Lost in Translation

In the seventies, my parents and my toddler brother set out to explore a foreign land. Their expat life was short-lived, but their stories lasted for a lifetime. As a young kid who hadn’t travelled at all, I found their stories to be alluring. I was hooked by a life that was alien to the one I knew and lived.

This resilient tomato plant survived all our trips in 2017 and managed to give birth to our first indoor (studio apartment) tomato.

Decades later, I set out on my own journey (with Basil) to explore another country. As an adult, I realised: expat life isn’t always rosy or what you think it looks like from the other side. And no matter how much you may have traveled across the globe — hiccups are an integral part of the growth of an expat.

Fish out of Water, Olympic Park, Seoul.

“Sometimes I long to forget… It is painful to be conscious of two worlds.”
― Eva Hoffman

I’ve just returned to Seoul, after spending nearly a month with family and friends. A trip back home often turns out to be a tricky situation for me. It’s hard to avoid all the confusion in my head. Sometimes, I’m so used to be being the alien, in a foreign country, that even in the midst of people I’ve grown up with and spent my entire life — I feel like the odd one out.

The Thumb, Olympic Park, Seoul.

“Our histories cling to us. We are shaped by where we come from.”
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“Where are you from?” is the icebreaker for most expat interactions. I used to find that very annoying in my early days in Seoul. Maybe, I’ve struggled with my identity and always wondered if I can truly be who I’m are supposed to be? Over time, I’ve learned not to let the question bother me. It’s hard to escape questions though. These days, the question is replaced by, “How long will you stay here?”. It’s interesting because my answer is the same to everyone, but the reaction is different depending upon who’s asking.

Along the Mongchontoseong Fortress Trail, Olympic Park.

“All good things in life are fragile and easily lost”
― Khaled HosseiniAnd the Mountains Echoed

My family and friends remember me as an extremely sensitive person. And I believe, this personality trait helps me observe people and cultures in a way that’s very different from others. But for some reason, sensitive people are thought to be overtly emotional and irrational. As an expat, I think my sensitivity was the first to fade away. I feel emotionally vacant at times and it’s liberating from the complex emotions I used to feel back home.

Disfigured, Olympic Park, Seoul.

“Pet names are a persistant remnant of childhood, a reminder that life is not always so serious, so formal, so complicated. They are a reminder, too, that one is not all things to all people.”
― Jhumpa LahiriThe Namesake

On the upside, moving to another place gave me an opportunity to start afresh. To wipe the slate clean, forget the mistakes of the past, and explore another side of my personality. I never knew the strength that lies within. And it has helped me become someone very different from the person I thought I was. I still have some anxious moments and a feeling of vulnerability at times. But those moments are quickly replaced by a newfound self-belief.

Towards the Sky, Olympic Park, Seoul.

“Isolation offered its own form of companionship”
― Jhumpa LahiriThe Lowland

As an introvert, I enjoy the isolation. I think it lets me be a part of the whole without necessarily having to interact with what’s around me. No one expects anything from me and that gives me a strange kind of freedom.

World Peace Gate, Olympic Park, Seoul.

How easy it was to lie to strangers, to create with strangers the versions of our lives we imagined.”
― Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieAmericanah

Most expats choose to stick with people who can speak the same language, or practice a common belief, or look physically similar, or come from a common land. I was quite a rebel and chose to speak to just about everyone who would speak to me. I met people from different continents who spoke languages I couldn’t understand; believers who tried to convert me to their faith and nonbelievers who told me I was on the right track; cynics who made me feel right at home and pragmatists who told me to lighten up.

And through their eyes — I travelled the globe and discovered places that no travel site could truly tell me about. I realised the world is pretty simple to figure if you forget everything that divides you and just put everyone in a common pool.

Back alleys of Seoul.
View from the top.

Korean winters are brutal. And that’s not because I come from a warm place. In January, temperatures plummet below 0 and the winds from Siberia can freeze your face in minutes. The warnings for the next two days aren’t very appealing. The heater is my new best friend and I’m thankful to each ray of sunshine that trickles through our apartment. It’s 2018, I’ve completed a year and half in Seoul, and I’m hoping this year will be as exciting as the last!

Posted by:twobrownfeet

Writer-Photographer Duo. Now in Seoul.

45 replies on “Lost in Translation

  1. As a ‘seria’l expat, there’s much here that resonates with me. I don’t regret any of my ‘adventures’ and think that trying to become part of the society you’re working in brings rich rewards.

  2. I couldn’t have said it any better than @discoverywalking I would just add that your photo and quote selection are friggin amazing. I long to walk along that Mongchontoseong Fortress Trail. Looking forward to following your adventures in 2018

    1. Awww! Thanks, Lisa! It means a lot coming from you! I’m a such fan of your work and travels. You’re an inspiration!
      We visited Olympic Park during Chuseok in the month of October. The Mongchontoseong Fortress Trail lies within the complex of the park. I don’t remember the name of these flowers though. They bloom during autumn.

    1. The exhibit of the giant thumb is the first thing you’d see when you exit the subway. 🙂 I’ve realised (rather slowly) it’s OK to feel alien. I guess some of us are meant to be different! 🙂

  3. I don’t know why I could relate to your feeling of being alien or odd person even among relatives. Is it that our Outlook change or is it that we become indifferent as the time pass by?

  4. So great to hear from you Cheryl and to read about your thoughts. I imagine it’s always quite revealing when you go “home” but it sounds fundamentally as though traveling and a new slate has changed you for the better. Definitely a chance to start again. Well I hope this year brings you all your heart desires. Happy new year my friend and stay warm! 🙂xo

    1. I was wondering if this post was too negative to kickstart the New Year! 🙂 Fortunately, most readers felt the underlying emotion and didn’t get lost in the words. Trips back home are sometimes more difficult than travelling to a new place. There’s always so much emotion and it’s hard to escape the drama! 🙂 I’ve also been struggling with the concept of ‘home’ for a while.
      How have you been my friend? Happy 2018! Sending you a warm hug! It’s quite sunny today and temps are going to dip to -15 C. How’s the weather there? xo

      1. Happy 2018 to you too my dear friend. No, this post wasn’t too negative at all. It conveyed your feelings and emotions about home and that’s a good thing. I’m sure it’s always quite an adjustment. I hope the coming year is a fantastic one for you and Basil. Here it’s started hot, in fact right now it’s 33C. Brr, it’s a bit cooler at your end. Big balmy hugs to you xo 🙂

      2. Aw, thanks Cheryl. And how nice to have sunshine. Here’s its sweltering hot today. Last time I checked it was 39C! I’m staying indoors with the air conditioning on. 🙂

      3. 39C!!!! Wow! I haven’t checked the temperature today, feels like 4C or so. As for the sun, it’s gone into hiding since I wrote my previous comment. 🙂

  5. First of all, Happy New Year 🙂

    I would consider myself alien to my motherland now…it’s been about 7 years that i have been out. I don’t like mingling much with Indians (like you)…i keep myself open to cultures. What is the point in group-ism anyway…travel the world through their eyes (as you said).

    Good to know you have been surviving the frigid winters…it is much worse here (believe me).

    1. Hey Alok! Hope 2018 started on a good note! 🙂 I’ve always avoided groups formed on the basis of a commonality — at every point in my life. I also understand why most expats choose to stick with their own. It’s easier that way! It’s great that you choose to mingle with different people and that’s such a great learning.
      I’m not a winter (nor summer) person. I prefer moderate climates and love spring and fall. The cusps are always the best! 🙂

    1. Thanks a bunch! I just visited your blog and I’m truly amazed by your story! Fear has also been such a big part of my life. Travel has helped me overcome my fears and explore the world in a way I’d never think was possible. Here’s to 2018!

  6. Trips back home are ALWAYS more difficult than travelling to a new place! At least that’s my opinion, and I’m very close with my family. I think that’s not only because we change when we are away from them, but because of another point you made: that while traveling or living abroad, no one expects anything of us. At home, much is expected from us by family and old friends.

    When I was a young teenager taking my first overseas trip, I flew back to the U.S. alone. I still laugh when I think about the wild and crazy stories I told about myself to strangers on the plane! It was so freeing to create a whole different person out of myself, and I often wonder if that ability to escape the “home me” was what sparked my wanderlust in the first place.

    I’m rambling to start your year! Sorry! As you know, you and I often think alike, and so many of your thoughts and quotations here rang so true to me. Happy New Year, Cheryl!

    1. I said the same thing (your first line) in my reply to the Bespoke Traveler. I totally agree with you! I become what they (my family and friends) expect me to be and not what I have become. It’s the strangest thing! I absolutely loved your second paragraph! I do love the taste of being someone other than the “home me”. Being a traveller or an expat is truly liberating that sense. We get to forge new identities and be the person we’d rather be.
      No, you’re not rambling! Thank you for this comment. You always get me (as I’ve said before) and a very Happy New Year to you too! Here’s to many more adventures!

  7. Seeing family after long bouts of being away always comes fraught with expectations, most of which I place upon myself I suspect. You so eloquently put into words all the complexities of not being from one place, the push and pull inherent in an introvert going out into the world, and the many identities which lurk inside our ‘simple’ adult facades. Thank you for the lovely thoughts and cool sculpture work. Stay warm, Cheryl.

    1. For me, family reunions are tougher than most trips! 🙂 The weight of expectation makes familial interactions daunting. I’ve learned to take back only the memories that I’d to like cherish and throw out everything else. 🙂 Masks are a great survival tool, especially for an introvert. I don’t know what I’d do without them.
      Thank you so much for stopping by and joining the conversation. I’m always inspired by your words and travels! xo

  8. It’s hard to believe you’ve been in Seoul for one and a half years. It seems like you just arrived yesterday. Time sure flies.
    I love picking up little habits and favourite foods from places i stay in for longer than a few months. I’ve been changed by all these places and am not the same person who started traveling many years ago. When you go on excursions and come back to your cozy apartment in Seoul, it must truly feel like home by now. So much of the culture will be so familiar to you now, favourite places to walk, dine, frequent etc.. I hope you continue to enjoy your time there.

  9. It’s really lovely how you take your parents stories with you wherever you go and now you can make your own memories and stories! 🙂 xxx

    1. My parents have always inspired me and are a part of my core in more ways than I would like it! 🙂 They were expats and travellers long before I became either. And although their style was different, I think I’ve truly begun to understand their stories — now that I’m walking in their footsteps. xo

  10. Happy 2018! Hope you are keeping warm through the cold weather in Seoul…just a bit more and spring will soon be here, there will be light among the greyness soon…hehehe…:)

      1. Aww, spring is such a pretty time for nature to be waking up…I hope winter passes by faster for you to enjoy spring then. 🙂

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