The Korean language is effectively a Chinese dialect that had long used Chinese characters. When King Sejong, in 1650, created a new phonetic alphabet, called Hangul, to increase literacy throughout his territory, the language itself, the spoken language, remained the same; only the characters had changed. And yet, when Koreans and the Chinese communicate today, they do so in English.
I am in Yunnan Province, China, at a youth hostel in the mountains about two hours south of Shangri-la, on the porch, studying a map over a cup of tea. Through the gates march a party of Koreans; you can tell they are Koreans because when Koreans go hiking, they dress specifically for hiking, in absolutely essential bright nylon outfits they call hiking clothes. When they are greeted by the Chinese receptionist, my judgment is affirmed: they communicate in English to each other, right away. However, the Korean man who seems to be the leader of the party does not speak English well at all. And because it’s clear that the Chinese receptionist does not understand English well, either, especially not the old Korean’s English, a younger Korean emerges from the back of the party, a young Korean girl who could be his daughter, to interpret the old Korean’s English for the Chinese receptionist.
A few weeks later, I’m in Seoul, on a date with a Korean violin player. She's lovely, and it’s our eighth date. I've been counting. She speaks in English, and I speak in Korean, as usual. I tell her what I’ve learned about dating in Korea, continuing an ongoing conversation that began eight dates ago, how different it is in Korea than in the United States. In Korea, I tell her, lovers have to say “I love you” to each other first, (and she nods, verifying that I’ve learned about Korea correctly, so far), before they make love for the first time. Sometimes it takes a hundred days before lovers say “I love you” and thus a hundred days, in Korea, before lovers make love for the first time. Naturally, these two firsts, the saying and the making, occur right after the other. But in America, I say, lovers make love first, well before a hundred days and sometimes even the first day, and sometimes, habitually, for as long as a year, before they utter the words, "I love you." In America, I say, words are more serious than the act of love itself. She looks at me like I’m crazy. Why? she asks in Korean now. Why are words more serious? I don’t know, it’s stupid, I say in Korean, as we lay there together, clothed and almost sober on the deserted Yongsei University athletic field at three in the morning.
Meanwhile, my Korean colleague has just returned from Paris with a secret: she met a man. A French man. She tells me in English about how they met, and how they spoke only English, because she doesn’t speak French, and of course the Frenchman doesn’t speak Korean. She thanks me for helping to teach her English, so she could have meaningful conversations with the Frenchman. No problem, I say. Six months later, she goes back to Paris, for a month, to stay with the Frenchman, at the Frenchman’s apartment. In Seoul, she lives with her parents and grandparents, in a single-story apartment. Her parents think she’s traveling with other Korean women in Spain and Italy; if she said she was going back to France, they would be suspicious. A month later, she returns. She had the greatest time in Paris. And her English has greatly improved.