How a White Guy Came to Speak Korean

Over the years, I’ve been asked many times how I came to speak Korean.  My favorite is when shopping for the wife at the Korean market – being a white guy who answers in complete Korean sentences is pretty much a rarity.  But over the years I’ve had the opportunity not only to surprise people, but also to actually comfort and help folks. I remember one time at the Dry Cleaner’s – it must have been lunchtime, and the grandmother had to help a (Western) woman in front of me.  They were having a little trouble communicating, so I thought I’d help and chimed in.  The look of both surprise and relief on the older lady’s face just made my week 🙂

The short answer is that I learned it in the Army, who trained me to become a translator.  I left the Army after learning the language (but before other training and postings ensued) and didn’t use it again for years.  Then I got hooked up with the Asia-Pacific/Latin America department of a company, finally got to visit Korea, and eventually married a Korean woman and even lived over there for a while.  I can tell this story in varying lengths, including most of its’ tangents, quite fluently in Korean – my most practiced speech.  (It’s usually at this point that I turn the conversation over to whatever business is at hand, and leave the person gaping and amazed at the fluent white guy leaving their shop – often with a discount and a smile.)

I figured today, I would write the longer version of the story.  Here goes: View Image


Anyway, so you know how life has its ups and downs.  I was at one of those lows and decided to join the Army, for wont of a better solution.  (And the rest of that tale is a story for another time, perhaps.  We’ve just met, after all.)  Who knows how things differ now, probably very little, but at the time (late 1990) when you tried to enlist in the military, there were a whole battery of tests (if memory serves, and knowing me I won’t go back to look it up, the ASVAB) everyone had to go through so they can determine how best to feed the meat that is you into their grinder.

As it turned out, I did fairly well and there was a dire need for translators of various sorts.  Basically, the deal was you’d go through basic training, go to a language school, get some training at your pre-agreed job (though there were several that entitled you to similar benefits).  For this, you agreed to enlist for a 4-year period, over which you would accrue several benefits, including a huge signing bonus.

So interested parties then proceeded to another test, the D-LAB (Defense Language Aptitude Battery) to make sure you have something of a capacity to learn a foreign language.  I went into this fascinating process.  First off, until that point in time, I had only met my recruiter.  A nice enough guy, but not smarmy or anything like that.  Honestly tried to find the best fit for me without being sales-y, though of course recruiting, as with any other “sales” position, has its own strategies and tactics.

So it was arranged that I’d spend a day at the MEPS center (military entrance processing) first taking all the necessary physicals, then this D-LAB.  That in itself was a surreal experience – starting with being picked up at home in, basically, a school bus at 6am, it was my first real experience being treated as a piece of meat in an assembly line.  It was very interesting, in hindsight, and I have enough ability to dissociate (even more back then) that it wasn’t too invasive an experience.

(There was a bit of issue with my flat feet – I won’t go into that even-less-fascinating sub-tale now – but yada yada yada, I had to say that I really wanted to be in the Army.  Go figure.)

Anyway, the D-LAB was scheduled for, like, 1:00, which I had originally thought ridiculous.  Of course this was my first experience with the “hurry up and wait” zeitgeist of the mega-bureaucracy that is the United States Military, the birthplace of Red-Tape and the actual term “bureaucracy”.  (It is in itself quite an interesting study, for all you amateur sociologists out there.)  And they actually did rush me through their process – I remember being passed from Corporal to Sergeant, walking at quite a fast pace (for me, at the time, for a fat, out of shape smoker), and hearing “this is Sergeant Van Zandt’s 99-GT”.

That was fuel for future thought, but we got there and there was one other dude sitting at in what looked like any college classroom (not a lecture hall, just a small room able to seat like up 30 people, those hard-seated, hard-backed chairs with the little desk attached to the armrest, a white board at the front), and sat there for like 20 minutes (so why did we almost run here?) chatting in whispers while we waited.

Finally, the right NCO came (he had stripes, that’s all I remember) and handed out a couple of gray, DOD-printed “blue books” for notes, and then gave a little orientation (the test was like 3 hours or something, with both a written portion and an audio portion, along with some basics about their precautions on cheating, despite the fact that that there were only two of us in the end, and were several seats apart, both for the sake of propriety as well as for at least some sort of personal space after the day’s experiences).

The test itself was set up into sections, and I really want to go find an old copy of the damned thing because it was utterly fascinating and I don’t remember too many details.  Looking back at my memory (which is still fairly sharp, despite all the waste the rest of my brain has been exposed to), I can see how they were testing for various language types, not only to determine if you could learn languages, but which one would be ideal for you as an individual.  I recall that they tested, for example, your comfort level with changing word order from English – something important in German and other related languages.  They tested your ability to understand nouns having “gender”, like the romance languages.  They tested your flexibility with learning different grammatical rules and identifying patterns.  They tested whether you could pick out letters from apparent scribbles (picture Arabic script) or from ideograms (like Chinese characters).  At the same time, they tested reading comprehension, vocabulary and grammer all at one time, in increasingly impossible challenges to basically learn a made up language right there on the spot.

I followed it well through the first half of the 100-page exam (or so my memory tells me), but then was down to making educated guesses which quickly spiralled downward towards their pulled-out-of-my-ass cousins.  My head was swimming by the time we got a 15-minute smoke/bio break, followed by a 15-minute waiting-for-the-NCO-again commiseration session along the lines of “what the HELL was that?!?”

That first written part took like 90 minutes, 2 hours, something like that.  Then there was the listening part, which was another hour, give or take.  They sent us to private rooms which were set up like a modern computer training room, but with tape recorders instead of computers.  They had handed me an answer booklet, another gray “blue book”, and a cassette tape, with instructions to do my best.

I spent the next 45 minutes doing an audio equivalent of the written portion, in the same language, doing listening comprehension, grammatical, vocabulary and all sorts of other tests, also in increasing difficulty levels.  I was even more lost at the end of it than I was at the written portion, and addled I wandered out of the room, handed my answer book to the NCO, and found my recruiter where he said he would be.  He took me back to my place, basically debriefing me about the day. 

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Anyway, long story short, I was eventually told that I “maxed out” the test.  I still don’t know what that means – in Army lingo it doesn’t mean what I think it means, which is the maximum possible; instead it means you hit the minimum requirements for the maximum “level”, for whatever test it may be you’re taking.  I definitely qualified for any of the translation jobs they had, and I simply chose the one with the highest signing bonus.  I later of heard of others who had, at this point, secured their language of choice, but I gullibly didn’t negiotiate a single thing, which is I suppose exactly what the recruiter, and every sales person, wants in the end.  (And what most people seemed to do.)

So, as I mentioned earlier, I was at this huge low in my life and signed up.   As this was a military intelligence position, and required a Top Secret security clearance, I underwent a first interrogation session before swearing in a couple of months later.  I shipped off to Boot Camp, meeting my drill sergeants for the first time on my 21st birthday.  Basic training is everything you imagine it is.  I may tell that story later, but suffice it to say that at one point they truck you, literally ass-to-elbow packed in like sardines at 4-times “maximum capacity” into a “cattle car” where you then wait in line to be gassed by OC (tear gas) in a tiny bunker while the drills laugh at you. 

 Upon graduating basic, I then had a brief respite before moving on to DLI, the Defense Language Institute, at that time in Monterey, CA.  (It’s since moved to the desert in Arizona, so I had good timing.)  Monterey is gorgeous – for those who haven’t been, it’s a coastal town about two hours drive south of San Francisco.  Seals and sea otters abound in the Bay, there is a cool little town (made famous by Hemingway, but it’s kept up with the times pretty well, due mostly to the vast wealth of its, and its neighbor’s, citizens) and some beautiful, if not rocky, beaches.  There are huge, steep hills – some more steep than SF, though not quite so splendid – which are a real bitch to stumble up drunk, I can swear to you.

The DLI was basically a college.  Set at the top of the hill, at the Presidio of Monterey, it may have been technically attached to Ford Ord, but was not the institutional drabbery that is the typical military base.  Probably about 50% of its trainees Army, with another 40% of the enlisted folks belonged to other branches of the military – Navy, Air Force, Marines.  Supposedly about 5-10% of the student population was “spookier” than basic military enlistees, but as many of the older people lived off-base it was pretty hard to tell.

There were some Army basics at the DLI – you were definitely still in training, and rules and regs, PT, evening duty, and all the other perks of being in the military – but it really was like being at college, maybe like being in an ROTC program.  After an initial time period where we were fairly restricted, we could walk right down the hill into town in civilian clothes, any night of the week.  We could go out to eat, get drunk, and be back in the barracks in time to pass out before starting a new day early in the morning.

So it was to this atmosphere I went, along with several other guys who were in my basic training platoon (Barnes, Lucky, and Davidson leap to mind).  When we all arrived we found we were to be put into different languages, housed in different dorm-barracks – and lucky me, I was slated for Arabic.  There was only one other guy, Laird, I knew from Basic who was slotted for Arabic – the majority of the others were studying Korean, Chinese or Russian. 

This was at the time of the first Gulf war, with the first President Bush, and there was quite the need for Arabic linguists.  So actually there was a wait of a couple of months before the 61-week course of study for Arabic could begin.  During that time of waiting, I got acclimated to the Arabic alphabet, and some other basics, but essentially wound up “washing rocks” (or basically just doing any menial task that needed doing, such as “policing” the base and cleaning up all the trash from the ground, to running miscellaneous errands for the cadre, to KP duty, like a bad Beetle Bailey cartoon.

One day our platoon Sergeant came in and told me and Laird that there was another month to wait for an opening in Arabic class, so we could move right over to Korean or Chinese at that second if we wanted.  We both did (neither of us anxious to go Iraq) – he chose Chinese, and I chose Korean.  We had like a second to decide, and more of my friends were in the Korean program, so I figured what the hell.

And that’s how it started.  On the spur of the moment, I chose Korean because I was more friendly with the folks studying Korean than Chinese.

There is a little more than that, of course.  The D-LAB is graded in some wacky way, but essentially there are 4 levels of languages they teach, and your score on the test largely determines which language you can learn.  If you had top scores in the test and flunked out of a very difficult language, there were known to be cases where the people started with a different language.  Anyway, level 1 languages included German and Spanish – languages with a lot of similarities in vocabulary/cognates and grammatical structure.  French, though, was a level 2 language, likewise with Finnish.  Russian, Hebrew, Farsi and several others were classified level 3, while I understood level 4 to consist solely of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Arabic.  As I had “maxed out” the test I was slated for a level 4 language, and with many re-enlisting personal negotiating for Japanese, the classes were limited for people at my level.

So it was really going to be one of those three languages.  But still, Korean it was.

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The course itself was pretty tough.  Well thought out, and focusing on 3 basic skill areas: reading/writing, listening and speaking.  For each group (class) there were 3 teachers.  Listening labs and other Army stuff were done together, but each class had one primary teacher and the other two would switch in and out over the course of the week.  Teachers were all native speakers.  The lesson plan was very rigid – every week a new “mod”, complete with a book and an audio tape (and perhaps more), and exams at the end.  There was a hierarchy imposed over this – a larger test every month or so, and Korean was slotted for 52 weeks (or in that neighborhood).

We’d be in class 40 hours a week, with 10 minute smoke breaks each hour.  The teachers were civilians, Korean middle-agers, and our particular class had nobody with any real rank, so we actually had a good time of it.  I mean, it was basically like being in college, studying 1 subject (not quite immersed, but as close to it as you can get) with daily homework enforced by threat of punishment not from the teachers, but from our platoon sergeants – a much more dire fate.

Starting with the Korean alphabet and simple greetings, they increased our knowledge based, focusing more on teaching us how to learn Korean than in memorizing vocabulary and blindly repeating phrases.  It really is a good program – you have small classes for the most part, as I said above you cover all key areas of language comprehension, and you really do learn not only how to speak quite a bit of the language, but also in a structure conducive to learning the rest of it much more easily than from more traditional methods.

Now I haven’t done Rosetta Stone (and wish I took that opportunity while at my old gig, who offered it for free), which I’m told is an excellent way to learn.  But the program at the DLI was incredibly well thought out and gave me an excellent foundation for future growth in understanding and learning the language.

In the end, I wound up leaving the Army before my 4 years were up – and actually wound up leaving from the DLI, about 40 weeks into the classes.  (The Gulf War had ended, and the military was downsizing.  It was a lot easier to get out, and I, along with several others, took advantage of the fact.)  I chose a fairly simple way to get out (fail the physical fitness tests), and by then I was positive that the path in front of me was not the best one for me.

So 53 weeks after I joined, I left the US Army honorably.  I had made some friends – one of whom was to become to be a housemate with me when I relocated to Philly, and another who is a lifelong friend who has had more positive influence on my life than just about anyone else.  Mike is the older brother I never had, and if meeting him alone was what I got out my time in the Army, then it was more than worth it.

And when I got out, there were some things I told myself I got from the experience – definitely more self-confidence, more self-discipline.  I knew myself – my abilities, my limits – much better than I would have spending the previous year in just about any other way.  But I thought that I was probably done with the Korean for the rest of my life.

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Sure, at first I tried to find a job where I could use that skill – working for an airline, or some such – but nothing interesting turned up which I qualified for.  Instead I wound up, through a connection, schlepping boxes for a law firm.  That grew into more – filing, delivering mail, answering phones, and eventually becoming a paralegal – but in no way did it involve the Korean language skills I had obtained in the Army. 

I did, during that time, spend a couple of years volunteering in the evening, teaching ESL (English as a Second Language) for something to do a couple of nights a week, and had the occasional Korean student.  But even then the idea was to teach English, and I rarely, if ever, used any of those skills, starting to atrophy quite seriously.

I went into another long low period and left the law firm.  Eventually I got to working again, doing temp work in various locations – building Excel and Access databases mostly.  I stumbled across this company, ISI, back in 1995, and wound up building a database for their editorial group.

After a few months of that, I was bored silly and ready to move on, when I was told that the Asia-Pacific/Latin America department needed help building a database, and was interested in the extent of my Korean knowledge.  (And for several years, every time a Korean visitor would come to our office, our VP would trot me out to perform my trick – “Doug speaks Korean” – before presenting myself for the judges – “So, how IS his Korean?”)  But really it amounted to little more than common sense and looking up stuff on the Internet – Japanese was much more important (and troublesome) than Korean for this particular dataset.

Anyway, from there, Korean and I actually got quite a bit closer.  Once this switched from a “temp job” into a full-time gig, they started to pay for private Korean lessons for me.  That didn’t work out so great for the first year or so, but then I did eventually get a really good teacher for the second year.  Right about that time I finally got to go to Korea for the first time – on the company dime, 8 years after leaving the Army and with the expectation of never seeing the country.

It was a great experience, and I fell in love with the place right away.  It turned out we were having business issues in Korea at that point, so my travel there was quite useful for the company (which was doing well in those years, and had T&E budgets galore) – I spent increasing amounts of time there, first one week, then two, then a month.  I spoke as much Korean as I dared, though slowly and hesitantly, whether out buying smokes or wandering around town.  (It was great to see the nervousness on the shopkeeps as I’d enter the store, but as I tried to speak they would be incredibly friendly and patient – at least the women, particularly the older ones, would be.)

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In the interest of wrapping this up, and saving other stories for the future, I eventually had a Korean girlfriend, who quickly became my wife 🙂  Of course since then my language skills have exploded, but even by that time they were not too shabby for a foreigner. 

My wife and I had a whirlwind romance (long-distance is challenging – triply so when that distance is to the other side of the planet) and I flew back to Korea (on frequent flyer miles) for the July 4th holiday (yes, a 4-day weekend spent with a total of 60 hours traveling by plane, train and automobile) to meet her family.  By then she and I hadn’t really had much conversation in Korean – her English was much better than my Korean so, stumble though we did, the bulk of our communication was in English – so she really thought I only knew a few key phrases in her native tongue.  During dinner that night, though, as she played with her nephew and niece, she left me to flounder with her family as I shocked everyone by holding down my own end (albeit barely) of the conversation, in Korean.

Now, 8 years later, we’re married and living in the US.  We’ve spent a lot of time in Korea since then – had a little apartment of our own for a short time, but mostly spent with her family – and we haven’t been back for a couple of years.  My mother-in-law lives with us, and she while she knows about the same amount of vocabulary as a 3 year-old, she is not able to converse at all. 

Learning Korean along with the kids has helped me even more than that, though Stanley, who’s 4, is breathing down my neck, and Lenny should pass me at an age even younger than Stanley will.  But I can now communicate, and am still not shabby at the reading and writing, in Korean – a language which is about as different from English as you can get while still calling Ur it’s distant ancestor.  Sure, we speak Konglish at home, and I get lazy about my accent.  I have a mental block against the French and German I studied before Korean – though I can understand them, I can’t speak them.  (Yet the Spanish I’ve picked up after learning Korean has stuck).  But my language abilities not only get stronger after every passing year, but it exercises a part of my brain that needed a good stretch – and instead of the wind sprints it got in school,  now they’re in the marathon, even getting a new “second wind” of excitement now and again. 

I have no idea how my life would have differed if I had stayed my full term in the Army, or if I had never joined in the first place.  It’s an odd string of coincidence and happenstance which brought me to where I am today – starting with having the translator position encouraged in the first place, then having Korean be the language of study, lucking into the position where that seed of ability to learn the language was nurtured (albeit weakly at first) until it could find a loving home and family where it blossomed and, if I may say, is flourishing.


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