During the Spring 2019 semester, I submitted this as a weekly assignment for my class called Reading, Writing, and Teaching with Professor Cobham-Sanders. I remember being ecstatic about that week’s assignment as it was open-ended.

Revisiting these words and reading my artwork’s title “a few of my favorite things,” I have tried to piece together what could have possibly been the prompt. I just find myself staring at the most random compilation of words, leaving me desperately curious what could’ve prompted me to write 20 Korean words on a canvas of leftover red, yellow, orange paint that beautifully covered up my *failed* attempt from a Paint and Sip event. Some of them are everyday words, some are the trending Korean slangs of that spring, some are words I simply like the sound of, and others are words that are impossible to find the perfect counterpart in English. From left to right, here are the words, their pronunciations, and a short commentary on each:

웃프다 (oot-puh-da) means tragicomical. It’s slang that I picked up on a Korean entertainment show called Knowing Bros (아는 형님).
토순이 (toh-soon-e) is the name of my best friend’s childhood stuffed animal she has to this day.
노을 (no-eul) means sunset glow. It’s the title of one of my favorite Korean pop songs by Big Bang.
방울 (bang-ul) means bell. I just love how it sounds when spoken aloud.
취향저격 (chui-hyang-juh-gyuk) means “suits my taste” or “that’s my taste.” It’s one of Korea’s most classic slangs that puts a modern spin on the four-character Korean idioms that are usually derived from four separate Chinese characters to convey a moral or lesson. While this slang resembles the classical four-character Korean idiom in form, it is actually just two words put together, “취향” (chui-hyang) meaning “taste”, and “저격”(juh-gyuk) meaning “shoot at”, rather than four separate Chinese characters.
먹방 (muk-bang) directly translates to eating-show. Currently a huge social media phenomenon, especially on YouTube and Facebook live, that features a person eating copious amounts of food in front of a camera and interacting with their audience.
갑자기? (gap-ja-gi?) means “why so sudden?” or “so out of the blue.” It’s another Korean slang.
뭐? (mwuh) means “what?” It’s an inside joke among my family.
인스타그램 (in-ss-ta-g-ram) means Instagram. I find this one the most puzzling as to why it was included. Perhaps I included it because I’ve always found it interesting how Korean, being a phonetic language, can dice up the syllables of loanwords from English into sub-syllables (e.g. three-syllable word Instagram is diced up into five-syllables as a loanword in Korean).
엄마 (um-ma) means mom. I’ve actively resisted speaking to my mom in honorifics as it creates a sense of distance that I didn’t want between a mother and a daughter.
갑분싸… (gap-boon-ssa) means “killed the vibe” or “to go south.” It’s an abbreviation for 갑자기 분위기 싸해지다, which translates to suddenly the vibe turned sour, describing the awkward state of a situation. If you asked your friend how their significant other was doing and your friend told you that they broke up, that would be 갑분싸.
구름 (goo-reum) means cloud. I like the sound of this word; it sounds just like its meaning.
아버지 (ah-buh-ji) means father. I’ve gotten into a weird habit of only speaking to my dad – never to my mom – in honorifics. I love and respect my parents equally but it oddly feels more natural this way.
하루 (ha-ru) means one day. It is also the name of my cousin’s dog.
짜장면 (jja-jang-myeon) means black bean noodles. It was always the very first meal I shared with my maternal grandfather every time I went to visit him in Korea.
명상 (myeong-sang) means meditation. I have fond memories of my late grandfather teaching my siblings and me how to meditate in last ditch efforts to calm the hyperenergy we radiated in his cozy apartment on the 16th floor.
출발 (chool-bal) means the beginning. It’s the title of one of my favorite old Korean songs by Kim Dong Ryul.
눈치 (noon-chi) means tact/perceptiveness. Ask any Korean what is one Korean word that is most difficult to translate into English, most will say this. There’s something about the Korean nuance that makes it so difficult to translate. The versatility of this word always amazes me. You lack 눈치 if you show up to an event empty-handed, if you overstay your welcome, or if you share unsolicited advice/criticism. The motherly instinct is having 눈치, or a fast eye.
안물안궁 (ahn-mool-ahn-goong) means “I didn’t ask and I don’t care.” It’s the final Korean slang of this list.
음악 (eum-ak) means music. I think I wanted my list to be an even number that felt complete – certainly more so than 19 or 21. I needed one final word and it was the first that came into my head.

Recently, that same friend – the mother of 토순이 – sent me a Youtube video of Min Jin Lee speaking at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute in 2019 (here is a link to the full speech). The title of the lecture she gave, “Are Koreans Human? Our Survival Powers, the Quest for Superpowers, and the Problem of Invulnerability,” was inspired by a question she had been asked by a European journalist: “What are Koreans like?” Lee offers her answer:

“Koreans like to dance… Koreans like to be funny. We like to sing. And we love to eat. And we like a little dazzle. And if you know a bit about the Korean psyche, you know we are known for carrying this thing, this feeling called han (한), defined as a specific kind of inexpressible anguish that comes from having suffered collectively as a people. And then there is noonchi (눈치), a kind of emotional intelligence or the ability to perceive subtext. And there’s also the concept of jeong (정), my favorite, the quality of affection and attachment that people develop with time and common experience.”

In the comments of this video, user mg Han writes:

“나는 한국인들이 한, 흥, 정 같은 정서들 에서 자신도 모르게 많은 동기 부여를 받고 있다고 생각 합니다. 저의 경우엔, 여지껏 특정한 꿈도 없고 그냥 저냥 흐르는 대로 살고 있는것 같다고 생각 했을 때가 있었는데 어느날 곰곰이 생각 해 보니 가난했던 시절의 한을 동력으로, 돈이 쌓이는 흥을 동력으로, 어려운 사람을 돕는 정을 동력으로 하루하루 살고 있는 나를 발견하게 됐습니다. 제 경우를 빗대 보면 아마도 한국인이 가진 장점 중 하나는 고통이든 행복이든 슬픔이든 사랑이든 간에 자신이 느끼고 있는 감정을 긍정적인 발전의 동력으로 활용하려는 태도에 있는 것 같습니다.”

This translates to:

“I believe Koreans are inherently motivated from emotions like 한 (resentment, sadness, feeling of unresolved injustice), 흥 (excitement, enthusiasm, fun), and 정 (affection, fondness, social solidarity). Personally, all this time I thought that I had no particular dreams, and that I was simply living by going with the flow, but found myself using the 한 from my days of poverty, the 흥 that I feel when accumulating wealth, and the 정 to help people in need, as the driving force to live my every day. Based on my personal experience, I reckon perhaps one of the strengths of Koreans is their attitude to channel their emotions, whether they are in pain, happy, sad, or in love, as fuel for growth.”

The year is now 2021. My artwork, my collage of words, is almost two years old. On February 7th, 2021, I add 정, 한, and 흥 to that list – for I was once again reminded of and felt the immense pride in my culture, my language, and my people.