Why Korean?

Why not Korean?

For my birthday last year, and as a gift to myself, I decided to learn how to play a new instrument and speak a new language. To achieve the former, I bought myself the Rogue Dreadnought Acoustic Guitar Black, and for the latter, I decided to learn Korean.

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The Rogue Dreadnought Acoustic Guitar Black aka Gitanae and I.

BACKGROUND

A. History of The Korean Language

Let’s get right into it! The Korean alphabet is called 한글 /Hangeul/, and it has some distinct similarities with the Chinese characters and the Japanese Katakana. So by learning Korean, you already have the advantage of knowing a bit of Japanese and Mandarin. However, compared to the two, Hangeul is composed of a combination/collection of straight lines and circles is almost elegant in its simplicity. Hangeul is also regarded as one of the most simple, scientific, and logical writing systems in the world. A syllable in Hangeul is formed by combining a consonant and a vowel and is written from left to right and top to bottom.

B. Origin, Morphology, and Presentation of the Hangeul

  1. Hangeul started with 28 characters, but as time went on, some of the letters became obsolete to the point where there are now 24 basic characters — 14 consonants and 10 vowels. Not wanting to deviate from its initial Chinese influences, the vowels are made up of three characters:
  • the upright posture of man, this is the vertical line (ㅣ)
  • the dot, this symbolizes the sun in the heavens or the universe (ㅇ)
  • Fire, which represents the consonant ‘ㄴ’ /nieun/ due to its alveolar sound and pronounced as /n/.
  • Soil, which represents the consonant ‘ㅁ’ /mieum/ due to its labial sound and pronounced as /m/.
  • Water, which represents the consonant ‘ㅇ’ /ieung/ due to its glottal sound and pronounced as /ng/ or voiceless when used as a vowel bearer.
  • Metal, which represents the consonant ‘ㅅ’ /siot/ due to its dental sound and pronounced as /sh/ or /s/ or /t/ depending on the context of use.ㅂㅈ
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Source: Korean Morphology

C. Honorifics

Here’s another sticky aspect of the Korean language. Like the Japanese, the Korean language uses distinct linguistic aspect to express seniority and social status. So, you have to change your presentation depending on who you are talking to. It is very important to remember that in Korea is a Confucian society and social ranking, as well as age, plays a huge role in language.

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Source: Ask A Korean

“Verbs can be exceptionally difficult, with conjugations including various honorific suffixes: -p- (ᄇ) or -sup- (습 or 읍) is employed when expressing respect towards one’s audience; when expressing respect towards the verb’s grammatical subject, -yo- (요) is used concerning peers and subordinates and -eusi- (으시) or -si- (시) towards social superiors. Some verbs have completely different honorific forms.”

There are also four levels of speech in Korean and if you want to speak like a Native, you need to master them. A good example is presented below using the sentence “I study Korean”:

D. Loan Words

South Koreans use loan words from other languages to express themselves. A classic example is Konglish (Korean: 콩글리시 Kong-geullisi or more formally Hangul: 한국어식 영어). Konglish is a portmanteau of the words — Korean and English. Words like ‘hwaiting /화이팅/’ or ‘paiting /파이팅’ are commonly used to cheer someone on, or can mean “I am rooting for you,” “don’t give up.” If you watch Korean TV, you will hear these words often. Other Konglish examples are ‘opiseutel /오피스텔/’ for a studio apartment (office+hotel) and hand phone ‘haendeupon /핸드폰/. Another example of loan words is ‘areubaiteu /아르바이트/’ which is from the German word for job — Arbeit. I think it’s safe to conclude that the Korean language is very adaptive.

E. Collectivism

Koreans, largely, have a Collectivist way of thinking when you consider their social structure and language composition. They are very family-oriented and tend to have a lot of national pride (these are recurring themes in the majority of their dramas). When introducing themselves, they typically say their names first and then talk about their families. To this end, one can subsume that an average Korean’s identity is tied to their family structure. Take for example, when introducing their father, they’d say ‘우리 아버지’ /uri abeoji)/ which directly means ‘our father’ instead of ‘내 아버지’ /nae abeoji/ which means ‘my father.’

WHY I LOVE THE KOREAN LANGUAGE

A. Simplicity

There are no specific intonations to learn (like in Japanese or Yorùbá). The only time you change your voice when speaking Korean is when you are changing your sentence to an interrogative one. Korean language is pronounced exactly the way it is written, except in few cases when consonants are combined. Also, while spacing matters in, you don’t have to worry about capitalizing words — isn’t that great?!

B. Easy to Learn

It is very easy to learn — trust me. I learnt all the 24 jamos (alphabets) in an hour and could read Hangeul in a day. Think of the alphabets as a cool juxtaposition of straight lines, circles, and boxes. I got frustrated with French because of the gender nouns, so imagine my excitement when I learned that the Korean language had none of those.

C. Consistency

The language is consistent. I have learned from many sources, and the presentation and rule are the same across the board, especially if you account for differences in teaching styles. Stick to the SOV concept of speaking and writing and you are well on your way to mastering the language like a native. As a native English speaker, this was probably the weirdest adjustment I had to make as my brain wanted to retain the SVO order I had been used to all my life. Nonetheless, once you stick to this rule, learning Korean becomes easy.

D. Scientific Presentation

I didn’t know this until recently that Korean is one of the most scientific languages in the world. By design, it is very phonetically sound and brilliantly arranged. I think this is why it was so easy for me to adapt quickly to the language as it appeals to my predominantly scientific brain. While there have been some challenges during this process (mostly stemming from my impatience and frustration at not learning fast enough), I seriously love learning this language.

E. Conjugation

Unlike the English language where conjugation is based on 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person, the Korean language is conjugated just based on the politeness level. In the Korean language, the verb forms remain the same in the singular or plural forms. For some plural subjects, you can just slap the ‘들’/deul/ suffix for differentiation.

F. Symbolism

There are certain words in the Korean language that look exactly like the way they are written, or how I remembered them. The first is milk, which is written as 우유 /uyu/ and this looks like two kids standing side-by-side or think of it like if you want to grow from small (우) to big (유), drink more milk. Next is 웃 /us/, which means laugh and looks exactly like how my legs get deformed when I laugh real hard at something really funny. Another symbolic example is 옷 /os/ and it looks like a lady putting on a dress. It is also the Korean word for dress. The word for news is written as 뉴스 /nyuseu/ and to me denotes how you have to close open one eye and close the other when reading about/listening to current events, especially nowadays. My favorite symbolic representation would be 꽃 /koch/ which means flower and looks just like a bundled bouquet.

G. Innovative/Adaptive

Like people from countries where English is not the lingua franca, Koreans have innovative ways of pronouncing English words that contain non-Korean letters. For example, the ‘X’ sound can only be made by combining the ‘K’ and ‘S’ sound. Therefore, words like ‘Taxi’ and ‘Mexico,’ are written as ‘택시’ /taegsi/ and ‘멕시코’ /megsiko,/ respectively. Also, English words with ‘Z’ in them are pronounced with the ‘ㅈ’ /jeu/ sound. For example, ‘Heize’ is pronounced as ‘Hyeijeu’. I wrote a bit more extensively about this adaptation here.

H. 운명 /unmyeong/

This means fate and I strongly believe that I was fated to learn this language. I have experienced so much grace and ease with this language that most times learning it comes so naturally to me. I also sense a strong push towards Korea that I don’t know yet and pending when that happens, I am preparing myself by learning as much as I can about the language and culture. Another symbolic representation for me is how the first two letters of my first name (Mo) is written as /모/ in Korean and looks like a TV screen, and I do love watching TV/movies/dramas. The first time I learned to write Hangeul and I wrote my name, I laughed so hard at how uncanny the semblance was. Also, Hangeul Day (October 9) which is also my birthday is a public holiday in Korea. It is referred to as Hangeul Proclamation Day or Korean Alphabet Day where a commemoration is held in South Korea to remember the creation of Hangeul as proclaimed by the publication of Hunminjeongeum in 1446 by Sejong the Great (세종 대왕).

I. The Words

Everyday, I try to learn five new Korean words, in addition to my other learning efforts. I can confidently say that my word count is in the thousands. Below are the words that either amuse me or confuse me.

  • 물고기 /Mulgogi/ ‘Mul’ means ‘water’ and ‘gogi’ means meat. Translated this means water meat or fish, which it is called.
  • 강남 /Gangnam/ ‘Gang’ means ‘river’ and ‘nam’ means south. Gangnam means south of the river.
  • 닭살 /Dak-sal/ = goose bumps or 닭살 떨다 [dak-sal tteol-da] = (a couple) to show their affection for each other so much that other people don’t like it. ‘Dak’ means ‘chicken’ and ‘sal’ means ‘flesh.’ In Spanish, they say “se me hizo la piel de gallina’’ which means I got the chicken skin.
  • 입술 /Ipsul/ — ‘Ip’ means mouth and ‘sul’ means alcohol. How do you pass alcohol through your mouth? Lips!
  • 눈물 /Nunmul/ — ‘Nun’ here means eye and ‘mul’ is water. What kind of water passes through your eyes? Tears!
  • 손목 /Sonmog/ — This translates to the neck of your hands, which is the wrist.
  • 썸 타다 /Sseomtada/ is portmanteau of the words sseom-dding /썸띵/ (something) + ta-da /타다/ (to ride), get it?!. Sseom tada is used to describe the situation when there is something going on and there is good chemistry with a girl/guy, but s/he is not quite your girlfriend or boyfriend yet!
  • 천천히 /Cheoncheonhi/ — Means slowly.
  • 파티하다 /Patihada/ — ̶P̶a̶r̶t̶y̶ ̶h̶a̶r̶d̶e̶r̶ Party.
  • 섹시하다 /Segsihada/ — Sexy.
  • 못생겼어 / mos-saeng-gyeoss-eo / (ugly) and 잘생겼어 /jalsaeng-gyeoss-eo/ (handsome). These two words are expressed in the past tense, which suggests that being ugly or handsome (in the physical sense) is something you are born with. I find this assertion amusing.
  • 멋있어 /meosisseo/ (cool) vs. 맛있어 /masisseo/ (delicious). “You’re cool” and “delicious” are dangerously similar in pronunciation.
  • 코피 /kopi/ (nose bleed) vs. 커피 /keopi/ (coffee). Be careful to ask for the right one when suffering from a hangover :-D.
  • All of the consonant clusters like ㅄ as in 없어 /obseo/ (not to exist); ㄶ as in 많이 /manhi/ (many); ㄼ as in 여덟 /yeodeolb/ (eight); ㄵ as in 앉다 /anjda/ (sit); and ㅀ as in 싫다 /silhda/ (hate).
  • I am thirsty — 목말라요 /mogmallayo/ vs. I don’t know — 몰라요 /mollayo/.
  • Reduce the price — 깎아요 /kkakkayo/ vs. Close by/near — 가까워요 /kakkawoyo/.
  • Rest — 쉬어요/swioyo/ vs. Easy — 쉬워요 /swiwoyo/.
  • The Dora family as I like to call them — 들어오다 /deuleooda/ (to come into) vs. 돌아오다 /dolaoda/ (to come back) vs. 따라오다 /ttalaoda/ (to follow) vs. 돌다 /dolda/ (to turn).
  • Some of the diphthongs like 위 /wi/, 외 /oe/, 웨 /we/, and 얘 /yae/.

K. The Country Itself

It is hard to fall in love with Korean without first falling heads over heels with the country itself. For me, it was a catch-22 situation; I learned (and still keep learning) about the country to understand the language and vice-versa. I did not just start by learning the language, I began by learning everything I could learn about the country. By everything, I mean everything I could devour about the country and how it started, no thanks to my insatiable thirst for knowledge. I started with a 4-week intensive course on Korean politics. This class was an eye-opener for me as it discussed salient outstanding issues ranging from its past history (from the Silla dynasty to the Joseon), dynamics of political culture in Korea, profiles of political leadership, myth and reality of the developmental state, the Korean economic miracle (aka Miracle on the Han River, largely due to generous IMF aids), to debates on Korean unification.

The nickname Koreans use to refer to their homeland is “Hell-Joseon,” combining the historical name for South Korea with the word “hell.”

Then, suicide rates in South Korea are the highest in the world for any developed country, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. This is important, especially when you consider that this rate is up to 3 times higher than in the US and significantly higher than in Japan, a country where suicide is deeply embedded in the culture (e.g., Seppuku). Loneliness, erosion of culture, family disintegration, are some of the factors attributed to high suicide rates in South Korea.

K. Reminiscent of my Mother-tongue — Yorùbá

My mother-tongue is Yorùbá and so is my culture/tribe. The Yorùbá culture is very rich in moral values and big on politeness and greetings. When communicating with someone older than you or of a higher social status, it is expected for one to be polite and respectably greet. In Yorùbá culture, we largely express respect in two ways — 1) linguistically; using honorific pronouns like ẹ, ẹ̀yin, wọ́n, àwọn, and 2) non-linguistically by using body gestures and facial expressions. Body gestures include forms of greetings. For example, a younger female is expected to kneel when greeting older ones while a younger male prostrates.

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L-R: Here is “keun-jeol” meaning “deep bow,” which is conducted during special ceremonies like birthdays. The standard bow.
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The knees-to-the-ground “Big Bows” (큰절)
  • 줘 /jwo/: This literally means “give me” but can be used at the end of a verb to ask politely for something. For example, 사 줘 /sa jwo/ means buy this for me (depending on your tone, it can be like a request) and 사랑해 해줘 /saranghae haejwo/ which translates to please love me. The Yorùbá word for please is jọ̀wọ́ which can be contracted to jọ̀ and sounds similar to jwo.
  • 오다 /o da/: This is the Korean word for ‘to come.’ When conjugated, it can take the form of 왔 which sounds like wa. Coincidentally, the Yorùbá word for ‘come’ is also ‘wa.’
  • Bravery: In Korea, there is a saying that goes 간이 크다 /kani kuda/ which means to be bold or brave. Its literal interpretation is big liver. We also have the exact interpretation in my country (not only peculiar to my tribe) where we say “your liver is big” when we mean to say someone is bold or brave.
  • Superstition: This is common with other cultures and just like the Yorùbás, Koreans have their superstitions too. One Korean superstition I practice is eating seaweed soup (미역국 /Miyeok-guk/) on my birthdays; I started it last year but skipped it this year because I had an exam the next day. In Korea, seaweed soup is traditionally eaten by pregnant women before and after giving birth as it is rich in iodine and calcium (micro-nutrients important in pregnancy and lactation). Seaweed soup has also been touted to help shrink the body back to its original pre-pregnancy state. It is also traditionally eaten for breakfast on birthdays, as a celebration of one’s mother. The superstition here is that because it is slippery, you shouldn’t eat seaweed soup if you have exams as it may cause all that you have learned to slip out of your head.
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Seaweed soup and rice.
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Ewedu
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Korean dinner times/cooking at my house with friends.

HOW I LEARN

A. Coursera

My rule for learning new skills is to immerse myself into it, and come at it from several angles. I began learning Korean in February 2017 and I started with a basic, introductory online course from the prestigious Yonsei University. This course lasted five weeks, and it covered the basics from the alphabets and its structure and morphology to learning how to tell time and date in Korean as well as introducing oneself and family. I must confess that initially this was a difficult step for me but the way this class was structured, it made me overcome my fear little by little. You also build upon previous weeks and the lessons have different components (speaking, vocabulary, grammar) to reinforce learning.

B. Learning Apps

  • Memrise: This is by far my favorite of them all. I like how it attacks learning on all sides — listening (Pro Version), writing, and memorizing. It also helps reinforces your difficult words by using memorization tools.
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C. Movies/Drama

I really think the world of Korean dramas (aka K-dramas) and I am afraid that my short paragraph here won’t do it much justice. Though not yet scientifically proven, it has been reported colloquially that watching TV or movies can actually help you learn a language. In my few years of watching K-dramas and before I began learning the language, I picked a few words. These words include 하지마 /hajima/ (don’t do that), 안돼 /andwae/ (it can’t be), 오빠 /oppa/ (older brother, this is used by females to a slightly older male they are close to), 어떡해? /eotteokhae/ (what do I/we do?), 진짜?! /jinjja/ (really?), and my favorite personal one 죽을래? /jugullae/ (do you want to die?), to name a few.

D. Romanization of K-Pop songs (Pause and replay)

I am not really a big fan of the mainstream Korean pop (K-pop) music but I make some exceptions for some really good bands like BigBang! “Who are they?,” you might ask. They are only the biggest and most influential boy band that has shaped K-Pop music worldwide; they are even dubbed the Kings of K-pop.

E. Trivia Games

I use the app called QuizUp to also learn Korean. I have had this app for more than three years and played trivia games on it but it was not until July of this year that I began to use it for Korean. I began with the Beginner’s Korean and when I reached the peak (top-10 in the world) and completed 100% of the questions, I moved on to the more advanced Korean, Intermediate. I am currently 81% done with this one. The questions are a lot harder and more complicated but I have learned a lot. I am also currently in the top-5 world ranking.

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F. Podcasts

Formal studying is never enough and I always look for ways to engage my brain when I am somewhat idle. Also, for moments when I am a bit tired and don’t want to read or watch anything, podcasts fill these times really well. My favorite podcast is Talk To Me In Korean as it is very comprehensive and they have a lot of fun ways of passing the lessons across. They also infuse a lot of humor and historical contexts in their presentations — two elements I have the utmost regards for. You can tell they really do enjoy what they do and they have been in business for over 10 years. Check them out here. Below are the list of the Korean podcasts I use currently. The last two ones have not been updated in years but the lessons are still helpful.

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G. Learning Apps

I use phone apps too. They have different formats so if I am bored with one, I open the other. One of the apps has a pop-up option you can set up to show you questions anytime your phone screen times out. The ‘test mode’ is also very comprehensive as it ranges from word listening and word writing to word speaking.

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H. Writing Apps

  • Google Translate: I learned about this app from one of my Saudi Arabian ESL friends and we used this during my English lessons with her to switch from Arabic to English translations. Currently, I use Google Translate a lot to search for words and to help check the accuracy of my sentences I construct before sending them out. I love how you can build your own Phrasebook with Google Translate from your favorite words; your Phrasebook is also available offline in case your internet goes the way of the dodo. I also have Google Translate on my home screen for easy access. I have it set up also that once you copy anything, Google Translate pops up and shows the translation in whatever default language you selected. Google Translate can also translate photos and pictures and it has a microphone feature to translate audio recordings. I sometimes use the microphone feature to practice speaking (mostly by talking to myself in Korean) and having it translate this to English. But there’s a caveat to this, Google Translate is not a great way to help you learn the language as it can mostly help with individual words but lacks the intuition to help with syntax and phrases.
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Branah

I. Korean Lessons

  • Formal: Every Wednesday, I make the 5-mile journey from work to attend Korean conversation classes at a Baptist church in my city. The classes begin at 6 and end by 7:30 pm and are taught by my wonderful 쌤, who is Korean. The classes have also been especially beneficial to me to practice speaking as this was one of the areas I was the weakest in, because I first learned Korean through online classes. Our teacher gives us assignments on writing and speaking. Our class is relatively small but we all have on thing in common — we love Korea!
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Korean Class
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Love Notes
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11.11 — Pepero Day
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Tried Korean makeup for the first time in November, thanks to my dear friend. We first did a color test to find out which hue would be best fit for me. #화장품 #etudehouse

WHY I REALLY LEARNED KOREAN AND WHY YOU SHOULD?

A. To connect and make more friends

My first real experience with the Korean language was in 2011 with some Korean colleagues of mine in grad school. Seeing them write the Hangeul was thrilling for me — it looked like secret codes of communication with its round, rectangular shapes and straight lines. It was also very fascinating. Since then, I have made more Korean friends and some of them are few of the finest people I have met. I would certainly not have met most of these people if I couldn’t speak Korean. I am especially thankful to my Korean sister (현아) who gave me my Korean name — 미영 /Mi-young/ meaning ‘beautiful (미)’ /mi/ + ‘shiny (영)’ /young/. I promise to keep embodying all of its attributes.

B. Korean Dramas (K-Dramas) and K-Pop

The Hallyu Wave (or Korean wave) moved strongly all over the world and has been credited with increasing the visibility and global popularity of South Korea. I am a huge fan of K-dramas and have restricted my entertainment diet to just them only. My first encounter with K-dramas was in 2013 when a Caucasian friend (whose opinion I highly regard) recommended the Korean drama — Coffee Prince — to me. I loved this drama and it served as the catalyst to my wanting to watch more dramas. That was back in 2013 and I can’t even count how many K-dramas I have watched since then.

C. Living and Working in Korea

Korean is now the 13th most widely spoken language in the world. South Korea’s economy is now the 11th largest in the world. The country certainly keeps growing. So, if you plan living, working, or conducting business there, learning the language is a priority. I don’t have plans to live in Korea yet but I am very open to doing so if the opportunity comes my way in the future.

D. 그냥 /geuyang/ — Just Because

Learning a new language has helped me improve my memory and increase my curiosity level. Having to stray away from my Romantic roots to the Aleutic (as typified in Hangeul) brings out the inner child in me. Everywhere I see Hangeul, I read them aloud and try to decipher the meaning (if I already don’t). I use Google Translate and Naver Dictionary a lot and try to replicate the words I hear by re-typing them. I also rely heavily on the autocorrect features provided by these apps, in the event that I mess up the words or characters (these happen quite a lot). By learning Korean, I feel more confident in my ability to do other things; it’s almost as if a new pathway just opened up in my brain. I also now have more exciting things to talk to my other friends about as I now see myself as the only Korean ambassador around them. They don’t always get it but I am slowly working my magic on them. I was very happy when I received a special birthday gift from these friends for my last birthday.

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E. Telemarketers

Telemarketers are the bane of my existence in America! I have found the Korean language quite useful in thwarting their efforts to get on my nerves. When a strange number calls my phone and I confirm it to be spam, I switch to Korean by beginning with “여보세요” which means “hello,” and if they persist, I go on introducing myself in Korean. This always does the trick for them to disconnect the call and not bother me again for a while.

F. Freebies

While this was not one of the reasons I am learning Korean, but it is one of the many perks I have enjoyed so far. I once walked into a Korean restaurant and spoke to the owner in Korean. She was so taken aback and found me delightfully cute (she kept putting her palm over her mouth saying, “오모나,귀여운.” This means, oh my goodness, what a cutie!). She was so impressed with me that she gave my friends and me and a free, generous portion of 수육 /suyug/; this is a special Korean meal of boiled pork and kimchi. It’s not a typical meal you will find on restaurant menus. I also once got the opportunity to dress up in the traditional Hanbok when I met some Koreans at a professional event.

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Creating memories with new friends.

Acknowledgements:

I’d like to express thanks to the following people for helping me get from there to here:

Additional Resources:

Here are resources on additional courses I took and the books I read on Korean:

Politics, Social Structure, Religion

North Korean History (You will learn a lot about the Korean Peninsula too)

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My goodies for December

Additional References:

Written by

I'm ME: replete with the mien of a bard, scholar, Argonaut, Jesus-lover, funfinder, bibliophile, Koreanophile, partner, and wanderer! Podcaster:www.mosibyl.com

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