Let me just get this right out of the way and explain something about the Korean dong. Did you just giggle? I’m sure you did. She said dong. Yes, yes she did. It’s not the first time, and I promise you it will not be the last.
In the West, in primarily English-speaking countries I presume, the word dong often inspires perfectly normal adults to dissolve into a puddle of juvenile snickering. It’s right up there with pecker, wiener, bum and my personal favorite, underpants. Oh yes, it was a glorious afternoon at the age of six when a friend and I discovered the hilarity that ensues with the incessant repetition of the word underpants. Interestingly, at the age of 32, underpants was re-discovered as the ace up one’s sleeve during a particularly lively game of Madlibs in Durango, Colorado. Trust me. Underpants is plural noun gold.
In Korea, dong means neighborhood. So you can imagine it comes up a lot in conversation. In fact, some of the best conversations involve dongs. It even finds its way onto TV. But the truth is, dong is not all that funny when actually spoken in Korean. This isn’t dong as in song or bong. The “o” is long, like know or go. And the “d” is nearly a “t” when spoken. So you see that it tends to lose its fart joke appeal in everyday conversation. It really only looks good on paper.
In my final days in Korea, I am trying to see some of the places I’ve had yet to explore; some new dongs, if you will. Last week, Youngdoo took me to Tongui-dong, a sophisticated neighborhood near the President’s house, not the sort of place one makes dong jokes. The area has been sprouting galleries, bookshops, cafés and design shops in the last few years, and even has the recent addition of a new Japanese-inspired guesthouse, where we were given a personal tour by the owner. We went to a photo exhibit, visited an art installation akin to a haunted house, and spent a few hours sipping drinks over design magazines at MK2 Café. It hardly felt like we were in Korea, and at many times it might have easily been mistaken for any dong in New York or London. A dong where no one giggles when you say dong.