Greed and dereliction

It is greedy to learn a language. 

It is the desire to have access to a place and history, to the tales born of a certain people’s long existence, to their wisdom and humor, without being a natural heir.

Of course, this suggests the rather charged idea that language somehow belongs to certain people more than others, and I am not in fact interested in who can lay claim to which language and its associated literature and history. But as an individual, it is not hard to acknowledge that I am a usurper when it comes to German or Arabic or Korean. 

I think that’s especially the case—such as in mine—when language learning is also an act of escape. I have many languages, and many layers of them, that matter to me deeply, but I am at home in none of them. And so I try out a new one. It is a way of traveling. 

Because it is the case that to demand entry to other language worlds is in some way to abandon your own, or neglect it, at least. Are there not enough books in English to read before starting on Spanish or Hebrew? Is there not enough to love and master in the English language that one should return to learning the most basic things over and over? 

I am a woman. He eats an apple. It will be okay. The sun rises in the east.

Or is that the point? In a new language, it is no longer possible to convey levels of doubt or certainty, to hedge, to tell a complicated story about why things are what they are, and then arrive at a conclusion that opens the door to more possibilities.

Instead, you are left with: it is good or bad, I can or I can’t, he is happy or sad, old or young, here or there.

Of course that is only the beginning, but it is a long beginning, and it never goes away, I think. When you learn a new language as an adult you always return to these comfort zones, to the building blocks of a language, to its primary form. When I am anxious I sometimes repeat basic sentences in my head in the foreign language of my choice.

I am Chava. I am a journalist. I drank coffee in the morning. The weather is nice.

There is also comfort in being an observer.

It is freeing to peek into other windows, where on the other side, life will continue with or without you. You do not need to place yourself within it. It is not a commentary about you, or your place in this moment, or your failures. As a foreigner, you can be witness, you can partake in the drama without consequences. I mean that not only as a dereliction, but as liberation from centering everything around yourself.

Best k-dramas of 2021

Having watched around 30 k-dramas in 2021, and started about 20 more, the only way to possibly redeem myself is to share a little of what I’ve learned.

Among the dramas (which by the way, is just the Korean word for TV show and doesn’t concern the genre) were some delightfully old-school romantic comedies, lots of interchangeable crime thrillers (I still can’t tell the difference between Beyond Evil and Mouse), the new crop of for-Netflix made shows, some very disappointing sci-fi (I cannot forgive Sisyphus for ruining Cho Seung-woo for me), and one horror (because Im Siwan was in it of course).

I’ll go through some favorites because that’s the easiest way to organize my thoughts about them, though I think it’s more interesting to consider the overall trends and what I’ve learned about life/love/art, but that’ll be for another post.

Run On One of the most thoughtful and mature romantic dramas I’ve seen, Run on is what Koreans classify as a melo, which is quite different from a melodrama. It’s basically a slow moving love story that shares some elements of romantic comedy (fate brings two people together, something keeps them apart, eventually they overcome it all to be together) but is closer to slice of life. 

In Run On, a professional athlete and an independent subtitle translator meet and form a relationship over the course of career bumps, family trouble, and some class issues. There is a second couple—the CEO of the agency that representes the athlete and a student artist—that I found less interesting. 

What makes Run On so great is that central couple in the story, Ki Son-gyom and Oh Mi-ju, are fully fleshed out characters who exist outside of their relationship with each other. Mi-ju has fought her whole life to become the independent woman that she is, though she’s not satisfied with where she is in her career, while Son-gyom has has always followed his tyrannical father’s wishes, and thus never really developed a real idea of who he is. While Mi-ju is unapologetic about putting herself first, Son-gyom copes by letting life happen—until his values are truly tested. Over the course of the story, Son-gyom blossoms into his own person with Mi-ju’s guidance, while Mi-ju allows herself to lean on someone. 

The show is far from perfect, and the plot drags for the second half of the show. And while it has some of the beset female characters in k-drama land, Mi-ju doesn’t really have much of a storyline at all. Which is such a shame, because the setup is all there. We meet her at a film festival where she’s humiliated by an old teacher, and meets an ex who has surpassed her in her career. But then nothing happens… she just keeps taking part time jobs as they come. I would have loved to see her go to Cannes and show up the dude in the beginning, or learn that her true satisfaction is from the work itself — whatever, just giver her a story. 

Vincenzo – This was so much fun. Vincenzo is about a Korean-born mafioso who returns to Korea to search for missing gold, but gets roped into protecting a motly group of tenants from evil new landlords, because the gold is buried in the basement of their building. In other words, it combines the best of what Korean cinema is known for: mixed genres and creative brutality.

The show is as absurd as it sounds and essentially revels in all of its excesses: the villains are unapologeticaly ruthless, the tenants get up to the most ridiculous antics, and the entire thing is led by a hero who is only masking his search for gold with a moral crusade.

The show’s non subtle message is that it takes a villain to defeat a villain, but honestly, it hardly matters. The real point is that it’s stupendously fun to watch Song Joong-ki run around in tailored Italian suits destroying his enemies and enjoying it tremendously, occasionally getting saved by a bird, and sharing the joys of being an evil mafioso with his new partner in crime Jeon Yeo-been.

D.P. – A limited series based on a webtoon by the same name,  D.P. follows An Jun-ho, a private who is assigned to a small unit that’s charged with bringing back military deserters. Ostensibly a buddy cop show, it quickly becomes apparent that it’s really about the bullying and  abuse embedded in the military. While the show is extremely heavy at times, there’s levity to balance it out (in the form of Jun-ho’s partner), and Jung Hae-in’s performance as the resigned but moral An Jun-ho is stellar. 

The webtoon came out after the death of private Yoon Seung-joo at the hands of bullies in 2014, an incident that rattled Korea and led to some changes in the military, such as allowing privates to have cellphones. Far from being shunned as totally exaggerated, the D.P. series seems to have restarted the conversation within Korea about bullying in the military—though most seemed to claim that things had changed since the case of Yoon Seung-joo. While I have zero personal knowledge, I’m basing this on articles by Koreans for Koreans. What I most commonly heard was Korean men saying that while they didn’t personally know someone who experienced the bullying depicted in the show, it wouldn’t surprise then in the least to hear of it. 

I think the show did a great ob of showing how in a system that’s corrupt to it’s core, there are no good guys. Sure, individual compassion can patch things here and there, but as long as the system exists to protect itself and not the people in its care, it will perpetuate itself.

Coffee prince – Of the old school shows I watched, I think this is one of the few that I would recommend, even though it’s one of the oldest of the bunch. The leads had great chemistry, and for a 15-year-old show, it addressed some of the issues of gender that come up way better than expected. And Gong Yoo. Basically, that’s the reason. And the “Japanese” bartender.

Worst show?

Probably The Devil Judge, or My Roommate is a Gumiho.

I don’t know what it is with Korean dramas and supernatural beings that fall in love with helpless or quirky damsels, but creepiness doesn’t go away if the guy you love/loves you is an alien/gumiho/goblin/angle of death or doom itself. I watched My Love From the Star, attempted to watch My Roommate is a Gumiho, Tale of the Nine Tailed, and Doom at Your Service, and to my everlasting shame, finished Goblin. I’m not about watching shows to decide whether or not they’re “problematic,” but it’s just not entertaining for me to watch a 40-year-old man (who is almost 1,000 years old in the show) fall for a high schooler, or even a college student, particularly when he holds her life in his hands!

/endrant

In fairness, some of those shows are just bad, it has nothing to do with the power dynamics. It’s just interesting that it’s such a recurring theme, though I guess that’s a staple of non-superntaural dramas too: many seguks, and any of the shows with a chaebol male lead (ahem, Heirs) or bosses (My Shy Boss, What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim,  She Was Pretty), so all of them?

Run On study guide

I’ve been using the show Run On to study Korean for a while now, so I wanted to share some resources and techniques.

If you haven’t seen it, it’s a pretty slow burn romance/melo, in which a relationship blossoms between a track athlete and an interpreter. It’s one of the more mature and relatable relationships I’ve seen in a kdrama, which is one reason I wanted to study the dialogue.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Im Siwan is the male lead. I’m 100 percent obsessed with Siwan’s Korean—it’s so clear! The female lead is fabulous but she does not enunciate.

In short, I use exported subtitles from Netflix to study new vocab and grammar points, make Anki decks to study/review all the sentences, and listen a million times to clips of the show, so that everything I’m learning has context and is tied to the sound of the language.

Setup

  • Clips. I made a playlist of all The Swoon clips available for the show on YouTube, one from each episode. Playlist.
  • Subtitles Using Language Reactor, I exported the subtitles from Netflix for each episode, which includes both Korean and English, found the sections that correspond to the clips, and cleaned them up in a spreadsheet. Spreadsheet.
  • Anki. I then made an Anki cloze deck using the subtitles, using only sentences with at least four words that made sense without (too much) context. The front of the card has Korean, with one deleted word, and the English. The back has the deleted word. I used some coding to help with this, but in the end, it’s a very hands-on process, which is part of the learning process. Anki deck.

Study

  • Vocab. After watching the show with English subtitles, I downloaded and studied all the subtitles, adding vocab I didn’t know to my monster vocab list. (I’m pretty arbitrary about this, often adding words only after seeing them a second time, or if I happen to like them.)
  • Grammar. I used Mirinae or Papago to try to understand any grammar or colloquialisms that I was missing. (Aka where I knew the words but didn’t understand why they meant what they meant.)
  • Anki. Reinforce what I had learned through the Anki cloze deck. Some sentences have new vocab, but many others are great practice for word usage/conjugation even if I already know the word.
  • Listening. I listened to the clips over and over again, just playing them while I was making dinner or cleaning or something.
  • Shadowing. I tried to shadow the actors, using the Language Reactor addon on Netflix, which lets you move through the subtitles and repeat each one as many times as you need. (Tbh I gave up on this pretty quickly, because I found that the easier sentences I could do, and the harder ones were just impossible, no matter how many times I tried.)

Full Episodes

I used the same method for the entire episode 1, and plan to keep going. I exported the subtitles, made an Anki cloze deck, and ended up studying them that way rather than line by line. This was actually way more efficient then the clip method—but you learn as you go. Best part is that you can download Netflix episodes to your phone, so I’ve listened to entire episodes on road trips/long runs etc. It’s amazing I’m not bored yet!

Not a race report

This should be about the marathon. I should have an entry where I recap it, or race report it the way they do on Reddit. Here’s what I wanted, what I expected, what I tried for. Here’s what happened. Here’s where I noticed the people lining the streets, and here’s where my tunnel vision blocked out the sounds and the sights.

Like Rachel Cusk wrote in Arlingotn Park I think, people should write more about what they expect. Or think about it.

And that is apropo, because I really came here to write about Rachel Cusk. Because I keep coming back to her and keep finding out that she is not what I thought. That is good, because she is in fact a real person, and she is not me, nor the part of me I thought she validated. Though I would like to revisit the glory of the Outline trilogy.

I hardly remember passing most of Fifth Avenue. I remember the landmarks I know well, the park, 116th Street, I missed my old apartment, suddenly finding myself across 110th Street, across the circle I used to see every day, after the entrance to the park, waiting for the hill to kill me.

It happened to me before, the tunnel vision. On the 20-mile training run, the last two miles, I was running behind Tien in his orange singlet and I thought nothing. I was just movement. I was not even fighting myself to continue the way I did at the end of the 16 and 18 milers, counting tenths of a mile. I was gone. Something else had taken over.

That’s what happened in the marathon, but I didn’t even focus that much on a single person to block out everything else. I tried a few times to zero in on someone but they were either moving too slow or too fast and were soon out of my vision. One guy, with a yellow Team for Kids singlet, I tried to stay behind him. I was judging him for being slower than me, as he was tall, young and male. But then, maybe he just did it for charity and had not obsessively focused on preparing the way I had. Mostly it didn’t matter. I passed him.

About halfway up the Fifth Avenue hill, I remember looking at the street sign, seeing 98th Street, and wishing it would end, but I’ve wished much harder for hills to end on training runs. I was amazed my legs were still working. I had no idea why they were.

When I got into the park, it was narrow, and I started to speed up. I saw the crowds in the continually warped way one sees scenery from a car. There was some comfort in so many people being so close, in being protected perhaps, or less anonymous.

When I turned back into the park for the last few hundred meters, I felt relief more than triumph. The finish line seemed farther and farther away. I had wanted to cross it in triumph, expected to cross it in pain. I’m not sure I was prepared for the feeling of vulnerability it evoked instead.

A conversation I once had

Today, a thing that I’ve thought and written about many times before is foremost in my mind. It is about the specifics of my situation, and my reaction, to the events of this week.*

It is a memory that is so worn now, I cannot be sure of the details. 

It was during high-school—a chasidic girls high-school located in a converted church—and one afternoon, my sister and I were in the one-room library on the second floor, with a high sloped ceiling, a single conference table and walls of white bookshelves.

Earlier that day, for some reason, our classes had joined together to watch a movie under the supervision of our petite English principal, Mrs. Bass, who also taught history. This was a wildly uncommon event, because we did not watch movies ever. It may have been the first feature film I’d seen in my life. 

The movie, called The Wave, was about an American history teacher who tries to reenact Nazi Germany in an effort to teach his high-school students about its dangers. He starts an elite club, with a salute and slogans, and the school begins to reorganize around it. The matter quickly gets out of hand, violence ensues, and the teacher puts an end to it, having made his point. 

In light of the movie, my sister and I were discussing, in what is a popular Jewish pastime, if it could happen here. She said yes. I was flabbergasted.  

Though we had been raised to view the world as hostile, and our position in it precarious, it wasn’t a message I’d internalized. I could cite a litany of Jewish oppression, had read novels about the inquisition and crusades and pogroms, consumed memoirs of the holocaust, preformed in a play about the cantonists, heard the tales of sacrifice and resistance—but I lived in a flat American suburb, my world a tight circle of family and faith, with not a single threat to my life, safety or practice of religion. 

So I was surprised to hear my sister, only two years older than me, quickly lay out how it—Germany that is—could happen here. I no longer remember her argument, or if it was the logic, or the mere possibility, that threw me. I know that I argued back, weakly. And that I was ashamed, for committing the cardinal Jewish sin: I had been caught unawares. 

Despite that shame, my resistance to the messaging that led to it, would be a recurring theme for the next decade. My father, it turned out, truly believed that our neighbors would turn against us the moment they had license. I simply could not imagine that the the track-suited grandpa next door or the bachelor on the corner who mowed his lawn incessantly, had even once given a thought to the Jewish problem. They had enough problems of their own.

It’s not that I disagreed with the notion of Jewish precariousness, or disregarded the degree to which the world I knew was shaped by the holocaust, but I could not accept the myopia that came along with it. I wanted to open all the doors to the world, not close them. It baffled me too that we could live as free and safe as we did, and still cower, still shape our understanding of the world as one in which we were victims. 

But this is in fact, a neverending internal and external battle, one that is aggravated every time evidence of anti-Jewishness surfaces. I’ve been alive long enough to know that the threat is not zero, but most of the time I’m convinced that the greater danger is living in fear of that threat, both to the Jewish community itself, and to the way it treats others.

*I no longer remember what the events of that week (in mid-January 2021) were, but as this is a recurring theme, I figured I’d leave it there.

Migraine musings

My right temple is the size of my body. It is biding its time. It will not make itself fully known, except as a kind of slithering, underhanded sneer. It is shimmering with unease, filling all of me with a weightless pain that is too slight to name but impossible to fully ignore.

I try anyway, try to assert myself, the mind and its semblance of self, but it keeps dissolving, slipping into a more fluid consciousness. Light and sounds are less stable, like they’re extending past their borders. Sunlight especially is menacing, like it might swallow everything in its path. The chair is flowing. The concepts of time and obligation seem equally mysterious. I cannot find them. 

Sometimes, if the obligation is well-formed, it can overcome the shiftiness oozing from my right temple. My mind can hold it down long enough to the shape: write this, call this number, say these things, respond to questions with a semblance of answers. It is precarious but possible, like doing it all in a shimmering pool of water.

Other people can’t usually tell, which should be reassuring but is not. How can my entirety be in disarray, the prospect of language itself questionable, the border slipping between the thing I call myself and a sly enemy that is hardly physical, and yet before me, the person to whom I have discussed real estate finance is unaware of the drama?

It puts even the questioning in question. To what degree am I responsible for sinking into the muck? The pain slides from my temple to my eyeball and the top of my jaw, like I have a toothache extending deep into the bones of my skull. 

I cannot in good faith call it a migraine. I am not after all in bed, I am barely in pain; I am merely in defeat.