Linguistic Lows and Pablo’s Woes

King Sejong, inventor of the Korean alphabet. Oh, if he could see what I'm doing to it now...

King Sejong, inventor of the Korean alphabet. Oh, if he could see what I'm doing to it now...

Sometimes, living overseas really sucks.  Every insignificant activity, from ordering another round of drinks, to trying on shoes, becomes a challenge, and it’s exhausting to spend so much time struggling to understand a new language and culture.  Not being able to speak Korean has resulted in 90% of my conversations consisting of grunting and gesturing wildly to indicate what I want, all the while inserting token Korean words for the sake of comprehension.  “Excuse me, sir, do you happen to have the Nikon d3100 in stock, yet?” becomes “(Points to Nikon d3100 written in notebook) I want.”  It’s fifty shades of mortifying to think that in a culture that so values honorifics and using respectful language, I am marching about Seoul with my Moleskine in hand, demanding things from every elder I encounter.  “Where subway?!”  “I want!  How much?!”  Or there’s the fact that I keep confusing the word ‘yes’ (ne) with ‘no’ (aniyo), because I have it firm in my mind that negation words should always start with an ‘n.’  So now as I strut around with my Moleskine, offending the elderly, I toss in the added element of nodding and saying “No, no, no.  I want.”  Or saying, “Yes, yes, yes.” while shaking my head ferociously.  I’m sorry, Korea.  You deserve better.

It’s easy for me to laugh and joke about all of my screw-ups thus far in Asia, but in reality, it can really wear you down.  It’s hard to be away from a language you have some mastery of, and people who understand who you are and why you think the way you do.  I miss using sarcasm, which doesn’t really have a place in my twenty word Korean inventory, consisting largely of classroom English phrases like “Stop hitting each other” and “Rock, paper, scissors.”  I miss speaking at a regular pace.  I miss peppering my speech with the word “legit,” and then hating myself for doing it.  I miss feeling at home.

So when I’m away from my language, or the people I love, or the places I want to be, I turn to my favorite poet, Pablo Neruda.  Not only is his writing brilliantly simple, but the dude knows a thing or two about pain.  After getting involved with the Communist Party in 1943, he spent three years of his life exiled from his beloved Chile with a warrant out for his arrest.  He spent those years wandering the world, longing to return to the country he so loved, and writing poem after poem about his solitude.  While I am hardly an artist or a political revolutionary seeking asylum overseas, I’ve found that I can really identify with his heartbreak sometimes, and it’s nice to have someone put onto paper what I can scarcely describe.

And now, because I am far less eloquent than he, I’m going to turn it over to my trusted travel companion, Pablo, as he talks about life away from the woman he loves.  From his book Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, this is Poem 10 – “Hemos perdido aun este crepúsculo,” We Have Lost Even This Twilight.  For all you non-Spanish speakers, the English translation can be found below.

Hemos perdido aun este crepúsculo.

Nadie nos vio esta tarde con las manos unidas

mientras la noche azul caía sobre el mundo.

He visto desde mi ventana

la fiesta del poniente en los cerros lejanos.

A veces como una moneda

se encendía un pedazo de sol entre mis manos.

Yo te recordaba con el alma apretada

de esa tristeza que tú me conoces.

Entonces, dónde estabas?

Entre qué gentes?

Diciendo qué palabras?

Por que

se me vendrá todo el amor de golpe

cuando me siento triste, y te siento lejana?

Cayó el libro que siempre se toma en el crepúsculo,

y como un perro herido rodó a mis pies mi capa.

Siempre, siempre te alejas en las tardes

hacia donde el crepúsculo corre borrando estatuas.

We have lost even this twilight.

No one saw us this evening hand in hand

while the blue night dropped on the world.

I have seen from my window

the fiesta of sunset in the distant mountain tops.

Sometimes a piece of sun

burned like a coin in my hand.

I remembered you with my soul clenched

in that sadness of mine that you know.

Where were you then?

Who else was there?

Saying what?

Why will the whole of love come on me suddenly

when I am sad and feel you are far away?

The book fell that always closed at twilight

and my blue sweater rolled like a hurt dog at my feet.

Always, always you recede through the evenings

toward the twilight erasing statues.

Allie first fell in love with traveling during a high school exchange program to Russia, where she stayed with a Russian host family, met Russian students and began pining for a life overseas. Five years later, this love for international relations has only increased (which has had an inverse effect on her bank account), and Allie continues to check flight prices more often than her email. In 2008, Allie spent a semester in Peru, studying at a local university and working with the NGO, ProWorld. After graduating from college in 2010, she darted off to spend a year teaching English at a middle school in Seoul, where she could be found making a fool of herself in Korean and wielding chopsticks like a pro.

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    1. I totally remember these days, back when I was booted into Portugal with little more than a few years of high school Spanish under my belt and a semester of Brazilian Portuguese. I laugh now about the days I saw my cousin Natália march in with buckets of bloody, freshly-killed pork and shoving slabs of it into the freezer, or having old men sing to me in front of fountains…and having no idea what was going on.

      And I also remember how freaking GOOD it feels to come home and be able to communicate with whatever darn person you want to. I would just walk up to strangers sometimes and talk to them because I simply COULD…and that was so delightful!

    2. allie
      you are building a significant bridge between home and korea. keep at it. your struggle will yield a crack of fearless curiousity or maybe tolerance. proud to know you. best, ann

    3. ALLIE… Keep at it..this journey will make a difference in your life and those you touch.

      Plunge boldy forth!!!

    4. This made chuckle, especially your love for ‘I want’ 🙂 But you are right, it really is a big challenge living in a different language and culture. I also find when I travel to non-english speaking places, I miss using sarcasm.

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