A few weeks ago, I helped my LP apply for a scholarship at his home university. This was my first time writing an official recommendation letter in Korean, which was an extremely educational experience. In fact is was my first time writing a letter in Korean! Although I thought it was an awesome letter of recommendation, unfortunately he didn’t get the scholarship in the end. Needless to say he was super disappointed (so was I), and having an oral exam today on top of the rejection letter did not make his mood any better. Consequently I spent my morning trying to come up with various Korean phrases for “cheer up”, “everything will be fine”, “don’t worry” etc. for every whining text message I received. (Bonus info: “whining” in Korean is called 하소연을 늘어놓다 or 징징거리다.)

Koreans have an idiomatic expression called 새웅지마, which is a four character Hanja word, which literally means “the horse of an old man near the frontier”. In Hanja is looks like this 塞翁之馬, and the English equivalent would be “every cloud has a silver lining”. Until today I never had the opportunity to use this expression, but when I then got a message saying that my LP had received a top grade at the much dreaded exam, I instantly replied 정말 새웅지마인가 봐요!” to which I received a most praising response for my grasp of the Korean language.

But how did this saying arise, and what does it really mean? It comes from an ancient Korean folks tale about an old man who lived near the border.

The old man lived alone with his son and their only asset was a horse. One day, the horse ran away across the border and disappeared. When asked if he didn’t feel sad about having lost his only horse, the old man answered: “No, when bad things happen – good things are bound to follow. That’s the way things go in life!” A few weeks later the horse came back and it had brought another horse with it. The villagers looked enviously at the old man who now owned two strong horses. They asked him: “Don’t you feel happy now that you have had such good luck?” The old man answered: “Not really. When good things happen, bad things usually follow.” Soon after, the old man’s son went out riding on the new horse. Suddenly the son was thrown off the horse and the bad fall caused him to break his back leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. The villagers again turned to the old man: “You must be devastated now that your son is crippled! What a tragedy!” The old man said: “Nothing to do about that. And when bad things happen, good things usually follow. Just wait and see.” A few months later the enemy invaded the country and all young men had to go and fight in the army. Many died in the war, but the old man’s son couldn’t fight because of his injury and instead lived to be a wise old man.

Therefore, Koreans use the saying 새웅지마 when they want to cheer someone up, or when good things follow an unfortunate event.

For those of my readers who are interested I have posted my Korean letter of recommendation here below. In Korean, letter of recommendation is called 추천서.

XYZ씨에 대한 추천서를 쓰게 되어 너무나 기쁩니다. 2015년 8월부터 지금까지 XYZ씨는 덴마크 오르후스 대학교 교환학생입니다.

그동안 그는 학업의 엄청난 양에도 불구하고 열정적이고 헌신적으로 저의 개인적인 한국어 선생님이 되어 주었습니다.

저는 내년부터 일년간 서울에서 경제적인 연구를 할 거라서 한국어를 열심히 배우고 싶었습니다.

XYZ씨 덕분에 제 한국어 실력이 많이 향상되었고 그의 전문적인 지도 하에 저는 코펜하겐에서 열린 한국어 말하기 대회에 참가하게 되었습니다. 그리고 이 대회에 저는 대상을 타게 되었습니다.

XYZ씨는 뛰어나고 야망 있는 학생뿐만 아니라 공대생이자 동시에 일주일에 몇 시간 동안 영어를 독학하고 있습니다.

무엇보다 그는 훌륭한 선생님이고 한국어와 한국문화에 대한 진정한 홍보대사입니다.

제가 XYZ씨를 선생님이자 친구로서 자랑스러워하는 만큼 코리아택 또한 그를 자랑스러워하기를 희망합니다.

XYZ씨는 제가 만났던 가장 부지런하고 열정적인 사람 중의 한 면입니다. 그리고 그를 알아가면서 저를 한국에 가서 한국문화를 경험하고 싶게 만들었습니다.

그래서 저는 망실이 없이 XYZ씨를 장학금의 후보자로서 강력하게 추천합니다. 그보다는 더 자격이 있는 학생을 상상할 수가 없습니다.

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