“Learning Korean”

Volume 8 | Spring 2018

by Charles Heusel

Sitting in a tea house in Chunchon one evening, a friend of mine, 1st Lieutenant John Arlen, introduced me to Hangul, the Korean written script. The great King Sejong, who lived from 1397-1450, had ordered his court scholars to create a new system of writing. The resulting script was a major innovation over the Chinese pictographic method of writing used by Koreans at the time. He pulled a folded sheet of paper from his pocket and handed it to me. On one side were listed each of the 24 characters of the Korean alphabet, and on the other side, their English phonetic equivalent.

A Korean friend had given John the characters, but he admitted regretfully that he had never taken the time to learn them. He thought that I might have better luck.

I was fascinated. That sheet of paper became my Rosetta Stone. I memorized the characters and learned how to pronounce and write them. I took every opportunity to ask Koreans to write in Hangul as many expressions, words and verbs as I could think of. I repeated them over and over until I had them memorized. I also bought a Korean-English dictionary. Gradually my vocabulary grew.

To this day, I can still read and write the characters but must rely upon the dictionary for words I’ve forgotten or haven’t yet learned – admittedly, quite a few. It’s been a while.

I never mastered verb tenses. I put everything in the present tense, which must have sounded strange to a Korean listening to my babble. I found the people, however, to be admirably patient and helpful as I tried to learn their language.

My progress with spoken Korean advanced to the point where I could ask questions and somewhat understand the answers. I made it a practice to memorize expressions that might be handy when the right circumstances arose. At the New Year’s Eve celebration at the Camp Page Officer’s club that year, I sat at the bar with a few friends. Watching the club members and their guests arrive, I noticed a beautiful Korean girl sitting alone at a table. I walked over and introduced myself. She spoke English well, and told me that she had accompanied her girlfriend and her friend’s officer escort to the party. They were both on the dance floor; I asked if she wanted to dance and she accepted.

As we danced, I figured that was the perfect moment for a phrase I’d been practicing.

“You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met,” I said to her in Korean.

She stopped dancing and looked up at me, without a smile. “Bullshit!” she responded in English.

I was caught off guard by her response. My reactions were mixed: satisfaction with successfully saying something as I had actually intended it; surprise and admiration for the spunk she demonstrated with her quick response; and disappointment that she may have misunderstood my intentions.

Fortunately, she couldn’t have been too offended because we continued dancing and stayed together for the rest of the evening. We saw each other daily until I rotated back to the States a month later, and we traded letters twice weekly after that.

Following my discharge from the Army, I wrote and asked her to marry me. She quickly responded with a big “YES!” Six months later, we came face to face again at Kimpo Airport in Seoul. She looked wonderful.

We’ve been married now nearly 50 years, have four children and five grandchildren. Never in my wildest imagination would I have imagined how the future would turn out after that New Year’s Eve dance. Fate is amazing.