Today, just a funny story from my first few months in South Korea.
When I first arrived, I was teaching at the Foreign Language Center at Wonkwang University down in Iksan. That is a small city, but it was okay for my first year or so in country. At the Language Center, our teaching duties were split between kids and adults, with a usual pattern of one morning class with adults, then two afternoon classes with kids, and a final fourth hour with either kids or adults.
Eventually, I settled into a pattern of teaching two adult classes in the morning (because there was a Free Talking class that I got along with very well, and they took their course in the morning) and a beginner class in the evening. As for the kids, I usually taught kids at about the middle of elementary school, and indeed my first six or eight months, I had the same kids on a constant basis.
When I was first learning their names, I struggled. Now, I always tell Koreans not to be silly, that Korean names aren’t all that hard. But the truth is, at first, I did find them difficult to remember and keep straight, mainly because of the way the names are constructed. While some Korean names have one or four (or more) syllables, the average name has three: one syllable for the given surname, and two for the given name. The thing is, there are a number of specific phonemes that end up used in names. When you’re not used to this system, what it looks like is people just selected random syllables mixed and matched in random manner. (That’s not how naming works in Korea, at all, but it feels that way sometimes.) For example, “Ji” is common in women’s names: Ji Hyun, Ji Yeon, Ji Sun, Ji Kyung, Ji Young, Young Ji, Kyung Ji, Sun Ji, Hyun Ji, Young Ji, Mi Ji; and then come the permutations: Mi Hyun, Mi Sun, Mi Kyung, Kyung Sun, Kyung Mi, Hyun Mi, Hyun Sun, Sun Kyung…
You get used to it, of course. You may not get better with names. (I’ve gotten progressively worse with keeping names straight, but not because of this. It’s just that all the slots in my head are taken up now.)
Anyway, back when I was first teaching kids in Korea, I struggled to keep their names straight. There was a trio of girls in one of my classes, who always sat together. So Yeon, Se Yeon, and Ji Hyeon. Now, you might laugh, but I couldn’t keep the names straight: I’d drop the “h” at the beginning of Ji Hyeon, I’d mix up which girl was So Yeon and which was Se Yeon, and it took a week or so to get it right, despite the fact these girls always sat in the same place, all in a row.
But finally, one of the mischievous boys in the class helped me out. I was taking attendance, and trying to remember names; I looked up from my sheet and named the three girls in the front row, in turn: So Yeon, Se Yeon, Ji Hyeon… I was so happy to have gotten it right, finally, and the girls seemed pleased as well.
And then a boy in the back of the room called out, “So-Se-Ji!” and the girls got that look. If you don’t know the look I mean, I suggest you watch the Korean romance film My Sassy Girl, and keep an eye on Jeon Jihyun’s face when she gets angry. This image doesn’t quite capture it:
… but it comes pretty close to the expression they put on. Which, yeah, was definitely put on, and funny, and cute. I, of course, didn’t quite get the pun until the boy said the word again — which is the only kind of explanation you ever really get from little kids talking to you in what is for them a foreign language.
Then I got it. “Soseji” (소세지) is the Koreanized version of the English word sausage, and what for the kids probably meant specifically those horrid little finger sausages available at all the convenience stores at the time.
(If you search the word online now, you see a lot better selection of sausages have overtaken the finger sausages in the public mind, or at least online, but I don’t think that fresh sausage really caught on in restaurants or grocery stores before the middle of the last decade: that’s certainly when I started noticing them added to the meats section of Korean grocery stores.)