Tag Archives: Korean

포크 주세요 (Fork Please) – Friday Fictioneers

Today I must beg your indulgence. I wrote today’s Friday Fictioneers story in Korean. Yes, it is pertinent, and yes, there is a translation. However, only the Korean version is 100 words long.

I wrote it with non-Korean speakers in mind, but still I’d like you to read the Korean first (there’s English in it). Try to make guesses about what’s going on before you read the translation. Consider it a metaphor for living abroad, when you can catch part of what is going on, but not the whole thing, and many times, not the most important nuances.


포크 주세요

외국사람 커플 들어갈때 식당이 조용했다. 다른 손님이 없었다. 3시: 점심과 저녁의 바쁜 시간 딱 사이 있었다.

직원이 와서 남자가 메뉴판을 얼른 보고 손가락으로 가리켰다. “Also, fork please. Fork?” 포크로 먹는 손짓했다.

“You should try using chopsticks, Mark.” 여자친구가 말했다.

그때 한국인 할아버지 들어왔다. 외국사람 커플 밖에 손님이 없는지 확인한 후에 자리에 앉아서 떡볶이를 주문했다. “그리고 포크주세요” 라고 말했다.

마크가 들어서 웃었다. “You see? Even Koreans are using forks these days. Chopsticks are history.”

할아버지가 코트를 벗었다. 왼손이 없고 오른손에 엄지 손가락만 남았다. 떡볶이를 받아서 포크를 느리고 아프게 들고 먹기 시작했다.

이제 마크가 웃지 않았다. “Maybe I’ll try chopsticks after all.”



And now, the translation:


 Fork, Please.

The restaurant was quiet and empty when the non-Korean couple entered. It was 3:00: right between the lunch and dinner rush.

The waitress came over and the man scanned the menu and pointed to something. “Also, fork please. Fork?” He mimed using a fork.

“You should try using chopsticks, Mark,” his girlfriend said.

Just then, an old Korean man came in. After making sure there was no one in the restaurant besides the foreign couple, he sat down and ordered. “Fork, please,” he said.

Mark heard him and laughed. “You see? Even Koreans are using forks these days. Chopsticks are history.”

The old man took off his coat. His left hand was gone and on the right, only the thumb remained. He got his food and slowly, painfully picked up the fork and began to eat.

Mark wasn’t laughing anymore. “Maybe I’ll try chopsticks after all.”


You Have to Follow the Rules

You have to follow the rules, even when those rules are unwritten social rules, and even when they inconvenience everyone involved. This is a true story that happened to me one Friday last fall.

I go to four schools over the course of a week, so there are several schools I only taught at once a week. One week, my second Wednesday school principal (who was a sweet, grandmotherly type of woman) invited me to a barbecue the school was having that Friday. My Friday school was far away, but I told her I would try to make it, since it was possible to get there if I rode my scooter.

She told me to get there by 3pm and since my classes at the other school finished at 2:30, that was perfect. I rode my scooter along back roads in the mountains and got to the school just before three.

They were packing everything up.

Here was my first dilemma. I could have just taken off, but I didn’t want the principal to think I hadn’t come. That might make her feel bad. So I went through the crowds and found her to say hello.

I was planning to just say hi and leave but of course, as a good host who had invited me there, she couldn’t let that happen. So she told some of the women to get out a grill and cook up some meat for me (samgyeopsal, for those who know Korean food). I tried to refuse, but like all grandmotherly-type women, she didn’t know the meaning of the word “no”. I could have just left, but that would have been rude.


So there I was, sitting at a table while a woman cooked meat for just me, while most other people were sitting around talking or cleaning up. The principal, because she was hospitable, sat next to me to keep me company. She didn’t eat anything, since they had all eaten before. However, she did make up food for other people.

In Korea, when you eat barbecued meat, you take a lettuce leaf, then put a piece of meat on it, with whatever other vegetables or sauces you want, then wrap it up like a little package and eat it in one bite. The principal kept making these up for other people, who had to take them even though they were full, since you can’t say no to the principal.

Like this

Like this

After a while, most everyone else wandered off to deal with other stuff and a few women sat talking, while I kept eating. They had made a ton of meat and while it was delicious, I was getting full and felt uncomfortable sitting by myself. I kept asking others to come eat with me, but they all said they were full. I apologized to the women cooking, since they were only waiting there for me to finish. Of course, they said it was fine, since it was have been rude to say anything else. I hope it really was fine.

They had made a lot of meat and I felt obligated to eat it all or at least make a big dent in it. I didn’t eat it all and finally left, very full.

I don’t regret going, since it really was delicious meat, but thinking back it is amazing to see how the iron rails of social etiquette predestined this scenario. It could not have played out any other way without offending someone or at least breaking unwritten rules. Every culture has its own social etiquette rules, some more strict than others, but they’re there so that everything runs smoothly. Whether you like it or not, you have to follow the rules.

…Or do you? What do you think? Are there some social etiquette rules you break?

Getting Naked with Strangers (in Korea)

If you want to see naked strangers in real life, your choices are fairly limited. Or perhaps I should say, there are few places where you have to endure seeing naked strangers. In Korea, it’s the jjimjilbang, or sauna/public bath. Of course, lots of countries have public baths, but here is how things work in the Korean version.

In Korea, going to a jjimjilbang (steam room) can be a whole day experience. For one thing, what is often referred to simply as a jjimjilbang is actually a lot of things rolled into one. Here’s the process:

Step 1:

Pay your entrance fee and get a uniform and key. The uniform is a pair of light cotton shorts and a t-shirt. At the place I usually go, they are color-coded for men and women. The key is on a plastic ring so you can put it around your wrist in the shower.

although hopefully not pink.

although hopefully it’s not pink.

Step 2:

The key has a number on it. First you take off your shoes and lock them in the shoe locker of the corresponding number.

The shoe lockers at my favorite jjimjilbang, Spa LaQua

The shoe lockers at my favorite jjimjilbang, Spa LaQua

Step 3:

At this point, men and women say good-bye to each other and go into separate changing rooms. You put your clothes and uniform into the locker with your number on it. The problem with this is you cannot choose your own locker. Last time, my locker was right next to an open window that overlooked an apartment complex. At night. Someone messed up the design somewhere. Anyway, then you go take a shower.

Step 4:

This is the only naked part and luckily it is separated by gender. You take a shower and have the option of soaking in one of a variety of hot tubs. There are varying temperatures (including a cold pool), often ones with massage jets. The one I go to has an outdoor hot tub, made up to look like a natural hot spring, so it’s nice to sit out there at night and talk.

The baths are the place where you see the most culturally different awkward things. I have no idea what the women’s side is like, but there is a section for lying down on the floor and some men like to sleep there, face up. I have seen two men sleeping next to each other, holding hands. In the context, there was nothing gay about it, since in Korea I could totally imagine two straight men doing that, but it was strange. As well, since Koreans are very big into skin exfoliation, you can pay a guy to rub you down with what is basically a scouring pad and get all your dead skin off. There are some things I will do as a cross-cultural experience, but lying down naked on a table and having a practically naked old man scrub all my dead skin off is not one of them.

Here is typical uniform, including the obligatory Princess Leia-style towel wrapped around the head.

Here is a typical uniform, including the obligatory Princess Leia-style towel wrapped around the head.

Step 5:

When you finally feel like getting out of the baths, you go back up to the changing room, dry off and put on your uniform and then go out to rejoin the women (or men, if you’re a woman). This is the actual jjimjilbang part of it. Here you can go into hot rooms and lie around, sweating a lot. However, there are many other things to do. Such as eat. Most jjimjilbangs have a cafeteria there where you can get drinks and snacks and even full meals. There are massage chairs and pool tables and karaoke booths and places just to sit around and talk or place cards or watch TV. In other words, it’s a spoil-yourself-with-whatever-you-like-best sort of place.

This says, "I went to the jjimjilbang to take a sweat bath eat."

This says, “I went to the jjimjilbang to take a sweat bath eat.”

Personally, I don’t like to sweat that much, so I don’t go into the hot rooms for very long, if at all. My ideal time is to go in the baths for a while, then go up and eat and hang out, and maybe use a massage chair once or twice. Lemonade and boiled eggs are very popular foods in jjimjilbang.

Another good feature about many jjimjilbangs is that the key has a microchip on it, so if you want to buy something, you only have to scan the key and then pay for everything when you leave. This lets you not have to carry money around and so, buy a lot more than you normally would. Win win, right?

Here are the doors to various saunas/hot rooms. They often vary by temperature or by theme.

Here are the doors to various saunas/hot rooms. They vary by temperature or by theme.

Step 6:

Whenever you are tired of having fun, you go down, take another shower to wash off all the sweat, and get changed back into your street clothes. Then you check out and find out with shock just how much money you racked up on food, drink, massage chairs, air hockey, etc.  You leave feeling very, very relaxed. It’s a good time.

What is “masochism” in Korean?

So what kind of a masochist would voluntarily take a 3-hour language exam for fun? Yeah…

I have returned to the land of blogging after several weeks of mostly absence, a lot of which was due to the fact that I was studying for a large Korean exam known as TOPIK, or Test of Proficiency in Korean. As of today, it is finally over. It is quite difficult and by the third hour, it gets very exhausting. I did it mostly to have some idea of my skill level and to have something to show others, maybe even for a job later. So, it wasn’t really for fun, but it doesn’t have any immediate impact on my life.

The test is divided into two parts with a break in the middle: the first is grammar, vocabulary and writing, including writing an essay. The second part is listening and reading. I took this same test about 4 years ago and at that time, I did terrible on the grammar and actually pretty good on the listening. This time was the opposite (at least how I felt about it; we’ll see in a few weeks). The hardest questions were in the writing section. They write a paragraph and leave out a phrase, which you have to fill in from context. No multiple choice, no hints. I call them the widowmakers. Here’s an example:

TOPIK questions

See what I mean? Hard.

It may not be evident to people in North America or Europe, but Korean is becoming a very popular language of study, especially in Asia, and so this is a pretty popular test. I live in a relatively small city in Korea and there were over 1100 people who took it today. Mostly Chinese, but also a lot from almost every other country in central and east Asia, plus a smattering from other countries as well. Anyway, now I’m going to forget about studying Korean for a while and get back to writing.

By the way, you may have noticed that I never answered the question in the title: what is “masochism” in Korean? There are two answers. One is a loanword: “mae-jeo-ki-jeom” (which sounds a bit like “magic kissing”) and the longer “pi-hak-seong byeon-tae seong-yok” which is literal translation of exactly what masochism is. So there you have it: go wow your friends.

This was one of the first results when I did a Google Image search for "Korean masochism" although it was due to this post

This was one of the first results when I did a Google Image search for “Korean masochism” although it was due to this post

What’s an Oppa? – My Interpretation of Gangnam Style

As someone who lives in Korea and speaks Korean, I have found it fascinating to see how wildly popular Gangnam Style has become all over the world, especially since the vast majority of the people listening to it have no idea what it is saying beyond “Gangnam Style …something, something … hey, sexy lady … something, something.”

In Korea, it is very popular too, although here it seems to fit better: after all, here it is just the latest in a line of many very popular Korean songs. It is still novel, but a little more normal than it is in other countries.

although parts are bizarre in any country.

although parts are bizarre in any country.

I am sure there are tons of places online where you can find translations of the lyrics and explanations, but here is my version. First though, there are two words that are important to know.

1. Oppa – This word has a lot packed into it. Literally, it means “older brother of a female”. However, it’s also something that girls call older guys of their generation, as well as their boyfriends. Since it’s possible in Korean to refer to oneself in the 3rd person, the singer (Psy) is calling himself this while talking to a girl. “Oppa Gangnam Style” here means “I am/have Gangnam style”

Interestingly enough, in the companion song to this 오빤 딱 내 스타일 (Oppan Ddak Nae Style) “You are Exactly My Style”, Hyun-Ah, the girl is singing, so when she uses the word oppa, it means “you”. Gotta love Korean. Context is everything.

2. Gangnam – You may have heard that Gangnam is a bit like Beverly Hills, which is true. It’s an area in Seoul and the name literally means “south of the river” which is where it is. It has a lot of tall buildings and expensive shops and is also known for its good schools. Because education is so prized here, parents sacrifice a lot to be able to live within the Gangnam school district. One difference between Gangnam and Beverly Hills is that here, everyone wants to live in an apartment, not a house. So in Gangnam, there are towering palatial apartment buildings, but almost no houses at all.

gangnam style

Gangnam Style

Verse 1

낮에는 따사로운 인간적인 여자

(A woman who is warm and human during the day)

커피 한잔의 여유를 아는 품격 있는 여자

(A woman who knows the proper way to drink a cup of coffee)

밤이 오면 심장이 뜨거워지는 여자

(A woman who heats up when night comes)

그런 반전 있는 여자

(That kind of two-sided woman)

나는 사나이

(I’m a man)

낮에는 너만큼 따사로운 그런 사나이

(A man who, during the day, is just as warm as you)

커피 식기도 전에 원샷 때리는 사나이

(A man who drinks coffee in one shot before it even cools)

밤이 오면 심장이 터져버리는 사나이

(A man whose heart breaks open (comes to light) at night)

그런 사나이

(That kind of man)


아름다워 사랑스러워

(Beautiful, lovely)

그래 너 (hey) 그래 바로 너 (hey)

(That’s you (hey), that’s exactly you (hey))


지금부터 갈 데까지 가볼까

(From now on let’s go to the extreme)

오빤 강남 스타일 [x5]

(Oppa Gangnam style)

Eh – Sexy lady

오빤 강남 스타일

(Oppa Gangnam style)

Eh – Sexy lady


(Eh eh eh eh eh)

Verse 2

정숙해 보이지만 놀 때 노는 여자

(A woman who seems modest but plays when it’s time to play)

이때다 싶으면 묶었던 머리 푸는 여자

(A woman who lets down her hair when she wants)

가렸지만 웬만한 노출보다 야한 여자

(A woman who covers up, but is wilder than if she showed a lot of skin)

그런 감각적인 여자

(That kind of sensuous woman)

나는 사나이

(I’m a man)

점잖아 보이지만 놀 때 노는 사나이

(A man who seems like a gentleman but plays when it’s time to play)

때가 되면 완전 미쳐버리는 사나이

(A man who goes totally crazy when the time comes)

근육보다 사상이 울퉁불퉁한 사나이

(A man who, more than muscles, has a rugged way of thinking)

그런 사나이

(That kind of man)


뛰는 놈 그 위에 나는 놈

(Leaping guy, a guy who’s flying overhead)

baby baby

나는 뭘 좀 아는 놈

(I’m a guy who knows a little something)


You know what I’m saying

오빤 강남 스타일

(Oppa Gangnam style)

Eh – Sexy lady

오빤 강남 스타일

(Oppa Gangnam style)


blowing up old men? Sure, why not?

Blowing up old men? Sure, why not?

So, this is basically a song about a guy trying to pick up a girl by showing that he is the new type of the Korean man, the “Gangnam” Korean. The problem is that there is not a lot attractive (or at least sexy) about modern society. Korean men work very long hours and just like anywhere, office workers are not as strong and fit as men who work outdoors (note the line: “A man who, more than muscles, has a rugged way of thinking”). This song is all about dual roles: one way during the day, another way at night. Modern society is pulling us different ways and this song embraces that.

Of course, this is also satire. Psy is poking fun at a lot of aspects of modern society. For instance, the references to coffee. Coffee is a fairly recent fad in Korean and is still somewhat of a luxury item (it’s not uncommon for a regular latte to cost $5-6 at a coffee shop). Also, it is strictly a social drink, not something people usually drink in the mornings at home. Psy is joking that a real man pounds coffee, just like shots of soju with his friends.

It’s also just a fun song.

Assa! (Nanowrimo is over)

Well, it’s done, it’s over, “I’m back,” he said. It may be an arbitrary goal, but I have crawled past the Nanowrimo 50,000 word finish line, more dead than alive.

Actually, it wasn’t that bad, but I need to get out all the melodrama I kept from my story. The story is not quite finished and it’s a messy, scruffy first draft, but it has potential.

I’m looking forward to posting fiction here regularly again. On the agenda: “The Making of the Squid”, the back story Edward “the Squid” Morrison in the Aftermath series.

Also, besides the Open Prompts stories that I have done in the past, I am starting something I, most unoriginally, am calling Semi-Open Prompts. This is where I ask one person to give me a bunch of prompts and then I write a story with them. I’ll probably do one a month or so. The first set of prompts was provided to me by Sharmishthra Basu and the story will be posted within a week or so.

(By the way, if you’re curious, assa (앗싸) is the Korean exclamation for when something really good happens, kind of like Yes! or Alright! in English. It rhymes with the Spanish word casa, but the “s” sound in the middle is really long. Now you can say you know Korean 😉 )

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