top of page

Seoul Survivor: Kochinglish

You got Konglish. You got Chinglish. But I bet y’all have never heard of Kochinglish. Well, that’s how I talk with North Korean defectors. I’ve had to use it because I started teaching English to a couple of students. We use the weirdest dialect in the world.

Hold up, let me backtrack a bit. I’ve made a couple of posts since, but my documented journey last left off with me eating KBBQ with my coworker who is a 탈북자, a defector (get used to the Korean spelling). He and I are of the same clan, the 백 family. I call him 형님 (hyung-nim), big brother. He calls me Mr. Paik, but more like Meesta Baek. You might think we cannot communicate, but he and I have had very in depth conversations. We’ve talked about work and politics, movies and music, dating and marriage, Capitalism and Communism. We’ve made jokes and played with toy guns. His English vocabulary is aggressively hilarious. I think his time in the DPRK taught him many different uses of the following words, “fuck, you, Yankee, bastard.” He also knows words like, “thank, American, human, rights.” The best way I can describe his speech is like a machine gun. It’s militaristic: cocked, aimed and rapid-fired.

The noises he makes are even wilder. Asians make this weird noise that I’ll just describe as ‘hocking.’ It’s the sound an old man makes when he is spitting while peeing. I’m sorry you just had to read the most disgusting sentence ever. Anyway, Koreans hock a lot, especially when they want to emphasize something. I'm just going to go ahead say that this noise came from China. Thanks, China. When I was in China, oh lord, it was just constant hocking. Left and right. Men. Women. Children. Even some puppies made that noise. It reminds me of the first time I learned Kochinglish.

My Korean class at NYU had a lot of Chinese people, which is funny because my Chinese class had a lot of Korean people. One day we were learning about onomatopoeia with animal noises. The teacher asks what pigs say in English. The American kids are like, “oink-oink.” Then she says that in Korean, pigs say “꿀꿀,” kinda like "gool-gool.” Then she asks the Chinese kids what it’s like in Mandarin. There is a brief pause, then this one girl just makes the most perfect hocking noise in the world. Oh mah gawd, I just about died.

China and Korea are connected, yes, but also separated by rivers and mountains. I wrote a history paper on the relationship between China and North Korea immediately following the 1953 armistice of the Korean War. I'll save you the details, but the point is that although they have similarities, they are different. It’s like the United States and Canada. To an outsider, they’re basically the same. But don’t you dare ever call an American a Canadian or vice versa. In the case of China and Korea, they at least speak different languages. So please, stop mixing them up. That said, the two regions have borrowed a lot from each other. For instance, 짜장면 is a noodle originally from China that made its way across the Yellow Sea during the Opium Wars. The noodle, though technically Chinese, has become more of a Korean dish. It’s like how the Californian roll is Japanese food but not really.

I’m ramblin', sorry.

So I’ve become an English tutor for 탈북자s, defectors from the North. One of my students only knows the alphabet. Communication is difficult because he only speaks Korean and with a Northern accent. We are learning very basic conversations and greetings. Hi, how are you. He has been in Seoul for a little over a year and has realized that he needs to be able to speak at least a little in order to go to university. He is a few years older than I am but has been set back because he spent a very tough youth in North Korea. Furthermore, he came straight to Seoul. Many of the students I see have spent a bit of time in China. Growing up in China is actually a privilege for Northern children. It acts a bit of a transitional barrier before coming to the South. This individual did not have that privilege. I ask him if he speaks any Chinese and he shakes his head. I have always known that I am lucky to be American. Now I see how unlucky I could have been.

My other student is actually quite good at English especially considering where she came from. I have been helping her to write her college essays and prepare for interviews. Born in North Korea, she escaped to China when she was eleven and lived there until a couple of years ago. She cannot access any memory of her first eleven years. She now lives in Seoul but tells me her Korean is bad and she feels most comfortable speaking Chinese. I tell her it’s okay because my Chinese is better than my Korean. There is enough of an overlap for us to communicate intellectually. I have been able to teach her about different literary tools such as alliteration and metaphors. Nevertheless, my worst grades in college came from Chinese classes. I technically passed Advanced 2 Mandarin, but I was dragging my feet by the end. I am far from fluent. Honestly, I can hardly read. But all those years I spent learning Mandarin, though half-assed, have suddenly paid off.

Anything I can say in Korean, I can say a little better in Chinese. But I get so confused. I get mixed up with the languages in my head. I’ll give you an example. 1, 2, 3 in English is pronounced “one, two, three.” In Chinese it’s written 一,二,三,pronounced yī, èr, sān. Great, two languages, no problem. Alright, Korean makes things hard. There are two sets of numbers, native and Sino. Native Korean is self-explanatory and Sino means it’s from China. 1,2,3 in native Korean is 하나, 둘, 셋, pronounced hana, dool, set. I learned this as a kid. I didn’t realize until I was older that Sino Korean numbers exist. They go 일, 이, 삼, pronounced il, yi, sam. So now we got 1,2,3 in three different languages in four ways. The pronunciation for the number two in Sino Korean is the same as the pronunciation for the number one in Mandarin. Shit will fuck with your brain.

The grammatical structure of English and Chinese are actually very similar. Subject, verb, object. In Korean, the verb always comes last. The subject usually comes before the object, but it doesn’t matter as long as the particles are correct. I have no idea how to explain particle use in English. “The” makes no sense, nor does “a” or “an,” also “to” has too many meanings. How do you explain this? Chinese is easy. There aren’t any stupid particles like, “the” or “a.” Why do we gotta say “I made the cake,” when we can just say “I made cake,” like the “the” makes a real difference? Yet it does.

Anyway, I’m tutoring my new 친구 English and helping her write an essay. Our main method of communication is Chinese so we have to work together to take her ideas and turn them into English. I switch to Korean mode whenever my Chinese brain farts. She writes about a robotics competition that she won. In English, “won” is the past tense of the verb, “to win.” In Chinese, this verb is 赢 or yíng. In Korean it is 이기다, ee-ki-da. But the sound of the word, “won” in Chinese could mean any of the following, “to finish, to play,” or more. In Korean, it means money, circle or hope.

So my sentence goes like, 你想对你的,那一个,怎么说,audience? 알아요? 听懂吗?明白吗?告诉你的 audience, uhh... 왠야하면 你特别喜欢电脑, 그리고 너는...非常聪明的... 학생,你, 아이구, uhh 我,我,won 了。Won 었어요. She actually followed me up until the very end when my brain farted and I blanked on the Chinese word for “to win.” She was nodding and nodding, but then when I said, “我 won 了” she stopped like, “what? What did you just say?” In my mind, it made sense.

Basically, I said, “You want to tell your, how do you say… audience? understand? does that make sense? You want to tell your audience that your team won because of you’re a smart cookie who likes computers.” My jumbled mind pooted. I forgot the Chinese word “to win” so I just said it in English. However, it sounded like, “you want to tell your audience that because you are smart and like computers, you played/finished.”

Kochinglish is the best way for an American to speak with a 탈북자. Before I came to Korea, my goal was to meet just one 탈북자. Check. My goal since has been to talk to one and get to know them. Check? My time here has been uncomfortable but in the best way imaginable. I have made a fool of myself in so many ways. I already know I’m weird, but I've pushed it with Kochinglish. During my first week I was really scared that my language barrier would be impossible to overcome. I would profusely sweat just trying to understand the people around me. Three weeks in, I’ve found a way, my own way, to learn what I want to learn and connect to people I care about. This is Kochinglish. It makes no sense but it’s the best I got.

When I leave the school late at night, my new 친구들/朋友们/friends wave to me, “再见!” The senior teacher bows to me, “안영히 가세요!” As I get on the subway car, my student sends me a Kakao message, “Good by.” I reply, “Goodbye* Bye Bye."


bottom of page