After years of slogging through her English lessons, stumbling over impossible pronunciations and baffling rules of syntax, Chae Chang Eun came up with a better idea.
The 33-year-old science teacher switched to Chinese.
It wasn't that the language was easier. But studying Chinese felt like a homecoming, a return to a culture and way of thinking closer to Chae's roots as a South Korean. Besides, with China on its way to surpassing the United States as South Korea's largest trading partner, she figured its language would be more advantageous in landing a job in the business world.
"When America was leader of the world, we all studied English," Chae said. "Now that China is rising to the top, the interest is swaying toward the Chinese language."
South Korea is known as one of the United States' staunchest allies and is host to 37,000 U.S. troops. But in what might be a sign of things to come, China is the object of infatuation at the moment.
The phenomenon isn't limited to South Korea. Chinese studies are booming throughout Asia. At the largest chain of private language schools in Japan, enrollment in Chinese in 2003 was double that in 2002 -- displacing French as the second most popular language after English.
For most students, the motives are strictly mercenary: They believe that command of Chinese will give them an edge in the job market, and they don't develop much of a corresponding interest in Chinese culture. Some study Chinese -- once scorned by a society intent on Westernizing -- as a conscious gesture of rejection of the United States.
"The interest in Chinese does reflect some antipathy to U.S. hegemony and arrogance," said Suh Jin Young, an international relations professor at Korea University in Seoul.
In the last two years, half a dozen private Chinese schools have opened in downtown Seoul, and posters for new ones are plastered throughout the subway system. In December, prestigious Seoul National University announced that Chinese had replaced English as the most popular major among liberal arts students. The country's largest electronics companies recently started offering free Chinese lessons for their employees in anticipation of expanded operations in China.
Since 2000, the number of South Koreans studying in China has more than doubled. There were 35,000 as of the end of last year, making South Koreans the largest nationality of foreign students in China. Meanwhile, the number taking the entry exam for Chinese universities has increased threefold, according to the Chinese Embassy in Seoul.
At the same time, student visa applications to the United States are down about 10% this year from the year before, a U.S. diplomat said. He attributes it to a combination of tighter security requirements and what he calls "the competing pole from China."
"People are sending their teenagers to China to learn Chinese. They are really crazy about China," said Nam Young Sook, an economist with the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy. "After all the hype about English, now everybody wants to learn Chinese."
In Thailand, so many students are taking Chinese that one university official calls it an epidemic of "China fever."
"They see that the future belongs to China," said Prapat Thepcatree, director of Thammasat University's Center for Policy Studies in Bangkok.
Prapat says it is not unlike the rage for learning Japanese in the 1980s, when Japan's economic might was at its zenith, but he believes that anti-American sentiment is also a factor. As a matter of simple practicality, more Chinese tourists are visiting Thailand while Westerners, fearful of terrorism, are staying home. The tilt toward China comes at a time when American policymakers are increasingly fretting about the U.S. image abroad.
"Net favorable sentiment toward China has since caught up with -- and on a number of occasions even surpassed -- that for the U.S.," warned a report on South Korea released this month by the Rand Corp., a Santa Monica-based think tank. "China's growing economic importance to South Korea and its increasingly important role in influencing North Korean behavior could portend more favorable attitudes toward China, possibly even at the expense of the United States."
Scott Snyder, a senior associate with the Asia Foundation think tank in Washington and until recently head of its Seoul office, said the U.S.-declared war against terrorism has alienated Asian allies not because they necessarily oppose it, but because they believe it is not relevant to their concerns.
"The Chinese are coming and essentially saying, 'Let's get rich together,' and that is a more compelling message for Asian partners," Snyder said.
At the moment, with the U.S. and China basking in relatively warm relations, South Koreans do not have to choose between the two. But they may in the future -- and it is not a given that they would side with the United States.
"We have to ask ourselves, at what point does South Korea's economic relationship with China impinge on the U.S. alliance? Can we imagine, for example, that South Korea would vote for a U.S.-introduced human rights resolution condemning China?" Snyder asked.
For South Koreans, the simple fact of the matter is that China is much closer and much bigger than the U.S.
China has been the dominant foreign power for most of Korea's recorded history, and many aspects of Korean language and culture -- from chopsticks to the Confucian family structure -- are derived from China. Although South Koreans have their own alphabet, they often use Chinese characters for names and in newspapers.
Historians say that the close relationship is natural and that the half-century estrangement during the Cold War was the anomaly. China intervened on behalf of the Communist North in the 1950-53 Korean War, and relations with the South were severed. Ties were reestablished in 1992, and since then, the relationship has blossomed.
Last year China surpassed the United States as South Korea's largest export market. Bilateral trade between China and South Korea was worth $63.2 billion last year and is expected to reach $100 billion within the next year or two, according to the Chinese Embassy in Seoul.
Yang Houlon, deputy chief of mission at the embassy, said that China is the biggest importer of South Korean products, the biggest destination for direct foreign investment and the biggest tourist destination, with about 2 million South Koreans visiting annually.
South Koreans, meanwhile, make up the largest population of foreigners in China, many of them students of the language.
"The Chinese economy is growing, so demand for Chinese speakers is increasing. These are simple market rules," Yang said. "Chinese and Koreans share a lot of values. It is easy for us to communicate."
Virtually all of South Korea's top corporations -- Hyundai Motors, LG, Samsung and SK Corp. among them -- have made significant investments in China in the last few years. Tsingtao, just a commuter flight across the Yellow Sea from Seoul, has become a "little Korea" of sorts, with about 4,000 South Korean companies having set up shop.
Companies that a few years back were attracted by the vast reservoir of cheap labor are now setting up research-and-development facilities to take advantage of Chinese technology and to better understand the Chinese consumer market.
"You can pay $100 or $200 per month for a well-educated scientist," economist Nam said.
"Whatever business you're in -- whether you run a small drugstore or build golf courses, you have got to think about doing business with China," said Kim Jo Han, a 57-year-old textile company manager who said he was studying Chinese because of his company's plant in Tsingtao.
Until recently, South Koreans studying Chinese were primarily scholars, not unlike Westerners who learn Greek or Latin. There was little interest in the modern Chinese language.
"People would ask me, 'Why are you teaching Chinese?' Even if I was sitting on a bus reading a book in Chinese, people would give me funny looks," said Song Jae Bok, a teacher at the Koryo Chinese Language Institute.
Eighty percent of the students at the school in downtown Seoul are women, mostly looking for jobs in trading companies. One reason for the boom in private Chinese institutes is that Chinese is not offered in most public schools. English is still the mandatory foreign language. Virtually all South Koreans taking Chinese lessons have also studied English, although many have had difficulty mastering it.
"Somehow students in the Chinese department are not interested in English. It seems they did not like to learn English and they see Chinese as an alternative," said Seo Kyong Ho, associate dean of humanities at Seoul National University and one of the few academics who is fluent in both Chinese and English.
Chinese popular culture has not made dramatic inroads into South Korea -- there are no signs that it will push aside the influence of Hollywood. But South Korean music, soap operas, film and fashion are increasingly popular in China.
Chae, the science teacher, started Chinese lessons four years ago after reading a book predicting the rise of China. It was something of an epiphany, and through the language she started exploring the Chinese roots of Korean culture that had been forgotten in recent years.
"Whereas the American influence is only 50 years old -- since the U.S. military occupation of 1953 -- Chinese culture goes back 5,000 years. We just didn't realize it," Chae said.
She also came to support China with the belief that it could be an important counterbalance to the United States should the Bush administration consider preemptive strikes against North Korea.
"There are a lot of us who feel that by befriending the Chinese we can prevent the outbreak of war on the peninsula," Chae said.
Not all of the students have as positive an attitude toward China. In fact, a few say they need to learn the Chinese language to protect their country from being swallowed by China's rapid economic growth.
"We don't really trust the Chinese," said Kim Min Joo, one of the few students at the Koryo Institute in their 50s. She complained that some of her young classmates are naive when it comes to China.
"A lot of them have rushed into studying Chinese because it's a fad," she said, "without knowing much about China, its history or its system of government."
Jinna Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.