Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Learn Korean via Indie Music

Korea might sometimes seem to be a ginormous, wildly successful pop music factory, but unbeknownst to most foreigners, it actually has an amazing indie music scene as well. A couple days ago, while sipping coffee and working at a nearby cafe, I heard an indie song that I used to like a couple years ago. It's also an amusing example of blatant product placement-based advertising - the entire music video is about this new phone and how it brings this couple together. My favorite is part is when the iPhone falls on the floor and breaks, so she needs to replace it with the Korean phone. Have a watch:


Anyway, I thought it might be fun to use the lyrics for a quick Korean lesson, so here goes!

Verse 1:

나 그대가 너무 좋은데 말하고 싶은데
용기가 안나
나도 그대가 너무 좋은데 말하고 싶은데
용기가 안나

Let's take a look at the first sentence, which is "나 그대가 너무 좋은데 말하고 싶은데 용기가 안나". Man, we can learn so much from this. First, the meaning:

Literal: "I want to say that you're too good, but courage does not come up." (I want to tell you that I really like you, but I can't find the courage.)

Let's break it down!

First, we can see that it's casual speech, since it starts with 나. Technically, completely proper Korean would use the topic particle (나는, or 난 for short), but in colloquial speech, particles are dropped all over the place. How do you know when to drop a particle? Basically, if the particle that you would have used is obvious and non-ambiguous, then you can drop the particle. Particles that cannot be dropped are 도 (also), 한테/에게 (to), 한테서/에게서 (from), 이/가 (identifier particle). That basically leaves the topic particle 는/은 and the direct object particle 를/을. And since sentences are often started with a topic, and "나를 그대가 너무 좋은데 말하고 싶은데" doesn't make sense, the only good choice for a missing particle here is 는.

Moving on, we have the phrase "그대가 너무 좋은데". First of all, 그대 is a poetic meaning of "you", and it's found all over poems and song lyrics. People don't really talk like this in real life, but it's important to know what it means, since you see it everywhere. Now we have the identifier particle "가". A good way to read this is "you are the one that ...", or "it's you that ...". "가" is identifying "you" as the person, out of all the choices. The person that what? The person that is "너무 좋다"!

너무 is an often misunderstood word for foreign learners of Korean. It often means "too" or "too much", but colloquially it is often used to mean "so", as in "너무 맛있어", or "it's so delicious". How do you know which meaning it is? Based on context.

The expression N이/가 좋다 literally means "N is good", but colloquially is often used to mean "(Someone) likes N". For example, "나는 삼겹살을 좋아해" is literally "I like samgyeopsal", but it's more common to hear something like, "나 삼겹살이 너무 좋아!", or "I really like samgyeopsal!". The main difference is that 좋아하다 puts a bit more emphasis on the action of "liking". It also sounds a bit stiffer than the latter example.

But, it doesn't say "나 그대가 너무 좋다", it says, "나 그대가 너무 좋은데". This construction, "-는데/-은데" (-는데 after verbs, -은데 after adjectives or verbs that act like adjectives like 싶다), is one of the most commonly used constructions in Korean grammar. It has a ton of different meanings. One common meaning is as a "softener" for the end of a sentence, and especially a sentence that is hoping for a response from the other person. Another common meaning is to link two sentences together, using the first sentence as the background for the second sentence. Luckily, in just this song's first line, we get to see both of these usages! Let's move forward just a little in order to see this.

말하다 = to say, to speak, and v.st.-고 싶다 means "want to do ", so 말하고 싶다 means "want to say". The verb stem is formed simply by chopping the "다" off the dictionary form of the verb. Other examples:

가고 싶다: want to go
먹고 싶다: want to eat
자고 싶다: want to sleep
일하고 싶다: want to work

What does he "want to say"? Well, everything previous to it in the sentence, i.e., "나 그대가 너무 좋은데". Technically, in formal Korean, he would use quoted speech, which I described in an earlier post. "나 그대가 너무 좋다고 말하고 싶은데", or something like that, but here it's completely unambiguous what he wants to say (나 그대가 너무 좋은데), and it sounds smoother and less forced this way.

Back to what I said earlier about -는데/-은데 having a lot of meanings, and there being two in this sentence alone. We have:

1) 나 그대가 너무 좋은데: Using -은데 as a softener, and hoping for a response. "I really like you ... "
2) 말하고 싶은데: Using -ㄴ데 to connect two sentences, the first being the background or setup for the second. The first sentence is, "나 그대가 너무 좋은데 말하고 싶다" (I want to tell you that I really like you), and the second sentence is, "용기가 안나" (I can't find the courage). Connecting them with -는데/-은데, it means, "I want to tell you that I really like you, but I can't find the courage." It's no exaggeration that -는데/-은데 is one of the most common ways of connecting sentences in Korean. Even if you don't quite know what it means, it's still often the right way to connect sentences, so you'll instantly start sounding more natural in your Korean. Learn it. Use it.

Finally, we're at the last part of the sentence, "용기가 안나". 나다 has many meanings, many of them along the lines of "to come up", "to come out", "to grow", "to sprout", "to arise", etc. In this case, the thing that is not arising is courage. I lifted the lyrics directly from the YouTube video and didn't edit them, but in formal Korean, the spacing is probably wrong here, and it should probably be "안 나", with a space between them. In colloquial Korean, spaces are dropped so often that it's not uncommon to see them dropped in formal Korean such as dictionaries and newspapers. It's something to be aware of, because it often trips up newbies ("What does '안나다' mean? I can't find it in the dictionary...."). Anyway, 나다 is a cool verb that's often used for both physical and emotional states, such as:

열이 나다: have a fever
화가 나다: get angry
피가 나다: to bleed
겁이 나다: be frightened

Alright, first sentence done! Luckily, the second sentence is exactly the same, except instead of starting with 나(는), it starts with 나도, so it means, "I also want to tell you that I really like you, but I can't find the courage." In real life, she could have just said, "나도" (Me too) and left it at that, and the entire context would have been implied. But this is a song, after all.

Well, that was longer than I expected. Let's see what we learned:

- Detecting the type of speech (formal vs casual)
- Knowing when to drop particles, and which particle was dropped
- Poetic terms (그대)
- Colloquial meaning of 너무 versus literal meaning
- How to say you like something (N이가 좋다)
- How to say you want to do something (v.st.-고 싶다)
- How to soften the end of a sentence, and indicate you're expecting a response (-는데/은데)
- How to connect two sentences, with the first being the background for the second (S1 -는데/은데 S2)
- Various uses of the prolific verb 나다

So, we only got through the first verse, but we learned a ton of Korean. If this was useful, next time I'll do the second verse. Until then, enjoy some Korean indie music!

Friday, March 20, 2015

A Moment of Serenity

I've dabbled on and off with meditation for years. I've never gotten good at it, and I haven't put a solid effort into learning, but I find it interesting and enjoyable nonetheless. My first exposure came at a gymnastics camp during middle school, when we were led through relaxation/visualization exercises as part of the camp activities. It wasn't called meditation, probably because meditation is a loaded word that turns a lot of people off, but that's what it was.

Meditation just means being present. It means slowing down the relentless stream of thoughts that pass through the mind's eye. If you can slow down your racing mind enough to engineer a pause in the stream and a realization that you're watching your own thoughts, then you're meditating. Congratulations. There's nothing magical or mystical or religious about meditation. It's simply an awareness of your own mind and a break from the constant bombardment of conscious and subconscious thoughts.

Since I've read all about the benefits of meditation (proven by science; not just based on my personal beliefs), for a long time I've wanted to get a more regular practice going, but the easiest thing for me was to just meditate when I already had a brief period of time where I was isolated and had to sit still. Specifically, the sauna after the gym. I figured since I'm already gonna be there for ten minutes, and sauna is a good way to get into a relaxed state, I might as well make it even better and try some meditation.

Last week, I had a truly amazing meditative experience that I wanted to share. I had meditated in the sauna for about ten minutes, just concentrating on my breathing and relaxing, and it was just normal, nothing special. As I usually do, in true Scandinavian style I followed the sauna immediately with the cold tub. So I'm sitting there in the cold tub, and it was particularly cold that day, probably around 45-50F (7-10C), and all of a sudden, I noticed something interesting about the ripples in the water. I let myself explore it, and immediately all my senses heightened and I was completely enthralled by the patterns on the water. The best way I can describe it is it felt like I was high (or so I hear...). The "resolution" of the water increased dramatically, as did my other senses, and I felt supremely calm. Now, some might think this was a survival reaction to the cold water, but it wasn't. I still felt the cold. After seven minutes or so, I went back to the sauna, and immediately started exploring this meditative state. I looked around, noticing details in the wood I had never previously seen. I turned my attention to the auditory landscape, and took delight in teasing out all the myriad sounds that are always there but never really heard: the mechanical clicks and clinks of the heater, splashes from the hot tub, the sound of flowing water, fragments of conversation. I turned my attention to my skin, which was alive with feeling as the blood rushed back to the surface to heat it up after the cold tub. I listened to my heart, hearing it echo in my chest, and feeling the slight sway of my body with each beat. I felt calm, I felt happy, and I didn't want to leave.

Eventually, I showered and got on with the rest of my day, but that feeling of peace and calmness stayed through the day. I tried to replicate it the next day, and the following one, but wasn't able to. Perhaps because I was striving. Perhaps it was just a fluke.

But something stuck. The simple act of focusing your attention is something that is so easy to "forget" to do, because the mind is perfectly happy to just keep on generating thoughts during every waking moment. But this ability to stop and focus is incredibly liberating and powerful. Just the other day, I passed an abstract sculpture in front of my otherwise nondescript apartment building and realized that I had never really looked at it. For nearly a year I had passed it every day, but if asked to describe it, I would have had to dig into the recesses of my peripheral memory to remember what it truly looked like. So I just stopped and stood there for a minute simply looking at this sculpture and taking in the details. Again, I felt calm. You might laugh, but I felt like I had done something meaningful.

Look, everyone's busy. Everyone's always got somewhere to be, something to do, something on their mind. We feel like meditation is a "waste of time" because we're not doing something. But at a deeper level, I think we're afraid of stopping for a moment because we might find something inside our minds that we don't particularly like. It's so much easier to just run on autopilot and let our thoughts direct us, and many people spend their whole lives doing just that. But that sense of "being", of just non-judgmentally observing, is a truly transcendental experience that has the power to change lives.

Even if only for a second.