We’ve Been Quietly Learning Korean. We Just Completed Our First Semester of Studying 한국어
If life were like Civilization V, this is the point in which King Sejong the Great would be getting the message from President Obama, “My people are buying your blue jeans and listening to your music.” The Kennon-Green household has given into the 한류. First, though, we need to back up so you have some context.
Many of you know about our shameless, on-going addiction to the insanity that are Korean dramas. I’ve told you about some of them in the past. Harvard-educated aliens falling in love with actresses. Secret birth histories that somehow end up involving stockholder meetings and inheritance fights. Freaky-Friday-style body switching. Time-traveling princes who have life-threatening allergic reactions to crab. They have everything. We fell in love with the language so much that we decided we didn’t want to deal with the sub-titles so in the midst of all of the other things we had going on in our lives, we restructured our almost non-existent free time to devote it to learning to speak and write Korean. Several months ago, we enrolled in Korean classes here in Kansas City. Once a week, we travel to the Korean Institute where we have a two-hour language class followed by a half-hour culture class where we learn about various aspects of Korean society and history. Only, we ended up not doing it alone, we talked my mom, my dad, one of my sisters, and my mother-in-law into going with us. If my other sister lived nearer, we’d have had her in it, too. (For my parents, it wasn’t hard because they also love Korean dramas but actually do significant amounts of business with Korean-based companies so it’s a fantastic expansion of their skill set that can benefit their businesses.) That way, we can all practice together.
The experience has been wonderful in no small part because of our amazing 선생님. She decided she was going to teach us phonetically so we could read first without knowing any of the meanings of words, which is how I learned English as a child so I’m thrilled with that approach. She assigns us lots of homework and makes it fun, often tying lessons to songs or physical movements. We are so blessed to have her as a teacher because she has a gift for teaching. My whole family adores her.
Anyway, this Saturday marked the end of our first semester. Throughout the semester, the pace was rapid enough that we felt like we were behind at times given we like to do things flawlessly – a difficult task given the launch of the asset management business, which consumes nearly every waking moment – but by overshooting, we ended up coming much further than any of us imagined. All members of our family received between a 97% and 99% on the final and we were taking it for granted that we were actually reading and understanding sentences. Yes, they were rudimentary, but we didn’t even know the alphabet a couple of months ago. For example …
That’s a picture of me going over my final exam practice pages in the car. It is incredible to me that I can now look at that page and not only make sense of it but complete it by writing symbols that, a few months ago, meant nothing to me. For example, number 18 says, “The eraser is on the desk” while number 19 says, “The dictionary is in the backpack”. (Or, if we are being literal, a close approximation might be “Eraser desk on not is” given the rules for word order are different but by learning the way we did, we tend not to run things back through English in our heads for translation, making it a lot more efficient.)
Sure, we have a tremendous amount left to learn – thousands of hours of study, in fact. Right now, our vocabulary is extremely limited, we don’t know many of the rules of grammar, the extent of the linguistic complexity you are going to get from me is something like, “안녕하세요. 자는 조슈아 케넌 이에요. 코카콜라 있어요?”, and our pronunciation is not at all where it will ultimately be but it’s hands down one of the most enjoyable things we’ve ever done. We’ve thrown ourselves into it because you can’t get better at something unless you are willing to make thousands of mistakes practicing. (Actually, in Korean class, we had to select a Korean name at the beginning of the semester so within the school, I’m 강민준 and Aaron is 안태준 since we liked how those names sounded.)
It makes me wonder how much of society is structured by the language we speak. In Korean, for example, there is so much hierarchy in behavior and spoken language compared to English-speaking countries where we speak to Presidents and Prime Ministers in almost entirely the same way we do homeless people, professors, doctors, or criminals. The words used to describe various family members in relation to one another are something we don’t really do to nearly the same degree as specificity in English. It’s fascinating to learn. It’s easy to see, now, how Bill Gates caused an international uproar when he ‘disrespected’ the President of South Korea inadvertently a few years ago through a totally honest mistake.
Besides that, we’ve studied Korean history, food, buying things from stores, and other activities meant to help us understand the culture. You can tell I am definitely my mother’s son because throughout the semester, she announced, “Why don’t we just do this right? Let’s go live in Seoul for six months and immerse ourselves.” If it weren’t for our business obligations at the moment, I would, though we could easily accommodate it given how we are reorganizing everything – I can read annual reports and deploy capital from anywhere. We do know that Aaron and I are definitely going to Korea in 2017 even if nobody else goes with us. We’ve been working on our preliminary lists of things we want to do in our head.
Truth be told, my personality is coming through, too. While I’m excited about the prospect of someday being able to watch Korean dramas without English subtitles, I’ve found myself pulling Korean annual reports and trying to work my way through them. I’m nowhere near being able to read the notes in any meaningful sense (the numbers, yes, and it’s largely unnecessary should I ever wish to make an investment for bigger companies due to English translations being available) but Aaron and I decided at the outset what has now become our mantra which is, no matter how long this takes, no matter the journey we travel given our time constraints, “this ends in fluency”. We’re already seeing a payoff. The image of the Maxim wrapper in the above gallery? The reason I included that was because it – that specific wrapper, which came from a package Aaron and I bought at a local Asian grocery store since I wanted to try and figure out why instant coffee was so popular in the Asian markets versus the domestic market – was the very first time I was able to read something in Korean. I got so excited I started yelling and doing a victory dance in the kitchen. The translation: “White Gold Coffee Mix”.
There’s also another major benefit to come out of this. We’ve discovered the joys of a local Korean-French bakery chain. In fact, Aaron and I grabbed breakfast there the morning of our regulatory exam to become representatives of Kennon-Green & Co. Turns out, while it may sound strange, a red bean doughnut is pretty good.