Korean Pop (known as Kpop)

When I was growing up, my primary exposure to music was western classical music. I lived in Korea so sure enough, I’d heard Korean traditional music such as 판소리, or old popular Korean music which my parents labeled 뽕짝… and of course there was Korean pop. But Korean pop of my younger days was much different from what people come to know nowadays. What’s currently known as Kpop and super popular in early days were looked down upon by the older generation. My parents were certainly against it, so they didn’t expose me much to it. I’d say my mom especially was quite against any Korean music. So I learned to play the violin, I had no music collection other than classical.

Let’s say Korea is a land where, if you are different, you are essentially pounded down, shunned, hushed. And Kpop of early days was a bit like that, at least from my vantage. But how crazy that I still held that antiquated view all the way until a year ago. Even when everyone around me would ask about Gangnam Style (강남스타일), I had very little touch with the Korean pop and could not speak much to it…other than the criticism of the south of the river area in Seoul (And full honesty, I’m from north of the river and I agree with the underlying critique). It’s a bit sad that I knew more about the latest Latin, Cuban and Arabic singers than the latest Korean sensations.

Well, that all changed. I’m not sure what prompted me to get into my roots in this area, so to speak, but somehow I started listening to BTS (https://ibighit.com/bts/eng/) and, well, I became an ARMY (that’s what BTS calls their fan). I’m not sure how I became a fan. Maybe it was their song Life Goes On (beautiful lyric) and the impact of pandemic, or maybe it was the way they’re portrayed…honest, caring, true to themselves. 

And maybe my sudden liking of Kpop is more of my liking for this particular band? I have no clue. It could also be that I am now in the middle of my life and looking to reconnect with some parts of my history that I tried to ignore.

As an immigrant, you can’t help but shun just a little bit of your own culture. To assimilate, you push aside everything and try to fit in and move ahead in life. Now that I’ve done all of that, I realized how much of Korean identity I have pushed away. And with this little bit of touch with Korea that has become so global and has run away without me in it, I feel like I am back at the end of the train of Korean identity that’s spreading across the globe.

So what am I doing now? I’m in a Bangtang Academy (https://bangtanacademy.carrd.co/#about) of Korean language learners (yes, there’s an entire discord server of people devoted to learning Korean), leading/guiding a class on Korean culture and conversing with others in Korean, definitely learning so much in the process. In this way perhaps I am connecting to a little piece of my I’d forgotten.

Mother’s Poem

My mother has always been a poet. Constantly scribbling, yet unable to spread her wings most of her life due to life’s obligations. I’d love to introduce you to one of her creations here. I only hope I was able to do justice in translating it.

비내리는 날의 일기 ㅡ 소귀골(牛耳洞)을 걸으며…  
– 수목원

옛목간통으로 가는 
멀고도 가깝다는 
표현이 맞겠습니다

돌아오는 소귀골
장맛비가 억수로 
골목 어귀를 채우고,

비에 젖어 즐거운 듯
가지를 흔들어대던
굵은둥치 호두나무가 
나를 보고 반가워
가을을 기다린다고
얘기를 나누잡니다.

나의 로망은
기다리는 작은 기쁨, 
기다리고 있는 소망,
가을 기다림으로 해
여름더위를 이겨내는
작은 열매를 보는 거,

그렇게 소소해서도
마음이 충만해짐을
갖는 순간입니다..

Diary on a rainy day – Walking Soguigol street
– Soo Mok Won

So close yet so far
Is how I would describe the twisted backstreets
that leads to the old bath house

As I walk through Soguigol street,
torrential rain fills the mouth of its alley

The thick old walnut tree waves its arms
with the joy of soaking summer rain
It is delighted to see me
And urges me to chat about the coming of the fall

My inner romance is in
A tiny joy of waiting
A tiny hope of longing
And seeing the tiny seed of overcoming the summer heat
Through waiting for the fallAlthough perhaps it might be trifling,
The moment fills my heart with fullness.

Night – 밤 (Poem translated)

Strangely, I have been writing more poetry lately and although they have not much to do with Korea, as I did my best to attempt to translate my poem into Korean so I include some of them on my blog (and also Farsi translation). This one is not my best. I am not sure if this poem is even suited for Korean translation. Love and destructiveness are not topics I connect well in Korean as my knowledge of Korean is perhaps not really nuanced enough to do justice to this poem. Still, I do my best…


The night calls me,
soft and seductive.
Come my love,
Come and be with me.
Forget about the day.
Forget your sorrow.
Let the darkness embrace you.
Come dream with me,
Let dreams be your reality.
Why hesitate?
All you have to do is surrender.

밤이 저를 부릅니다,
부드럽고 매혹적으로.
오세요 제사랑,
저와 함께있어요.
낮은 잊어 버리세요.
슬픔도 잊어 버리세요.
밤이 당신을 감싸 드릴수 있어요.
저와 함께 꿈을 꾸세요,
꿈이 현실로 될때까지.
왜 망설이나요?
모든것을 놓고 저에게 오시면 된답니다.

شب مرا به خود فرا می خواند
اغوا کننده و لطیف
بیا عشقم
بیا و با من باش
روز را فراموش کن
غمت را فراموش کن
بگذار تاریکی تو را در آغوش بگیرد
بیا و با من خواب ببین
بگذار رویاها واقعیت تو باشند
چرا مردد هستی؟
تنها کاری که بایدت کرد تن سپردن است

Poem in triplets…

Don’t ask why, but I started learning Persian (Farsi) just recently. I guess I wanted to learn a language that is perhaps totally not practical for once? Until now, I learned languages because I wanted to be able to speak and communicate, especially since I always had a bit of wanderlust. But with Persian I find myself learning just because I find it beautiful. I am not a polyglot. I do speak Korean and English and reasonable Spanish, but otherwise, just smattering of words in a bunch of other languages.

But there was definitely a strange consequence of learning Persian which I thought was impractical. It has awakened my poetry writing. I had abandoned writing poems long ago, reasons I had briefly explained in my other post, but now I revisit my decision. Since I’ve been writing poems in English and translating them into Persian as part of my learning exercise, I thought why not also translate them into Korean? And perhaps I would add Spanish as well in the future posts.


How do I love you
When you do not exist
What do I call you
When you have no name
How do I touch you
When you are a void
When my heart breaks
And I cease to exist
Would I be with you?


당신을 어떻게 사모하나요?
존재하지 않으신 분을.
당신을 어떻게 부르나요?
이름이 없으신 분을.
당신을 어떻게 촉감 하나요?
공백만 보일 뿐인데.
마음이 너무 아파 더이상
존재하지 않을때
그때 당신과 함께 있을수 있을까요?


چگونه تو را دوست بدارم
هنگامی که وجود نداری
تو را چه بنامم
هنگامی که نامی نداری
چگونه تو را لمس کنم
هنگامی که وجود غایبی
وقتی دلم می شکند
و دیگر وجود ندارم
آیا هرگز با تو خواهم بود؟

Poet Revisited

My mother is a poet and an intellectual, but she spent many years not actively writing because as a married woman in Korea, she did not have as much freedom to do so. As a person who feels the urge to write constantly, I can imagine how it feels to have to block out that feeling. Living in the U.S., I am not as limited by the role of a woman, but the reality regardless intrudes and I am forever pushing my writing behind the day-to-day life. Writing poetry only feeds one’s soul, no? And the reality wins out…

I initially started writing poetry when I was a teenager, but abandoned it because…I am not sure why. Perhaps I felt poetry came too easily to me, which meant I was not good? My reasoning for stopping is very convoluted. Instead of poetry, I spent most of what little writing time I had on writing stories. The result is that I have not written a single poem for many years. Now full of nostalgia, I start again…like my mother who picked up her pen again as she got older.

Below is a short poem written in English, translated to Korean as best as I could.

When I close my eyes,
What do I see?
Faded memories,
Grey and melancholic.
And I hear a song
that I had forgotten.
My heart sings to me,
Of love and sadness.
When I open my eyes,
That song fades away,
And my heart is forgotten.

눈을 감 으면
저에게 무엇이 보일까요?
색이 바랜 추억들,
회색의 향수.
그리고 내가 잊었던
노래가 들려 옵니다.
내 마음이 제게
사랑과 슬픔에 대한
노래를 한답니다.
하지만 눈을 뜨면
그 노래는 사라져 버리고
내 마음은 잊혀집니다.

Historical Women of Art and Poetry (Giseng/Kiseng, 기생)

Hwang Jin Yi

Historically in Korea, only two types of women danced professionally, 기생 (Giseng or Kiseng in old way of transliterating), and 무당 (Moodang). Moodangs were like shamans. Gisengs were like Venetian courtesans of the 16th century, except even more legitimized. They were not part of the noble class, rather, they were part of the lowest class in Korea, yet they were women of power. They were women of intellect and poise who could compose poetry better than any poet, know politics better than any politician, danced, played instruments, sang, and participated in diplomatic relations. 

One very famous Giseng named Hwang Jin Yi, often portrayed in various dramas, was so desired that one noble man who visited her when she was very old apparently fell in love with her with her beauty, which perhaps came from her intellect and poise since she by then probably had lost all her bodily beauty.

It is true that not all so-called Giseng were of this caliber. There were several tiers of Giseng and the lower tier Giseng were more like the modern-day call girls. The top tier Gisengs, however, were registered as part of government and not even high level nobility could easily touch. Gisengs started their education early in their life. Not all Giseng are born from a mother who was also Giseng, but some chose that life because perhaps they craved freedom or they had no choice because their family, even if noble, was too poor. 

Despite having much more freedom and power compared to other Korean ladies, Gisengs were still women of that era. Those who were born to Giseng could not be anything else. They were not allowed to marry a man of a noble class. And they were forever relegated to a life of a caged bird who sang for their life. There were many poems that survive from the famous Gisengs throughout history. Their poems are often poignant and sad.

More on the poetry of Giseng on my next post…

Personally I wonder what I might have done if I were born in that era. I am from a noble family root, and even though I would have had a life of privilege, my life would have been one of gilded cage. Would I have consented to life of being another’s life, life hidden away into a household? Or would I have chosen to be free and found a life of Giseng more preferable…?

Simple poetry

As I was writing a post about Korean calligraphy, a Korean poem came to my mind. My first calligraphy presentation had been a short and simple Korean poetry. That is to say, there really is nothing simple about Korean poetry even in its simplest form. To this day, I remember every line as the image the poem evoked was truly beautiful.

비 갠 여름 아침
– 김광섭

비가 갠 날
맑은 하늘이 못 속에 내려와서
여름 아침을 이루었으니
녹음이 종이가 되어
금붕어가 시를 쓴다.

Below is my best attempt at translating the poem into English. It is almost impossible to translate Korean poem as there are nuances and expressions that do not exist in English.

Clear summer morning after the rain
– Gim Guang Seop

Clear day after the rain,
translucent sky descends
and settles into the pond
painting a perfect summer morning.
The melding becomes a paper
where fish compose poetry.

서예 (Seo-Yeh, Korean Calligraphy)

I started learning Korean calligraphy when I was in the first grade. I suppose as a descendant of a noble lineage, learning of the calligraphy was a must. Korean calligraphy is not simply writing beautiful characters. There is a certain mindset or a way of being that one must adopt.

Image by Samuraijohnny

Since I started when I was just seven years old, all of that way of being was not verbalized to me. We were taught to sit quietly, settle our 벼루 (Byeo-roo, ink stone) on the table, pour just a little bit of water into the well of the ink stone, and start grinding the 먹 (Meok, ink stick). The more expensive the ink stick, the more fragrant it is. The cheaper ones you can usually tell by how bad they smell.

This process of slowly grinding the ink stick, is what settles you and put you in the mindset of tranquility. There is really no hurrying this grinding process nor do you want to go fast as it will just splash (but ink won’t come out any faster). Usually the calligraphy session full of first graders would start out loud, then within 15-20 minutes, everyone becomes quiet, mesmerized by the never ending circular motion of grinding ink stones and the ink smell permeating the air.

붓 (boot, brush) and 선지 (Seon-ji, paper — special calligraphy paper) comes next. Initially the beginners use cheaper practice paper and also have to fold papers to create guidelines for the letters. Then within a year or two, the practice paper is replaced with the special calligraphy paper (한지, Korean paper is well known for its quality). The beginners start with the standard 한글 (Hangul, standard Korean), next step is the cursive, and then pictures or other characters.

The posture you have to assume is very strict. It is said that those who are able to write beautiful calligraphy could also wield sword equally well. When you write, you can never drop your elbow or lean. The tip of the brush is the only thing that touches the paper on the table, like a tip of a sword. Imagine how much strength must go into that.

Sadly it has been a few years since I held a brush in my hand, but I still do remember that rich fragrance of the ink stick and the utter calm that settled over me whenever I held a brush.

%d bloggers like this: