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Gimbap and hanja cramming: Life of Korean Studies students in Paris

Students' club members at Inalco share their passion, Korean dreams

By Jung Min-kyung

Published : Oct. 16, 2023 - 16:46

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Members of Inalco’s Korean Studies’ student association, “Bulkkot,” pose for a photo at a cafe in Paris on Sept. 25. From left: Kayya, Jeanne, Sandra, Kilian. (Jung Min-kyung/The Korea Herald) Members of Inalco’s Korean Studies’ student association, “Bulkkot,” pose for a photo at a cafe in Paris on Sept. 25. From left: Kayya, Jeanne, Sandra, Kilian. (Jung Min-kyung/The Korea Herald)

PARIS -- Pulling an all-nighter to make gimbap and kimchi pancakes was the highlight of the year for four members of “Bulkkot,” a club of students enrolled in the Korean Studies department of the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations, also known as Inalco in Paris.

Meaning “flame” in Korea, the recently-established students’ association has just five members now, but its passion easily surpasses that of much bigger organizations.

The group pulled off a Korean culture day event earlier this year, where they sold the food they prepared all night long.

“We almost didn’t sleep to make gimbap to sell,” Sandra, a third year Korean Studies student and Bulkkot member, said at a cafe near her school on Sept. 25.

Kayya, a freshman who leads Bulkkot as its president, said the process of preparing the event itself was an “adventure.”

“It involved 8 kilograms of kimchi for lots of kimchi jeon (pancakes). We want to make it bigger for the next event” she exclaimed.

The Inalco campus in Paris (Jung Min-kyung/The Korea Herald) The Inalco campus in Paris (Jung Min-kyung/The Korea Herald)

Kilian, a second year student, vowed to make a contribution next time as he had studied at culinary school prior to entering Inalco.

The Korean cultural event was a manifestation of the club’s primary goal and the members’ individual dreams: To help French people learn more about Korea and understand its culture.

“I’d like to open a Korean cosmetics shop in France,” Sandra said.

“I wish people could discover the greatness of it,” she added.

For Kilian, his interest in and love for Korean food plays a big part in the group's mission to spread knowledge of Korea.

“In 2017, I heard about the Paris Kimchi Festival. I didn’t know anything about Korean food before that, but I immediately fell in love with it,” he said.

“Korean food is something of a national treasure itself and I would really love to promote it through marketing.”

Jeanne, a second year student, said that her love for history was fueled by her discovery of the 2016 Korean drama “The Legend of Blue Sea,” a fantasy drama which paints scenes from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).

“I discovered hanbok (Korean traditional clothing) and hanok (Korean traditional houses) because of that drama,” she said.

“I’d love to work in traditional villages or museums as a translator or an interpreter.”

While it is always a joy to learn new things about Korea, the students also face many hurdles in reaching their goals. Hanja -- Chinese characters used in the writing of Korean -- was a common stumbling block among the students.

“I used to hate Hanja because it was so difficult to learn,” Kilian said.

“But I’ve learned a trick to memorize them easily which is to meditate, listen to nice music and try writing them with a brush.”

Kayya echoed Kilian's sentiments, saying that the number of Hanja letters they have to learn can sometimes be overwhelming.

“Hanja wasn’t really well-introduced to us. There were too many characters to learn,” she said.

On top of it, the pressure of having to cram everything in a short amount of time doesn’t help the learning process.

“We have the pressure of grades, so we’re often afraid to make mistakes,” Kayya said.

Inalco can be demanding with its in-depth courses as well.

“K-pop can be a motivation, but it will never be a strong enough (motivation) to learn Korea’s ancient history,” Jeanne said.

There were some 220 students in her year at the start of the freshman year, Kayya said. Now, less than half remain.

“A lot of teachers want us to communicate with them,” she said, explaining that many classes require students to participate through debate.

The members also hoped that the school would hire more faculty so that students could receive more individual attention for their effort and work.

“So many people are interested in Korean Studies, but a lot of people aren’t accepted to the school,” Sandra said.

“The number of students studying at Inalco, doesn’t represent the popularity of Korean Studies in France,” she said, adding that overall, the school provides students with amazing opportunities and knowledge that they always choose to share with each other.

“(Our school lives are filled with) good moments to share with each other,” Sandra said.

“We have amazing teachers that have so much knowledge to share. Mostly we are here to learn more -- it's just amazing.”

"Korean Studies Beyond Korea” explores the current landscape of Korean studies through interviews, in-depth analyses and on-the-ground stories told from diverse world areas. Funded by the Korea Press Foundation, this series delves into the challenges and opportunities facing the field as Korea's rise as a cultural powerhouse has drawn interest from scholars, researchers and leaders from around the globe. – Ed.