I think maybe my apartment is haunted. I have lived here for 3 weeks, but I have not seen another living soul in my building during that time. I hear their voices sometimes—speaking words I do not understand, stomping up steps, children babbling together in what seems to me like a confused cacophony of gibberish syllables. Sometimes I hear a baby wailing from somewhere down below. A man yells things I don’t know out his window on Saturday nights. They are only voices to me, and I have never seen their faces, but then again, that means they have never seen mine. Maybe it’s me who is haunting their lives, and not the other way around; that would explain the stares I get on the streets. I pass people and they do a double-take. If I meet their eyes and smile, they stare unabashedly back, mouths open, or else they look away hurriedly. The other day, I sh*t you not, a woman saw me, made eye contact, looked away quickly, nudged her friend and whispered something, then they both proceeded to look back at me giggling. It feels vaguely eerie to be such an anomaly; like I have 3 eyes or some weird skin condition, a feeling compounded by the fact that I do not speak the language here. I feel like a grotesquely overgrown baby, stumbling through their stores and streets, attempting to communicate through an odd mixture of last-minute google translate terms and sign language. People ask me questions at the check-out; I smile and say “de (yes)” and hope it makes sense. I know maybe 7 words of Korean total, and though I am trying to learn more, it all seems to fly out of my head once I am standing in front of an expectant sales girl who has just spoken for a good 30 seconds straight and is now awaiting my response. It gives me a newfound respect for people who cannot speak English in the U.S., and for minorities—it is isolating to constantly feel like the odd one out, and immensely frustrating to not be able to communicate, not least because I feel so much stupider than everyone else. I wish I could wear a shirt that says “I’m smarter in English, I swear!”
Though it is frustrating and isolating, it is also fascinating to see what it is like on the other side. I have been the native speaker attempting to understand and communicate with a foreign customer, and though of course I know that they are not actually intellectually slow, in some vague, unformed, prehistoric area of the brain, it is there: the judgement, the frustration—and sometimes the conscious thought of “they are definitely not stupid in their native language” takes just a few, searing seconds too long to slip through the cracks and slide into the thinking portion of the brain, and by then, it is sometimes too late; the damage has been done, and I know from personal experience that this damage takes even more effort and self-reflection to mitigate and move past. It is here, in the space between feeling and thinking, that prejudice takes root and sometimes flourishes, and it is an ugly, insidious feeling. This I have known—but now I know it a bit more completely. I can feel it from the other side now. I know what it is to be mistaken for unintelligent, or to feel so inadequate, simply because of a difference in language. And I think that this new knowledge has incalculable value for anyone who wishes to see our world a bit more clearly, a bit more completely. Sometimes it is not enough to consciously know that a certain impulse is incorrect; we must also feel it in our bones. The understanding must become a part of us if we want to have a true and permanent compassion for other humans, and not just those who, because of pure circumstance, share our language and culture. I sincerely wish everyone in America could have this same understanding, that this situation in which foreigners appear slow or very fundamentally different is just one circumstance among many possible circumstances, and absolutely should not be taken for reality.
In summation: I will never take for granted the ability to speak with other grown up humans again; people here think it’s weird that I’m white. Here are some pics of Chuncheon, the city I’m in: