As I dried myself off in the communal shower, a woman set up next to me and with a friendly, open face asked where I was from and if I was the teacher.
Friends, I do not know if this was the masked woman from the dumpling duo of yore. I imagine it’s another mom and they’ve all conspired to ask me questions individually and combine intel at the end of the week.
She then asked if I was 20 대.
Now here’s the thing, no matter how many Korean words I learn there’s always one more Chinese origin or formal or written-only or slang version thrown at me right when I think I’m making progress. From context (and some bumbling) I deduced that she was using a formal word for “years”. In other contexts 데 (same pronunciation as 대) means “place” like when the office secretary asked me sadly if I was really moving to another “데”. I assumed this woman was not asking if I owned 20 places, but as a result of this rocket science my brain went belly up and I could not for the life of me remember the number 9.
I bent over, put my hands on my knees and said “I should study harder! Ok, wait a moment. I need to think. Uh. Korean age. Uh. Twenty… twenty… twenty nine!”
Here I was, talking to a lady, both of us naked, about our ages. She told me “I am forty years old!” and I told her in English, because my brain had had enough, “I can’t believe it!” An older woman came in partway through this discussion and I nearly grabbed her hanging towels in confusion.
It was again a testament to comfort in nudity and the delight of random connections.
Later my tutor explained that 20 대 means “in your 20s”.
대 struck a chord and I checked my hanja book:
대 comes from Chinese which means that depending on the character it stemmed from, there can be several distinct meanings. Chinese has four tones and therefore a single syllable word, spelling retained, can have four meanings depending on the assigned tone of the vowel. Korean does not have tones and so instead ends up with a large volume of homophones.
For example, 대 or “dae” can represent any one of these Chinese symbols:
대: 臺 (level, mark) [Chinese pronunciation: tái]
대: 大 (small) *fun fact- menus often use this Chinese symbol to denote “small portion“ but toilets use the Korean to denote “liquids” on the toilet’s flushing buttons [Chinese pronunciation: dà]
대: 代 (line, generation, historical period) [Chinese pronunciation: dài]
I can sometimes guess which Korean words are of Chinese origin depending on context. I like to think of it as my “hanja senses”.
The solution is, of course, to just learn Chinese. Then all my problems will be solved!