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. 🙂

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