As I’ve read in countless patriotic essays written by the Korean children we teach, Hangul (The Korean alphabet) is a very scientific and practical language. It was all made up by one Korean guy who decided that he didn’t like the Chinese alphabet that Koreans used at the time, because it was a complicated, syllabic alphabet (one letter represents a syllable) that worked for Chinese but wasn’t ideal for Korean. He sat down and made Hangul all by himself, a phonetic alphabet like the Roman alphabet that English uses, where letters represent sounds. This language spread and was adopted by all Koreans because it was easy to learn, simple to use, and also probably because the Koreans didn’t really like the Chinese to begin with.
Hangul really is a simple language to learn- I went from zero to slow but steady literacy in about a half hour. There’s no silent letters, there’s no words like “tough” and “though” and “through,” there are some rules to make note of but once you figure them out you can pronounce words pretty well just by reading them. It would be like if English speakers wrote everything with those phonetic letters you find in the dictionary (‘līk thəs).
Anyway, I’ve been practicing my Hangul by reading every Korean sign, chip package, or bus ad that appears in front of me, and I’ve been getting faster but I have no comprehension. Occasionally I’ll read an English word written in Hangul and that feels good, like I’ve run into an old friend who was in disguise.
But yesterday I saw these three words on a subway in a commercial for a place in the subway stations where mothers can bring their young children to take care of:
아기 사랑 방
I knew what each word meant. I will explain how in a matter much like Slumdog Millionaire but more mundane:
When Sarah first got here, she was teaching a class of four-year-olds and they immediately came up with a nickname for her: “동아기 teacher,” which sounds like “Dongakey teacher.” Sarah thought they were calling her a donkey teacher, which was pretty cute, so she let them call her that.
A few months later, one of the Korean teachers informed her that what they were saying was “Dong Agi” which directly translates to “a poop’s baby,” a particularly vulgar Korean slur.
And that is how I learned that “Agi” means “Baby.”
Sarang means “love.” I’m not actually sure how I learned this word. Koreans write this on everything- backpacks, pencil cases, birthday cards, T-Shirts, phone stores- love is everywhere.
The most popular leisure activity in Seoul, aside from drinking, is drinking in a Karaoke bar. You are never more than a few doors down from one of these, even when you are already inside one. They’re pretty fun, despite overpriced drinks and a mediocre and cheesy selection of English songs (Sweet Caroline again? All right, hand me the echoey microphone)
Because these bars are everywhere, they were one of the first things I learned to say in Korean. They’re called “노래방,” or “Noraebangs,” which means “Singing room.”
There are also DVD bangs, where you can go and watch DVDs, Jinjibangs, which are sauna rooms, and video game bangs, where you can play Starcraft against people who are legitimate professionals.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that “방” means “room.”
So, there you have it. “Baby love room.” A room where you can take your baby, who you love. Three words in another language that I read on my own after being immersed in the culture for a mere five months. Not bad for a guy who took French classes from kindergarten to grade 9 and can’t even order a grilled cheese at La Belle Province in Montreal successfully.