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Germany and Korea

As too many people have heard by now, I spent a semester in Germany as an undergraduate. To say it influenced me would be an understatement. In addition to opening me up to new ways of thinking, it infected me with a profound wanderlust, which was part of the reason I decided to teach English in Korea after graduation. I suppose in a way I wanted recapture my study abroad experience. (Spoiler: That didn’t happen.)

But because I went to Korea with Germany in mind, I found Germany in some unusual places. This post has been a long time in the making, and I have very strong, biased feelings about the subject matter, so this might get a touch long-winded. Sit down. Have a brezel. 


Or a “fretzel.”

(Page from a Korean children’s book about Germany from the Seoul Metropolitan Library in Jongno.)

I hadn’t thought there was any sort of connection between Germany and Korea until an acquaintance told me the two have a history. In the wake of the Korean War, many Koreans came to work in Germany so that they could send money home to their families. There’s an example of this in the Korean movie Miss Granny, in which the heroine’s husband goes to Germany for work and dies in a mine collapse, leaving the heroine on her own in Korea with her newborn son.

I’m to understand that these weren’t great working conditions, but the international agreement helped push both countries through economic revolutions, and relations between the two remain strong. There are several Goethe Institut offices throughout Korea, which host events to promote the study of German. There’s also a German village in Namhae, which I will never visit out of respect for the locals’ privacy.  

Interestingly, several of my students have mentioned that they see a connection between Germany and Korea because the two are or were divided nations. Just as East and West Germany were reunited, many Koreans hope to see their own nation joined as one again. I want to say, “But East and West Germany never attacked each other,” and even then, East Germany only rejoined the west when the Soviet Union collapsed. Still, I wonder if West Germans ever thought to communicate with those in the East by blasting pop music across the border.

Deutsches Haus

Photo from inside the Deutsches Haus, a German restaurant in Hannam-dong, Seoul. 

Some Koreans also seem to feel connected to Germany because both countries treat pickled cabbage as a national dish. In both cases, I find these to be appetizing only time to time and in modest portions.


Sauerkraut from Wikimedia Commons.


Kimchi from Wikimedia Commons.

As far as I know, there’s no report on whether sauerkraut is a carcinogen. Kimchi, on the other hand…

Korea was also the first place I learned about Schweinshaxe, a German delicacy of roasted pig’s foot. My students are the only people I know of who actually want to eat it, and this might be because it’s similar to a dish called jokbal, which is also made from pig feet. (In summary: my students want to travel to places that remind them of home.) 

In addition to pig’s feet, Koreans seem to revere German sausage and beer. Unfortunately, anything even remotely sausage-like seems to be attributed to the Deustchländer, and this includes a disturbing convenience store staple known as “German cheese:”

So Called German Sausage

This is a piece of very-processed cheese with bits of meat in it that’s been squished into a tube. My students think it comes from Germany in the same way American children actually believe that French toast is French.

But above all, what I noticed when I arrived was the use of German loanwords in Korean. These are some of the common ones I encountered:

Hof City

  • Hof (호프; hopeu)

As a German suffix, this word connotes any sort of place where things come together. A Gasthof, for example, is an inn or a hotel—a place where guests from different places spend the night. Similarly, a Bahnhof (train station), is a place where the train paths (Bahnen) collect and redirect. On its own, the word Hof means a yard, a courtyard, or a farm. As a prefix, it refers to royalty. The Hofbräuhaus in Munich was the royal court brewery. 

In Korea, a hof is a place where people come together to have a drink—like a bar or a pub. It’s usually where round two of a workplace dinner will occur, especially if you have a lot of older male colleagues. The Korean name might come from a shortened, mistaken interpretation of the Hofbräuhaus. Many English words are also abbreviated into forms that are nonsensical for native English speakers.  

Next to the train station in Donghae, there’s a hof that gets meta with its German origins:


  • Eisen (아이젠; aijen)

In German, Eisen on its own means  an iron or a horseshoe.

In Korean, it’s a crampon used to help you walk over ice or snow, especially when hiking.

Before one of our hiking trips up the snowy mountainsides of Seoraksan National Park, my co-teacher asked me if I had any “aijen” that I could wear. I gave him a blank stare. It wasn’t until he looked the word up online and wrote it on a piece of paper that I understood. (“Ohhh! Eisen!”) I wonder if this is how my students feel when they listen to me. 

  • Arbeit (아르바이트; arubaiteu)

In German, this word refers to any kind of work or chore. 

In Korea, the term refers specifically to part-time work. Koreans took this use of the word from the Japanese, who took it from the Germans. Part-time work is frowned upon in Korea and Japan because it’s said to distract students from their studies. In Korea, the assumption is that, if you’re working, you’re saving up for something your parents won’t buy for you.

Japan and Germany in Korea

Another example of Germany and Japan’s presence in Korea. 

Much like Konglish—the rampant misuse of the English language around Korea—there’s a fair amount of random German that I’ll find on signs or products around town:


Jeder ist sein Gluecks Schmied

You also see plenty of random French and English on Korean stationary products.

Liebherr Truck


Like the mountain in Switzerland, not… you know.

Pumpen Intelligenz

Actually, I’m still not sure what this was supposed to be.

These German connections have become more apparent to me now that I’m teaching German to some of my students. Ever since I arrived at my second school, I became aware of the students who expressed, either in conversation or their speaking tests, interest in traveling to Germany and learning the language. I asked a co-teacher once if I could teach a German course, but I was turned down. I think it was assumed that I’d want money for teaching German, but I was willing to teach it for free.

After being shot down, I let the idea slide—until an ambitious first-year told me he wants to go to university in Germany. He had started to learn the language, and even created a German club with some of his friends. “Can you teach us?” he asked.

Can I?

Because we have such a short time frame—two 20-minute sessions a week during lunch—I have to prioritize what I teach. There’s been basic things, like introducing yourself, telling time, and conjugating common verbs, as well as some things that are more complicated, like verb tenses. I can’t possibly cover everything with them in the time I’ve got, but I do my best to give them things that I think will be useful.

Actually, I feel a little guilty about the way I teach them. For the most part, I lecture, briefly introduce a grammar point, and run through some examples. We do a lot of translating. Luckily, most of the students who are interested in learning German also have a strong English base, so that part comes easily. Then the students answer whatever basic questions I pose as review, and scribble down some notes before they leave. It feels dirty, quick, and lazy—but I was impressed at how well the students seemed to retain what I told them. Then it hit me: this is exactly the way they are taught in all their other classes.


Above: practicing the conjugation table for the “be” verb with a rhyme. I waited a while before explaining the eszett (hence the “gross”).  In other words, I’ve been copying my high school German teacher at every turn. Borrow from the best!

As a final tangent, and in case you haven’t had enough of my list of coffee shops in Gangneung, I’ll add one more plug for a German experience in Korea outside of Seoul.

Judith’s Garden is a café and restaurant in a German style. It’s so authentic that I was almost taken aback when I walked in. The sign outside might have been what did it:


I’ve been curious about the café ever since I learned of its existence, but what really sealed the deal for me was when I heard from a regular that Judith makes a proper Eiskaffee.

Here’s one more distinction we have to make between Korean and German. In Korea, an aisu cup-hee is an Americano with ice cubes. But in Germany…


It’s coffee with ice cream.

Score 1 for Germany.


Picture from GettyImages.

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