Travel writing is littered with loneliness. We take our courage and our savings and hit the road with no one and nothing but desire. We make a hundred friends along the way but still not one of us can escape the alone. When you realize the lives of your family and friends back home go on with or without you. When you realize you don’t even have a home. When you look around and see nothing but strangers and hear not a word that you can understand. But the alone is part of it all. There is always more adventure, more strangers who will become friends, and more curious lands that will transform into familiar places. There is beauty in the tragedy of loves that we must leave. There is a romance in that courageous solitude, one that is spoken of again and again by travel writers everywhere.
But today I am not writing about that loneliness. This is about a new kind of lonely, one I’m only just learning. It is the loneliness of silence and stagnancy. I am married and living with my wonderful husband in Seoul. So how can I be lonely? We are unendingly happy together, we are overly-affectionate, his face is my salvation and my anchor. We have been living in Seoul for 18 months. Each morning he wakes up early and goes to work. Each day he kisses me while I am still in bed half-asleep before he goes. He tells me he loves me and looks at me the way only he can. And then it is only me. My job here used to have me out and about in the city from 10 am to 8 pm. I read books on the subway and looked at the faces surrounding me with curiosity. I reveled in each new neighborhood I discovered as I traversed this great metropolis. I listened to the strange sounds of Korean in my ears, trying to discern any words I had learned. Seoul was new, and foreign, and still an adventure even though we had an apartment and a steady paycheck. The first year passed by with the wonder never waning. The easy excitement of Korea convinced us to stay for another year.
But lately, my work has dried up. I’m teaching only a handful of classes each week. The money is gone and there are no more trips to be taken until we go back to America seven months from now. I am lonely in my lack of choice. Each day I sit silently at my awkward little desk in our tiny apartment in an uncomfortable chair. I write. I get rejected. I speak to no one. When I get to class I struggle to speak English to the small children who barely understand what I am saying. They don’t want to talk to me. “Di-suh Plus, juseo.” I buy a pack of cigarettes. “Kamsahamnida.” I utter a ‘thank you’ to the woman at the convenience store. I force myself to read as many Korean signs as I can throughout the day. Occasionally, I stumble across a Korean-ized English word like bae-suh-tuh. Then I realize: best. It offers me an odd comfort to find a word I understand. I haven’t heard the sound of my own voice in hours. There is no one to listen. The streets are no longer full of wonder. They are loud and homogeneous and full of people to whom I can never speak. The only thing that seems foreign in this city is me.
When I am traveling, I love sitting in the window seat on the bus and plastering my forehead to the glass, watching as much of the world pass by as I can. In Seoul, I put on my headphones and close my eyes. It is only a commute now. The same bus route each day. I check my g-chat frequently. Maybe someone will be online. Maybe there will be someone I can talk to during my three hours of commuting to teach a single hour-long class. There never is. It’s 3 am back on the East Coast. I am alone on this bus.
When I get home in the afternoon, I know I should write. I should try to find more freelance work. But I don’t, because I’m tired of layering rejection on loneliness. I put on a TV show just to hear the voices. I talk to myself. I text my husband, but he is busy at work. I email my friends back home, even though they are sleeping. I just want to talk to someone who can understand me. No one here understands me. Even when I try to speak Korean. I am terrible at speaking Korean.
When I hear the sound of my husband entering the key code for our door each night, my heart jumps. The mechanical sound of the lock retreating into the door is the beginning of my day. I get up to hold him the second the door opens. I can’t wait to tell him any and everything. I tell him each thought I’ve had since the moment I woke up. I tell him every minute thing I did that day. I made the bed this morning and did the dishes, and took a shower. I did a little bit of writing, but not much. I had the leftover chili for lunch. The girls were so cute today in class, let me tell you all about it. Let me tell you all about everything because you are the only thing standing between me and the silence. You are the only thing living between me and the loneliness. You are the only one I know who speaks my language.