I have a story to tell. An epic tale of victory and resilience. A happy story to be recounted in the evening around a campfire. Far from being a tale of woe, I hope that this tale serves as a powerful message against naysayers with its simplicity.
However, dear reader, I should warn that this tale is not for the faint of heart. Tears have been shed during the events recounted in this tale. And if you are not a person of unusual tenacity and determination, you may in fact find the following events incomprehensible. So now, with fair warning issued are you ready, dear reader, for the fearsome events about to unfold?
Let me preface this by saying, I’m living in South Korea. As an immigrant, I am learning the local language. It is not too difficult when you first begin, but the more you advance, the greater the challenge becomes. For the past year and a half, I have studied the language independently using only free resources. However, many times calamity has struck… I have slacked off due to being tired or lazy. There has even been an occasion on which I did not actively study Korean for a full two weeks. I know. It’s terrible.
There are times where discouragement, embarrassment, and frustration have struck, rendering me mute when the nearest Korean spoke to me or effectively stopping me from completing a task due to the daunting prospect of trying to communicate in a foreign language.
However, I did say that this was an epic tale of victory, did I not? And so now, I come to the uplifting arc of my story!
I read and understood a sign in Korean.
It may seem like a small insignificant action, but to me, that was epic. Tears have been shed in the past when a particularly sincere effort at the language has gone to waste or when a good explanation on the reason behind a certain language rule eludes me. My tears, that is. To clarify, I’ve cried out of frustration or homesickness in the past.
But now, celebrate this joyous occasion! I read a sign and understood it! Yes, it’s true I have done that many times. But this moment was particularly delightful because I read it without thinking and understood it without trying.
See, there’s a building I often cut through across from my officetel (efficiency apartment). It has clear, weighted doors, as is common here in Korea. And that door has a sign on it. For the longest time, I worried that the sign might be saying not to use that door and for the reader to use the neighboring door. Or perhaps it was warning of some sort of peril. But between making no time to check the meaning of the sign and seeing others pass harmlessly through said door, I guessed that the sign had some other meaning instead.
Finally after months of passing through this door, I finally pieced together its meaning from the amount of vocabulary I’ve picked up. I read it. I understood it. And I nearly jumped for joy at doing it without conscious effort.
So, how did I understand it? Well, early on I learned that 문 (mun) means door. 을 is a particle and while I still don’t fully understand those, you can usually get the meaning without taking particles into consideration. 주세요 is a common word/phrase used to politely request something. Its meaning is somewhere between “please give me this” and “please do this for me”. Suddenly, I recognized the first part, 출입, from the subway stations since its one of the words I’ve encountered all the time without paying attention to it or learning it. A new friend who recently moved to my congregation is a foreigner from Russia. She is a new permanent fixture in our congregation who has learned Korean quite well and she once texted me a location using the word found above all subway stations, 출입구. The embarrassment of never really noticing this word despite seeing it for over a year made it become indelibly stamped in my brain after her text. It helped that the English translation by it was not the expected word. Now I know that 출입구 means entrance (not exit, as I always refer to the numbered entrances of subway stations) and so I realized that 출입문 must be entrance door. With only the verb left to decipher, I quickly began repeating it to myself silently, mulling over the possible meaning when it hit me. I vaguely recalled the sound of this word from my workplace. I tried to recall the context it was used in and BAM! I suddenly knew. This sign is saying to please close the door after entering/passing through it. Which as I said earlier, makes sense since most doors in Korea, including this one, are weighted to stay open. So now you know the tale of how I realized what this sign was saying. And when you are as curious a person as me, you know that receiving the answer to any question, even one as silly as “I wonder what the sign on this door means” brings a sense of satisfaction. Hopefully, I’ll have many more “Eureka!” moments from here on out.