The most important Korean …

For the past three weeks I have been teaching elective classes in discussion skills and debate skills. For the second last class (before assessment in the last class) I created a worksheet asking the students to choose: the most important Korean person in history, person alive now, city (not Seoul – too easy), natural place, old building, modern building, food, drink, holiday or festival, and word.  There was then a process of discussion, negotiation, elimination, agreement and/or voting, depending on the size of the class. One had 14 students, so most of this was in groups of three or four before voting individually; the other had 3 students, so they either came to a 3-0 decision, settled for a 2-1 decision, or stuck to their original choices.

The final choices were: person in history – King Sejong (both classes), person alive now – Ban Ki-Moon and the ‘comfort women’, city – Busan and (unable to decide between Sejong City, Busan and Seongnam), natural place – Dokdo and the Han River, old building – Gyeongbokgung and (unable to decide between Namdaemun, Bulguksa and Gyeongbokgung), modern building – the 63 Building and Seodaedum Prison (with some discussion of what ‘modern’ means – it was built in 1907), food – kimchi, drink – sikhye, holiday or festival – Seollal and Chuseok, and word – annyeong and annyeong haseyo?.

The second class, with their choices of the comfort women (especially topical given the recent agreement between the Korean and Japanese governments) and Seodaemun Prison, showed themselves to be more serious minded than the first. It was also more interesting for me because I was able to hear all of their conversation.

PS added 10 Jan: the student who nominated the comfort women wrote ‘my grandmothers who were sex slaves from Japan’. I assumed that she meant ‘grandmother’ literally, and told her that she didn’t have to talk about it in class if she didn’t want to. She did want to talk about it, and eventually convinced her classmates that they were the most important Korean people alive now. Later, I skimmed through the Wikipedia article linked above, which includes the sentence, “The last surviving victims have become public figures in Korea, where they are referred to as ‘halmoni’, the affectionate term for ‘grandmother’ [or any woman of that age]”, and I started wondering whether she meant ‘grandmothers’ in this particular sense. If she had written ‘the grandmothers’ or ‘our grandmothers’, I would have asked her what she meant. Reading ‘my grandmothers’ and assuming the literal meaning, I wasn’t going to ask too many questions.

PPS added 13 Jan: I have two new classes for the next three weeks, so I started them with this. One student said that the most important word is 개 (gae, dog). When I asked him why, he explained in terms of the mostly US slang intensifier (adjective)-ass; for example the equivalent of a ‘big-ass car’ is a ‘dog-big car’. This sort of usage isn’t covered in the ‘Learn Korean book 1’-type books I have, but one website has a list of ‘Korean Slang: 101 Popular Words in 2016’, which includes: ‘The word 개 is used a lot in slang words in Korean, and it literally means “dog.” However, in slang it is used as an intensifier like “crazily” or other *hrmm* more negative words in English.’ (Except that ‘ass’ in that sense is not negative.)

In other contexts, 개 is offensive: a 개새끼 (gaesaekki) is a ‘son of a dog’.


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