September – May’s Monthly Memo

Between Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice, Today

I read a Korean poem
with the line “Today you are the youngest
you will ever be.” Today I am the oldest
I have been. Today we drink
buckwheat tea. Today I have heat
in my apartment. Today I think
about the word chada in Korean.
It means cold. It means to be filled with.
It means to kick. To wear. Today we’re worn.
Today you wear the cold. Your chilled skin.
My heart kicks on my skin. Someone said
winter has broken his windows. The heat inside
and the cold outside sent lightning across glass.
Today my heart wears you like curtains. Today
it fills with you. The window in my room
is full of leaves ready to fall. Chada, you say. It’s tea.
We drink. It is cold outside.

Emily Jungmin Yoon
Although we experienced multiple heatwaves this month, I love Emily’s poem and think it’s a fitting poem of the month—for reasons that this post might make clear!

🖼️ Hello, or should I say 안녕하세요 (annyeonghaseyo), because this month I started learning Korean! I’ll be honest, I did not see this coming despite my ongoing infatuation with Crash Landing on You, but I guess my 16-day streak of learning Korean (Duolingo reminds me every day) shows that I indeed have the capacity to add another item to my daily list of to-dos.

Learning a language feels so good. In high school, French was one of my favorite subjects and I remember going the extra mile to learn the language, taking reams of notes, listening to French music, reading French books (moment of silence for the French copy of Swann’s Way that I never finished). So now that I’ve latched onto another language, I guess it’s not surprising that I am really getting into it!

Here’s how I’ve been learning Korean (apart from watching K-dramas)—every day, I complete a few lessons on Duolingo. It was the first resource I decided to use, since I’ve used it before, and it’s got that “game” factor which makes it a fun way to learn languages. But Duolingo alone is not sufficient, since it mostly feeds you a very specific selection of words and doesn’t do a good job explaining why certain characters (particles) are placed in front of nouns/objects, etc. So once I realized I wanted to take my Korean language learning more seriously, I decided to start from the top. I found a great YouTube video that teaches you Hangul, the Korean alphabet, which is surprisingly “easy” to learn but harder to master, of course. Back when I had 0 knowledge of how the Korean language worked, I remember thinking that the script was mostly characterized by lines and circles. Now that I know the alphabet, I realize that all the strokes in Hangul actually help you read each character! I was relieved to learn that Hangul is in this way unlike Chinese, a language that you cannot read simply by “spelling” out an alphabet. As long as you know how Hangul works, you can technically pronounce any character even if you don’t know what it means. Since a major motivation for my Korean learning is being able to read the lyrics of my favorite Korean songs (lolol), this is a big plus.

Hangul - Wikiwand

I’ve also been working my way through the lessons offered by Talk To Me In Korean, a fantastic online resource. Each lesson is digestible, comes with an awesome podcast, and introduces you to relevant, everyday vocabulary (unlike Duolingo, which thought it was more important to teach me how to say “Baskin Robbins” in Korean before, like, “food.” But Baskin Robbins is super popular in South Korea and a good example of Konglish, so I guess it makes sense…).

In order to strengthen my vocabulary, I’ve also downloaded Quizlet on my phone, and I use its flashcard feature to practice identifying and even typing out Korean characters. In terms of learning new words, Quizlet has perhaps been the best resource. I really hope I’ll be able to keep up this new hobby!

🎬 This month, I watched two more K-dramas, My Holo Love and Itaewon Class (both are on Netflix). The former is a limit series about a woman with face blindness who falls in love with an AI hologram—but also its creator (plot twist: they share the same face). The latter is about a group of misfits who are trying to bring down the biggest food corporation in Korea, run by a corrupt man who is the protagonist’s enemy. As someone who studied literature in college, I’m fascinated by ~tropes~, and K-dramas are a treasure trove of tropes (sorry, could not resist the alliteration). In the three K-dramas I’ve seen so far, identical tropes appear—one of the main characters is an orphan, product placement is conspicuous, there’s a love triangle, the “bad guy” is sometimes inexplicably evil and also older than everyone else, the male lead always strokes the female lead’s hair, and so on…. of course, each show has their own OST (original soundtrack) and the music never disappoints. The theme song of Itaewon Class is actually so empowering, lol. Very good running music!

📚 We live near a fantastic bookstore called Moe’s Books, and my colleagues gave me a gift card to spend there! So I made my first purchase this month—Ted Chiang’s Exhalations. It’s a collection of science fiction stories, although the stories are really more about human life, history, and the future of our planet than fantasy. One of my favorite passages comes from the story The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling:

“We don’t normally think of it as such, but writing is a technology, which means that a literate person is someone whose thought processes are technologically mediated. We became cognitive cyborgs as soon as we became fluent readers, and the consequences of that were profound.”

The story is about the power of revision; in an oral culture, people can easily revise history. In oral cultures, “histories don’t need to be accurate so much as they need to validate the community’s understanding of itself.” It’s not that “their histories are unreliable; their histories do what they need to do.” Chiang describes each human as a “private oral culture.” People may confabulate, reframe, dramatize, or forget memories according to their own needs. But in a fictional world where memories are recorded, like writing, this “revision” would no longer be possible.

My favorite short story in the collection is “The Great Silence,” a lovely and moving piece narrated by a parrot. If you have a few minutes to spare, I recommend you read it online here .

It’s no coincidence that “aspiration” means both hope and the act of breathing.

When we speak, we use the breath in our lungs to give our thoughts a physical form. The sounds we make are simultaneously our intentions and our life force.

I speak, therefore I am. Vocal learners, like parrots and humans, are perhaps the only ones who fully comprehend the truth of this.

It’s been a good reading month! For my essay on Hong Kong housing and poetry, I’ve come across two sources that really resonate with me. The first is Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (1957), a phenomenological text on how the spaces we live in influence the way we think and dream. Bachelard thinks of houses, memory, and words as being in relation with one another, and perceives the world in a highly imaginative way:

Sometimes the house of the future is better built, lighter and larger than all the houses of the past, so that the image of the dream house is opposed to that of the childhood home. Late in life, with indomitable courage, we continue to say that we are going to do what we have not yet done: we are going to build a house. This dream house may be merely a dream of ownership, the embodiment of everything that is considered convenient, comfortable, healthy, sound, desirable, by other people. It must therefore satisfy both pride and reason, two irreconcilable terms. If these dreams are realized, they no longer belong in the domain of this study, but in that of the psychology of projects. However, as I have said many times, for me, a project is short-range oneirism, and while it gives free play to the mind, the soul does not find in it its vital expression. Maybe it is a good thing for us to keep a few dreams of a house that we shall live in later, always later, so much later, in fact, that we shall not have time to achieve it. For a house that was final, one that stood in symmetrical relation to the house we were born in, would lead to thoughts-serious, sad thoughts-and not to dreams. It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.

One can establish a dialogue between Bachelard’s text and Leung Ping-kwan’s short story from the 70s, “People Searching For A House.” Leung, better known as Yasi, was one of Hong Kong’s most important writers and many of his poems touch on the subject of housing. He actually also wrote a poem about UChicago’s Robie House, which really made me feel nostalgic. I love finding connections between Hong Kong poets/literary people and Chicago. I hope I can consider myself part of that lineage. I’ll aim to translate the poem next month. Anyway, I wanted to skim Yasi’s short story about a young couple searching for a house because I thought it would inform my chapter. But I ended up loving the story more than I thought—it’s amazing. It at once captures the difficulty of living / finding housing in a place like Hong Kong, as well as the flighty personalities of millennials, a condition of the city itself. Here’s my favorite passage, translated into English by moi:

他們幾乎住遍香港每一區。他們住在山邊,遇上山泥傾瀉;住在漁村,豪雨帶來水淹;住在機場旁邊,飛機飛過震破了玻璃;住在電力廠對面,電力廠發生爆炸;他們住的舊樓要拆卸;他們搬進的新房子鬧鬼;住的地方附近有大檔和私人會所,他們搬;有垃圾站和焚化爐,他們再搬;住的地方要拆了建地下鐵路,他們被迫遷,住的地方要填海建馬場,又祇好再搬;他們住在鬧市,因為治安不好搬家;搬到鄉下,因為村民的閒言搬家。他們因為各種原因搬家,因為轉換職業、因為與鄰居、業主或管理員吵架、因為不耐煩或不安份、因為想追求更好的生活而搬。

They had lived in practically every district in Hong Kong. They lived by the mountains, then encountered landslides; lived in the fishing village, where violent rains brought flooding; lived near the airport, and glass shattered when planes flew past; lived opposite a power station, where there was an explosion; they lived in an old building that had to be demolished; the new place they moved into was haunted; they lived in a house near underground casinos and private clubs, so they moved; waste transfer stations and furnaces, so they moved again; the house had to be torn down to make way for the underground railway, so they were forced to leave; land was being reclaimed to build a racecourse, so they had to choice but to move once more; they lived downtown, then moved because it was unsafe; moved to the countryside, and moved again because of the village gossip. They moved for all sorts of reasons: because they got new jobs, because they fought with the neighbors, owners, or managers, because they were impatient or restless, because they wanted a better life.

🎶 This has turned into another loooong monthly memo so I’ll wrap things up swiftly here—apart from the Korean music I’ve been listening to this month, I also revisited some favorite oldies by The Carpenters (“Top of the World,” “Rainy Days and Mondays”) and Don McLean (“American Pie,” “Vincent”). Kevin has a songbook full of American classics, and we’ve been playing the guitar and harmonica together. A fun song we’ve learned to play is Roger Miller’s “Oo-De-Lally” from Disney’s Robin Hood. Finally, Alicia Keys’ album dropped this month, and it includes a beautiful track: “Gramercy Park.” The live version, performed on Tiny Desk a while ago, still rules.

💬 My word of the month is the Korean word for “no”—아니요 (a-ni-yo). It can also be used in response to “thank you” (Koreans say 아니요 more often than the actual phrase for “you’re welcome”). There are other ways to say “no” depending on levels of formality, but 아니요 is the most common one, and it’s also what you hear very often in K-dramas. I didn’t realize how often I say “no” until I started using 아니요 (or 아뇨 / a-nyo, “nope”) at every opportunity! Which is not to suggest that it’s been a “negative month,” 아니요. 🙂

May’s Monthly Memo – August

The Presence In Absence

Poetry is not made of words.
I can say it’s January when
it’s August. I can say, “The scent
of wisteria on the second floor
of my grandmother’s house
with the door open onto the porch
in Petaluma,” while I’m living
an hour’s drive from the Mexican
border town of Ojinaga.
It is possible to be with someone
who is gone. Like the silence which
continues here in the desert while
the night train passes through Marfa
louder and louder, like the dogs whining
and barking after the train is gone.

Linda Gregg

As Taylor Swift says, “august slipped away like a moment in time.” It’s a particularly relatable lyric these days, as most of my conversations with people involve one of us remarking, “what is time” or simply “time” with a sigh, often the easiest thing to say about the most challenging of circumstances.

August was our first full month in Berkeley. Kevin started work, I resumed freelancing, our Shipment of Stuff from Chicago finally arrived, our home is now more of a home. I cook a nice homemade dinner almost every day (unless we are finishing leftovers), not only because we’ve gotta eat but also because it feels like a reliable form of therapy.

I think that my tendency to let my stubborn obsessions consume me has become more pronounced over quarantine, either because I’m more impressionable and vulnerable (?) or because “exciting” events are scarce these days. August has been a month for obsessions indeed; I was obsessed with folklore (as evidenced by my 2000 word review), obsessed with cleaning/organizing our home, obsessed (still) with the picture-perfect world of Pinterest (and succulents), obsessed with Crash Landing on You, a K-drama that Kevin and I started watching this month (more on #CLOY later). In my translation work, my obsessiveness often leads me down helpful rabbit holes as I try to get to the bottom of a text (for example: I spent a while Googling the use of limestone powder on graves for a poem I am translating). When I’m making crosswords, obsession motivates me to construct better grids and search onelook.com until I’ve found the right words to fit the puzzle. I guess two contradicting synonyms for “obsession” in my mind are “focus” and “distraction”—I’m just really focused on stuff right now while being continuously distracted, I guess.

🎬 Two of Kevin’s friends suggested that we watch CLOY, a K-drama about a South Korean heiress, Yoon Se-Ri (Son Ye-jin) who is transported into North Korea by the winds of fate in a paragliding accident. In the forest where she crash-lands, she meets the Captain of the Special Forces, Ri Jeong-hyeok (Hyun Bin), who ends up hiding her and does his best to send her home discreetly. Predictable spoiler: they fall in love.

7 Places To Grab Korean Fried Chicken In Manila

But seriously—the show is somehow full of unexpected twists and turns despite delivering many of the tropes that you would expect of K-dramas. The script is hilarious, the performances are gold, and on top of it all the whole thing is very romantic. I don’t remember the last time I was so genuinely touched and moved by a show. Cynthia and I stayed up until 5 AM binge-watching the final 5 episodes one night (this is very out of character for me, so you can understand the extent to which I was possessed). Another ingenious aspect of the show is its spot-on product placement. I knew that product placements are common in K-dramas (huge source of revenue), but I didn’t fully realize until a few episodes into the show that the tasty fried chicken and conspicuously shiny jewelry that kept reappearing were, in fact, the result of brand partnerships and sponsors. In truth, one can feel slightly duped when realizing that their favorite scene largely revolves around a commercial product that was strategically placed there to satisfy a corporate brand. But ultimately, any TV show is trying to sell you something, be it a Range Rover or a love story. You’re going to be sucked in no matter what—it’s just that a particular brand might happen to profit off of your emotional investment (South Korea’s Gold Olive Chicken, which featured prominently in the show, apparently experienced a 100% sales boost after the K-drama aired).

Son Ye-jin will always have a special place in my heart because she starred in The Classic (2003), one of my dad’s favorite movies that we watched many times when I was young. Watching her bring Yoon Se-ri to life (and she did suuuuch a brilliant job) felt like such a gift, and actually helped me remember the joy (and emotional turbulence, lol) of watching The Classic.

📚 Last month, I made a promise to myself that I would read more this month, and while I didn’t exactly deliver, I am off to a good-ish start. I read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which remains a timely text in our current climate. I plan to go to Moe’s Books this weekend (my former colleagues got me a gift card!) to pick up some September reads. I’m still translating Chung Kwok-keung’s poems and preparing for two panels at the virtual ALTA conference next month, so I’ve been reading and translating his work. I’ve been invited to contribute a chapter on Hong Kong poetry for a book that is being published by Routledge, so I re-downloaded Zotero and put my academia hat back on. The working title for my essay is: “Writers in Residence: Housing and Property in Hong Kong Poetry.” Not bad, eh? I’ll be writing about Chung Kwok-keung’s “The Growing House,” Lok Fung’s “Days When I Hide My Corpse in a Cardboard Box,” and P.K. Leung’s “A Poetry of Moving Signs.” In preparation for writing the paper, I also read Martin Heidegger’s essay on poetry and dwelling (like I said, putting my academia hat back on for a bit). Finally, I’m copyediting a full-length book on marketing (also for Routledge), so I’ve been reading and learning a lot about the future of branding.

🎶 This month, I have been listening almost exclusively to folklore and the CLOY soundtrack. Songs that Kevin is sick of hearing on repeat include: Flower by Yoon Mirae, Here I am Again by Yerin Baek, and The Song for My Brother, a lovely piano track composed by Nam Hye Seung and Park Sang Hee that plays an important role in CLOY. In typical obsessive fashion, I have also learned to play the song on the guitar!

💬 My word of the month is “marketing.” It’s just something I’ve been thinking about as I edit this book on branding and ponder the product placements in CLOY. Of course, marketing is always in every aspect of our lives. But it feels like a fitting word for August, a month that went by so quickly, yet was packed with so many obsessions. I want to end with a quote that I saw on Twitter the other day:

She remembered it was August and they say August brings bad luck.

But September would arrive one day like an exit. And September was for some reason a lighter and more transparent month.

—Clarice Lispector, In Search for a Dignity (t. Katrina Dodson)