A good Korean drama begins and ends with the characters. Despite both of my parents being immigrants from Seoul, the only time Korean is heard in our household is in the evenings, when the language sputters from the TV in our living room. In front of that flickering blue screen, the five of us befriend the 900-year-old 도깨비 (goblin) of “Guardian, the Lonely and Great God”; root for the supernaturally-strong lead of “Strong Woman Do Bong Soon”; and mourn the protagonist of “Uncontrollably Fond” as cancer eats away at his body.
During my gap semester, I’ve been working at a drama production company in Seoul. In Korea, the invisible lines that are drawn between relationships, between versions of selves, are clear. “Be yourself” is an undercurrent in American culture. In New York City, my hometown, people flaunt their identities in leopard print coats and sequined tights. In Korea, when people introduce themselves, they say, “잘부탁드립니다.” I trust myself to your care.
When our company starts a new project, the first thing I read is the list of characters. A good writer makes webs with their words. Character lists are the very first insight into the full tapestry of a story. At the center is the main character, fleshed out through the relationships she has with those around her.
잘부탁드립니다 — I trust myself to your care. I trust that both of us know the roles we are expected to play.
안창현 (Director Ahn, Clara’s Boss, 39, Man)
Director Ahn is one of two directors at our company. With his wide round eyes and unkempt hair, he strongly resembles the black bulldog that he lovingly raises. Most strikingly, he has a thick Busan accent that grows thicker when he curses. And Director Ahn swears like a sailor. I learned this on my first day of work.
During my first meeting that day, Director Ahn’s voice crested and fell in waves. In one moment, profanities were pouring forcefully from the pit of his stomach. In the next, he turned to me, smiling. He asked:
“What’s your name?”
I had to think for a second before answering. At work, I go by Clara instead of my Korean name, In-young. The way Korean people say “Clara,” my name stretches into three syllables: 클라라, Ceu-la-ra.
친할머니 (Clara’s Paternal Grandmother, 83, Woman)
My grandmother calls me In-young.
The first syllable of my name means mercy. It was chosen years ago by my grandfather. All my cousins and siblings share this syllable in their names — it is our 돌림자. The second syllable of my name means bell. It comes from my mother’s name, Young-ah.
When my grandmother calls my name, she always says:
“우리 인영이” — “My In-young”
When she says my name, I can hear the 정 (jung) folded into the syllables. It is warmth learned through 83 years of life and infused into my name. It’s a warmth I’ve known my whole life thanks to my father, who says my name in the exact same way.
Sometimes, I cannot understand my grandmother. Korean is thick in my brain like congealed honey that refuses to drip from the bottle. But my name is easy to understand. It fits into a pattern of naming that stretches back for generations. It was added on to by my parents, who gave something of themselves to raise me. The result is those two syllables. 인영.
최보경, 최지원 (Choi Bo-kyung, Choi Ji-won, Clara’s Co-workers, 20s, Women)
When I first met Bo-kyung and Ji-won, I introduced myself as In-young. The thing about Korea, though, is that a title always comes with the name. Producer In-young. Intern In-young. It’s a linguistic quirk that indicates the importance of relational boundaries in Korean culture. In Korea, relational identities are constantly in flux — we play the main character, the dense sidekick or the abject underling when the occasion calls for it.
But when I speak, the added syllables of those titles are clunky on my fat American tongue. On the page, the extra characters make a buffer around my name. They draw an icy line between us. Co-workers, not friends.
So I made a compromise: 클라라 (Clara). An English name pronounced in a Korean way. No need to tack on the title at the end. I think it sounds prettier pronounced the way that Bo-kyung and Ji-won do.
At the office, I call Bo-kyung and Ji-won 피디님 — Producer Bo-kyung, Producer Ji-won. But outside of work, I call them 언니, older sister.
최영아 (Clara’s Mom, 49, Woman)
I call my mom on the bus on the way to work in the mornings. My Korean melds with English and people stare at me.
When I hear my mom’s voice, it’s grounding. I think about what it must have been like moving to America at my age. I wonder how she decided to go by Caroline instead of 영아 (Young-ah). Like me, she would have been maybe 22 or 23. Like me, waiting for English words to register meaning like trying to squeeze honey from the bottle. While living here, reading scripts for work and trying to decipher the blocky white letters on billboards, I appreciate for the first time how difficult it must have been to leave home.
박인영/Clara Park (20, Woman)
I like the sound of my voice in Korean more than I do in English. I have to concentrate, to make sure that the sounds come out round and full and correct. That moment of buffering puts a distance between myself and my words. It’s like listening to someone else talk. I get to marvel at this version of myself — this girl whose words roll off the tongue and who can sometimes fool people into thinking she is Korean.
Reading scripts in front of the white-blue monitor of my work desktop, I’ve come to enjoy reading character lists. I like to watch the versions of characters tumble out across the page, overlapping and contradicting. Before even diving into the scripts themselves, you can tell how captivating a drama will be — all from the character list.