|At a market stand in Sokcho, Korea.|
My Korean certainly has improved over the past month, even if it has fallen short of the mark: our syllabus attempted to double-time ten weeks of content in just four and a half weeks of time, with about four to five hours of classroom time every weekday. We worked on a new chapter roughly every other day, which introduced about 150 new words at a time—so even as my Korean did improve, it was hard not to feel like I was trying to catch a raincloud in a bucket. Listening remains the weakest point of communicating in Korean for me; I often sat in class comprehending somewhere less than 50% of what was said. (In shops and restaurants, I frequently end up able to ask the questions I need, but not always able to understand the answers.) But even that has gotten somewhat better over the past month. Our teachers have been friendly and charismatic, and the other students in the class—who are, like me, about to go off to a year of teaching English—have all become wonderful friends as well.
|A Rose of Sharon hibiscus flower in the early morning.|
|Architectural detail at Naksan Temple near Sokcho.|
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I picked up a comic book about Yi's life, ostensibly aimed at kids, on the theory that it would be good practice for me at this early stage, when I don't have nearly good enough Korean to read his actual writings. (Like most Korean intellectuals before the mid-nineteenth century, Yi wrote in classical Chinese, not in Korean, so a Korean text itself would necessarily be a translation.) It's slow work—I have to look up most words—but it's fun.
So I already have that on my bookshelf, along with others, acquired almost inadvertently. It's amazing how one picks up books, has them thrust on one: of the books on my desk at the moment, two were gifts from places we visited, two were birthday presents, one is my Korean textbook, and the rest I brought with me. I brought very little: a Korean reference text and grammar and my journal, and then only three paper books for fun. Nerd books, mainly for keeping up my language skills: Horace's poems, the New Testament, Sodom and Gomorrah. I freighted down my iPad with other books, but somehow, being practically immaterial, they don't seem like they define one's environment the way that print books do. Heaven only knows whether I'll get to any of them—I certainly haven't so far—but somehow they offer a comfort, a sense of continuity with the things I've done and learned before.
Part of the reason why I wanted to spend time here in Korea before starting grad school was a growing sense that the forces that have shaped my life are not limited to European or American ones—that the reckoning with the deep past of "Western" culture that propelled my life in Oxford had, by its end, pointed me in the direction of wanting better to understand the deep past of East Asia, intellectual and material, the past that set the material preconditions for the life that I've had, even if I grew up with a mind trained in a different culture entirely.
|A replica of a painting of Shin Saimdang.|
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|Mountains in Mt. Seorak National Park.|
I have never lived around mountains before. Here, there are so many. Most of the country is mountains. They recede into the distance in tiers, each with its own shade: viridian, slate, seafoam—sometimes wrapped in clouds or mist, the all-pervasive summer humidity that shrouds the entire peninsula. For years, I thought the brush-and-ink paintings of mountains made by Chinese and Korean painters were stylized abstractions. But now I realize they're faithful—that's simply how the mountains look. I don't understand how people don't simply stare at them all day. They loom, stolid; they have been there since the time there were first people here. They make you want to paint them, if you paint; they make you wish you did, if you don't. It will be a mountain year of my life, the first ever. There is always something new to be known.