Taking the TOPIK II

On Thursday, I got my results for the TOPIK II I took last month.

The TOPIK II is for levels 3 to 6 (intermediate to advanced) and the best possible score is 300—100 points each for Writing, Listening, and Reading. One thing that’s nice is that you don’t apply for a set level; you pass levels based purely on your score. You pass level 3 at 120 points, level 4 at 150, level 5 at 190, and level 6 at 230. It doesn’t matter how you do on an individual section as long as your total score exceeds those benchmarks. You could skip one complete section and still pass level 5 if you ace the ones you take.

I passed Level 6 only because of this kind of forgiving scoring system. I got a 253, which is decent, an 84 percent, but if a fail in one section meant a fail on the test, I would have failed. I did well on the relatively easy Listening (96) and Reading (98) sections, but I failed Writing (59). It’s a good thing I don’t write in Korean.

84 percent may seem like a good percentage, but you also have to remember that I’m Asian. I grew up a latch-key kid, but I’m my own worst Asian parent. I’ve also been living in Korea for over 14 years, including two years of immersion in the Korean Army, and I still got a B. Not that I’m going to study and take it again. There was no point in me taking the test in the first place, and it was a painful experience.

The beginning

The test was on a Sunday, and because I didn’t register early, I had to go all the way out to Korea Polytechnical University (KPU), down near the southern end of the blue line (Line 4). (For those of you interested in taking the test for whatever reason, register as soon as the registration period starts. I registered probably a month before the test, and there were no spots for the test in Seoul, at least for the TOPIK II.) I drove because the weather was nice for a change, but the roads there are shitty and I took a wrong turn or two. I still managed to make it there with fifteen minutes to spare so I bought a cup of coffee and chain-smoked a few cigarettes in the parking lot. There was only one break time scheduled for the three or four hours of the test so I had to get enough nicotine in my system to hold me down until the break.

The classroom number was on my registration slip, and inside the classroom, the desks are assigned by examinee number. During the half hour or so before the test began, the proctors explained the procedures and tested the audio. I got the impression that they take the test far too seriously. For example, they collected all of our cell phones and put them in these special binders, announcing that we would only get them back at the end of the test. They also announced that there would be no bathroom breaks so I didn’t see the point of taking our phones. It sucked because I put some stuff on my phone for the sole purpose of keeping myself entertained during the break. They also announced that the wearing of hats was not allowed. For God’s sake, it was a Sunday. I have to take a shower just to take a test?

All you need to bring is your registration slip, and even that they don’t let you keep on your desk. They give you a special pen, with one thick end for filling in Scantron bubbles and one thin end for the Writing section. There is correction tape (Wite-Out), but they don’t give each person their own. The TAs have it and you have to raise your hand for them to bring it to you.

Needless to say, I regretted coming instantly.

Part 1: Listening and writing

The test started off with the Listening section, which was really painful. The person in the recording spoke really slowly. They only play the recording once for most of the questions except where there is a pair of questions to answer for one scenario. The hardest part is maintaining your concentration and not drifting off while waiting for the person to hurry up and finish saying the goddam sentence. For a couple of the questions toward the end, it seemed like a couple of answers could have applied, as with any standardized test, but overall, it was really simple.

The test moves straight into the Writing section. There are a couple fill-in-the-blank questions to start off and then a short essay (maybe 200-300 characters) and a long essay (maybe 600-700 characters). The task of the short essay was to write a summary of a pie chart on high school students’ breakfast-eating habits. The topic of the long essay was the value, methods, and benefits of volunteer work.

I got too cocky during this section. I looked at the clock after I finished the short essay, and I had thirty-five minutes to spare. They didn’t give us any scratch paper so I started brainstorming and outlining in my head, which was a waste of time. I looked at the clock again and I had twenty minutes left so I started writing as fast as I could. With time running out, I abandoned any kind of outline I had and started jotting down whatever popped into my head, repeating the same things over and over just to make the 600 character mark. When we handed in our test sheets, I got a glimpse of other people’s papers. At least one person didn’t even try to write the long essay. But I had one of those moments where you see that other people’s papers are drastically different and wonder if you did something wrong. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew I did poorly. But I thought it was at least worth a B-, definitely not an F.

Break time

As they were collecting our answer sheets, the proctor dropped the bomb.

“You can’t leave the building during the break time. For those of you who smoke, just hold on until the test is over.”

Fuck.

It was just cruel. The break time was between sections so it’s not like we could do anything outside other than smoke. I walked out of the classroom and toward the elevators, where there were long lines to use the bathroom. Having nothing to do, I climbed all of the stairs, checking on each floor to see if there were any smoking rooms, and I made it all the way to the top floor, hoping to at least get on the roof, only to find signs on the door saying that alarms would go off if the doors were opened. Dejected and out of breath, I went back down. I bought a cup of vending machine coffee, took a piss, returned to the classroom, rested my head on my arms, and tried to take a quick nap.

Part 2: Reading

The final section, Reading, was 70 minutes long. It was too long. If you can read practically anything in Korean, it shouldn’t be a problem. My Korean reading speed is nowhere near my English reading speed, but the passages are straightforward and the choices are not that difficult. Wishing that I could leave early but knowing that they wouldn’t let me, I took a nap for the last half hour.

Conclusion

The test is not difficult, but it is frustrating in its procedures. Play to your strengths because you can still pass level 5 even if you skip one complete section. The Writing section is really the only section for which time is a factor so make sure you save plenty of time for the long essay. Unless you’re taking the test with a friend, bring along a crossword puzzle, a book to read, or a small pillow because there is nothing to do during the break except piss, shit, or nap. If you smoke, buy some nicotine patches or bring an e-cigarette and find a bathroom out of the way. And don’t drink too much water before the test or you’re going to have a bad time.

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My Korean Language Journey

For a unit on language acquisition this past week, I asked my students to share their English language learning journeys. Because the class was for our near-fluent students, there was a greater variety of answers in comparison to answers given in our lower level classes. One of them was born in the States and moved back when he was three. Another spent a year in England and another year at an international program in Germany. Another went to a foreign language high school. The weakest spent years studying for proficiency tests.

During my smoke break at the halfway point in class, I thought about my own journey with the Korean language. There are most probably people who question my lack of Korean language ability prior to the Army experience due to my lack of an English name. Since I was young, people have always assumed I was an exchange student who couldn’t speak English based on my name. When I moved to Seattle, I was placed in remedial English classes in part because of that preconception, even though a cursory examination of my academic record would have shown that I’ve always done well in English classes.

My upbringing was unlike many of my 2nd generation Korean American peers in that my parents never spoke Korean to me when I was young, as I’ve mentioned in the book. My parents are not native English speakers, but they are practically fluent. By the time I was born, my parents had been working and studying in the States for over five years. Back then, there was the belief that children exposed to multiple languages would face problems in terms of language development. My parents wanted me to achieve the American Dream, and they wanted no obstacles in my path to doing so.

However, there is a slight possibility that I was able to speak Korean as a toddler, before I started to develop memories, thanks to my paternal grandmother. One of my earliest memories that may hint at this was that I had to attend speech classes in the first grade along with kids with lisps. Regardless, by the time I entered kindergarten, I couldn’t speak a lick of Korean aside from a few basic food words.

In the fourth grade, my family moved to Korea because of my father’s job. However, I attended an international school for foreign citizens, Seoul Foreign School, and spoke in English almost exclusively throughout those two years. My classes were in English, my friends spoke English, my friends’ parents spoke English, and my parents handled any and all interactions with non-English speaking people. On the rare occasion when a relative or stranger approached me and spoke in Korean, my go-to expression was Mollayo—“I don’t know.” There is a story in the footnotes that explains how the time in Korea actually caused me to develop an aversion to Korean and also to speaking on the telephone.

After my parents’ separation, the family sans my father moved to Seattle. For a short while in middle school, my mother took my younger brother and me to Korean classes at the local Korean church on Friday nights after she got off work. She would often forget in her tiredness, and we would purposely not remind her. When she did remember, she had to bribe us with McDonald’s to get us to go, and even then, we would skip class and play basketball in the church gym. The only expression I remember from one of the classes I actually attended is “Thank you for…” (“~hae jusheoseo gamsahabnida”). It was a very rudimentary expression I rarely used. There’s no need to explain why you’re thankful when a simple thanks will suffice.

In college, I took around two years of Korean classes. My sole purpose was to get easy As. I slacked off freshman year and ended up with a shitty GPA, and Korean classes were notoriously easy. I also took other language classes, and in comparison, Korean classes were a cake walk. Needless to say, I learned very little. By the time I left for Korea, I was still unable to say anything in Korean in a social setting. I tried once and failed miserably.

My first year in Korea, prior to the Army, was also very unproductive in terms of language learning. My plan was to return to the States in a year so I didn’t really try to learn Korean. I never took advantage of Korea’s glorious delivery culture because I would have to speak on the phone in Korean and always picked up my pizza in person.

The best illustration of just how bad my Korean was is something that happened to me during this period. While I was working at the hakwon, someone recommended that I try gamjatang. There was a cheap Korean restaurant between my home and the hakwon that I frequented, and luckily gamjatang was on the menu. I went in and ordered it (“Gamjatang juseyo”), wondering what the big deal was.

When it came out, I looked at the bowl of soup in front of me. There were no potatoes (gamja). I was confused. I thought that perhaps the worker misheard my order. I didn’t have the language ability to ask about it so I ate what was given me, paid, and left.

The next week, I returned to try again. Again I ordered gamjatang, and again I was given the same bowl of soup. Unable to explain that I thought they had made a mistake, I tried to reason to myself that maybe the potatoes were ground up, which was why the soup was so grainy.

It wasn’t until three years later, after the Army, that I found out that gamja actually referred to the cut of pork in the soup.

Of course, the Army was a trying time for me in many ways, one of which was because of language. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a social situation where you’ve been surrounded by speakers of another language, but it’s extremely frustrating and stressful. You have no idea what’s going on and you put up with what you can, but you just want to leave as soon as possible. That’s the problem with the Army, I couldn’t leave. A true sink-or-swim situation.

I’ve heard too often that I was lucky to get such an intensive language learning environment. The thing is, the Army is one of the worst places to learn Korean. The language they use is strange, overly formal, and everything you need to say can be summed up in a few expressions. All of the Korean I learned during those two years was learned on my own. I filled notebooks with vocabulary words I looked up in my pocket dictionary. I bought a Korean grammar book during one of my leaves and filled another notebook with grammar points. I read books in Korean, and at the beginning, a single paragraph would take me an hour.

Even with all of that effort, for some reason, things didn’t really fall into place until I was discharged. I was yelled at because of my inability up until I was a sergeant. I can’t remember having a single decent conversation in Korean during my whole time in the Army.

Over ten years later, my Korean is far from perfect. I stutter and trail off at the end of sentences, hoping that the listener will fill in the rest of the sentence. When people hear that I’ve been here for over 14 years, many rudely comment that I need to study Korean more. My Korean is actually much worse than the year after my discharge because I don’t have many opportunities to use it despite living in Korea. I’m a hermit English teacher who spends all of his free time in a coffee shop trying to write.

Coincidentally, I’m taking the TOPIK (Test of Proficiency in Korea) tomorrow. I don’t really know why I’m taking it. I should have taken it a long time ago. It’s one of those things that’s on my list of things to do that I have never crossed off the list. I’ve heard it’s fairly easy so I’ve done zero studying for it and will probably go out drinking tonight and end up taking the test hung over.

If only learning Korean had been as easy as this.

 

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Lesson for the new year

I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions, but for those of you who do, here’s a lesson I re-learned since my last post: If you want to accomplish anything, keep that shit to yourself.

Here’s a short TED video that explains why.

This is probably why there is the cliché of the guy who’s always talking about working on his book but never ends up writing it. I was that cliché for a long time and am always in danger of becoming that cliché again.

I was doing well with my 1,000 words a day goal until I posted it on the blog. It’s been almost a month since, and I only have about 7,000 words to show for it.

This idleness isn’t really due to broadcasting the goal on this blog. A couple days before I wrote that last post, I was with some friends visiting from Hawaii, and I was asked about how the writing was going. I mentioned that I was working on my novel and that I had set a goal of 1,000 words a day and was managing to stick with it.

“1,000 words? Wow!”

That’s all it took.

Since then, I’ve struggled with writing even 200 words a day, many days not even that. Some days, I cut more than I wrote. Some days, I just drank. I spent the last week in Japan, and it was almost all drinking and no writing. At this pace, I’ll be lucky to finish the first half of the book by the end of the winter.

That’s not a resolution, just an observation.

I’m not much of a talker, but I still need to learn to keep my mouth shut. How much better would the world be if we all learned to get off our fat asses and act instead of bullshitting all the time?

Happy New Year.

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No, I’m not in a coma

I realize it’s been a long time since I’ve written on this blog. Actually, I only realized it the other week. It’s not that I haven’t written any posts. I’ve actually written at least five or six posts that I never got around to finishing up and posting. Ironically, one of those posts was an explanation of why I never get around to posting the things I write. There are a lot of reasons for the prolonged absence, but the primary reason is I’m focusing on writing my novel right now.

For the few among you who have been reading since my previous blog, you’ll know that I have a lot of respect for Stephen King. It’s like they invented a novel-writing machine in the future, and the machine became sentient, figured out time travel, settled down in 20th century New England, and decided to write stories about killer clowns and hunting humans. According to Wikipedia, he sets out each day with a quota of 2,000 words and will not stop writing until it is met.

My current goal is 1,000 words per day, which is a realistic goal for me at this point, but it’s still painful on most days. Usually by the end, I’m typing out utter garbage through bleary eyes while debating whether having dinner is worth the loss of sleep (because I eat late, after I’m done writing, and I teach 7 o’clock classes). For a typical novel of 80,000-100,000 words, work at this pace should take me roughly three months. That’s my current goal at the moment—to finish a first draft by the end of the winter. Of course, I most probably won’t meet that goal because there will be many days where I instead choose to drink, especially with the end of the year approaching, or do other side work to pay the bills.

After my laptop crashed in September, I started by reconstructing as much of the outline as I could remember, but I was basically starting from scratch. October was spent in fleshing out the outline and doing research for the book. In November, I was just dragging my feet, writing maybe a paragraph or less a day. It got to a point where I realized I’d never finish if I didn’t start forcing myself to write, which is why I decided to impose a quota on myself a couple of weeks ago. I’m currently at around 22,000 words.

I’ll try to post occasionally, maybe get around to finishing those lost entries, but my priority is in finishing this draft. If there are no updates in the months to come, hopefully that means that I’m actually getting shit done.

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An Expensive Lesson

How much is an idea worth? How much are the words that I write worth? How much is an hour of my time worth? As with many people, I greatly overestimate the value of my time and ability. It’s one reason why I can’t quit my job—I believe the pay is reasonable compensation for my time and ability—and one reason why I don’t like picking up extra private tutoring or editing jobs—the prices I feel I should charge I also feel are not moral. It’s also one reason I don’t blog as often as I should—the compensation is purely social and I’m not a social person. But the fact is that I waste a lot of time doing things with no inherent value. I should at least be reading books in my free time, but I’m probably the least well-read writer I know.

Anyway, these were the questions I found myself debating the other week. A couple weeks ago, my laptop crashed. I came home from a long day at work and turned on my computer. It was working just the same as any other day, but it wasn’t connecting to my home Wi-Fi, which it was in the habit of doing occasionally when I used it outside of the apartment. So I restarted it. It shut down fine, but where I should’ve got the ASUS loading screen, I got the blue screen of death. I didn’t think too much of it at the time because it would crap out every once in a while, but about 36 hours later, it still wouldn’t work despite trying everything I could think of.

The thing about my laptop, it was a shitty, bottom-of-the-line tablet PC so it had a tiny hard drive. Considering space for the operating system and necessary programs such as Office, there was almost no space left. Of course, there was a slot for a micro SD card, which is where I put most of my files. But my most important files, the files that I accessed most often I left on my hard drive. Of course, those files were my next two novels, the first of which I had maybe 30-40 pages of notes, a detailed outline about 60-70 percent finished, and certain important passages written out in detail. The second was mostly preliminary research, but there was a great deal of it.

The day after it crashed, I luckily had a few hours of free time, so I took the bike out, first to Yongsan only to find the ASUS repair center had closed down, then to various spots on Naver where they said there were ASUS repair shops near my house—Shindaebang, Noryangjin, Heukseok—but they were all dead ends. In the end, I went to this data recovery center near Hakdong, and they said they’d call in two days with a quote. “We’re among the top 3 data recovery centers in Korea,” the guy assured me.

A week passed and nothing. I couldn’t get through so I took my bike out there and the guy told me that they had to send it to another center in Busan and that he’d call me the next day. Two days later, he told me that it’d cost probably 700 bucks to fix. I told him that the price was too steep so he said he could try a different place for about 500. I said I’d think about it.

500 bucks for two Word files? 500 bucks for maybe three months of work (the last time I backed up the files)? 500 bucks for words I wrote that I might never write again?

In the end, I decided against it. When I consider that I actually lost money on my first book and that even when not factoring in the money I threw away in printing the book independently, my profits versus the time spent in writing and editing the book equals out to pennies per hour. I also didn’t lose the ideas for the novels, just parts of the ideas and many words that I may never get back, but for the more developed of the two books, the fact is that it was not even a complete first draft and after editing, the final manuscript may not even include those words or ideas at all.

Hopefully, one day, my words and ideas will be worth more than this. Instead, I’ll just have to take this as a lesson that I paid for not in terms of money but in terms of months of work. Kids, remember to back up your files.

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Print News Interview: The Korea Times

This is two weeks late, but I finally managed to get an article in The Korea Times, thanks to Sam Paterson. It was in the July 23-24 weekend edition and the July 22 online edition.

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Photo courtesy of Frederic Ojardias, one of three friends who still read the newspaper

When I first started promoting the book, I was unsuccessfully in getting The Korea Times to publish an article about it. I never got a reply the first couple times I contacted them, and there was interest after my first radio interview, but it was shot down by the editor at the time. As a result, I didn’t get my hopes up after doing the interview, and I was surprised on the morning of the 23rd, when Sam sent me an e-mail saying that it had been published, followed by messages from the few friends who saw it in the paper.

All the books at Kyobo (there were only five to begin with) finally sold out at the end of the last month as well. I’ve talked to my contact at Kyobo and hopefully I’ll get them back on the shelves in the coming weeks.

The article

 

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Summertime Busy

It’s been a while since my last blog post, and a long absence means either that I’ve been doing a lot of writing or relatively none at all. More often than not, it’s the latter. Not that I haven’t been writing. While there is no news regarding the Korean translation of the memoir, the textbook is in the hands of my cousin for translation, and I’ve been focusing on my first two novels when I have the time. The problem is that the summer is always the busiest time of the year for me in terms of my day job.

During the July intensive session, I see the most students out of the year in classes that require a lot of prep. I also get at least one group of students who want to get an early start on preparing for the last round of the entrance exam for the National Diplomacy Academy, which has taken the place of the foreign service exam. For this month, I have seven groups of four or five students each to coach in English debate, accounting for more than half of the applicants that made it to the final round. This will overlap with a special camp I teach for students from Chiba University for two weeks at the end of this month. As a result of all this work, I usually pass out early when I get home from work at night, which is usually when I do most of my writing.

The summer is also when I’m relatively the most social. I don’t know why people choose to visit Korea in the summer. It’s always either stiflingly humid or raining, and these days, it seems like every couple days I get a text message alert about a heat wave or monsoon. A former co-worker and the primary editor for the memoir visited from Albania, a drinking buddy and game developer who hopes to develop a game loosely based on my experience visited from Canada, and a graduate school hubae who shares my love for drinking during the day visited from the US. Interestingly, all of them are expats; the editor is American, the game developer is French, and the hubae is Korean. So lots of drinking and traveling around Seoul, which has also eaten up a lot of my free writing time. I’ve also had a few weird experiences in the past couple months, which I’ll save for the next one or two posts.

While talking to my game developer friend, I was reminded that I actually cut out a great deal of content from the memoir, at least 150 pages worth of material. Sometime this year, when I have a little more time, I’ll go through the early drafts and try to share some of those stories here.

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