Anyone who has ever traveled to another country probably learned the basics in foreign language… how to greet people, how to order beer, and how to curse. I’m not exactly sure why swearing is so fun, but it really is.
Of course, the first bad word I learned in Korea was ‘fuck.’ This got me in trouble a bit, as “shebal” (fuck) sounded a lot like “shechung” (city hall). I lived close to city hall, so this was the best landmark to tell taxi drivers in order to get home. However, I often made mistakes. I’d sit in a cab and say, “Hello, fuck.” I’m sure I pissed off many a cab driver.
The next word I learned was dog-baby. This does not mean puppy, but rather, it is the equivalent of ‘bitch.’ The word for a human baby and an animal baby are different in Korean, so calling a person a dog baby is very insulting. This almost got me in trouble one day. I was walking my neighbor’s shih-tzu and an old Korean man began petting the dog and firing out questions to me. I could tell that he wanted to know how old the dog was. I nearly forgot that dog-baby is bad. I sat, raking my brain for the word for puppy. Finally I gave up and said, “dog (human) baby.” I’m sure, though I sounded ignorant; it was less offensive than saying ‘bitch’ to the old man.
At first, I learned new swears like I learned guitar. Everyone knew one or two bad words, and it was easy to pick up a few words at a time. Ryan knew “shut up,” which was considered so rude in Korea. Chris knew “boobs” and “penis.” One night over drinks, Tim said, “bo-jee joke-um jewsayoh.”
I tried to translate. “Give me a little… wait, what is bo-je?”
“Pussy,” Tim said, smiling. “It means, ‘give me a little pussy, please.”
I smiled too, and taught him a phrase that I knew. “Joet ba-da-da.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Suck my dick.”
As I started hanging out with more Koreans, more words poured into my vocabulary. Sometimes I never knew exactly what the words translated into, but I enjoyed saying them just for the sake of them being bad.
“She-bahng say-ya!” I’d state, proudly.
All the Koreans would crack up and cover their mouths. “Anna, that’s bad. Don’t say that,” they said.
“Knee-gee me shebal!” I’d say, and they’d laugh again. It’s always funny to hear someone call you a motherfucker in your own language.
I think Korean men found my swearing more amusing than Korean women did. My friend Hye Young regularly told me, “You have such a pretty face, and such an ugly mouth!”
Korean insults are funny as well. Calling someone dirty is extremely insulting in Korea. It’s not that it’s a kind thing to say in America, but it’s certainly not something you’d hear during a drunken bar fight in the States. So, some insults are things like, ‘you should wash.’ Harsh.
My Korean friend Gihyuck taught me many curses. Whenever I walked around saying the new words I’d learned, our other Korean friends always punched him for teaching me. He taught me ‘joet ga,’ which means, ‘kick yourself in the penis.’
He taught me some practical words as well, and through hanging out with him I began to be able to speak Korean in sentences. “English is all prepositions, Korean is postpositions,” he told me. It made sense. In English, I am an English teacher. In Korean, English teacher I am.
I started trying to make sentences whenever I could. I’d learned the word ‘monster,’ and I applied it to everything. I could be a vegetable monster while eating a salad, or a beer monster while drinking. One time I used ‘joet ga’ in a sentence. “I am the penis kicking monster!” I told Gihyuck. I was proud of myself for my creative sentence.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Joet ga means, like, kick YOURSELF in the penis. So you can’t do it to other people.” It sounded difficult.
Korean insults, at their finest.
I learned that not only do English speakers enjoy swearing in Korean, but Koreans enjoy English swears too.
When I realized that most of my students didn’t know cursive, I decided to teach them all. Every student had to learn how to write each individual letter, and then how to link them together. “Now try writing ‘my name is…’ and your name,” I instructed each class. Some students struggled, while others really took off, practicing extra words. I was walking beside one of my older students and I looked over his shoulder. He’d drawn a boarder around his worksheet, carefully looping his letters in an elegant fashion, writing the words ‘fuck’ and ‘shit.’ I walked past him pretending not to see.
I did want to work on learning Korean though. So when I met Byunghyuck, we agreed to exchange English lessons for Korean ones. He was a tiny, middle-aged engineer and he would get a raise if he could speak better English. We began meeting once a week for an hour of language practice. One Saturday morning we met up. I was hurting from the night before. Even the coffee he bought me didn’t help. “Do you know haejaen sool?” He asked me.
I knew haejaen meant ‘hangover,’ but I’d never heard of sool. “No.”
“It means hangover alcohol.” I smiled at him for the first time that day. “Do you want?” He asked. I nodded, and we found a place to serve us Korean rice wine (mokoli). A few bottles in, I was feeling great, and our English was getting more interesting. Instead of talking about the names of various vegetables or our hobbies, we began talking about swears.
I wrote a list of swears and explained their meaning to him. He was excited to learn the word, ‘fuck,’ but had trouble pronouncing it. “It’s like, ‘fuck-you!’” I instructed.
“Fuh-Q!” He shouted. Later, as he drove me home, another car cut him off. “Fuh-Q!” He said happily. I laughed and clapped my hands, proud of my student. It may not have been the best lesson to teach, but swearing was always practical.
(written in 2010)