the silence of noise

Sunday, March 4, 2012

I get off the train and head left, as I usually do at this particular train station. I walk straight, dodging oncoming bodies as best I can. The cadence of Seoul traffic above and underground is still a mystery to me.

Head tucked, I follow a young couple up the stairs. My eyes track the rhythm of her steps. There is a perfect, quarter-sized circle of raw skin on the back of her right heel, and blood is soaking through the sheer white nylon of her stocking. It looks painful, but I keep watching as I try to imagine what she’s thinking and where she must be headed in such fine form on a Saturday afternoon. She walks at a speed no slower than the rest of us, and I wonder if her partner is aware of her discomfort. They’re marching on. What’s a bit of blood?

We reach the top of the stairs, and I look up to find the direction of my transfer. I come round a fat pillar. Smack. A boy of about nine is running away from his friend, or maybe his cousin or brother, and we collide. A slight yelp escapes me, and I don’t recognize myself. The coffee in my hand leaps up out of its cup through the slit in its cover, saturating my jacket and hair in a perfect backward slosh that leaves the boy dry. I spin around in vain, looking for a napkin. The only business in that part of the station sells socks and headbands. Nothing else. I want to say something, a joke, to let this boy know I’m not angry. Normally, a joke is my automative reflex in a situation like this. But, I keep my head down, say nothing, stand still for a second, and finally continue walking to keep up with the forward motion of the bodies.

I feel my voice in my throat from the moment it sticks at the pillar to the end of the second train ride. It leaves me with a slight ache in my chest, the way an unexpressed laugh or a cry would. In a land where I am foreign, I find that I am quieter.

As new foreigners, many of us live inside of a bubble, surrounded by incomprehensible written and spoken words. The sounds of two people speaking a language we recognize can be detected from across a crowded room. The rest of the voices become a muffled jumble of white noise as our brains grasp for what we can make sense of.

On the other hand, our degree of recognition varies with each place we inhabit. When I spent a weekend in Hong Kong and a few days in Tokyo at the end of last year, it was a bit of a relief to come back to Seoul, to see Hangul, and to realize I’d become accustomed to  hearing the flow of the Korean language. I may not understand most of the words, but I can understand the melodic rhythm of their delivery. Maybe this is one of the reasons travel can be so exhilirating – the comfort of coming back to something familiar is almost as good as the thrill of seeing something fresh and new. Sometimes, it can be even better.