My 4th Liver Transplant Part 1: Korea

For background information please see my page about chronic illness HERE.

The summer of 2016 started out with my health a little off kilter, though that’s not exactly unusual as the heat and humidity often make the symptoms of my many illnesses more severe. This time it was mostly a ton of migraines. I had to stay home most of the time and restrict my activities but, again, it wasn’t like I hadn’t gone through similar rough patches before. The last week of July I decided to go to a dessert fair in Seoul with a friend. There are a few bakeries I like to support and the events are so fun I attend them often. I knew I would have to take things easy because of my health but I was desperate to get out of the house.

By the time I said goodbye to my friend I was feeling pretty sick. I got on the train home to Incheon but about halfway there I started to have terrible abdominal pain. I seriously considered getting off, finding a bathhouse and just waiting it out. I took a seat in the handicapped area and held my disability card in my hand so that no one would bother me. I somehow endured the pain through the rest of the train ride and the ten minute walk to my house from the station.

When I got home I took pain medication but it didn’t work so I took more and it still didn’t work. After my husband got off of work late in the evening we went to the emergency room of our local hospital. However, the emergency room was full and we were going to have to wait a long time just to get in. My husband argued with the staff saying I was a transplant patient and needed to be seen quickly but they were uncooperative. I suggested we go to the local Catholic university hospital because I had had good experiences with their Seoul and Daegu branches. It was a fifteen minute cab ride away but we were doing to have to wait longer than that to get into the emergency room where we already were. At the Catholic hospital I was seen promptly and taken care of. Some scans were taken and that is when it was discovered that I had blood clots in a main artery to my liver. This artery had previously had a stent placed in it at Mayo Clinic to keep it open but now blood had pooled and clotted around it.

It gets a little fuzzy for me around this part. I was hospitalized but when the severity of my situation was understood I was transferred to the hospital branch in Seoul, which was more specialized in liver transplant patients and could offer us more options.

Around this time a couple friends of mine were often with me because my husband had to be at work most of the time. And since I was transferred to Seoul, the trip to and from the hospital was a long one. One friend in particular was there with me almost constantly. She is fluent in Korean and could help me with communication where my barely intermediate level of Korean failed. I was in so much pain and so disoriented that I really didn’t have it in me to speak much Korean at all.

I had an excellent team of doctors at the Catholic hospital in Seoul and they tried everything that they could. Some procedures were attempted to open the artery back up, but they were unsuccessful. My condition was quickly worsening. I was unable to eat much of anything, was often in pain and had daily fevers. I developed infections and had to be quarantined. My liver was failing and it became apparent that transplant was the only option left to save me.

My previous transplants had all been at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota (America) so I was in contact with Mayo and my parents and we were trying to work out what to do. I could not get a transplant in Korea since I needed a whole liver in order to replace the faulty “plumbing” and to get one meant receiving from a deceased (cadaver) donor.

In Korea the majority of liver transplants are from a living donor, usually a relative of the recipient. The liver is comprised of two lobes, so in a living donor situation, one lobe is removed from the donor and placed in the recipient. The liver is a regenerative organ so it will grow back to completeness in time. The donor can regrow the part of their liver they donated and the donated organ can grow to fit in a new body. In a cadaver donor situation, a deceased person’s viable organs are donated to people on a waiting list who are listed in order of how urgently they need the transplant. The donor would have previously agreed to be an organ donor or their relatives made the decision to donate after that person’s death. While there are cadaver donors and a waiting list in Korea there are very few who consent to be donors and therefore the list is long and then chances of receiving an organ in time are slim. There are probably many reasons why there are so few cadaver donors in Korea but much of it is probably due to Korea’s Confusionist background. That’s another subject that I will not go into here.

My best chance for a liver was to go to America where a whole liver would be more easily attainable. However, I was unsure as to whether I wanted to get another transplant, let alone if I was in good enough physical condition to endure surgery. My previous transplants took place after long and painful waiting times on the transplant list. My third liver transplant in particular took years of waiting to receive. I suffered a lot during that time and had always told myself I would not go through that again. My intent had always been to enter hospice and live out my life more comfortably should I find myself in need of another transplant. So, my other reason for going to America was to be near my family should I pass away or choose hospice. Needless to say, there was a lot of thought that went into how we should go about doing all this. The difference this time around was that the cause of liver failure was not directly related to the rare liver disease responsible for my other liver failures.

First, my parents began applying for me to get medical insurance in America since I had not maintained any there, having been receiving all my medical care satisfactorily in Korea. This was a complicated process and we hit a lot of snags. Second, we booked my flight to America. I was in such bad shape that we were nervous about me getting through the flight. We booked an expensive business class ticket because I was not going to survive sitting upright in economy. I needed to be able to be more comfortable, so a business class ticket was the only way I was going to get to America without having a medical emergency along the way. Lastly, after much deliberation, it was decided that my husband should wait until later to come to America. Because of mounting medical costs and the even higher ones we would be encountering in America, he would need to work as much as possible, which he could only do in Korea. Because of tight immigration laws and my disabled status, he would only be able to come to America on a 3 month tourist visa. To stay any longer would require months of preparation and a lot of complicated paperwork. We didn’t have time for any of that. Chanshig was to come in time for either my transplant or my death, depending on how things went.

Needless to say this was an extremely stressful and emotional time. We didn’t know how we were going to pay for any of this and we didn’t know if I was going to survive and either way I was going to have to be apart from loved ones. I grieved for all the things I was sure I would never get to do again. I had so much more reason to live now than I’d ever had before. I had a husband and we’d only been married a year, I had a wonderful life in a country I loved and I was able to freely pursue my passions such as learning Korean. I had amazing friends and the best family of in laws one could ever hope for. For the first time I actually had a life of my own that I had helped shape and I was grieving for it because I was sure it was all coming to an end.

We also had to rehome our many pets because with me in the hospital and my husband working, taking care of me and preparing to come to America at a moment’s notice, we were unable to care for our animals properly. Thanks to a Korean animal rescue Facebook group, many people came together to help us. Two of our cats ended up having to go to a no-kill shelter and, sadly, we will not be able to see them again as we cannot track their whereabouts. But our other two cats were cared for by a family member and my pet rats have been in wonderful homes and I will be getting them back upon my return to Korea. From the bottom of my heart, thank you to everyone who helped us with our animals! We are so thankful. What a relief it was not to have to worry about them!

One of my friends in America started a fundraiser for me and we were surprised when so many people donated money to help us. My friend Nichola of My Korean Husband made a video about my story and many people donated because of that. Without the money from the fundraiser I don’t know where we would have ended up but I know it wouldn’t have been good. The fundraiser is still active HERE.

I don’t know how to even start to say thank you to all the people who donated, spread the word about the fundraiser and sent good thoughts and prayers our way. Every little thing that everyone did helped. My family and I are eternally grateful. Thank you and 감사합니다. So much. You made all the difference, really.

In Part II of this story I will write about my going to America and what happened when I got there.

Buying Groceries In Korea Part 1: Online Shopping

A good housekeeper is nothing without good resources and in turn, good resources are nothing without being utilized effectively. This is a tricky business when in a different country than that of your birth, particularly one that uses a different language. I have only lived in Korea a couple of years and am by no means an expert on the subject, but from the beginning I have been charged with grocery duty. No one taught me and I learned on my own which resources were worth utilizing and which weren’t. This blog is the first of two parts on grocery shopping, the second part focusing on shopping in physical stores and markets.  So without further ado, I present my official guide to grocery shopping online in Korea.

Online shopping, particularly for food and household items, is a very convenient and economical way to get what you need and therefore is utilized by many Koreans. Because of both the good public transportation systems, lack of space and closeness of businesses to homes in Korea, not many people own cars and those who do don’t always use them on a regular basis because it can be inconvenient.

Going to the store, loading up your car with groceries and taking them home isn’t a commonplace practice. Even if people do, many apartment buildings do not have elevators. If a building is under six floors, it will usually not have an elevator. We ourselves live on the fifth floor of our building so anything we buy we’ve got to lug up the stairs. Most people go to a neighborhood mart or some such place to buy a few things every other day or so, so it’s easier to carry home, though some larger grocery stores offer 배달 (paedahl) which means delivery.

In addition to all this, the prices of food and household items online is often cheaper than the prices in the physical stores. All the more reason for an increasing number of Koreans to turn to online shopping as a way to save time, energy and money. As a chronically ill person I find this way of doing thins to be such a help. I still go to the mart for things here and there, but I no longer have to designate a day’s worth of energy to shop for and carry groceries long distances and up stairs. The following are the most popular sites for grocery shopping in Korea.

Coupang Coupang is famous for it’s friendly delivery staff and 로켓배송 (Rocket Delivery) which arrives usually within 24 hours of the qualifying order being placed. It’s also a good place to find new, trendy  skincare products from brands you can’t find in stores. The site is only in Korean but is otherwise easy to navigate. If you don’t know Korean have a someone help you with the checkout process. Highly recommended.

쓱 SSG Emart – 쓱 (pronounced ssuk)  is a Korean language onomatopoeia which means secretly or sneakily. This is, I assume, referring to their quick and convenient delivery. This site is also only in Korean. With 쓱 you can choose the date and time of delivery and be notified via texts of when they arrive (Coupang does this, too, but I find 쓱 to be more precise and informative). The delivery men are respectful and if you are not home when they deliver they will either call you to find out where you are or just put everything in a huge paper shopping bag and leave it at your door. Almost everything comes at the same time.Their selection, particularly of imported items on Emart Traders, is growing as they become more popular. They also feature three of their own brands: the Emart generic brand, a brand called NoBrand of basic food and household items and Peacock, a brand which seems to be trying to do something like Trader Joe’s in America. Both generic brands are fine for your essentials. I’ve had fun ordering things by the Peacock brand. Everything by them has been delicious and I think they’ve done a good job with some of the ethnic foods. However, for some basic items the price is, in my opinion, too expensive for something that tastes only marginally better then the generic brand (like the kimchi).
Also, while 쓱’s produce is a good price and they have amazing, gigantic kale, you can buy those things more cheaply at a local produce stand or watch the sales at a bigger mart.

G-Market– G-Market is more of an amazon.com kind of deal with groceries only making up a fraction of what they sell. The only drawing point of G-Market for me is that they have partnered with HomePlus, which I frequent for their cheap selection of basic American cheeses like blocks of MeadowGold Colby Jack and the like. Other foreigners might like it because it has an English (and Chinese) version of the site and you can use their PayPal feature at checkout. However, the delivery men are not the nicest and it’s not as popular as it once was. The HomePlus store works similar to SGG Emart but I haven’t actually ordered anything yet. I usually just go to my local HomePlus. I hope that SGG Emart will have more and cheaper cheeses soon I can just get them that way.

These are the main sites for groceries. The way I’ve been doing it lately is using SGG Emart for all the food purchases, with the exception of most produce, and Coupang for household item purchases (which are sometimes paid from my food money account).

Ordering groceries this way is also great when I’m not feeling well and can’t make it to the mart often, since that includes the 5 flights of stairs and anywhere from a 5 to 15 minute walk. This is usually not a problem but it’s really nice to have the online ordering backup there just in case. Then I can focus my energies on actually preparing the food!

I hope this blog was helpful and keep a lookout for my next blog on shopping the marts and markets!

 

 

Pet Cremation in Korea

 

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A few days ago, Chansik and I very suddenly lost our youngest cat, 찬성 (Chansung) to FIP. He was only 10 months old. We miss him so much and life without him has been tough.

I wanted to write a blog about what the process and options are like when you have a pet die in Korea. 20160217_093522.jpg

Since Chansik is a vet we were able to make all the decisions related to Chansung’s health care and, ultimately, the decision to end his suffering by euthanasia. If your animal passes away at the vet clinic (동물병원) the staff can help you in freezing the body there or at home until the time of burial or cremation. After Chansung’s death, we took his body home to clean him up and then keep in the freezer.

We made an appointment with an animal funeral home called AngelStone. The day prior to our appointment we were instructed to remove Chansung’s body from the freezer to thaw. The next day we cleaned him again and Chansik sewed his eyes shut. I had written about Chansung on social media but Chansik wrote a letter for him that we had cremated along with Chansung’s body. We also included one of his toys.

We wrapped up Chansung’s body, placed him in a large gift bag and took him to the clinic (which is a 5-minute walk from our house) where one of the employees from AngelStone met us. They had brought a box to place him in but we preferred to keep with us in the bag. The employee drove us almost 2 hours out to the AngelStone facility. When we arrived, an

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A tree where people have written wishes for their pet

employee with a cart decorated with flowers met us with a deep bow. We put Chansung on the cart and we were taken to a waiting area.

AngelStone has a lot of options for cremation. You can dress your animal in the traditional white clothes before their cremation. After cremation, you can have the ashes turned into beautiful stones which can be displayed different ways or put into jewelry.

After filling out some simple paperwork we had to wait for about 30 minutes during which we took Chansung outside since the weather was nice and the sun was shining. We sang a little song I had made up and had sung to Chansung almost everyday that goes, ‘kitten in the sunlight, kitten in the sun..’. We picked a flower and put it in his paws.

 

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Some cremation options.
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Jewelry displaying stones that are made from the ashes.

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Chansung
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Viewing room

When it was our turn we took Chansung (on the flowery cart) into one of these viewing rooms. We were told to take our time saying goodbye and when we were ready they would take him in for cremation. We lit some incense and gave Chansung’s sleek and black fur some last pets. When we told them we were finished the employee came in to get him and gave a deep bow before they left. 20160511_122619We then could watch as they very respectfully performed the cremation. They lay Chansung’s body on a sort of table which was then rolled into the large, metal chamber. We waited for about 20 minutes while the cremation took place. During that time we looked at photos and videos of Chansung and talked about our favorite memories with him.

20160511_122612When the cremation was finished the remains, which is pretty much just bones, were gathered and placed on a silver and gold tray. The tray was brought up to the window and shown to us and the employee gave deep bows of respect. The bones were carefully put in a machine hat turned them into powder and then even more carefully placed in an urn.

We then returned to the waiting room where an employee tied up the urn in a white cloth and put it in a pretty bag. We didn’t do any of the fancy options so our total bill was 200,000won or about 200 USD. Then we were driven to a bus stop where we could board a bus to return home.

I would definitely recommend AngelStone. The employees were so careful, kind and respectful. The treated every bit of the process as if it was their own pet. If you have any questions about the process please email us. We are happy to help foreigners living in Korea who are navigating any veterinary issues, including those for end-of-life.

Our Story 우리 이야기

I sometimes hesitate in telling the story of how Chansik and I met because, in the abstract, it seems really sketchy and leaves a lot of room for criticism. After watching many other interracial couples be bashed on the internet I am even more hesitant. Therefore, I will not go into detail in all aspects, but still tell our story truthfully. If you have questions about the specifics, feel free to email me.

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Early relationship. Already in the couple clothes!

Chansik and I met in October of 2014. Some weeks before we met I had come across the request of a fellow American who wanted to set up his Korean friend with someone. He said that his friend spoke English and worked as a vet. I was, at the time, a student at Sogang University in the language program (level 1) and without any special visa. I wanted to experience as much of Korean culture as I could before I had to go back to the states, and that included dating culture (which is a big, very different thing here than it is in most Western countries). So, I answered the request put out by the American man but didn’t get my hopes up.

A couple days later I got a text from Chansik. I told him that I had a lot of veterinary experience, having started veterinary technician training in the past and volunteering at my local vet clinic in America, not to mention the years of rat rescue projects. With a common interest in both medicine and animals we had a lot to talk about and we messaged and phoned each other often for about 2 weeks before we met.

For our first date Chansik came from Incheon to Seoul (where I was then living), riding the bus for over an hour. Our first date lasted until the wee hours of the morning, which is easy in Korea because so many things are open 24-hours. We went from restaurant to coffee shop to game room all night, talking about everything. I discovered that he had donated 80% of his liver to his mother when she had needed a transplant and heard about his time in the military. We shared our interest in each other’s cultures and languages. From that date on we took turns riding the bus to visit each other but not always having a lot of time together because of my school and his long work hours.

I had to return to America in late November but was luckily able to return to Korea on a proper visa in February (2015). The three months of long distance was hard, particularly for me because in addition to missing him I was also missing my life in Korea. It sounds so cheesy but neither of us had felt such clarity of love like this before. I had never had any inclination to marry or even really settle down with someone but suddenly I was fantasizing about those things!

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Yup. Meant to be.

We moved in together in a small apartment in Incheon and started adding cats to our family, of course. I continued studying Korean at Sogang University and took the long bus ride to school and back each day with long walks to and from the school and bus stops. I overestimated my health and had a hard time attending my classes regularly or even soaking up much while I was there. I failed level 2 and had to retake it. If I didn’t improve my grades and attendance I would not be eligible to renew my visa and it didn’t look promising.

We researched so many ways but it became obvious that, since we could not rely on my health or my ability to hold a job, the only way to stay together in the same country was to get married. Then came an agonizing period of decision-making. If we didn’t get married I would have to return to the States and we would be forced to end our relationship since we would have no promise of seeing each other ever again. Luckily, after talking with our friends and family, we decided that we had what it took to make a successful marriage and started on the tedious paperwork for a marriage visa (F6). We had been dating 9 months

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Wedding in America

when we got married.

We married very quickly, but as I write this, only weeks away from our 1-year marriage anniversary,  I know we made the right decision and look forward to our future together.
여보 사랑해요~~ ❤

Read more about us here.

About Chansik 찬식

I slightly changed my husband’s bio from our wedding program. Here it is! Scroll down to find links to Chansik’s blog posts. Please contact us if you are seeking a veterinary consultation or have any questions/comments for Chansik.

vetshig“Chansik was born in 1984 in Daegu, South Korea. He was followed by younger brother Youngsik in 1988.
In the fall of 1999, at the age of 15, Chansik went abroad to the Philipines to finish high school and later to go to veterinary school. He graduated 2005 with his degree in veterinary medicine.
In 2007 Chansik started his two years of mandatory Korean military service. In 2008 he volunteered to go to Iraq where he served alongside American troops. His main jobs were to help with health inspections and to care for military dogs. His military service ended in 2009.
In 2010 Chansik donated 80% of his liver to his mother who was suffering from liver cirrhosis. The transplant was successful, though all of the money Chansik had earned in the military had to go towards paying for the surgeries.
Chansik went on to teach English at private schools and to work as a vet in Incheon, South Korea.
In 2014 he met Becca and they now reside in Incheon where Chansik continues his work as a vet. He is now interested in expanding his studies to include human medicine.”

 

International Couples: What Sets Us Apart

These days you can find so many good resources for international couples, marriage, child-rearing, visas, etc. It wasn’t always like this. It used to be if you typed in something like ‘korean husband’ into Google you would come up with a porn sites or racist blogs. These days you are much more likely to encounter blogs and YouTube channels featuring real-life international couples and find out what they have to say on a large variety of subjects. This blog will not be focusing so much on those things just because they are so well-covered elsewhere. (See the Resources page).

That said, I wanted to write about the few areas where me and my husband Chansik (찬식, pronounced ch-ahn-shi-g/k) differ from most of the interracial/international couples you might encounter in an effort to not only broaden people’s perspectives and awareness but also to include some of those who felt that they ‘didn’t fit it’ with other international couples.

This post will focus on Korean with Westerner marriage but some points will no doubt apply to other international couples or even just people living in Korea in general. I also want to to stress that this is one couple’s point of view, not a set of facts or a guideline on how to conduct your own life/marriage. My husband read this blog before I published it and is in full agreement with it, so while these are my words you can consider the opinions expressed here as coming from both of us. 

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Eating 호떡 (hodduk)

One of the major ways in which my husband and I differ from other couples is that I am disabled. Not only am I disabled, but I am invisibly disabled. You would not know I was sick unless I told you. Sometimes this works in my favor and other times it does not. But more on that in another blog post.

Since I am disabled I am unable to maintain a job. I have plenty of good days where I can function semi-normally, but my health is never consistent so I never know when I might be stuck in bed for a day or even a month. This is the main reason I am a housewife and while I have always loved domestic pursuits I still feel that my health prevents me from even doing those as well and as fully as I’d like.

While my disabled status makes my Chansik the sole financial supporter of our little family, my job as housewife means that I can make his home life comfortable and as stress-free as possible. He has a few house chores that he is in charge of but otherwise I do everything from cleaning the toilets to buying the groceries. As my Korean improves I can continue to take on more tasks and do things without as much aid from my husband.

Also, if you’ve read my page on chronic illness you know that Chansik, his mother and I also have the special bond of having all been through liver transplants. You don’t meet a couple like that, everyday!

Another thing that is a bit different about us is that we not only met in Korea but we’ve stayed in Korea. We have never tried to live in the USA (my home country) for many reasons but the main reason is probably another thing that sets us apart: we both prefer living in Korea. While I miss my family and friends, I don’t really miss actually living in America. I want to be clear, though, that I do not dislike America. I’m proud to be American and am so grateful for everything America has and is giving me.  Plus, social media makes it so easy to stay in touch with people back home that I don’t often feel like we’re that far apart, anyway.

Our living in Korea also means that our marriage takes on more of a ‘Korean style’ if you will. I plan to do a blog about just this subject. American culture, food, media, fashion, etc. rarely comes in to play in our marriage. We by no means try to exclude those things. On the contrary we try to bring them in a bit more often. However, our day-to-day lives are mostly like that of a Korean couple. We watch Korean television, listen to Korean music, shop Korean brands, eat Korean food (especially foods like live squid, steamed pupae and blood sausage that most foreigners and even some Koreans don’t like), and enjoy activities such as going to the public bath house (찜질방/목욕탕), singing old Korean songs in a karaoke room called noraebang (노래방), eating fish cakes at street tent or shopping at traditional markets. I preferred to do these things before I even met my husband so there was never a time when our cultures clashed in this respect (though there are other places where they have, such as work schedules and holiday celebrations).

And lastly, Chansik and I are both children of divorce and at around the same age. We both had a younger sibling of the same gender as each of us, respectively, that we helped through the divorces. Now, we each have one parent who has remarried and therefore have stepparents. I believe that some of that background and changing family dynamic that my husband and I share accounts for us having similar outlooks on life and, in particular, marriage.

So, those are some of the things that come to mind as being somewhat unique about us among  other interracial/international couples. All that said, we have so much in common with other couples that we are always interested in their stories and find we get along with most of them very well because of those similarities. I also think it’s important that we have those connections (particularly other couples of the Western girl/Korean guy dynamic) because they can be a big support when marriage gets tough. I’m really glad that my husband has friends he can go to who can truly empathize with him and I’m grateful I have lady friends who can also empathize with me.

Thanks for reading!

Hangul 한글: The Korean Alphabet

ㅎ ㅏ ㄴ ㄱ ㅡ ㄹ

Hangul 한글=the Korean alphabet

A very brief history:

Hangul (한글) is sometimes written as ‘Hangeul’ and is referred to as Chosun gul (조선글) in North Korea and China. Hangul is the alphabet used almost exclusively in the Korean language with the exception of a few Chinese characters (hanja/한자) used in formal writing.

Hangul was invented by the Korean King Sejong the Great during the Joseon Dynasty (which is where we get the name ‘Chosun gul’/조선글 for Korean) in 1443. It consists of 19 consonants and 21 vowel letters, making it a phonetic alphabet like English. However, unlike English, the vowels and consonants are grouped into blocks to form a syllable. So ㅎ ㅏㄴ becomes 한. Each of the letters was written to mimic the shape of the mouth and tongue when pronouncing it. For example the letter ㄹ makes a combined r/l sound and so looks like a tongue rolling the sound (though there are other reasons besides this that the letters look as they do).

Since Hangul was simple and phonetic it meant that anyone, regardless of status, gender or education could read and write. Gradually, Hangul began to be used more and more and people who had previously been unable to share their thoughts through the written word were given a voice. Ladies-in-waiting wrote court novels based on the secret lives of the royalty they served, a woman could write the genealogy of her family (a job usually undertaken by the male head of the family) a poor peddler could write poetry and a merchant could put forth articles on his political opinion. The creation of Hangul changed history forever.

Some of the combined sounds a Hangul can be a bit challenging but this alphabet is otherwise very simple to learn, which greatly simplifies the language learning process for any student of the language. If you are interested in learning to read and write Hangul, please refer to this following links and/or consult the Resources section of this blog.
Good luck in your studies!

ZKorean’s Guide

PopPopping Korean -a great app I used often in my early days of learning Korean.

This super-helpful comic really helped Hangul to ‘click’ for me.

Talk To Me In Korean‘s video lessons on Hangul

Not perfect on pronunciation but still a great video for making it simple.

Cool educational video