanted was another hour of that with all the attention solely on me. I had to understand her Korean because I had to answer her because I was the only one there. On the plus side, I got one on one preparation for both my midterm and final interviews and if I had a clarifying question about something in class, I knew who I could go to. At our last class together, she patted me on the shoulder and gave me a cookie, so there’s that. It was nice to have a teacher who seemed personally invested in my improvement. Not saying my regular teachers weren’t, but students were kept at a very polite distance. Hell, even students kept other students at a polite (almost cold) arm’s length.

My restlessness towards the end of the Sogang program had nothing to do with the monotony of the classes, but everything to do with my classmates as they tried to cram three months of companionship into our final few hours at the graduation ceremony: selfies, videos, shoulder-patting, arm clinging, half-lies like ‘I’ll miss you’ and ‘Let’s keep in touch.’ Even our teacher, who had been plainly that– not a friend, confidant, or did anything more than strictly was necessary–smiled tightly throughout the whole affair. Maybe I’m just projecting my own feelings, but it looked like she wanted to end the madness and go home. Can’t blame her. The atmosphere of my particular class was a bit competitive and divided. Japanese students stick with Japanese students and somehow manage to make everyone else feel like a foreigner when technically they’re also foreigners. We’re a class of foreigners who should’ve bonded over our love for Korea, but instead it became more and more apparent that people in our class were looking for our differences rather than our similarities. Not all nine people in my class were like this, of course. Some formed loose, convenient bonds over K-pop and girl-talk and went out to lunch and Starbucks together. But to put it in a nutshell, we were a class of co-existing cliques.

Not to be deterred by silly things like classmate bonding (pfft, who needs that?) I still say my time at Sogang was overwhelmingly positive and productive. With my new ability to parse Korean, I could stand to study Korean for a little bit on my own. Watching Korean dramas and TV shows would actually serve as good listening practice and a source for useful new vocabulary. Since soil of my mind has been well-primed, I feel like I could soak up a whole book of Korean grammar right now. I still have a long way to go, but I’m excited about continuing my study of Korean. Unfortunately, since I have Japanese placement tests at Nanzan in about two weeks, I have to put Korean down and pick up Japanese once again. Oh how it has suffered! Korean words come to my mind faster now! How traitorous I am, how low!

Culture Shock It To Me

I used my week-long vacation from Korean class to make a trip to Japan, where I learned that Japan is the worst place to relax. Feeling the pressure to maintain the careful balance of Japanese society– to do things the Japanese way–caused enough tension to warrant another vacation to recover from my vacation (but that didn’t happen because… school). Having been to Japan once last year (for 10 weeks), I am under the impression that you must leave and come back to Japan to understand that it is a very…..unique place. That may induce neurosis.

Ready…Set…Apologize

In Japan, you must apologize for everything. When I stopped at the airport 7-11, I found myself apologizing for giving the cashier a hundred dollar bill for my three dollar purchase. In Japan this isn’t uncommon, as carrying large denominations of bills is the norm; I’ve been told that convenience store cashiers are used to it. I wasn’t sure if the slight look of panic on her face was because of the bill or who was handing over the bill. Either way, I apologized.

You must also apologize for creating a situation that would warrant an apology. My AirBnb host in Kyoto was a wonderfully sweet woman who brought me fresh fruit everyday after I’d come in from sight-seeing. After a day of hiking, I’d hopped straight in the shower. When I got back to my room, I was greeted by a flurry of bows and apologies. She was sorry for bringing me fruit while I was on the shower, and went on about how terrible she felt that the peach was discolored now. She apologized for not bringing it sooner. And then I apologized for being in the shower. The peach was still a lovely color. To this she replied, I’m sorry.

It’s no surprise that I look like this every time I go to Japan:

People even bow while they’re on the phone. It’s pointless to bow when the other party can’t even see you, but it’s the principle. When you say sumimasen or gomen nasai, there’s a bow that comes with it. It’s practically ingrained in the lexical entry.

Even the buses are polite

I’ve written about the special terror that comes with riding the bus in Korea. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think public transportation is supposed to scare you at least a little bit. Kyoto bus-drivers are so polite it’s scary. In his low hissing voice, he warns passengers when he’s coming stopping or taking off. He apologizes for abrupt stops and announces the name of each bus stop even though the pre-recorded voice tells you several times before arrival. This pre-recorded voice also warns you when the bus is turning left or right, which is followed by ご注意ください (please be careful). After being in Korea, I didn’t know whether to think this was hilarious or incredibly pitiful. After all, this politeness slows the buses down considerably. Can you believe buses in Kyoto stop at every red light? The nerve. How will I ever get anywhere on time? I could get to my destination faster if I walked.

Public transportation is eerily quiet. No one is talking with friends, swearing/cooing at their significant other, or calling their children failures. There’s no drama to be had. I thought I would appreciate being able to hear myself think, but it just made me stress more about keeping quiet. I also became hyper-aware of what they were doing so quietly. People watching is in Japan is a bore. It’s especially difficult to people watch when everyone is watching you.

Staying under the Radar

At every turn in Japan I’m reminded that I’m a disturbance, a blockage to their well oiled and smoothly running wa machine. People stare and comment; they make extra space for me on the train that I don’t need. They struggle to remember their middle school English to tell me I’m sorry or to piece together directions that I asked for in Japanese. By making a show of accommodating me, I feel more pressured to fit in, but the more I try to do that the more impossible it seems. It just compounds the original stress. I’m not any less foreign in Korea, but no one cares if I’m trying to fit in or not. They go about their business: people don’t make extra space for me on the bus or train; every little brush of skin does not call for I’m sorry. I do not have to apologize for existing.

When people ask me how my experience in Korea differs from my experience in Japan, I must admit that despite my Japanese being light-years ahead of my Korean, I’m more comfortable in Korea (read: Seoul). I could see myself staying here for a longer period of time, a year or two. People who live in Japan for years on end baffle me. Perhaps you must let Japan settle in your bones.

The Great Bingsu Review [July]

Welcome to The Great Bingsu Review (Round 2) in which I rate the bingsu I had in July from worst to best.


11745880_915068418532256_9194388187323197895_n (1)

5.5/10

When I saw the advertisement for this marshmallow bingsu at Cafe Blog near Ewha, I knew I had to try it. I’ve grown from the mischievous child who ate marshmallow fluff straight from the container (much to my parents’ dismay) into a respectable (?) young adult (???) who now feeds her marshmallow addiction safely through Rice Krispies treats or s’mores. This bingsu took me right back to my childhood though because this is straight up marshmallow. As lovely as the milk ice is, it has no other flavor than syrupy sweetness, and the whipped cream was shockingly plain. This one got real boring, real quick. I spent most of my time just eating the marshmallows. Guess what’s on top though? Korea’s answer to pop-rocks. And they ROCK. But they don’t rock hard enough to land this bingsu a high score on the charts. Though innovative, this was like eating a bowl of pure sugar. No flavor. None. Zip. Nada. I mean, could they at least hook a sista up with some vanilla or somethin’?! You know what’d be awesome? A S’mores bingsu.

11738049_915428151829616_7301051128534650142_n

7.5/10

This green tea bingsu is from a cafe in 북촌. The ice is very crunchy, but gets softer towards the middle of the dish. It’s very off-putting. You practically break your teeth as soon as you start eating and then practice extreme caution when eating the rest of the bingsu. It’s hard to enjoy the nice flavor with your guard up. The bottom layers of ice also carry most of the green tea flavor which is not at all bitter like the O’sulloc bingsu (reviewed below) but not as sweet as a matcha kit-kat. The texture of the 떡 is much closer to what I’d expect from Japanese mochi: soft and delicate. And SWEET. They were almost like….marshmallows? The red beans don’t taste like they’re from a can. Though bananas don’t fit in with the rest of the traditional ingredients, I quite enjoyed them. They enhance the presentation and prevent the ice from breaking all your teeth.

11215124_915068421865589_5089140598622990898_n (1)

8/10

This mango cheesecake bingsu from Sulbing reminds me of something you get at a carnival or a fair: colorful, syrupy and overly sweet. It features mango pieces covered in yuzu syrup, cheesecake bites, and ice cream with some almonds thrown in to make it look a little less like a heart attack. The almonds don’t suit the mango flavor in my opinion, but they were a brief reprieve from all the sugar. The milk ice is typical Sulbing quality, which never disappoints; this bingsu mixes rather well, since the mango pieces aren’t gigantic. Halfway through the bingsu there is yet another layer of syrup (as if we needed more…) so it never gets boring. This bingsu screams FUN and if you gave this to a kid they’d be bouncing all over the walls also screaming FUN. This is like the dessert of the dessert bingsu. Though I wasn’t that excited about it at the time, I’m giving it an 8 because it would’ve hit the spot if I wanted something extremely sweet.

11049444_906546006051164_9127651218145825548_n

8.5/10
This is 한라봉 (hallabong) bingsu from Cafe 오가.다 in 북촌. Hallabong is a really sweet orange/tangerine type of thing famously grown on Jeju Island. They’re supposed to be hella good. I’m not a big fan of citrus fruit, so I had my doubts but this is HELLA GOOD. Upon first bite, that hallabong flavor punched me in the gut and took all my money. It packs a WALLOP. Do you hear me?! The flavor is pretty consistent throughout the whole bingsu, which (almost) makes up for the fact that it’s made with just plain ice. As you can see from the picture, the ice is a little chunky and kind of crunchy, but surprisingly, I think the clear ice works quite well with such a strong citrus flavor. I might actually prefer the clear ice to the milk ice on this one. (At this particular place, you could choose what kind of ice you wanted.) This bingsu continued to surprise me: after you get through that mountain of ice, there’s some very mild coconut milk to refresh you after that hallabong flavor assault.

18407_913510788688019_2864583742145583740_n

8.5/10

This is the infamous 인절미 (injeolmi) bingsu from 설빙. 인절미 is a type of Korean rice cake (not like Quakers…think mochi) covered with roasted soybean flour. It’s a very “traditional Korean flavor” and seems to be polarizing even among Koreans. It’s a best seller at Sulbing, but when I asked my host sister if we could try it, she adamantly said, “No! Not injeolmi!” Maybe she has some secret beef with injeolmi, I don’t know. Anyway, in Japanese, this is 黄粉 (きなこ). The whole bingsu is covered in a mountain of soybean flour so WARNING: you must mix this or you will choke and DIE. Okay, not really, but if you don’t mix it you’ll literally be eating spoonfuls of powder for the first few minutes. Even when I mixed it, it was still clumpy and stuck to the roof of my mouth like peanut butter. The rice cake was very good and there were a few slivers of almonds that added a little crunch. This one is a struggle to eat, but if you really like the nutty きなこ flavor, and want something a little earthy and not too sweet, this one is for you. I didn’t find this one particularly refreshing because it had too much powder, but I had it at a different Sulbing where the balance of powder and ice was just right, so I definitely see the appeal. I’m starting to crave this one now (sorry, host sister).

11209661_907655942606837_2442906162861006715_n

9/10

This 녹차 (green tea) bingsu is from the O’sulloc Tea store in Myeongdong. I would advise you to only get this one if you LOVE green tea. Not green tea flavored stuff like green tea latte or matcha kit-kats. I mean 濃い抹茶. This bingsu has a very deep and bitter flavor; the sweetness comes from the 떡 and the secret layer of red bean in the middle. I thought I loved green tea, but this caught me off guard. I was so happy when those red beans showed up! I was going to give it a lower score because it was almost too bitter to enjoy, but I think that’s the charm. It’s getting a high score for being the most legit 녹차빙수 I’ve ever had.

11218841_909290065776758_8619573311002289768_n

9.5/10

Caramel Coffee Bingsu from 설빙.  It’s a heartier bingsu featuring almonds, cashews, granola, roasted coffee beans and caramel ice cream on top. It would be really hard to eat after a big meal. This bingsu mixes very well and the balance of caramel and coffee is such that it’s hard to separate the two flavors. It’s like a caramel macchiato + bingsu. A little salty to balance out the sweet, your tastebuds will appreciate the harmony of this one. I didn’t even need the condensed milk. I would’ve given it a 10/10 BUT it has a huge glob of red beans in the middle, which threw off the balance of flavors for me. The red beans made it too busy. Of course, if you love red beans no matter what, it’s a 10/10 for you.

10169283_913514052021026_4990621868384065202_n

10/10

Are your friends too busy getting haircuts (or doing something equally lame) to get bingsu with you? Fear not. 호밀밭 is here for you with their stellar fruit bingsu. Technically, I already reviewed this bingsu back in June. I previously gave a 9/10, but I had it again by itself, so it had my full attention this time around. Once again, this is the finest shaved milk ice I’ve had in Seoul; the fruit is sweet, abundant and super fresh (except the strawberries, which are frozen and kind of jank), but it doesn’t overpower the milk flavor of the ice, which is very very nice. The red beans and 떡 were also on point, as I’ve mentioned before. None of that mushy canned stuff. I didn’t really add the red beans because the fruit already keeps this bingsu bumpin’, but you certainly wouldn’t regret adding them in. Another thing I really like about this one is the size. It’s small enough for you to eat by yourself without feeling judged, but you could also share it with a friend. That’s rare in Korea, where it seems like you must be in a pair to do or eat anything.

11745413_915068415198923_2266505479889940623_n (1)

10/10

One of my favorite ones to date. It’s a Taiwanese-style pineapple bingsu from Meet Fresh near Gangnam Station. First of all, they put the whole bingsu in a frickin’ pineapple! Do I need to say more?! The ice is perfectly soft and almost slushy-like, as if they froze the fruit juice. Fresh scoops of pineapple, maraschino cherries, fantastic chewy jelly things, cranberries and (coconut?) milk come together to create the most blissful, refreshing bingsu experience I’ve had in a loooong time. This transported me straight to Hawaii (not that I’ve ever been to Hawaii….) Oh wait. I guess I should say Taiwan (not that I’ve been there either….) EITHER WAY I was walking on sunshine. Pineapple-yellow sunshine. This bingsu was so light and pleasing I thought I could eat two, and I would have! But I didn’t want to pay for another one. Or the Meet Fresh employees to judge me.

30 Things I Love Right Now [July]

(1) Bingsoooooo  (2) Injeolmi bingsu  (3) condensed milk  (4) appeasing my sweet tooth in two languages: 연유. 練乳.  (5) Lim Kim’s album Simple Mind   (6) Never thought I’d say this but: nutella  (7) with saltine crackers  (8) self-control—never straight from the jar  (9) 매실차. Plum Tea.  (10) poetry  (11) Hymn for the Black Terrific  (12) an email from my favorite poet  (13) KP  (14) Reading KP  (15) with a Sade jazz mix playing in the background  (16) free skin  (17) losing the desire for makeup  (18) which necessitates Korean skin products  (19) specifically Black Sugar Serum and masks  (20) Japanese vending machines  (21) my superior sense of direction  (22) but also asking for directions  (23) Kyoto’s Buddhist temples  (24) 永観堂. Eikando  (25) 三十三間堂. Sanjusangendo  (26) incense  (27) 7-11  (28) fancy toilets  (29) coming back to Korea  (30) having a family to come back to in Korea

The Case of the Missing Homesickness

Around this time last year I was humming an impromptu victory song to celebrate the end of CET Osaka in Japan as my classmates and their Japanese language partners fought to keep tears out of their goodbye speeches. My speech was short and sweet, my smile bright. People looked on and said, “That Carmen, always happy, even times like this!” Yes, I was happy. To get the heck out of there and onto the first plane bound for the States. Plagued by terrible homesickness since week three of my Japanese program, I scoured Osaka for tastes of home: a decent cheeseburger, southern-style fried chicken, sweet potatoes, a decent hug, the smell of cinnamon. At that time I sorely regretted not bringing pictures of family and friends with me. I wildly searched for, and held on steadfastly to anything that connected reminded me of home, as if it could transport me there.

This year, thinking about my departure from Korea brings on a twinge of panic. It’s hard to believe I’ve been in Korea for two months now, and even harder to believe I don’t miss home as I thought I would. Though my friends send “I miss you; hurry back” and “what am I going to do without you?!” messages, my replies aren’t filled with the desperation they were last year. I don’t really miss home. I’m not saying my stay in Korea has been an absolute dream, but the road has been rather smooth, unmarked by emotional breakdown pit-stops, culture shock potholes, and what-am-I-doing-with-my-life detours. The car engine hasn’t sputtered on a lonely sob and given up the ghost. I feel I have a home right here. Seoul is a highly developed (and kind of Westernized) city where it’s easy to find some home comforts:

Bread and coffee. There’s a wonderfully air conditioned coffee shop every five to ten steps you take in Seoul, each with its own unique atmosphere. I’m not addicted to coffee, but if you expect me to get up everyday at 6am and be functional enough to speak and think in Korean for 5 hours straight without a little boost, you’re not playing with a full set of Bocce balls. (Kudos if you get that reference.) Usually, coffee just as overpriced as it is in America, you can be a mildly outraged by the price of a latte here too! The iced vanilla lattes from my host sister’s favorite cafe taste just like the ones from a Belgian cafe on my college campus my roommate and I frequented. Additionally, there are “French-style” bakeries everywhere in Korea, meaning easy access to morning pastries, which is really all I ask for. The bread keeps me from being defeated by the great rice barrage.

Soul food. Korean food reminds me of Southern cuisine: neck bones, ox-tails, chicken feet, ribs, fried chicken, delicious morsels covered in savory sauces. Here, they also eat things that stink up the house for days at a time. With enough flavor to sucker punch you and enough spice to make your nose run. The food is so good, you must eat seriously, head down, working your chops. You must stop to wipe your face. Afterwards you must pick your teeth and nap. Or have a slice of watermelon if it’s summer (sound familiar?)

Community. Koreans are very group-oriented. There are strong bonds between family members, circles of friends and co-workers; members of these sub-groups make it a goal to look out for one another, making sure everyone else looks their best and functions at their best. Having been accepted my host family, they baby me sometimes, asking what/when I ate, where I’m going and for how long, even giving me unsolicited relationship and medical advice. (Sometimes a little too honestly: “Where did your S-line go? Maybe you should exercise more!”) Mostly, they want to make sure that I’m happy, comfortable and healthy. It’s lovely to have this kind of support system in Korea where it can be really difficult to make friends. There are people who genuinely care about me here, so I don’t have to cling so much to people at home, who couldn’t fix my problems for me if I had any, anyway.

People-watching. I spend a lot of time watching people to learn about how to do things in Korea properly but mostly I do it because it’s fun. You don’t need to speak a word of Korean to recognize the love-sick expression on a guy’s face when he’s texting his girlfriend, or to understand that a woman is upset with her boyfriend, or the brief look of panic when the first raindrop falls and someone realizes they’ve forgotten their umbrella. Also, the side-eye game in this country is strong. It’s like I’ve found my people!

When I had to wait way too long in the line at the bank, I caught the eye of another woman who had been waiting longer then I have, and by the grip she had on her sweater, I could tell she was growing dangerously impatient. Our gazes met across the room, and we both shook our heads at the same time. I had to laugh. My life here is filled with moments like that, and is helping me to realize that despite language barriers and culture differences, we all are just the same, aren’t we?

All Aboard the Korean Chopstick Struggle Bus

I’ve always believed a tourist should look up dining etiquette for the country they’re visiting so as to not offend and disturb the locals (more than they already are). As you read in my previous post, The (wo)Man With(out) a Plan, I didn’t practice what I preach this time. Maybe I was lazy: I’ve been to Japan, so I know the basics of chopstick etiquette and therefore (I thought I knew) general etiquette when eating in Asia. Not quite the case. Korea has very different dining etiquette. I learned about this in detail when we covered a chapter in class about Korean table manners. But what we learned in class didn’t always match up to what was done in at home with my host family. Like slurping. Supposedly, you’re not supposed to slurp, but nearly everyone I’ve eaten noodles with in Korea slurps. Loudly. So what rules must be kept and which ones can be fudged?

The first thing Westerners will probably notice (and cringe at) is the fact that Koreans eat from the same dishes in the middle of the table. For a germaphobe like me, this was an absolute nightmare. I don’t want someone’s mouth germs swimming in my kimchi jjigae. Ew.  When I first came here, I rushed to put food on a little side plate for myself, but I stopped that after a while. Eating from the same dishes is just something you’ll have to get used to; you’ll feel more like part of the group if you do. I haven’t gotten sick yet, so I guess it’s okay.

Use the spoon for soup/stew and rice; use chopsticks for everything else (banchan, meat, etc). I’ve seen people eat rice with chopsticks, so I wouldn’t say this is a hard and fast rule, especially when eating at home. I think it depends on what you’re eating. If you don’t have soup at the table, you probably won’t need the spoon, so instead of constantly switching between the spoon and chopsticks, it’s easier to just eat the rice with chopsticks. Don’t use a used spoon for side dishes, by the way. And don’t put rice on the spoon first and then put that in the soup. Do it the other way around.

Since age is crazy important in Korea, you show respect for the oldest person at the table by letting them eat first. Don’t start eating until they do, and try to keep pace so that you don’t finish eating before them; getting up from the table before your elders is rude. This rule applies when you’re eating out with a group, like at 회식. At my house, at least, my host cousin (who’s 19) will start eating before my host parents and leaves when she feels like it. I can’t say for sure when/where you must follow this rule, it’s probably better to take cues from the people you’re eating with.

The rice bowl goes on the left and the soup bowl goes on the right. This is one rule I thought only applied in a formal setting or at a restaurant, but it also applies at home. Once I was eating with my soup on the left and rice on the right, and my host mother reached all the way across the table to switch them for me; I didn’t think it mattered, but it does. Everyone else had their dishes placed the same way. When I talked to my host family about it, it seems that placing the dishes this was is just more natural, so you can get the soup in your spoon first and then the rice. I wonder what you’re supposed to do if you’re left-handed…?

Reaching over people’s plates to reach the food is okay in Korea. (This kills me on the inside). On several websites, it says you’re supposed to ask people to pass you things, but I’ve never seen Korean people do it. They just reach right over. Sometimes my host mother will rearrange the dishes on the table so it’s easier for me to get a specific banchan, but this is because she thinks I’m bad at using chopsticks. And let’s be honest, I was bad at using chopsticks. Korean ones, that is.

If you’ve seen Korean dramas (or are Korean), you probably already know that Koreans eat with long metal chopsticks and spoons. These chopsticks are different from the ones I’m used to using in America or Japan, which are shorter, thicker and wooden or plastic. Since Korean chopsticks are made of metal, they’re slippery and heavier, which completely throws off my chopstick game. My host family constantly reminded me, “Oh, right, you’re a foreigner. You don’t know how to use chopsticks,” and gave me a fork, but in my head I screamed, “NO. I can use chopsticks. Yours are just weird!” Luckily, I have the hang of it now, so they’re not trying to give me a fork at every meal, but I can’t help wondering why, of all the countries that use chopsticks, Korea is the only place where people use metal ones.

So I asked around. The most popular answers were:

  • Metal chopsticks are more sanitary, as they can easily be washed and reused again, unlike wooden ones where food particles and germs can sink into the grain.
  • There’s a lot of grilling involved in Korean cuisine, and you eat straight off the grill in most cases, so of course you want to use a material like metal that won’t catch fire.
  • Online I read that way back when, royalty used pure silver chopsticks because the silver would change colors if the food had been poisoned. Eventually commoners wanting to imitate royalty began using metal chopsticks.
  • Using these kinds of chopsticks make you smarter and more dexterous?? According to this article on Slate.com titled The Seoul of Clones:

The Chopstick Theory of Scientific Supremacy goes like this: Koreans eat with narrow, metal chopsticks. Nabbing grains of rice with slippery, steel sticks requires a surgeon’s dexterity. That’s why Koreans have mastered extraordinarily precise “micromanipulation” of eggs and embryos required for stem-cell and cloning research. Westerners with their clunky forks—and even other Asians with their thick, grippy wooden chopsticks—can’t hope to compete with the dexterous Koreans.

When it comes to the length of the chopsticks, I have my own theories. Since people share dishes, it’s only natural that the chopsticks are longer so people can reach food in the middle of the table. It’s also a huge faux pas to hold the rice bowl or soup bowl in your hand as you eat, both in a public and private setting. I found this interesting because it’s perfectly fine in both China and Japan. Moreover, it seems to be bad manners to bring your face too close to any food dish. When I asked my host mother about why this is not okay in Korea, she said “Eating like that is fine in Japan, isn’t it? But that’s the way dogs eat.” Woah now. Did she just insinuate that Japanese people eat like dogs? I can’t say whether she meant it that way or not, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she did, considering the prevalence of anti-Japanese sentiments in Korea. But I’m not touching that topic with a 39 1/2 foot pole. Er, chopstick.