Hangul! Though not really letters. And they’re written the same way you’d write Chinese (left to right, top to bottom).
I learnt to read hangul by reading the subway signs in Seoul while I was avoiding the evangelists on the way to work. All the station names are written in Korean, Chinese, and English so you can pretty easily match up the Korean syllable with the English. There are a few exceptions, though (Seocho 서초 is pronounced sa-cheo, Seolleung is spelt ‘seonleng’ 선릉). Being able to read the Chinese names of the stations also gave me an idea of the history of the local area.
Learning to read took me a few weeks because I didn’t put any effort into it at all. Still, I felt pretty good about myself until I found one of those books for tourists that lists the 10 best things about Korea. Hangul is nearly always on that list. Apparently, a smart man could learn to read Korean in a few hours. Even a stupid man could learn in a matter of days. No, women didn’t read back then, unless they were kisaeng (let’s say they were courtesans, for now).
Hangul is a unique alphabet in that we know when it was created and by whom (King Sejong & friends, 1443). Usually it is difficult to pinpoint when an alphabet was first created because you kinda need a way to record history. For example, the Greek alphabet was adapted from the Phoenician alphabet that Cadmus brought with him (notably, the Greeks introduced vowels to the alphabet). The earliest records of the Greek alphabet go back to about 750 BC, though writers claim Cadmus lived around 2000 BC.
Of course, the educated elites were opposed to having a literate population because a literate population is a dangerous population. There’s a pretty good write up of the story behind the script at The Economist. Click here.
To celebrate Hangul Day we had “Chinese” food. In Korea, Chinese food is sketchy at best. Most of the time it is jjajangmyeon, tangsooyook, or jjamppong. Some 중화요리 (Korean Chinese food) restaurants exclusively sell these dishes. It’s what the market wants.
Jjajangmyeon is a Koreanised version of the Chinese dish zhajiangmian. It usually has thick noodles with diced pork and vegetables (most often onions) in a thick & salty black soybean sauce. At most restaurants the challenge is to find the diced pork. I found four 0.5 cm² cubes once. It was a good day.
The company cafeteria always serves this on Fridays as the alternate menu, and because the regular menu is pretty terrible on Fridays the lines for this meal are out the door.
Tangsooyook is sweet & sour pork. Koreans will nearly always order this to share when they order jjampong. It usually consists of carrots, capsicum, pineapple (???), tomato, and slices of pork fried in batter. In Australia, if an RSL Club has a Chinese buffet they will always have this but the sauce will be much sweeter and almost fluorescent pink. In Korea, the sauce is usually ‘atomic orange’ as described by one of my companions today.
Considering where I grew up, my friends and I always thought of dishes like sweet & sour pork as Chinese food for white people.
Protip 1: If the Chinese restaurant has the word ‘garden’ in it’s name, it’s usually best to avoid it. For where we ate today, the authentic Chinese meals are not on the first page.
Jjamppong is spicy seafood noodle soup. I used to eat this a lot when I lived in Seoul because the restaurants there were very generous with the prawns and octopus. And it reminded me of laksa (colour only). Ironically in Ulsan, you’ll be lucky to get three baby octopus or three prawns in your massive bowl of noodles. I’ve noticed other kinds of restaurants in Ulsan flouting the Rule of Three, too. There is usually an abundance of onions and zucchini, though.
Protip 2: You’re at a Korean Chinese restaurant if the side dishes are pickled onions and yellow radish. They never have kimchi.