Man With A Hat And A Stick By The Double Gallows

Neon Korean readin'

Neon Korean readin’

Several days each week I find myself driving through Koreatown.

Traffic being what it is in Los Angeles, I often find myself taking surface streets during rush hour rather than the highways. I’m not sure that this actually makes my commute any faster, but I like having the option of changing directions and the semblance of control over my route and the amount of traffic on it. To get to campus, this means driving through City of Industry. To get to my internship this means driving through Koreatown.

Traffic being what it is in Los Angeles, I often find myself stuck at a traffic signal. Since I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon I found myself looking at all the signs around me written in Korean. I can always recognize Korean characters as “the ones with the circles”. That is the sum total of my knowledge about the Korean language and writing system. Circles. Looking at signs written in a language like Korean makes me realize what life must be like for someone who is illiterate: all around me words are pervasive, emphatic and completely opaque.

I found myself wondering how difficult it would be to learn to read it. Not in any serious way: I wasn’t going to buy audio disks or take a language class, but in the cave-man way of this-symbol-means-that-word. How much Korean could I learn to read just by looking at it carefully? As an experiment I started looking for a character that repeated itself. Since most of the signs in Koreatown are written in English and Korean I figured I should start with something simple.

I started with a church. While stopped at a light I looked for a character that I thought I could remember and settled on one that I mentally labeled: man-with-a-cross-hat-and-a-stick. It was at the far right hand end of a sign for a church and I could remember it because it looked like a person- a church man. The next time I saw a church I looked for the church man. There he was- always on the right.

This felt like progress.

The next day I discovered the man-with-the-stick character showed up a lot: sometimes wearing a hat with a brim, sometimes carrying a stick with a peg in it, sometimes in the middle of signs, sometimes on the end. The man-with-a-cross-hat-and-a-stick character was pretty much limited to churches, though (although I did also see it on a Veterans Outreach center, so clearly there is more to it than just churches). The next day I noticed that banks had symbols that looked like coins-dropping. The next day I started noticing patterns repeating.

I still can’t read Korean- no surprise- but the exercise of looking carefully at the signs was interesting for two reasons. First, a commute filled with “decoration” (symbols that didn’t have any meaning to me, i.e. seemed decorative) became a commute filled with patterns. I still couldn’t read them, but I was at least beginning to see them. Second, I found myself thinking about my assumptions about written language in interesting ways: did characters stand for words or for letters or for sounds? Was I supposed to be reading them left to right or right to left? Did the words change depending upon what word was next to it the way lightning and lightning bug are vastly different things? Did repeating symbols mean a repeat of sounds like “blah blah” or an emphasis on the word “double plus good”? How direct were the translations? Was “market” the same kind of symbol as “store”? And so on.

At any rate, I may not be learning anything, but at least it passes the time while stuck in traffic.


~ by Gwydhar Gebien on February 3, 2015.

One Response to “Man With A Hat And A Stick By The Double Gallows”

  1. Reading Korean symbols is actually really easy to learn! Crash course: Learning the language on the other hand… not so much.

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