My Primer for Learning Hangeul
Anthony Huerta Velasquez
ㅏ, short \a\ sound, as in ahjussi, an older married Korean man. Arriving in South Korea, often one’s first contact is with an ahjussi from the cadre of taxi drivers at the airport.
ㅓ, short \o\ sound, spelled with an “eo” in the Romanization of Hangeul, as in “Eodi?” — Where? “Eodi ga yo?” the driver asks: Where are you going? Then he’ll make eye contact with the passenger in the backseat via his rear-view mirror, take a good long look before asking “Eodi e seo wa sseo yo?” Where are you from? That’s his lead into the interrogation of the alien. As a foreigner in the ROK, expect a litany of questions, some personal (age, relationship status, nationality/age/appearance of your partner, occupations) before even being asked your name.
ㅗ, long \o\ sound, as in odaeng, the hotdog of the sea. Fish lips and assholes, various bits mixed with flour to form a cake. Boiled, folded, and served on a stick with a salty, spicy, seafood broth from street hawkers for 500 won. About 50 cents. With a firmness, suppleness, and elasticity to its texture, I imagine odaeng has a quality like a human face. I imagine eating one with Hannibal Lecter. He would savor his with a fine riesling. I would wash mine down with a Hite. Up in Seoul, all over the peninsula, they’re called eomuk. But here in Busan: odaeng. A Japanese word. Busan, port of entry for Japanese invasions to the mainland throughout the centuries. Despite a deep antipathy towards the Japanese, for many Koreans, their last stop in Busan is to the packaged odaeng souvenir shop at the domestic airport terminal or KTX train station. But it’s not the same as eating them fished from the brothy trough at sidewalk carts.
ㅜ, the \u\ sound like the word “too,” as in usan, meaning an umbrella. Coming from the West Coast, I’ve never been the kind of person to carry one. Natives like to boast of their ideal “four season” climate, but, at least on the coast of Gyeongsang Province, I argue that there’s five. The fifth is July. Hot, humid, tropical stickiness with intervaling typhoons. Miserable monsoon rains with gale force winds. Clear plastic and tangled metal from cheap convenience store-bought umbrellas litter the streets. I recycle mine and think, “Damn, I could’ve saved that 3,000 won for three odaeng and a beer.” An usan is useless in July.
ㅡ, Transliterated into “eu” making the \u\ sound in the word “put.” As in eumak, meaning music. Nowadays, I can talk with my students about BTS which is really the only way to get middle-schoolers to speak English in the classroom. How the group’s rapper Suga, after their sold-out shows at the Rose Bowl, was spotted at Dodger Stadium witnessing Hyun-jin Ryu toss a gem on the diamond. And how Jimin, now officially dubbed “The Prince of Busan” by mayoral decree, threw out the first pitch at Sajik Stadium during a weeklong celebration of all things BTS in his hometown. But when I washed up on these shores in 2009 to teach English for one year, I knew nothing of K-pop, K-dramas, the K-wave. Living in the countryside, outside of Busan, the only music I could relate to with my students was The Beatles. All of them knew the lyrics to “Let It Be.” Half of them could play it on piano. On a corner, a stone’s throw from my apartment, I posted in a deserted artillery bunker. Behind a myriad of concrete tetrapods and a cement wall, I drank some bottles of Buds alone where the Nakdong River meets the strait that separates Korea and Japan. Hunkering down there, the top three albums most played on my iPod were Wildflowers, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. When I ventured into the city, into Busan, hit songs from BIGBANG, Brown Eyed Girls, or 2PM blared from cell phone stores. Electronics stores blasted Katy Perry, Jason Mraz, Black-Eyed Peas, or Jay-Z. The beaches in Thailand burned me out quickly on Mraz, the Peas, and Jay-Z. But Katy Perry’s like 2Pac — California Love. Home.
ㅣ, long \e\ sound in most cases but short \i\ before an \n\, as in Indo. In reference to the country India. “You Indo?” was another common question people asked me back then. Some locals from the older generation had a hard time believing that I’m actually from California. It’s as if their only introduction to brown people is from the Subcontinent and their understanding of Chicanos means nachos. Say California and they envision Aryans on surfboards.
ㄹ, the hardest letter to pronounce. In Hangeul, it’s a combined “l/r” sound. Hence the reason the \l\ and \r\ sounds in English are so hard for Korean speakers. For my students, their tendency is to write “robsters are delicious” and “labbits are cute.” As an EFL teacher, it takes a lot of work on phonics and tongue-in-mouth positioning to get students to make a proper \l\ sound. On the other hand, as a nine year resident of Busan, it’s still hard for me to get that ㄹ sound right. For Anglophones, it’s either \l\ or \r\, not both for starting a word. My ㄹ is too much \r\. Still a work in progress.
ㅎ, the \h\ sound as in Han. Many have written about what is essential to understanding the culture, this feeling of being Korean, epitomized by Han, but it is also the most difficult facet to articulate. I leave it to my favorite television president, Jed Bartlet: “There’s a Korean word, Han. I looked it up. There is no literal English translation, it’s a state of mind, of soul really. A sadness. A sadness so deep no tears will come, and yet still, there’s hope.” Han is also the root of the word Hanguk, meaning the whole peninsula of Korea or South Korea. The base for Hangang, the river that flows from the Taebaek Mountains on the central coast of the East Sea flowing west through Seoul to the Yellow Sea to MacArthur’s landing at Incheon. The epicenter of the “Miracle on the Han River.” Han, the family name of Han Yu-rim, a co-teacher at the first school where I taught English. My first girlfriend in Busan. My first Korean teacher.
ㅁ, \m\ for Miguk. The \m\ in America. Miguk means “America.” “The beautiful country,” she said. Expatriation should not be confused with being unpatriotic; I’m desperately homesick for the country that I love. Along with my family, redwood groves, the Sierra Nevadas, and homegrown heirloom summer tomatoes, I also miss the ideals, values, and diversity that once formed the bedrock of America’s strength, beauty, and democracy. Democracy now threatened at an alarming rate of erosion of such foundations.
ㅅ, \s\ for saram, as in Miguk saram. For many years I thought that Miguk saram literally translated to “America love.” Until my wife, Susanna, a New Yorker of Scotch-Irish descent, corrected me. “Saram means person. Miguk saram means American. You are an American person. Sarang means love,” she said.
ㅊ, the \ch\ sound as in cheon. One thousand. Cheon won, the ₩1000 bill. A dollar. A buck. Colloquially among foreigners in Korea, a cheon-er. “I bet you a cheon-er on it, Sus.” I just looked up saram and sarang. “Dammit, Babe, I owe you a cheon-er.”
ㅈ, \j\ as in Juche, according to Busanite professor B.R. Myers, author of The Cleanest Race and The Juche Myth, the word Juche is usually left untranslated or understood as “self-reliance.” Juche. The official state doctrine of North Korea. Also the doctrine of the Trump administration but rebranded as “America First.”
ㄷ, makes the \d\ sound as in Daehan Minguk, since 1919, the official name of the Republic of Korea established by the exiled provisional government after the March First Independence Movement. It’s also an infectious chant, “DAE-HAN min-GUK!” followed by a Clap-Clap, clap-clap-clap of the hands or with red inflatable thundersticks at ROK’s national team soccer matches. “DAE-HAN min-GUK!” I hear it as strong and clear as “U-S-A! U-S-A!” especially when watching a World Cup game at midnight in a bar with a hundred countrymen or at a 7am movie screen-size viewing on Haeundae Beach with the throngs of thousands.
ㅌ, \t\ as in Taegukgi. The South Korean flag. A white field with a red and blue yin-yang design in the center surrounded by four black trigrams. Clockwise from the top left, they represent heaven, moon, sun, and Earth. The four seasons and the four cardinal directions together combining justice, wisdom, fruition, and vitality. Growing up as a brown boy in an all-white elementary school, I pledged allegiance to the flag like everyone else but always felt torn between the Stars and Stripes and the Bandera de Mexico when these two sides were pitted against each other. Now, having made Korea my home for nine years, the Taegukgi also elicits a real personal significance. And without USA as my main rooting interest for 2018’s World Cup but seeing the ROK meeting Mexico in group play, my loyalties were again conflicted. El Tri or the Red Devils this year? Honestly, I was hoping for a draw.
ㄱ, when this is the first and/or last letter of a word it makes a \k\ sound. In the middle, however, it’s more of a hard \g\. One of the first words I learned: kachihada, meaning join in. Or simply kachi. Together. Out alone when a local sees a foreigner, they’ll call the visitor over to join their party, share their meal, “try this one,” or join their picnic. It was my first window to a different culture that I found endearing. But there’s one table, as a foreigner, you should never join or intervene — a group of belligerent older people. I’ve seen men push women down on the street. I’ve seen an older man pull his adult daughter’s hair and rough her up in a restaurant in front of guests. Everyone remains quiet. Looks down. Pushes some tofu and kimchi around their plate with their chopsticks. Even Korean countrymen just ignore it. My wife sees that I can’t stand it. I can’t take it. Someone, anyone, needs to intervene. I need to intervene. Then she reminds me that, being a foreigner, I will be the one that is in the wrong. I will be the one who is prosecuted. I learned long ago that there are two judicial systems here: one for Koreans and one for foreigners. And if the two parties are entangled, an imbroglio brought to the police station or to court, the natives win. It’s that simple.
ㅋ, an even stronger \k\ as in the word “king.” As in kong meaning “bean.” Sometimes I wish the ahjussi taxi driver would call me a kong saram instead of an Indo saram. It’s alright, ahjussi, I don’t take offense when you assume I’m Indian. However, kong saram would be more accurate. I’m a bean person — a beaner. I’m cool with that these days.
ㄴ, the \n\ sound as in Nakdong River, the longest river in Korea. It flows 525 km south from the Taebaek Range down into Busan with a source that is still debatable. Children are told the story of a miserly man and a magic pile of poo that turned into a pond in Taebaek City becoming the Nakdong’s origin. On the way up to Taebaek Mountain, on the side of the road, there’s a trickling spring in the rocks and grass marked by a sign that claims to be the source of the Nakdong River. Now hydrologists purport that a natural spring even higher up on the mountain should be considered the river’s true source. Finding the real source is like learning Hangeul. I have a half-dozen language books and no two are alike. The Romanization and pronunciation of Hangeul are never consistent. Like the river, language is always in motion and a source of contention.
ㅍ, the \p\ sound for podoju. Podoju meaning wine. Before I moved to Busan, I was a waiter and sommelier at a farm-to-fork restaurant in Sacramento. It was a job that precipitated my move to Korea; I needed a divorce from my drug-addled, incestuous family (otherwise known as the Midtown restaurant scene). Further, I thought that this distance would palliate my own issues with addiction and the conflicts with my family by blood. Though I tried to fully retire from the industry, sometimes expat restaurateurs sought out my advice for special events. On one such occasion, I was solicited to choose the pairings for a one-night only four-course dinner. After the planning and menu meetings with the owner, I was led to believe that I just needed to procure the wines and mule them over. Instead, I got hoodwinked into running the front-of-the-house by myself. A server nightmare come to life. Except, had I not stepped up to the plate, I would’ve never met Susanna.
ㅇ, when this letter is in the middle or end of a word, it makes an \ng\ sound as in byeong-won meaning hospital. 좋은강안병원, Good Gang-an Hospital. The hospital where I found myself after a few days, after finally coming to (so I was told), where I learned I had either blacked out on or was pushed down a flight of stairs. The hospital where I realized I was missing a third of my cranium. However, when the ㅇ letter is in the first position, it’s a silent placeholder. As in 이 which transforms into the family name “Lee.” Like my doctor: Dr. Lee. It was Dr. Lee who performed the life-saving craniectomy at Good Gang-an Hospital. He removed a part of my skull and put it in the freezer there. Then, six months later, he reattached my missing piece. After three weeks in the hospital, two major surgeries, and several personal visits with Dr. Lee, my total bill: ₩5,500,000. About five thousand US dollars.
ㅂ, the \b\ sound as in Busan. Busan, endearingly referred to as “The Bu.” The job recruiter who first brought me here to teach English billed Busan as the “Bay Area of the ROK” with its beaches, bridges, and peaks. Ok, it’s not The City as it is to San Franciscans, but she wasn’t lying either. Before the Silicon Valley dot com invasion, from the days of forty-niners to the 20th century transplants who settled along the shores of the Golden Gate: like San Francisco was, Busan is a city of second chances. It’s a place where one can reinvent oneself, find one’s self, be given a second lease on life. It’s the ROK’s second-city, but it will always be number one in my book.
From Hunger Mountain Issue 24: Patterns, which you can purchase here.
Designed by Marielena Andre.
Anthony Huerta Velasquez is a native of California’s San Joaquin Valley who recently repatriated after spending the last decade in Busan, South Korea. He was a food & wine contributor to various English-language magazines in the ROK. His creative nonfiction essays have appeared in the South Dakota Review, Concho River Review, Sierra Nevada Review, Past Ten, & The Offbeat. He now calls the Finger Lakes region of New York home.
Anthony Huerta Velasquez