[Seoul Lounge] If only I were the taffy man

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[Seoul Lounge] If only I were the taffy man

Whenever I meet a taffy man (yeotjangsu in Korean), I cannot resist asking, “Is it true that you can do whatever you want?” They must not get asked that question very often because it often takes a moment for them to realize that I am referring to that old Korean saying “Yeotjangsu maeumdaero” (“Yeotjangsu does as he pleases.”) If I became one, I would change two small, but annoying things: Korean names and money.

Korean is one of the toughest languages in the world for native English speakers to learn, but Koreans make it even more difficult by writing their names a seemingly infinite variety of ways in English. In China and Japan, there is essentially one way to write names in English, but for every Korean name, there is at least 20.

The first source of variation is in the format of the name. Some Koreans follow the Japanese rule of reversing the order of their names to conform to the West. Chi-guk Kim may sound better than Kim Chi-guk, but reversing the order sounds unnatural and is unnecessary. Others prefer to follow the Chinese convention of putting the last name first, but having their first name as one word. This makes names more difficult to pronounce. Still others put a comma between their last name and first name, but this makes their names look like part of a mailing list.

The most confusing way to write one’s name is to write it as three separate, capitalized words. The Washington Post follows this convention, which once led former U.S. Senator Jesse Helms to refer to Kim Jong Il as “Kim Jong, the second.” Fortunately, The New York Times switched to the format I prefer, which is the last name followed by a hyphenated first name, with the second part written lowercase (Kim Chi-guk).

Of course, Koreans are far more creative when it comes to transliterating their names into English. How can a foreigner be expected to know that Lee, Rhee and Yi are one and the same names in Korean? Some Koreans are more creative than others. Every week or two I see a spelling I have never seen before.

Ironically, even though hangul, the Korean alphabet, has fewer characters than the English alphabet, Korean is difficult to transliterate into English, especially without using markings that require special software. I don’t have a magic solution or preference, but I do have a simple request: Be consistent!

I would start by banning spellings that create sounds that do not exist in Korean, like Tsu for Chu and Zang for Jang. Why anyone would want their name to sound Japanese or Chinese is beyond me.

I am confident that if China, with a standard language containing four tones and more than 40,000 characters, can find a way, so can Korea.

The second thing I would change is the value of the Korean currency in relation to the U.S. dollar or euro. It was fun to become a millionaire at the age of 22 when I lived in Korea for the first time, but there has to be a better way to encourage Korean children to be good at math.

Indeed, of the more than 50 currencies listed at www.exchangerate.com, Korea has the weakest currency. The next closest country is Chile, which has a currency more than twice as strong as that of Korea. In Asia, the only currencies with a lower value in relation to the U.S. dollar are Indonesia’s rupiah and Vietnam’s dong.

I can find only one argument for maintaining such a weak currency. The currency that is closest in value to South Korea’s is that of North Korea, even though the black market rate fluctuates more wildly than the temperature in Seoul these past few weeks. However, such a consideration would also mean preparing to move the capital of Korea to Kaesong, not Sejong City.

Be bold and take off two or even three zeros! The world did not end when the 50,000 won note was introduced a few years ago. Smaller denominations would sure make life easier for everyone, except of course for those hoarding illegal hoards of cash.

I would tell you about other things I would change, like sealing all sewer pipes, making tap water actually drinkable and holding concurrent presidential and legislative elections, but that might make it sound like I am running for office!

* The author is the Asia Foundation’s representative in Korea.

by Peter M. Beck
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