Tag Archives: North Korea

Join the Army, Speak a Language and Become a Citizen

Yoon Young Kim (courtesy Yoon Young Kim)

Yoon Young Kim (courtesy Yoon Young Kim)

Note from Patrick Cox: Here’s a guest post from New York-based reporter Nina Porzucki

In 2009 the US Army piloted a yearlong program allowing immigrants with certain language skills or medical training to enlist in the military and receive citizenship by the end of basic training –that’s just 10 weeks. The program was a wild success, enlisting nearly 1,000 people with thousands more on the wait list.

The program has been brought back for a second trial period this October. Already, about 200 people have enlisted. One of them is Yoon Young Kim, a South Korean national. He joined the Army just a few weeks ago. He’s set to leave for basic training in April. By the end of summer 2013, he’s scheduled to raise his hand again to swear another oath, this time as a U.S. citizen.

When Kim came to the U.S. eight years ago to study nursing he never thought he’d be enlisting in the U.S. military. Certainly not at age 32. He worries about his English and keeping up physically with a bunch of 20-year-olds at boot camp.

“Mentally, probably I’m better than them but physically I’m weak,” says Kim. “So right now I’m trying to work on myself for push-ups, sit-ups and running.”

Before enlisting, Kim was getting frustrated trying to find a job in nursing. His visa was running out. That’s why he leaped at the chance at fast track citizenship with the U.S. Army.

Immigrants fighting for the American military is nothing new. Substantial number of people who have served in the military during wartime in past wars has been immigrants. While immigrants have fought in wars since 1775, things changed after 9/11. A new federal rule required legal immigrants to have a green card to be able to enlist. Suddenly the Army was forced to turn away thousands of qualified applicants.

“I would get calls from people in the military,” says immigration attorney and retired Army lieutenant colonel, Margaret Stock. They would say “‘hey, how come Tanya so and so just walked into the recruiters office and she’s got U.S. high school diploma and speaks three languages and has got high test scores but I’m not allowed to let her in because she’s not got a green card,’ and they’d call me to try and get her a green card.”

And then an idea came to Stock. What if the military took advantage of a legal loophole? Stock discovered the loophole in a statute passed by Congress. “They put an exception in the statute,” says Stock, “that a person who didn’t meet the normal criteria could voluntary enlist if the person’s enlistment was vital to the national interest.”

That loophole became the Military Accessions Vital to The National Interest—or MAVNI—program. The US military today has missions all over the world and recruiting men and women who speak the local language and know the local culture is vital. Yoon Young Kim hopes his Korean language skills might be useful in monitoring North Korea.

It turns out many other Koreans are as ready as Kim. While there are 44 desired languages on the MAVNI recruitment list from Russian and Hindi to smaller Filipino dialects like Cebuano or Moro, Korean speakers have signed up in droves. The force behind this swell of enthusiasm is James Hwang. If you have a question about the MAVNI program he’s the person to contact.

“I got almost more than 100 emails per day,” says Hwang who is a civilian. He always wanted to serve in the Army but when he visited a recruiter years ago without a green card, he was turned away. Then he heard about MAVNI and made it his mission to spread word about the program to other Koreans. He hosts info sessions in his home and fields questions on Facebook. He is even responsible for two MAVNI marriages. Why does he do it?

“There were many people before this program who were on a non-immigrant visa for many years,” says Hwang. “They didn’t really have very much hope for becoming a permanent resident because of the backlog of the US immigration system.”

Hwang’s effort has led to an overwhelming number of Koreans applying.

“The Korean community got so enthusiastic and mobilized about the program,” says attorney Margaret Stock, “that if we had let the program run first come first serve we probably would’ve ended up with 800 Korean language speakers and nobody from any other language groups.”

The Army ended up putting a quota on Korean speakers. Stock is happy that MAVNI is so popular. But she says the program shouldn’t really exist. What MAVNI really points out is a broken immigration system.

“If our nation had comprehensive immigration reform—if we had a legal immigration system that worked—we wouldn’t need a program like MAVNI,” says Stock. “We could just draw on the population of people living in the US with green cards.”

Yoon Young Kim, though, smiles at his good fortune. He was one of the last Korean citizens to enlist before the Korean language quota was met last month. Of course not everyone understood his decision to serve. When he told his parents in South Korea that he was going to join the Army they were shocked. In fact, they told him not to join. But Kim was determined. “I just said, ‘Mom and Dad, I’m not applying to the US military to die. I’m applying to live, to survive.’”



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How Technology is Changing Chinese, One Pun at a Time

This post is written by Nina Porzucki.

When Sabrina Zhang and Jack Wang took their high school writing exam in China they remember a funny new rule written at the bottom of the test.

“You can’t use Internet words in the writing,” remembers Zhang. But, says Wang, “It’s just natural right when we use it. It’s the youth way of expressing ourselves.”

What might seem like the petty irritation of an old-fashioned professor might actually be something bigger. There are now more than 500 million people online in China. They are microblogging, instant messaging, texting. The result is changing the Chinese language says David Moser, an American linguist living in Beijing.

According to Moser, the Internet has become a place for people to play with the Chinese language. Puns and wordplay have a long history in Chinese culture. Chinese is the perfect language for punning because nearly every Chinese word has multiple homophones. Homophones are two words that sound similar but have different meanings like hare that rabbit-like creature and the hair on your head. In Chinese there are endless homophones.

“Because there are so many homophones there’s sort of a fetish about them,” says Moser. “As far as the culture goes back you have cases of homophone usage and homophone humor.” Many times forbidden or taboo words in Chinese are taboo precisely because they sound like another word.

A good example of this is the number four, which in Chinese sounds like the word for death and the number eight, which sounds like the word for prosperity. Moser has a Chinese aunt who used to work for the phone company and she could make money selling phone numbers. People would beg her for a phone number with a lot of eights. “People would actually give her gifts or bribes for an auspicious phone number,” says Moser.

Today, wordplay online has less to do with getting auspicious numbers and more to do with getting around censorship. Moser cites an example of a recent phrase he saw online mentioning the Tiananmen Square incident – only the netizen didn’t use the words “Tiananmen Square” or even 6/4, which refers to the date the incident took place. Tiananmen Square and 6/4 are both censored online. Instead the netizen referred to the “eight times eight incident.” Moser was confused when he first saw the reference. “And then I figured out, eight times eight is 64,” says Moser.

The Internet is ripe with clever examples of how people evade the censors. However, censorship is just one reason netizens play with words online. Another is the very technology that enables people today to input Chinese characters onto their cell phones and computers.

Jack Wang explains how he types Chinese characters with his phone. He uses an English keyboard and uses the pinyin system. Pinyin is the method for converting Chinese characters into our alphabet. For example, the Chinese word for “today” is 今天, which is rendered into pinyin as “jintian.”

Wang types the English letters “jintian” on his phone. As he types the first three letters, “jin” a list of Chinese characters pops up on the screen. Each different character sounds just like the word for today, “jin” but means something completely different. Wang points to each possible character and explains its different meaning: gold, clothes, only, and finally 今, the character for “today.”

Everyday, people are typing in a word like “today” and seeing all of the potential homophones for that word. This says David Moser has fueled wordplay like never before.

“I think that’s given rise to a lot more puns then would normally have been uttered in the earlier days when you had to just pull everything out of your head,” says Moser.

People have gotten even more creative playing with this input system to intentionally create new Chinese slang, translating English phrases into pinyin and then into Chinese characters. The meaning of these new words can seem random but they’re not. For example the Chinese character for glass, 玻璃, pronounced “boli” has come to mean “gay man.” Turns out, the slang term actually comes from an English phrase, “boy love.” But netizens have abbreviated the phrase into the English letters “B L” and then they looked for a similar abbreviation in Chinese, typing “B-L” into their computers and out popped the character for glass. “Suddenly the word glass was being used for male homosexuals,” says Moser.

The Internet has even given out-of-date Chinese characters new life. One of the most popular of these new old characters is囧 pronounced “jiong.” The character looks like an unhappy face with drooping eyes and a frown. People started using the character like an emoticon, representing embarrassment or frustration. However, virtually nobody knows what the character originally meant. There are thousands of obsolete characters like 囧and part of the fun is mining these forgotten characters to create new meanings.

But, this casual inattention to the meanings of these characters online concerns some linguists like John Pasden. “We’re getting weird mutations of the language mixing with English phasing in and out of Chinese and non-Chinese,” says Pasden. “This complete disregard for the meaning of the characters has some serious long-term implications if it keep going on.”

Pasden worries that once people divorce the meaning from the character they will start wondering, “Why am I writing all these strokes if I’m just using it as a sound?” Then its a slippery slope towards simplifying to a phonetic writing system says Pasden.

For 19-year-old Jack Wang, this is not a problem. This new word play is the future. “I think we should catch up with the time,” says Wang. “If people use it, we should use it.” Then right on cue his phone buzzed with a new text.


Patrick Cox adds:

Here’s the video to the North Korean song I mentioned in the pod, Excellent Horse-Like Lady, sung by Hyon Song-wol:



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