Category Archives: education

North Korea’s Masters of Money

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 147-148:

Private property ownership is still technically illegal in North Korea, but that hasn’t stopped the emergence of a vibrant housing market. Sometimes people lease out the right to live in the apartments assigned to them by the state; at other times, masters of money sell the apartments they’ve been allocated in these new developments for substantial profits.

As a result, real estate prices have soared, with prices in Pyongyang increasing as much as tenfold. A decent two- or three-bedroom apartment in the capital costs up to $80,000, but a luxury three-bedroom apartment in a sought-after complex in central Pyongyang can fetch $180,000. It is an unimaginable sum in a country where the official government salary remains at about $4 a month.

Another reason for the real estate boom is the almost complete lack of a banking system. The masters of money can’t stash their cash in an interest-bearing account or investment fund, so they channel it into bricks and mortar.

Ri Jong Ho’s entrepreneurial good fortune began in the mid-’80s, when he began working for Office 39. By earning money for Kim Jong Il’s slush fund, he was enabling the Dear Leader to buy all that cognac and sushi. That made Ri an important person to the regime, and he lived a good life as a result.

His last job was in the Chinese port city of Dalian, not far from the border with North Korea, where he was the head of a branch of Taehung, a North Korean trading company involved in shipping, coal and seafood exports, and oil imports. He had previously been president of a ship-trading company and chairman of Korea Kumgang Group, a company that formed a venture with Sam Pa, a [notorious] Chinese businessman, to start a taxi company in Pyongyang. Ri showed me a photo of him and Pa onboard a private jet to Pyongyang.

As head of the Dalian branch of the Taehung export business, Ri would send millions of dollars in profits—denominated in American dollars or Chinese yuan—to Pyongyang. In the first nine months of 2014, until his defection in October that year, Ri said he sent the equivalent of about $10 million to the regime. Despite all the sanctions, the US dollar is still the preferred currency for North Korean businessmen since it is easiest to convert and spend.

It didn’t matter that there were supposedly stringent international sanctions in place. Ri’s underlings simply handed a bag of cash to the captain of a ship leaving from Dalian to the North Korean port of Nampho or gave it to someone to take on the train across the border.

But Uncle Jang’s downfall at the end of 2013 spooked many masters of money, including Ri. He and his family escaped from Dalian to South Korea and then eventually to the United States.

He clearly made a tidy sum of money for himself on the sidelines of his official job. The family lived a comfortable life in the Virginia suburbs. But even in the United States, Ri was cagey about meeting me and careful about what he said. “There are so many other stories, but I can’t tell you all them. Do you understand?”

He gives occasional public speeches about the North Korean regime—and much more private advice to the American government—while his children work on their English and study to go to an American university. They want Ivy League or, failing that, Georgetown.

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Filed under China, economics, education, industry, Korea, migration, U.S.

North Korea’s Caste System

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 120-123:

Why, then, if so many North Koreans know about the outside world, and know that the regime is lying to them, has the system survived? The answer lies in the unparalleled brutality of the regime, which has no compunction in meting out severe punishments for the smallest hint of disaffection.

To enforce the lie that he’s the best man for the job, Kim Jong Un has perpetuated North Korea’s political caste system with zeal, rewarding those deemed most loyal to him and ruthlessly punishing those who dare question him.

This caste system is another legacy of his grandfather. When he was creating his ideal state, Kim Il Sung borrowed some of the feudal practices of the Chosun Dynasty, which had ruled Korea for five centuries until almost 1900. He adopted the Chosun-era system of guilt by association. It is this system that, even now, can lead to three generations of an entire family being imprisoned, sometimes for life, for one person’s wrongdoing.

He also stole the discriminatory class system called songbun from the Chosun era, dividing North Korea into fifty-one different categories that fall into three broad classes: loyal, wavering, and hostile.

To this day, in Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, the loyal are given every advantage. They are the 10 to 15 percent of the population who are considered the most politically committed to the system and have the most interest in it continuing. They get to live in Pyongyang and receive better schooling, including the possibility of attending Kim II Sung University. They are set up for plum jobs and have a head start on Workers’ Party membership. The loyal caste live in better apartments, wear better clothes, eat better and more food, and are more likely to be able to visit a doctor who actually has medicine.

At the bottom are the hostiles: the Japanese collaborators, the Christians, the skeptics. They comprise about 40 percent of the population and are generally banished to the inhospitable mountains of the north, where winters are unbearable and food is scarce even by North Korean standards.

These “undesirables” have no social mobility and no hope of advancement. Their lives revolve around a collective farm or factory—an assignment that, for the last few decades, has meant fending for themselves.

In between the loyal and the hostile is the wavering class, the ordinary people who make up about half the North Korean population. They exist in a kind of limbo. They have no chance of going to college or having a professional job, but if they’re lucky, they might secure a good assignment during their military service that will help them work their way to a slightly better standard of living.

Someone born with bad songbun has no hope of moving up the social hierarchy. The upper levels, however, can plummet all the way to the bottom if they put a foot wrong. Through this system, and the constant threat of being demoted down the classes, Kim Jong Un has been able to maintain power.

If you’re a member of the loyal class—living in Pyongyang and able to earn some money on the side of your ministry job to send your children to university—you would think twice before openly questioning whether the leader could really drive a car at age five or criticizing the decision to spend millions on nuclear weapons instead of on hospitals and schools. There is always someone to keep an eye on you and report if you’re not sufficiently devoted to the regime. At the grassroots level, it starts with the inminban, literally “people’s group,” a kind of neighborhood watch system. Each neighborhood is broken down into groups of thirty or forty households, with a leader who is always an interfering middle-aged woman. It is her job to keep an eye on what people in her assigned households are up to. North Koreans like to say that the leader of their neighborhood group is supposed to know how many chopsticks and how many spoons each house has.

She is responsible for registering overnight visitors—in North Korea, a person can’t stay at a friend or relative’s house without notifying the authorities—and often, together with the local police, conducts dead-of-night raids to ensure there are no forbidden guests or that residents like Man-bok or Jung-a are not watching South Korean movies. She inspects everyone’s state-issued radio to make sure they haven’t tuned it to anything other than the state station. She checks cell phones to make sure they don’t contain unauthorized music or photos from the outside world.

She also encourages neighbors to report on one another. If a family is thought to be eating white rice and meat suspiciously often, people might wonder how they’re making their money.

North Koreans live in a system where every aspect of their lives is monitored, where every infraction is recorded, where the smallest deviation from the system will result in punishment. It is ubiquitous, and it keeps many people from even raising an eyebrow at the regime. The neighborhood leader needs to report transgressions in order to stay in good stead with the higher authorities, especially the two main security agencies.

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Filed under democracy, economics, education, industry, Japan, Korea, labor, migration, military, nationalism, philosophy, religion

Kim Jong Un’s Tiger Mom

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 50-52:

The apartment on Kirchstrasse was more modest than what he was used to back home, but Kim Jong Un could live a relatively normal existence there. And he could devote himself to his favorite pastime: basketball. It was his mother who first sparked his interest in the sport. There’s an old tale that Korean mothers, North and South, like to tell their children: if you play basketball, you’ll grow taller.

Kim Jong Un was short as a child, and his father was not a tall man—he was only five foot three, and famously wore platform shoes to try to compensate—so Ko Yong Hui encouraged her son to play basketball in the hope the tale was true. He grew to be five foot seven, so maybe it worked a bit.

She was thrilled to see her son taking to basketball, a sport that she believed would help him clear his mind and loosen his childhood obsession with planes and engines. Instead, Kim Jong Un’s mother and aunt soon saw that basketball had become an addiction too—the boy was sleeping with his basketball in his bed—and one that came at the expense of his studies. His mother would visit Bern regularly to scold her son for playing too much and studying too little.

She arrived on a passport that declared her to be Chong Il Son, assigned to the North Korean mission at the United Nations in Geneva since 1987, but the Swiss knew exactly who she was. After all, she arrived in the country in a Russian-made Ilyushin 62 jet bearing the insignia of Air Koryo, the North Korean state airline. The plane, which bore the tail number P882, was for VIPs only. It even had a full bedroom onboard.

All sorts of bags and merchandise would be loaded on and off the plane, watched carefully by Swiss intelligence. They monitored Ko Yong Hui closely, keeping records of everything from her shopping expeditions on Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse, one of the world’s most exclusive shopping avenues, to her hospital bills at fancy private clinics on Lake Geneva.

They also knew who her children were. They called Kim Jong Chol “the tall, skinny one” and Kim Jong Un “the short, fat one.” But the new Swiss attorney general, Carla Del Ponte (who would later become chief prosecutor in the international criminal tribunals on Yugoslavia and Rwanda), had forbidden the Swiss authorities to monitor the children. In famously discreet Switzerland, they were allowed to just be children—even if they were the children of one of the world’s most notorious tyrants.

When Kim’s mother arrived in Bern, she would bring handwritten notebooks containing one thousand Chinese characters, which form the basis of most Korean words, that she had made and photocopied so the children could keep up with their language skills. She told her sons that they had to memorize five or six pages a day, the kind of homework that torments Korean children the world over.

She was what we today would call a tiger mother, pouring a lot of energy into her children’s education and going through their journals and homework no matter how late she returned to the apartment at night.

But Kim Jong Un had other priorities.

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Filed under economics, education, Korea, language, migration, Switzerland

What Aid to Afghanistan Bought

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 271-274:

Not long after, I returned to Afghanistan. President Obama’s plan to withdraw US troops was well under way, with bases closing and equipment being destroyed. Could the war’s true winners be found in what we were leaving behind? I traveled through Uruzgan, and on the KandaharTirin Kot highway I could see Matiullah’s men everywhere, as they had been during my last visit. But the road north of Tirin Kot, heading into Ghilzai country, was now dotted here and there with new militia outposts not adorned with Matiullah’s photo or the Afghan flag. I stopped at one, a small wooden trellis with a canopy of leaves as cover, and met the fighters. They were under the control of a local strongman, who was being paid by a private company to protect a road construction project. Every mile or so I came upon another such militia, each run by a different strongman.

Later, I arrived at the home of Daud Khan, a leader of the local Barakzai tribe and one of the key militia commanders in the province, perhaps second only to Matiullah himself. He was heavily invested in protecting road construction crews against Taliban attacks, and the impending US withdrawal was hurting his business prospects. “We need money,” he told me. “We need money because life is hard out here. We’ve got a lot of expenses—I need weapons, RPGs, trucks, we want body armor. I keep asking the Americans for body armor but they won’t give it to me. They expect us to fight with nothing.”

I asked him if he had gotten into firefights with the Taliban recently. He clasped his hands together and laughed. “The Taliban? My mother can fight the Taliban. They just put bombs in the ground. They won’t be a problem after the Americans leave.”

Then why the need for all the weapons?

“Matiullah,” he said. “He’s worse than the Taliban. After the Americans leave, we’ll need to protect ourselves.” Tirin Kot was now caught in a cold war between Daud Khan’s and Matiullah’s forces. By my count there were more than thirty pro-American armed groups operating in central Uruzgan alone, some aligned with Matiullah, some against.

Later that afternoon I visited Daud’s uncle, a militia commander named Shah Muhammad. We sat in a field overlooking his poppy plantation, surrounded by nearly a dozen fighters. “There’s something I want to tell you,” he said, looking at me keenly. “There’s only one force that can save Afghanistan. The Americans. And I want you to know how much I despise the Taliban. Even if my father was a Talib, I’d kill him.” He shifted to sit next to me, nearly whispering in my ear. “I’m in trouble. You’re an American. I need your help. I want to fight the Taliban, I just need contracts. If the Americans give me some contracts, I can bring security. I can turn this war around. I just need money.” He begged me to pass on the message to politicians in Washington.

Such jockeying for patronage was nothing new. From its earliest days, the Karzai government was tethered to American aid, incapable of surviving on its own. It was reminiscent of the Communist regime of the 1980s, which lived and died by Moscow’s patronage—except that now there was a twist. Of the $557 billion that Washington spent in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2011, only 5.4 percent went to development or governance. The rest was mostly military expenditure, a significant chunk of which ended up in the coffers of regional strongmen like Jan Muhammad [Khan]. In other words, while the United States paid nominal amounts to build the Afghan state, it fostered a stronger and more influential network of power outside the state.

These were no conditions for nation building. Instead, as journalist Matthieu Aikins has pointed out, a weak Karzai administration found itself competing with strongmen of the countryside for funds. With warlords like JMK developing their own business and patronage relationships with the United States, the tottering government in Kabul had no choice but to enter the game itself. As a result, the state became criminalized, one of the most corrupt in the world, as thoroughly depraved as the warlords it sought to outflank. So corrupt, in fact, that nearly every metric that US or Afghan officials pressed into service to show progress unravels upon inspection. “Under Taliban rule, only 1.2 million students were enrolled in schools, with less than 50,000 of them girls,” a US forces press release stated in 2011. “Today, under the government of Afghanistan, there are 8.2 million students, of which nearly 40 percent—or 3.2 million—are girls.” But these were largely phantom figures. In the central province of Ghor, for instance, independent investigators discovered that of the 740 schools listed by the education ministry, 80 percent were “not operating at all.” Nonetheless, over four thousand teachers were on the government payroll. The vast majority of them, investigators found, simply collected paychecks and stayed at home, giving a cut to local officials, who in turn funneled a portion to warlords as a way to purchase influence. The story was similar around the country. Traveling through Wardak Province, I came upon one long-abandoned school after another that was still included on the much-touted government tally.

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Filed under Afghanistan, democracy, economics, education, military, nationalism, religion, U.S., war

Early Origins of the Taliban in Kandahar

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 79-80:

Most writing on the Taliban assumes that they originated in extremist Pakistani madrassas in the 1980s. In fact, the group’s origins lie much deeper in the Afghan past. Visiting Paktika in 2010, I came upon a small hilltop village where locals had gathered around a silent, downcast man. Nearby, a young herder paced back and forth, watching him intently, and, off to a side, tribal graybeards stood conferring. One of them approached, pushing his way through the scrum, and announced a verdict: for killing Rahim Gul’s cow, Moheb Jan was to pay him two sheep and twenty days’ worth of labor. Afterward, I sat down with the elder, who explained that each transgression in his community carried a fixed fine. Break someone’s nose in a fight, and you gave him a chicken. Break a bone, and you surrendered a sheep or goat. Murder, depending on the circumstances, could cost you a piece of land, your house, or even one of your women, who would go to the victim’s family in marriage.

This was how the hillspeople had learned to live with each other in a world without a state or police or judicial system. Each tribe had its own set of intricate rules, decided by elders elected by the clan’s entire male population. The elders derived their status from experience and the respect traditionally accorded to the aged. No man, however, outranked another in rights, and it was rare for one family to possess significantly more than any other. For men, at least, a deep egalitarian ethos ran through the tribal system.

For a long time, most of the Pashtun belt had functioned this way. Eventually, however, when some tribes moved down from the mountains into agricultural settlements, certain enterprising individuals developed ties with distant state authorities, and soon hierarchies sprang up. In eighteenth-century Kandahar, for example, the Safavid Empire of Persia had established suzerainty, incorporating tribal figures of their liking into their military or using them as intermediaries in dealing with the native population. The egalitarian system of the mountains slowly gave way to one dominated by tribal strongmen, and decisions were increasingly made not through traditional tribal law but on the whims and biases of a small clique of notables. It was not long before Kandahari tribes were the most thoroughly hierarchical in the country.

As a consequence, a different form of justice grew in popularity as an alternative to the tribal system: religious law, or sharia. Like tribal law, religious law expressed itself in a detailed set of punishments and restitutions for particular crimes. Its main practitioners were mullahs, who led Friday sermons and could adjudicate disputes. To become a mullah, you studied for up to twelve years in a madrassa, where you learned the intricacies of Islamic law, along with history, philosophy, and logic. In Pashto, such students were called taliban. Because a mullah was guaranteed employment for life, this was a course of study particularly well suited to those from the humblest backgrounds. It was in greater Kandahar, where tribal structures were the weakest, that the taliban were most fully integrated into social life.

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Filed under Afghanistan, democracy, economics, education, Iran, nationalism, Pakistan, religion

Afghanistan’s Year Zero: 1979

From No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes, by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt, 2014), Kindle pp. 52-53:

As with Mullah Cable and Jan Muhammad, I was interested in Heela’s experience in the new American-backed order. But to start her story with the US invasion would be like “watching a movie from the middle,” as she put it. In truth, Afghanistan’s real Year Zero was 1979, the year of the Soviet invasion, and nothing—not the Taliban, or the American invasion, or the trajectory of Heela’s life—makes much sense without first coming to terms with the Russian occupation and its aftermath.

In the veritable Afghan prehistory of peace and anonymity, the era before the Soviets, there lies a world lost and yet to be recovered. In 1972, the year that Heela was born to a family of journalists and professionals, Kabul was a quaint, relaxed mountain town. An important stop on the “hippie trail”—a well-trodden route for Western stoners and flower children often heading to India—the town had reinvented itself in a few short generations. A wave of progressive reforms had rippled through Afghanistan in the 1950s, resulting in a government decree that veiling was optional for women. In 1964, they were granted the franchise. Photographs from the era show besuited men accompanied by women in short skirts and beehive hairdos; there are movie theaters, broad paved roads, and tree-lined sidewalks.

Out in the heavily tribal Pashtun countryside, however, conservatism still reigned and women lived cloistered in their homes. The state was largely absent, and civil society nonexistent; politics worked through kinship and patronage, leaving clan leaders and landlords to run their own fiefdoms. If you managed to make it out to Kabul and attend university, you came away with a tantalizing taste of what your country could become, and a stark, unremitting sense of the inadequacies of the world you’d left behind. As with so many other developing nations of that era, this disjuncture spawned a crisis of modernity, and the disillusioned urban intelligentsia struggled to articulate a response. Two rival currents emerged: one embracing Communism, which looked to the Soviet Union and third-world liberation movements, and the other, Islamism, which took inspiration from the Muslim Brotherhood and related trends in the Arab world.

For many years these were merely undercurrents, but they rushed to the surface in the late 1970s.

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Africa’s Resource Curse

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 4-6:

The sheer number of people living in what are some of the planet’s richest states, as measured by natural resources, is staggering. According to the World Bank, the proportion of the population in extreme poverty, calculated as those living on $1.25 a day and adjusted for what that wretched sum will buy in each country, is 68 percent in Nigeria and 43 percent in Angola, respectively Africa’s first and second biggest oil and gas producers. In Zambia and Congo, whose shared border bisects Africa’s copper-belt, the extreme poverty rate is 75 percent and 88 percent, respectively. By way of comparison, 33 percent of Indians live in extreme poverty, 12 percent of Chinese, 0.7 percent of Mexicans, and 0.1 percent of Poles.

The phenomenon that economists call the “resource curse” does not, of course, offer a universal explanation for the existence of war or hunger, in Africa or anywhere else: corruption and ethnic violence have also befallen African countries where the resource industries are a relatively insignificant part of the economy, such as Kenya. Nor is every resource-rich country doomed: just look at Norway. But more often than not, some unpleasant things happen in countries where the extractive industries, as the oil and mining businesses are known, dominate the economy. The rest of the economy becomes distorted, as dollars pour in to buy resources. The revenue that governments receive from their nations’ resources is unearned: states simply license foreign companies to pump crude or dig up ores. This kind of income is called “economic rent” and does not make for good management. It creates a pot of money at the disposal of those who control the state. At extreme levels the contract between rulers and the ruled breaks down because the ruling class does not need to tax the people to fund the government—so it has no need of their consent.

Unbeholden to the people, a resource-fueled regime tends to spend the national income on things that benefit its own interests: education spending falls as military budgets swell. The resource industry is hardwired for corruption. Kleptocracy, or government by theft, thrives. Once in power, there is little incentive to depart. An economy based on a central pot of resource revenue is a recipe for “big man” politics. The world’s four longest-serving rulers—Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, José Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and Paul Biya of Cameroon—each preside over an African state rich in oil or minerals. Between them they have ruled for 136 years.

From Russia’s oil-fired oligarchs to the conquistadores who plundered Latin America’s silver and gold centuries ago, resource rents concentrate wealth and power in the hands of the few. They engender what Said Djinnit, an Algerian politician who, as the UN’s top official in west Africa, has served as a mediator in a succession of coups, calls “a struggle for survival at the highest level.” Survival means capturing that pot of rent. Often it means others must die.

The resource curse is not unique to Africa, but it is at its most virulent on the continent that is at once the world’s poorest and, arguably, its richest.

Africa accounts for 13 percent of the world’s population and just 2 percent of its cumulative gross domestic product, but it is the repository of 15 percent of the planet’s crude oil reserves, 40 percent of its gold, and 80 percent of its platinum—and that is probably an underestimate, given that the continent has been less thoroughly prospected than others. The richest diamond mines are in Africa, as are significant deposits of uranium, copper, iron ore, bauxite (the ore used to make aluminum), and practically every other fruit of volcanic geology. By one calculation Africa holds about a third of the world’s hydrocarbon and mineral resources.

Outsiders often think of Africa as a great drain of philanthropy, a continent that guzzles aid to no avail and contributes little to the global economy in return. But look more closely at the resource industry, and the relationship between Africa and the rest of the world looks rather different. In 2010 fuel and mineral exports from Africa were worth $333 billion, more than seven times the value of the aid that went in the opposite direction (and that is before you factor in the vast sums spirited out of the continent through corruption and tax fiddles). Yet the disparity between life in the places where those resources are found and the places where they are consumed gives an indication of where the benefits of the oil and mining trade accrue—and why most Africans still barely scrape by. For every woman who dies in childbirth in France, a hundred die in the desert nation of Niger, a prime source of the uranium that fuels France’s nuclear-powered economy. The average Finn or South Korean can expect to live to eighty, nurtured by economies among whose most valuable companies are, respectively, Nokia and Samsung, the world’s top two mobile phone manufacturers. By contrast, if you happen to be born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to some of the planet’s richest deposits of the minerals that are crucial to the manufacture of mobile phone batteries, you’ll be lucky to make it past fifty.

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Pidginized Kazakh, or Calqued Chinese?

From Winter Pasture, by 李娟 (Astra Publishing, 2021), Kindle p. 247:

OTHER THAN THIS, what else did I contribute to the family? Only things like collecting snow, herding calves, herding sheep, embroidering, mending clothes, explaining TV shows … things that anyone could have done. In other words, the presence of someone like me had almost no impact on the family. On the other hand, I was deeply impacted. Especially when it came to speaking. Before I knew it, I was picking up Kazakh speech habits:

When studying Kazakh, I’d say, “Difficulties so many!” (“This is hard.”)

At mealtimes: “Food to eat!”

Asking for help: “A help give to me!”

Announcing that I hadn’t seen the sheep: “Sheep not seen!”

Meaning to say “neither hot nor cold”: “Cold, it’s not, hot, it’s not.”

I am not sure whether these expressions translate the pidginized Kazakh of a new language learner or Kazakh influence on simplified Chinese word order. It is probably the latter, since the author (Li Juan) was writing in Chinese for Chinese readers. Turkic languages like Kazakh are verb-final, and negatives are suffixed to verbs, while Chinese verbs usually occur in medial position (like English) and negatives are preverbal.

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Romanizing Korean 떡볶이

Korean romanization was a major thorn in my side during the 1990s, when I worked as an editor of academic articles and books in English about Korean history, culture, and language. At that time, the McCune-Reischauer system prevailed in most academic fields, but the Yale system prevailed in linguistics. In 2000, the South Korean Ministry of Education issued Revised Romanization guidelines that eliminated the need for many diacritics that were often omitted on the Internet. The ROK system now seems dominant in popular usage, but romanization still remains chaotic, as this recent Language Log post well illustrates.

I don’t wish to open the whole can of worms here, but just to illustrate a bit of the chaos with examples of how a popular Korean food, 떡볶이 (ttekpokki in Yale transcription) ‘stir-fried rice cakes’, is romanized on signs and food packages in Korean restaurants and markets in Honolulu. The Korean spelling is consistent in every case, but the romanization varies a lot. Wikipedia romanizes the name of the dish as Tteokbokki; a long-time Korean restaurant (which initially prompted this post) spells it Derkbokee; another restaurant spells it Tteobokki; and some packages in a Korean supermarket spell it Tteok-bokki while others shorten it to Topokki.

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Trading Language Lessons in Xinjiang

From Winter Pasture, by 李娟 (Astra Publishing, 2021), Kindle pp. 84-85:

Then, on her own, Kama brought up the topic of marriage, explaining how there weren’t many suitors (probably out of fear of Cuma, the drunken father-in-law), and of them, none were without their own problems, so nothing could be settled for the time being. She went on to say that many of her former classmates were already engaged and some were even married. She spoke with a sense of despair, adding, “If I don’t marry, I’ll be an old lady, and no one wants to marry an old lady. If I do marry, I’ll be just like Mom, day in and day out doing housework, cattle work, sheep work … from now until when I’m old.”

She talked a lot that day, about how she wanted to work in a town somewhere, maybe learn a trade. She thought five hundred yuan a month would have been enough, as long as it could get her out of the wilderness.…

Who knew that this cheerful, resilient girl harbored such a humble, desperate dream.

I WONDERED IF THIS was what drove Kama to so assiduously study Chinese with me—she was determined to learn not only to speak but to write too. She borrowed my Kazakh exercise book to copy out the vocabulary list and phrasebook in the back. She wrote out the pinyin next to each character, studying as if she were really in school. But the content itself was not at all practical, with phrases like “Courtesy must always be a two-way street” and “Life is finite, time is infinite” … what in the world was the editor thinking?

I also sought to learn better Kazakh from Kama, but she always ended up going on and on, to which I had to say, “Enough, enough already, I’ll need a week to learn all that!”

She smiled. “For me, it would only take a day.”

She was right. Words that she learned at night, she had memorized the next day, acing her spelling quiz! I had to increase the difficulty, taking points off for writing even just a stroke out of place. As a result, she only got ninety-five points. Angrily, she crossed out the ninety-five and demanded that I change it to a hundred. I took the pen and wrote “85.” Her eyes bulged. Panicking, she relented, “All right, all right, ninety-five it is.…” She was completely serious.

As a result of our mutual language lessons, our tongues often crisscrossed to comic effect. The best gaff of mine was: “Add some more black?” while her most memorable blunder was: “Por adam, por donkey.” The former meant, “Add some more sheep manure [to the stove]?” The latter was, “One person, one donkey.”

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