Learning to Read: Learning to Feel

(한국어 공책)

I wonder, from time to time, why I bother with Korean. I know enough Korean to deal with my in-laws. I can hold my own in Korea. Anything complicated, Good Man or his family would handle (or Master, if need be). I don’t intend to study in Korea. I don’t want to become famous there. So why do I bother to continue my Korean studies? Why not plateau out where I am right now?

And then I pick up one more book written in Korean…

One of the joys of reading in Korean is that it forces me to slow down and enjoy a book.

One of the pains of reading in Korean is that it forces me to slow down and understand a book.

***

Months ago, I ended up finding an article about a North Korean who was born into Camp 14. His North Korean name was Shin In-kun, but in South Korea he goes by Shin Dong-hyuk. He lived in the camp his entire life until he escaped.

(Some people don’t believe his story and say it’s impossible that he escaped from the entirely controlled zone of Camp 14. I know memoirs tell the author’s truth. I also know that terrible things are happening in North Korea, and nobody wanted to believe the atrocities that Nazi Germany was carrying out were true when they came to light.)

He wrote a book about his experiences in Camp 14, but it’s only available in Korean (세상 밖으로 나오다). I asked Sister to buy it for me and she did, reading it herself before she sent it to me. Sister wrote on the note she sent:

그리고 2시간만에 다 읽었어요… 읽는 내내 답답하고 화나고.. 그랬어요. 휴~

And I read the entire book in only two hours. The whole time I was sorrowful and angry. Well… sigh…

I put the book aside for a few months. I was working on my million characters goal, and that was all about extensive reading. I was reading for pleasure, not worrying about what I couldn’t understand.

I feared I wouldn’t be able to understand the language, and I worried that it would be too hard. I picked up the book about two weeks ago, and I gathered my mini flashcards on a ring (also sent by Sister in the same package), prepared to make a lot of flashcards. I was ready to do a slow, intensive reading so that I wouldn’t miss anything. I wanted to give Shin the respect I suspected his work would deserve.

The chapters in the book are very short, and it’s illustrated in Shin’s own hand. The great thing about short chapters is that I’m not overwhelmed by a huge block of text, and I can pick up the book, read it for just a few minutes, and end at a good stopping place.

The book is just about perfect for my reading level. The words I don’t understand are almost always either North Korean (with South Korean equivalents given parenthetically) or political words specific to North Korea that even Good Man doesn’t know. I can mostly figure those out by context. I’m sure I don’t get all of the details, but I get far more than I was expecting.

So I haven’t made a single flashcard. I haven’t needed to. Even so, I’ve only been reading this book for twenty or thirty minutes a day. It’s intensive reading, but not in the way I expected.

When I read in English, images flash into my head quickly. The pace of my reading makes it necessary to shake the image away quickly. By the time the image has been created, I’m already halfway through the next sentence.

But when I read this in Korean, the image builds itself piece by piece. Slowly.

When the image fills in, I exhale deliberately, close my eyes, and hold the picture in my mind. I’ve read about these things in English. I know these things happen.

But reading the words in Korean, by a Korean, held as a prisoner in North Korea? It’s much more powerful. The image lingers. I can’t shake it away. I can’t ignore it.

농촌지원을 나가면 쥐를 많이 잡을 수 있어서 일주일 내내 쥐를 잡아먹은 적도 있다. 쥐가 보이지 않으면 한 달에 한 번도 못 먹은 적도 있다.

쥐를 잡으면 그 자리에서 바로 먹지 않고 학교로 가져와서 “화구”에 구워먹는다. 작업이 끝난 후 친구들끼리 모여 잡아온 쥐를 꺼내 놓고 함께 먹는다. 친한 친구들끼리 모여서 먹는데, 쥐 잡아먹는다고 나무라지는 않는다. 여름에는 나뭇가지를 모아서 굽기도 하고, 작업반 내 불 피워놓은 곳에서 구워먹기도 한다.

화장실에도 쥐가 많은데, 화장실에 있는 쥐를 잡아먹기도 한다. 쥐가 관리소에서 많이 걸리는 병인 “비라그라”(펠라그라)에 좋다고 한다. 오히려 뱀보다 쥐가 영양가가 많다.

If you went into the fields, there were many rats, so sometimes we were able to eat a rat every day of the week. Sometimes, we didn’t see many rats and we went a whole month without eating one.

When we caught rats we didn’t sit down and eat them right away. We went to the school and roasted them over a fire. When labor ended we shared the rat with our friends. Good friends gathered together and didn’t get punished just for eating rats. In the summer we made a fire of twigs and the labor group met in that location to roast the rat.

There were many rats at the bathroom, so sometimes you could grab rats there. At the political camp, rats were a good way to treat pellagra. Rats had more nutritional value than snakes.

One thought on “Learning to Read: Learning to Feel

  1. Comment from: Jonathan in Florida [Visitor]
    Man, I see what you mean about the parallel ease and difficulty in reading that passage. It is quite harrowing.

    As far as questioning why you continue pursuing Korean language skills – I think it’s evident that you love learning. I’m a firm believer that openness and exposure to many perspectives can only lead to wisdom, and a better sense of truth and its beauty inherent – even when that beauty is horrible and couched in suffering.

    03/01/11 @ 13:06

    Comment from: admin [Member]
    Jonathan, long time no see. How are you?

    It’s interesting that you specify learning. Yesterday I had to take the StrengthsFinder exam for school and my top five strengths were:

    Ideation (fascinated by ideas)
    Input (crave to know more)
    Learner (always want to learn, enjoy the process itself)
    Strategic (create other ways to proceed)
    Context (understand the present by researching the past)

    I’m not sure how the first three are any different, but I suppose they are in some way.

    Back to the book. I’m sure you can see why I only read it for twenty or thirty minutes at a time! “Harrowing” is the perfect word for it.
    03/01/11 @ 23:12

    Comment from: Jonathan in Florida [Visitor]
    I’m well! I’m actually gearing up to finally go to Korea to teach! I’m just waiting to hear from my recruiter on job placement, hopefully I’ll start early April or so. I’ll have to look for this book once over there.
    03/02/11 @ 09:07

    Comment from: admin [Member]
    Congratulations! I know you’ve been wanting to go for a long time. :D
    03/03/11 @ 07:30

    Comment from: david [Visitor]
    what you have said in this post is the beauty of knowing a second language. i believe the world would be a better place if all of us make an effort to learn a second or third etc language. knowing a language opens a door to something entirely new and that can only close the gap between different people and belief,
    03/03/11 @ 10:51

    Comment from: admin [Member]
    David, I completely agree!
    03/05/11 @ 09:00

Comments are closed.