August 25, 2012

Hangeul or Hangul

Here's the link for the Wikipedia entry for "Hangeul."

Now here's the link for the Wikipedia entry for "Hangul" (Without the "e")

Notice anything similar? Of course you do, they both point to the same entry! Now why is that? It's because there is no real set romanization of the Korean language. Or at least one that is universally accepted in South Korea. Why does this matter? Korean is a language with an alphabet, there shouldn't be a need for romanization right? Just learn some 한글 and be done with that! To hell with the Latin script!

But that's really not good for foreigners. Are you Korean? Can you read 한글? If not, then those two characters mean nothing to you. Only if I tell you that those two characters are read like "hangeul" or "hangul" can you begin to pronounce the word. Romanization is an essential step for foreigners in learning a foreign language.

Take two examples, the Chinese pinyin, and the Japanese romaji. Both are excellent examples of romanization and are taught in any elementary Chinese or Japanese language class. Since both languages use Chinese characters extensively, a proper romanization system is absolutely critical to read words. Otherwise, how can I, a foreigner, just look at 汉字 or 漢字 and even begin to know how to pronounce it? When the two words are paired with "hanzi" and "kanji" can my brain make an association between the character and its proper pronunciation.

Let's look at the Chinese pinyin as an example. It is a bit difficult to learn at first because the pronunciation is not what a native speaker of English would expect. For example, the pinyin "you" is not pronounced like the word "you," but rather like "yo" in the word "yo-yo," or the greeting, "yo!" But the most awesome part about pinyin is that, once mastered, every single character in the Chinese language can be spelled using it. This way, once you learn a character's pinyin, you can immediately know how to pronounce it. How useful is that!

Now let's look at the Japanese romaji. Compared to pinyin it's a lot easier to pick-up, and similarly, once mastered, becomes a valuable tool in learning the Japanese language. As you can see from the Wikipedia article, every Japanese hiragana or katakana character has a romaji counterpart. Since all Chinese characters are also made up of hiragana characters, by the transitive property, all Japanese characters have their own romaji counterparts. Learn the romanization, learn the basic characters, then learn the Chinese characters. Boom! You can read Japanese.

Another interesting little fact is that, typing in both Chinese or Japanese requires knowledge of the romanization. Sure there are some other methods of typing, but for the most part, Chinese and Japanese people use Latin letters to type on computers and phones. So the average literate Chinese or Japanese citizen is very familiar with their respective languages' romanization styles.

But since Korean is an alphabet, typing it is just a matter of which key to press for which character--it's really simple once you learn it, just like English. Therefore, foreigners have to not only deal with the lack of an easy way of pronunciation recognition, but have to also learn an entirely new keyboard to type the Korean language. It's just too much effort!

I think the government needs to adopt a sweeping new universal system--one that makes sense, one that is easy to read and understand, and one that'll make Korean a much more accessible language for foreigners. Because it sucks to not be able to pronounce Korean names or streets! Then perhaps people will start taking Korean seriously and more people will actually be willing to learn the language.

On a side note, I am nearly complete with my personal website! Keep on the lookout for a blog post when it's live!
On a side side note, 2012 is on its way to being the worst year for my blog! So little posts!
On a side side side note, I missed the 3rd birthday of my blog! Oh no!

August 22, 2012

Chinese Roadside Carts

A lone child sitting alone in a public lounge. He is reading out loud his homework for today. One plus one is two. Two minus one is one. Six minus three is three. What an adorable sight. Like clockwork, the child is there every single day. Rehearsing his multiplication charts and reading them aloud to his parents over dinner. His mother corrects him every now and then, while the father nods solemnly.

The mother is a sort-of janitor for the international student’s dormitory. By "sort-of" I mean she's not legally or officially employed by the university. She works daily, cleaning after the students, restocking toiletries, and attending to various needs of the staff. By night, she uses the public kitchens and prepares dinner for herself, her husband, and their son. She stores the leftovers in the communal fridge.

Where does she live then? In the basement level, with the other members of the staff and her own family. They live in cramped ten-by-ten rooms with multiple bunk-beds stacked on top of each other. Not the ideal condition to raise a child in. All the while, students are living in doubles in the floors above, complete with refrigerators, air conditioners, and personal bathrooms. It's a clear-cut example of the major disparity prevalent in China these days.

How is this possible? You see, in China, there is something called the "floating population." Scores of migrant workers, seeking better living standards, leave their rural villages for the cities--taking any jobs that they can manage to find. Due to China's vast population, a lot of daily meager work is fulfilled by these migrant workers. For example, most of the magazine stands and street-side vendors are run by these exact workers--you can't go a day in Beijing without running into them.

When I first landed in Beijing, I had expected a fully modernized city with futuristic skyscrapers and advanced commuter rails. I was not disappointed, Beijing is indeed a 21st century modern city, but at the same time, there were many parts of it that caught me by surprise. The advanced look of skyscrapers and Olympic stadiums stood awkwardly next to the wooden cart markets. Large-screen TVs on buildings lit up the roadside Chuanr (meat skewers, or kebabs) carts. The city is a weird juxtaposition of the some of the most modern architectures with the impoverished look of the poor.

In high school, I had the opportunity to visit Japan on a similar study abroad experience. One thing that particularly struck me as odd there was the obscene amount of vending machines that Japan had littered throughout its streets. There wasn't a single city or rural block that did not have at least one vending machine on it. Now take every single vending machine and replace it with a migrant worker on a wooden cart selling beverages and you have Beijing.

I love chuanr.
Obviously both have their advantages and disadvantages, one is cheaper, the other is more refreshing, and both are extremely convenient. At a glance, the Chinese equivalent seems a bit off-putting--almost an eyesore to the otherwise modern cityscape. But after a few conversations with them, I realized that the wooden carts are actually a deeply integrated part of Chinese culture. The large population isn't just a boasting figure or statistic of China, but rather its most defining characteristic.

I had an assignment to interview a migrant worker on his/her experiences. I had to ask for any challenges in their lives, their motives, their goals or aspirations. At first, I was a bit hesitant because of their facial expressions--hardened with the tough reality of their lifestyles. But after getting over the initial fear of speaking to them, I found that they are quite charming. A chef at a dumpling restaurant taught me to make Mapo tofu, a cell phone and magazine vendor chatted with me about his life back in the villages, and a hairstylist told me his views on America and Chinese communism. I realized that, past the toughened exterior, is an extremely colorful mind, just waiting to share his or her views with the world.

I had the wonderful opportunity to chat with some of the city's most interesting characters--the average street peddler. Each and every one of them has a unique story to tell--one filled with hardship, sweat, and perseverance. So whether you're buying fresh fruit or a bottle of water from these migrant workers, take a moment to look beyond the wooden cart and try to engage in a friendly conversation. You may be surprised at what you may find.

On a side note, this was an essay I wrote for a scholarship.