Books, Home

Date a girl who reads. Date a girl who spends her money on books instead of clothes. She has problems with closet space because she has too many books. Date a girl who has a list of books she wants to read, who has had a library card since she was twelve.

Rosemarie Urquico

We’re slowly unpacking.

And in the office closet stands the bookshelf my dad built me when I was ten. It is now crammed full with books, along with CDs and a few lone DVDs.

The books are in no particular order. A book about hiking and another about the history of zero sandwich a Kabuki graphic novel. A few spines over, Plato: Complete Works leans against a signed copy of Foxfire.

The kitchen still isn’t unpacked. It’s hard to cook. The blinds are still in their FedEx boxes. I’m living in three shirts, one pair of jeans, and a skirt. The dining room table is covered in papers I need to file. The house is a mess.

But I have books.

And it’s starting to feel like a home.

Escape From Camp 14

Yesterday I took the day off of work and headed to Politics and Prose so I could see Shin Dong-hyuk and Blaine Harden speak. As I expected, I ended up in tears.

Shin is the author of 세상 밖으로 나오다, a book I wrote about reading last year. Shin is the only person known to have successfully escaped from Camp 14, a North Korean prison camp.

This month, his story was published in English as Escape From Camp 14, told by Blaine Harden. It is not a translation of Shin’s memoir. Instead it is an updated/corrected story that made me hold my breath in chapter four, and gasp at Shin’s admission in chapter five.

Escape From Camp 14
Image Courtesy of Viking

At first I was disappointed that this book wasn’t a translation of 세상 밖으로 나오다. I know from reading his Korean-language memoir that Shin’s words are extremely powerful on their own. However, crucial details in Shin’s story have changed since the publication of his memoir. Shin says:

It has been a burden to keep this inside. In the beginning, I didn’t think much of my lie. It was my intent to lie. Now the people around me make me want to be honest. They make me want to be more moral. In that sense, I felt like I need to tell the truth. (p. 47)

The truth comes in an easily readable book. Harden gives a detailed, matter-of-fact account of Shin’s life, both inside and outside of North Korea. This book is painful to read, but the details are used for education, not shock value.

Harden doesn’t limit himself to telling Shin’s story. He delivers a brief history of North Korea, and exposes how the Kim dynasty operates. He explains how a North Korean’s social/political class affects their living situation and opportunities.

Also, Harden seamlessly weaves in information gleaned from other defectors, including a former camp guard who was taught to think of prisoners as “dogs and pigs” (36).

Yet Escape From Camp 14 doesn’t come off as a dry textbook. Instead, Shin’s entire experience becomes richer and more believable because of the background Harden provides.


At Politics and Prose yesterday, Harden spoke for approximately 20 minutes, followed up by Shin (with an interpreter). Even though I knew what to expect, I had to force back tears.

When it came time for the books to be signed however, I lost all composure. I had brought 세상 with me, and I purchased a copy of Escape at the event. I pushed 세상 in front of Shin and Escape in front of Harden. I was upset, and the words tumbled out in simple Korean, through tears.

“I’m sorry, my Korean isn’t good. My sister-in-law read this, and sent it to me. I read it slowly and cried. It was hard. Now my friends can read your story in English. Thank you.”

And that, I think, is this book’s greatest accomplishment. Although Shin’s story is the central focus of Escape From Camp 14, Harden’s skilled journalism exposes the incredible broader truth about what North Korea is doing to its own people. Now that Shin’s experience is available to a larger audience, can we continue to ignore North Korea’s human rights violations?

Shin Dong-hyuk at Politics and Prose

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Viking in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. I was already familiar with Shin’s story, and immediately recognized him on the cover. I tore through the house. “Honey!” I yelled, bursting into the office, “Look what they finally published in English!”

I was not required to write a positive review and I have not been paid or otherwise compensated to promote this book. Although the links above go to Amazon, I don’t run affiliate links.

And yes, I did purchase another copy of this book at Politics and Prose! I want to support Shin’s bravery however I can, and a purchase is a small way to do that.

Perfect Timing

I end up with a lot of Korean books through a former co-worker’s daughter, who volunteers at a library. All of her library’s Korean discards end up in my hands.

Which is great, except when my Korean bookshelf (yes, I have an entire bookshelf dedicated to Korean/about Korea books) is overflowing and I am covering a bookshelf worth of space next to it with more books.

Good Man and I sat down and pulled out a bunch of books for Diana’s (growing) family. But that only took care of one box of books…

I emailed a coworker and asked if her parents attend a Korean church, thinking maybe I could pass them on and her parents could bring them to church. No dice.

Good Man came home last week and said one of his co-workers had randomly asked him if he had any Korean books she could borrow. Awesome! So we sat down and pulled out two-and-a-half boxes worth of Korean books.

When she came over to get them, she was so thankful. I said, “I don’t know what kind of books you like, but I know when I was in Korea, I read all sorts of English-language books I would never read, just because they were in English.”

“Yes, yes,” she said, “exactly. And if you get more…um…please let me know!”

In a few weeks, I’m set to meet up with my old co-worker for another set of books. I wonder how many I can pass off to Diana and Good Man’s co-worker…

My New Method for Choosing Korean Dramas

“Why? Why? In every Korean drama the man is an ass to the woman and tells her ‘가.’ And then they get married. If this cross-dresser marries him instead of the Red Messenger, I’m off of Korean dramas!” I yelled, punctuating the air with my embroidery scissors.

Good Man sighed and shook his head, “It would be so wonderful if my wife was off Korean dramas.”


“어머,” I said, “나쁜 남자를 좋아해요.” Mother, I like bad boys.

Mother’s eyes grew very wide. Now I know where Good Man gets his “huh? what?” look from. “뭐?”

“한국 드라마에서, 긴 머리가락 있으면 좋아해요. 일본어 말하면 좋아해요.” In Korean dramas, if the man has long hair, I like him. If he speaks Japanese, I like him.

Mother nodded and laughed.


If a Korean drama has cross-dressing and/or a gay theme of some sort, I’m apparently all over it. For example, everyone else adores Kim Sam Soon, but I really liked Coffee Prince much better.

I just finished Sungkyunkwan Scandal and thoroughly enjoyed it. The cross-dressing and the inevitable man falling in love with the cross-dresser was a joy, but it was the gifted girl theme that really drew me in.

Beyond that, today I realized that I’ve watched five dramas. In those five dramas…

* Boys Before Flowers included a head maid, played by 김영옥. She was also Han Gyul’s grandmother in Coffee Prince.
* 김자옥 was Han Gyul’s mother and also Sam Soon’s mother in My Name is Kim Sam Soon.
* 김창완, the former shop owner in Coffee Prince was also in Queen of the Housewives.
* The daughter in Queen, 방준서 played the younger version of the gifted cross-dressing scholar in Sungkyunkwan Scandal.

I’m sure I’m missing some actors.

As such, my new method for choosing dramas is going to be to only watch dramas that include at least one person I’ve already seen before.

I put Bad Boy/Guy on my watch list because of 김재욱. He’s the long-haired (relatively speaking) Japanese-speaking prince.

I found another cross-dressing drama today (Painter of the Wind) which includes 이인, who was in Sungkyunkwan Scandal.

김창완 also shows up again in another one on my list, Bad Love.

Personal Taste is another one on my list. It’s a heavy-hitter, featuring multiple actors I’ve seen before (or will see, if I watch Painter or Bad Boy first).

I’m not sure why I’m on such a K-Drama kick lately. I can think of one strong factor: the shows have a definite end. I’m tired of good shows getting canceled before the story is finished (Life?) and tired old shows dragging on until you wish all the characters would get knocked out at once (Grey’s). At least when I watch K-Dramas, I know the story is going to end like it was supposed to.

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.

Note to Korean Drama Watchers

Dear Korean Drama Watchers From That Knitting Site I Spend Too Much Time On:

Korean men are not like the ones on TV. The same is true in your home country, in case you didn’t notice.

Korean women are not like the ones on TV. The same is true in your home country, in case you didn’t notice.

If you don’t know 한글, you can not even begin to claim that you “know Korean.”


The blue mountains are what they are,
So are the green waters.
The mountains and rivers are what they are.
Why should I, who live with them, be just what I am?

I want a life as real as theirs
Because I am a part of the universe, too.

–Kim In-Hu, adapted by Virginia Olsen Baron in Sunset in a Spider Web: Poetry of Ancient Korea

청산도 절로절로, 녹수도 절로절로,
산 절로 수 절로, 산수간에 나도 절로,
그 중에 절로 자란 몸이 늙기도 절로 하리라.

김인후 (1510-1560)

Good Man informs me that 절로절로 is a word that’s no longer in use. According to a blog I found, it means “naturally.”

Authentic Content vs Translations

I read almost 50 books in Korean this year. Most were books that I would’ve had access to in English. In fact, many of them were books I’ve read in English.

Interestingly, I found that reading books I’ve read in English was both easier and harder than blind reading in Korean. It was easier because I had some background knowledge, but it was harder because I tended to think in English while reading those books. I tended to remember big moments from the books in English in my head, and then I’d search for them in Korean in the books. It became a bit distracting.

But I bought so many books that were translations from English because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to read in Korean. When I was in Korea last year, I couldn’t read enough to figure out what I wanted to read!

The library books from my co-worker’s daughter have been a godsend! Those books expanded my horizons and allowed me to take reading risks with no financial risk.

At least ten of the books I read were ones I would not have had access to in English. If I count the Kare First Love manga series (would I would not have read in English, but enjoyed reading in Korean), I read more than twenty books I wouldn’t’ve been able to read in English.

English is such an international language that it’s easy to think that we have access to enough books to read. And perhaps we do. Still, there is something magical about getting access to a whole other language-worth of books.

I read several awesome picture books that are only available in Korean, including one about a man who sucked up his wife in the vacuum cleaner. (Seriously. It was awesome.) I learned about the moon rabbits because I could read about them in Korean.

I ended up reading some propaganda that I borrowed from the gu office in Seoul when Good Man and I were registering our marriage. I learned “nuclear weapon” from that book and figured out a lot of political words from context.

I enjoyed the book about the third grade boy who was growing up (I’m Not a Kid Anymore) because it was such a Korean book.

Although I ended up throwing Body across the room, I am still amazed that I was able to read a book for Korean adults in Korean.

Now that I can truly read native content in Korean, it makes me even hungrier for the language!

(Cross posted.)

Did One Million Mean Anything?

So. I read one million characters in Korean this year. Did it do anything? Was it worth my time or was it a complete waste of time?

Before I start though, I want to point out that knowing the Korean alphabet is not knowing how to read in Korean. I have heard more than one expat claim they can “read Korean” because they know the alphabet. Some expats use that as a weird defense mechanism. “I don’t have to study Korean! I can read!” Knowing the alphabet is not reading Korean. That’s why I used to clarify “I can read Korean but don’t have the vocabulary needed to understand it.” I’ve never seen anyone claim they can read Spanish just because Spanish uses a Latin-based alphabet.

My goal this year was to truly be able to read in Korean. I didn’t care about the level, but I wanted to be reading, not calling out words.

When I read in English, my eye glides, I repair misunderstandings, and I enjoy the story. That’s what I wanted to do in Korean. I also wanted to read like I did when I was a kid: voraciously, ignoring what I didn’t understand.

Have I learned how to read?

Gliding Eyes
I remember my first full day in Korea I sounded out “Cocoa Balls” cereal. When I first learned Korean, I had to read each letter, and then form each character, and finally…maybe…form…the…word.

After a while, after a lot of practice (sitting on the subway, street signs seen through the bus, walking around my apartment—I am a natural reader, I have to read things around me), I quit reading letter-by-letter and started reading character-by-character (syllable-by-syllable).

In January, excluding some extremely common words, I was still mostly reading syllable-by-syllable. I clearly remember doing so because it made reading a lot of text on a page (like in the Pippi books) tough. I’d lose track of the end of the beginning of the sentence by the time I got to the end of the sentence.

Now, however, my eyes tend to glide. If the text is too hard, I get caught up in unknown words, and that stops me, just like in English.

Generally speaking, I recognize whole words and phrases now. And like in English, my eyes slide over the word, looking for anchor letters. For verbs, I’ll pick up a few characters and/or letters to nail down the word and simply skip to the end of the word to find out the conjugation.

It reminds me of very young children learning to read. First they sound out “c-a-r-p-e-t,” and then “car-pet” and finally good readers recognize and know “carpet” when they see it.

Predicting and Repairing
I’ve read so much Korean now that I am getting better at making predictions. I can predict a general idea (sometimes in English, sometimes in Korean, sometimes in mental images&mdashlthat’s my best description) or even the next word or phrase. 깜짝? Next up is 놀라—whichever ending they want.

Now, I also recognize when I misread or misunderstood something. I go back, re-read, and correct misunderstandings. I knew I’d reached another level in Korean when I was finding typos and errors in Korean!

Enjoying the Story
In January, I was mentally translating most sentences. Now I’ve gotten much better at understanding the gist of the story without translating. In January, I’d get so lost I’d look at an English translation to keep myself on track as needed. Now? I don’t need it.

There was one full page in the Obama book I read that I simply didn’t understand. I knew it was about a bug pounding against the sides of the glass jar, but I didn’t get what the point of it was. I figured it must not be too important to the storyline and went on with my life. And although it came up at the end of the book again, I was able to enjoy the book without understanding that part. And that’s OK.

There are still times I ask Good Man for help, but often it’s to make sure I understand a plot twist.

It’s a good feeling.

So. Can I read? I think I can now claim that I can read in Korean. I might be reading at a fourth grade level, but I’m reading!

One Million

Yep. I did it. I met my goal of reading 1,000,000 characters in Korean this year. I even got really geeky and made a bar graph comparing the number of characters I read at different grade levels. Looks like I’m entering fifth grade or so.


I’ll write more about what I learned about Korean—and more importantly, myself—but for now, I’m going to give my burnt-out brain a break for a few days!

1월7일 빨간 머리 앤 (만화) 20,400 1-2학년
2워9일 내 이름은 삐삐 롱스타킹 50,800 3-4학년
2월21일 꼬 마백만장자 삐삐 49,000 3-4학년
3월8일 삐삐는 어른이 되기 싫어 41,700 3-4학년
3월17일 이 솝 이야기 47,900 2학년
3월21일 비 밀의 화원 (만화) 9,850 3-4학년
4월4일 비 밀의 화원 52,900 5-6학년
4월13일 안데르센 동화 26,500 3-4학년
4월17일 동생을 바꾸고 짚어 23,600 5-6학년
4월20일 Folk Tales, Legends, and History: 외국인을 위한 한국 문화 읽기 22,050 3-4학년
5월4일 몸 (여균동) 41,200 문학소설
5월26일 빨간 머리 앤 60,800 5-6학년
7월8일 소나기 6,100 청소년
7월26일 샬롯의 거미줄 80,500 5-6학년
7월28일 로미오와 줄리엣 (만화) 19,000 3-4학년
10월2일 우산 하나로 달에 가 볼까? 260 아기
10월12일 우리 나무가 아파요 3,600 1-2학년
10월28일 키다리 아저씨 (만화) 47,700 3-4학년
11월19일 난 이제 꼬마가 아니야! 38,000 1-2학년
11월25일 뭐든지 파는 가게 400 아기
해님 뭐해요? 100 아기
통통아, 빨리 와! 675 아기
잠이 안 오니, 잔은 곰아? 1,700 아기
11월26일 어디, 뚱보 맛 좀 볼래 11,600 3-4학년
11월27일 지용이의 사간여행 12,600 4-6학년
11월28일 초원의 집 1: 큰 숲속의 작은 집 80,000 청소년
12월5일 싫어’, ‘몰라’ 하지말고 왜 그러지 말해봐! 1,800 아기
할아버지와 숨바꼭질 2,900 1-2학년
똥이 필요해 800 아기
12월7일 어린이를 위한 오바마 이야기 63,800 3-4학년
12월8일 그대 First Love #1 11,040 청소년 (만화)
12월10일 그대 First Love #2 11,040 청소년
12월12일 그대 First Love #3 11,040 청소년
12월13일 그대 First Love #4 11,040 청소년
12월15일 그대 First Love #5 11,040 청소년
12월16일 그대 First Love #6 11,040 청소년
그대 First Love #7 11,040 청소년
12월17일 엄마를 꺼내 주세요 725 아기
누가 좀 도와줄래? 690 아기
비는 어디서 왔을까? 570 아기
잭과 콩나무 2,720 아기
얼레꼴레 결혼한대요 1,035 아기
12월18일 그대 First Love #8 11,040 청소년
12월19일 그대 First Love #9 11,040 청소년
12월20일 그대 First Love #10 11,040 청소년
12월22일 아낌없이 주는 나무 1,330 3-4학년
동물들과 함께하는 촉감놀이 산에서 810 아기
나랑 엄마랑 620 아기
12월23일 반쪽 마법 (1-5장) 63,085 5-6학년
완전히 1,000,220