Untranslatable

Do your little bit of good where you are; it's those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world ― Desmond Tutu

On any given day, I use Papago, a translation app (far better than Google Translate by leaps and bounds), at least two dozen times. Whether it is to converse with my co-teachers, other colleagues, a stranger on the streets, or am employee at one of the local stores, because I don’t currently speak more than a few basic words or phrases in Korean, I’ve become accustomed to pulling out my phone and using this app to convey simple needs or messages. Without it, I would spend countless moments looking at my Korean neighbors blank-faced with a deer-in-headlights stare.

Some communication, however, requires no words, no translation. On one of my first days of school, I was waiting at the bus stop to go home. One of my students who lives near the school walked by, heading into the corner store. He waved and said, “Hello Teacher,” as he and all my students do quite regularly. A few moments later, on his way out of the store, he walked over to where I sat at the bus stop. He bowed and, with the honorific two hands, offered me a bagged pastry. I accepted with two hands, said, “Gamsahamnida (감사합니다),” and bowed. The simplest gesture left me in tears.

A woman on the bus handing me a snack. A man on the elevator trying to tell me my zipper was down. An old woman at school making the sports teacher give me a ride home. A little child touching my beard while looking me in the eyes and smiling. A toddler in her mother’s arms giving me a high-five and then bowing to me while still being held. Teenagers nodding to me on the street and letting me get on the bus before them. A family at the local market stopping me and my friends after a hike and offering us a taste of some local Korean street food. A male coworker who always greets me with a smile and a genuine hug. Singing John Denver’s “Country Road” with one of my principals. A school nurse seeing past me asking for another Tylenol for my usual Friday headache and asking me, “How are you really doing?” A question that led to my admission of some of my struggles since arriving to my new home.

Facing a language you don't know is like returning to your infancy when your mother tongue used to be a foreign language to you ― Munia Khan

While I have started to learn Korean, my work requires me to speak more English than this country’s native tongue. Meeting locals, they either are super excited to try their hand at speaking English with me, or they go running for the hills at the first sight of a foreigner. I learned this week during lunch with some of my male teachers that many Koreans turn down my offer to help with little tasks not because my offer to help is inappropriate or disrespectful but because the idea of trying to speak English with me is horrifying. This revelation helped me make sense of something that happened last week. One of my sixth grade students, after being forced to change seats with another classmate because he was being too talkative, became upset and remained tearful for the rest of class. I was worried that his tears were because I’d embarrassed him. Turns out, he was more embarrassed at how often he struggles to understand me and my language.

Since arriving, I’ve had numerous moments where the language barrier nearly forced me to tears. Frustrated by my inability to understand the words spoken around me, I’ve snuck away several times to find somewhere to cry. It’s one thing to be a high school student taking a French class, knowing your teacher still shares your native tongue. It’s another to be in a foreign land unable to communicate at the simplest level.

Still, despite my ever-present need for Papago, my stares and shoulder shrugs at locals when they try to communicate with me in Korean, my frequent failed attempts to even tell what bus stop I’m nearing, all these difficulties are totally overshadowed by the number of times I experience kindness and care that needs no words, love that needs no language. These are the moments that remind me I am right where I need to be, right where I belong.

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photo credit: Melissa Enderle (via Flickr)