This confused me at first when I came to South Korea. When I ask someone back in North America for his or her email address, their username is usually their name, a nickname, the name of a character from a book or movie, a clever pun, or something like that. The Koreans all seem to have addresses that consist of a random string of letters, followed by a random string of numbers, like kej8203@daum.net, or qkrwldbs0533@hanmail.net. (Both these addresses are made up, not the addresses of real friends of mine, so don't try to send email to them).

The numbers didn't take me long to figure out. As soon as I had a few people's phone numbers and email addresses, I realised that they often use the last four digits of their phone number as the number at the end of their email address.

What about the letters? Well... the ones that have three letters are also easy to figure out. Almost all Koreans have three-syllable names; a one-syllable family name and a two-syllable given name. I've met two people whose given names are only one syllable, but that's rare. Anyway, the three-letter email addresses are initials. So, "kej" might be "Kim Eun Jung."

The longer strings confused me for a long time, until a student of mine gave me her email address, and I asked her what the letters meant. She told me it was her name. Then it clicked. If you toggle a Hangul-English keyboard over to Hangul mode and type the keystrokes corresponding to "qkrwldbs," for instance, you'll get Hangul characters spelling out "Park Ji Yoon" (name of a famous Korean pop star, incidentally). Because you can't have email addresses that are actually in Hangul, they just type their names as if they were writing in Hangul, and don't care that what's actually showing up is a bunch of incomprehensible English letters. Then, they just tell their friends that their email address is "Park Ji Yoon 0533" and their friends know what they mean.

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