Monday, October 25, 2010

Speaking Russian in Korea: A cure for homesickness

Sunday when I woke up it was rainy, dreary, and the leaves were beginning to change colors and drop from the trees onto the damp ground, creating a soggy mess of what should be fall. Homesickness began to bud, so I decided to dwell in it and make pancakes. By early afternoon this nurtured bud had flowered into a lump. Everywhere else but here, it seemed, fall is crisp with red and green and gold leaves. Recently, I saw pictures of Muscovites at the park with huge, dry, crisp, colored maple leaves. Imagining the smell of dry autumn leaves, the feel of the sun, warm on my face, and a slight chill in the air, I put on a sweater and almost heard the crunch of leaves underfoot. As I delved deeper into my memories and imagination and further away from Ulsan, I imagined hot chocolate, a fireplace in the evening, maybe a bit of vodka and some Russian. I was in heaven. When I walked outside into the mild, wet weather, reality hit.

My heart dropped.

This is not the fall I love. Missing Russia and Idaho, I sulked.

After my day of fighting homesickness and missing Russia I had an interestingly serendipitous moment.

As if I had stumbled into a dream.

It began with a search for material for my Halloween costume. I ventured over to Ulsan’s old downtown via bus. While on the bus, I derived brief satisfaction from understanding the Korean announcement of my stop, and I briefly compared it to understanding the metro in Moscow. I know I’m finally making progress with language skills when small battles like these are won. I hopped off the bus at my stop and began walking in the general direction of where I remembered seeing a fabric shop. I hadn’t walked ten steps from the bus stop, when I noticed a group of foreign guys. They stuck out, as we non-Asians always do. A bit nervous about the seemingly inevitable encounter, I momentarily entertained the idea of darting across the street to avoid talking to them. Again, this is the Kim that is shy and sometimes doesn’t make an effort to say hello to people she knows. My hesitation to make a run for it meant that suddenly they were in front of me.

With a heartwarmingly genuine smile on his face, a man I would later know as Dima said, «Ты русская?» “You’re Russian?” In shock, but on my game with the Russian that is always swimming in my head, I laughed and answered in Russian, «Ниет. Я американка.» “No, I’m American.” They gaffed and laughed and insisted that I was Russian. I laughed more and was so relieved after my day of homesickness to run into a group of Russians that felt so familiar and friendly that I felt in a dream. They were equally blown away and confused to find an American girl in Korea that spoke some Russian. Even after I told them I had spent two years in Moscow teaching English, they continued to follow the regular Russian line, which is that I cannot be American, I must be Russian because of my style and weight and my language skills.

As our conversation continued, I couldn’t stop laughing at how fortuitous the whole situation was. What are the chances? I enjoyed the familiar Russian accent of Yuri’s and Dima’s English, and while the two younger guys talked to me, the older men stood back and watched. Occasionally interjecting something amiable but generally indecipherable.

Due to our limited knowledge of each other’s language, my broken Russian and their broken English, our conversation was not as poetic as I would like to imagine, but the overall feeling was one of genuine relief and happiness. I could not believe that I was speaking Russian to people who understood it, and they seemed to feel the same way.

A great cure for homesickness, I only hope that I will run into Russians again, though hopefully they will be longer stayed than one day.


  1. What a great synopsis of events. :) Very well done Kim.. very well done.. ;-)

  2. Your perspective is interesting. I've heard the saying "home is where the heart is". This definitely seems to be true for you. Your two years in Moscow has given you many fond memories and changed you will every place you go. I wonder how long it'll be before you feel at home in Korea.
    Your writing as always draws me in...and I find I want to stay. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I will miss Berlin and Germany so much...I also got used to German language and besides autumn here is much more sunny and longer than we normally have in Moscow...So much sun and yellow-orange-red it here...I wish I could just stay...but only 3 days left and then I have to go