from the Korean Army to being published

the blog of an "ex-patriot" writer in Korea

Random #42: Motivation and Masochism

with 5 comments

While I’m on the topic of language learning, I’ll revisit a topic that was in my earlier draft of my introduction but has been taken out in the current one.

“At least you learned how to speak Korean,” Kay says. Although it’s a careless remark, I pay it no heed. I’ve heard it many times from people who, upon hearing my story, feel some strange need to comfort me although I’ve never asked for it (unless it’s the Korean government with a fat check for emotional damages).
“Yeah,” I agree because if you want a topic to pass, you have to cut it off before it starts to take root.
“You know, in a way, you’re kind of lucky.”
“I’ve been in Korea for a while and my Korean’s awful. Maybe I should go to the Army.”
I take a long slurp from my bowl of makkeolli and fight the urge to grab her face in my hands and give her my crazy intense look, whispering, “Don’t you say that. Don’t you ever say that. Stay here. Stay here as long as you can. For the love of God, cherish it. You have to cherish it.”*

Madness. A long enough stint in Korea drives most people mad. I’ve seen it too many times. In this case, it’s more ignorance than anything else, but to someone who’s been through the experience, it’s madness.

Sure, it’s hard to find a pure immersion experience but they’re out there. Take, for instance, my friend Hole. He lived and taught in a smaller city in the countryside for a few years and his Korean’s better than mine. And yes, he’s white.

Most of the Korean you learn in the Army is worthless anyway. It took me a while to answer the phone like a normal person after my discharge. I kept answering the phone, “Tongshin boan, Beck, Holdenibnida.” (“The line is secure. This is Holden Beck.”) I drank with my uncle often when I was in the Army and to this day the highest register of formality slips out when I speak to him. You only use that register in the Army and other, extremely uncomfortable situations like talking to your boss (I can only assume) or meeting your girlfriend’s parents for the first time (again, I can only assume).

In exchange for these kinds of fossilized errors, you have to endure an ascetic’s lifestyle and an Egyptian slave’s day job. The food is shit, the living conditions are third-world, and the lack of freedom is maddening. It’s prison. As if immersion wasn’t hard enough. The sad thing is, there are people out there who are into that kind of thing. David Sedaris puts it well,

Though harsh in other respects, prison would be an excellent place to learn a foreign language—total immersion, and you’d have the new slang before it even hit the streets. Unlike the French school that I actually attended, this one, when it came to verbs, would likely start with the imperative: “Bend over.” “Take it.” That kind of thing.

– When You Are Engulfed in Flames

Motivated people are masochists. People are inherently lazy but society tells us that we have to work our whole lives so that we can sit on a beach when our wrinkly skin is too sensitive to overly harsh UV rays due to globalization and the hole in the ozone and our back, hips, and knees prevent us from getting up to hit on the attractive woman down the beach who is “easier” because she’s on holiday. Motivated people not only accept what society tells us, they enjoy it and ask for more. I don’t understand.

I teach 7:20 classes but it’s not my choice. The upside is that I end early, before lunch, and I go home and back to bed and wake up at a more godly hour—three or four in the afternoon. I teach 7:20 classes because my students want to take 7:20 classes. Most of them reach their pain threshold after the first week but there are some that make it the whole six-week session. There are even some that live on the far side of Seoul and have to wake up before the crack of dawn. The first day of classes, I ask them, “What are your goals for this class?” and many respond, “To wake up early and get things done.” I don’t understand.

Then again, I have some masochist in me, too. I’m the laziest motherfucker I know, but then again I’ve spent an average five hours a day for the past three years in this coffee shop, writing. I guess there’s still a part of me that wants to join everyone else on the beach in my wrinkly skin.

* Quote from the movie Billy Madison

Image taken from


Written by Young

October 4, 2011 at 8:11 pm

5 Responses

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  1. “Madness. A long enough stint in Korea drives most people mad. It’s really ignorance, but to someone who’s been through it, it’s madness. Sure, it’s hard to find a pure immersion experience but they’re out there. Take, for instance, my friend Hole. He lived and taught in a smaller city in the countryside for a few years and his Korean’s better than mine. And yes, he’s white.”

    Are you saying that J– uh, Hole has been driven mad through the acquisition of this level of Korean proficiency? Does knowledge of Korean rot a white person’s brain? Or is it that Korean proficiency is a sign of madness in white folks?

    Kevin Kim

    October 5, 2011 at 12:38 am

    • Ha. I guess I should take time to revise these posts. That paragraph is all over the place.

      Madness is referring to statement that the Army is a good place to learn Korean. The part about Hole is to say that there are better ways to learn Korean than going to the Army. The part about him being white is a dig on myself in that we both went through immersion experiences (mine more than his) and yet he is more fluent even though I’m ethnically Korean. When we go out to a bar, the bartenders always praise his ability and then turn to me and say, “So what’s wrong with you?”


      October 5, 2011 at 10:42 am

      • Heh. I had a somewhat similar experience while out in Kangnam with my buddy Charles. He speaks fluent Korean, whereas my own Korean is, at best, high-intermediate, which isn’t saying much. While we were at a restaurant one evening, the waitress kept turning to me to describe the day’s specialties, most likely because I look more Korean than Charles does. Little did she know who the better speaker actually was. Hole knows Charles, so he can attest to Charles’s proficiency.

        Kevin Kim

        October 5, 2011 at 11:05 am

      • Yeah, people usually address me first when we go somewhere but it’s inevitable. Because I’m not much of a talker, the first words out of my mouth are usually, “He speaks Korean well, better than I can.” The person then fawns over him, which he ignores unless said person is an attractive young woman.


        October 7, 2011 at 5:22 pm

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

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