Post #31 – Good day, 안녕하세요. If you are as lucky as I am (I always wanted to say that, lol), you book an international taxi at Incheon to take you to your hotel in Gangnam, about 90 minutes away with traffic, and get a one-hour-long lesson in the concept of the Korean language – Hangeul.
Most of the Indo-European languages I know use the same mechanics. We use words with specific meanings to express recognizable things, people, and actions, and their attributes. Hangeul seems to be different. Phrases express concepts, ideas, situations. You will rarely say the same simple thing over and over. As an adult, learning Hangeul at literary level must be very hard, and only within reach for people with flexible minds.
I would be happy to get by with the minimum necessary, but I am still very far even from that. So I was very thankful when the driver of my international taxi ride had a nick for language and literature and proceeded to explain a few things about Hangeul.
The first two words we foreigners learn from books or the internet are: annyeonghaseyo (안녕하세요) which means ‘hello’; and kamsahamnida (감사합니다) meaning ‘thank you’. I personally did learn saranghae (사랑해) first though, meaning ‘I love you’, from a drama on TV …
Mr. Cha, my driver (which, by the way, means ‘car’ among other things), spoke English from a long-ago stint in the military and subsequent flash visit to the US. He was a charming family man, with children and grandchildren, and was always in a good mood. A month into my visit in Seoul, we met many times (I went to Incheon back and forth six times), and his punctuality, courtesy, and humble demeanor were impeccable. He was the first and last person I saw in Seoul in 2015, and my trip was much better for it.
Curious me wanted to know what exactly does annyeonghaseyo mean, word by word. Wasn’t even sure if it was one word or two or five, for that matter.
He explained that Korea has a long history of wars – wars against invasions from their neighbors. During these long periods of oppression, the country was repeatedly under attack and many Koreans suffered greatly or lost their lives. This seems to have been the period when people started using the greeting annyeonghaseyo at any given time of the day, but particularly in the mornings when they saw each other. The true meaning of annyeonghaseyo is, as per Mr. Cha: “Are you still alive?” It was formulated as a question and it basically means that I am happy you did not get killed during the nighttime raids.
Since it has been in use for so long, the meaning is lost today. My conversation with Mr. Cha though made me feel rather self-conscious every time I greeted someone. It did make the bow that accompanies the greeting so much more heartfelt. I am very happy for every person who gets to see the morning and start a brand new day, and my language tutor deserves credit for putting the simplistic ‘hello’ or ‘mornin’ into perspective.
Note about International Taxi: there is a stand right across the exit from customs at Incheon where you can book such a taxi, which comes with an English-speaking driver. Prices are fixed by sectors. Incheon is an hour away from Seoul City Center and about 75-90 minutes from Gangnam with traffic. After you pay (you can use a credit card) the driver will come fetch you and your bags from the counter. If you feel comfortable, you can retain the driver for other long trips. International taxis are about 25% more than regular taxis. Expect to pay $65-$85 for the ride from the airport into town.