The music we cannot hear: a language that limits me

23rd October 2018

Jung-gu, Seoul, South Korea

I am towered by gleaning giants, buildings so high they scrape the clouds. Outside my window are the golden leaves of Seoul’s Autumn trees. Some are tall, making humans seem insignificant. Some are short, their crowns brushing against the shoulders of the passersby. This is Jung-gu, the neighborhood right next to a very vibrant and touristy ‘Myeongdong’. It is a mixture of very modern architecture mixed with remanents of palaces and shrines, and everything in between these two – cafes, restaurants, you name it. I like my little corner in Jung-gu. As I exhale deeply and slowly, I hear the sounds of my breath resonate against the walls. It’s more like music; rising and falling in magnificent crescendos. I can also hear the music of my friends; they are the maestros of their stories, building worlds out of the English language.

And then, of course, there is the symphony of the conversation in Korean. It is behind me and it surrounds me. It is beautiful, with sounds that stand apart and sounds that melt into each other. And as curious as it makes me, it is the only music in the room that I cannot hear, the only music in any room that I cannot hear.


A typical street in vibrant Seoul: every billboard is in Hangul (Korean). Courtesy:

It is a Friday morning in Seoul with clouds sailing overhead. I make my way out of my residence hall, rubbing my hungry belly. I walk up the crooked stairs painted over by white and dust, and turn at the corner vegetable stall. I take out my phone and check my calendar for the day, and as if by instinct, I stop right by the Ali Baba pizza shop. “Annyeonhassayo!” I say out loud with a big smile, bowing slightly at my emo, or old sweet Korean aunty. She and her husband break into smiles and greet me back. “Cheejuh peejzuh?” they ask, “Dey (yes), cheejuh,”  I affirm, replying that yes, I do indeed want a cheese (cheejuh) pizza.

Soon, I take the taxi to make my way to the senior center where my classmates and I were going to volunteer for the day. I get excited because I always wanted to hear the struggle of the Korean elderly, who are constantly finding themselves new opportunities because poverty in the elderly is the real thing. I wonder what their struggles are. On my way there, however, I try talking to the taxi driver in a mixture of Hangul(Korean) and English.

This is how a normal day in my beautiful new home usually is. With conversations in Korean occasionally supported by English words, I go by talking to strangers, making new friends, and ordering food for myself. I string words together to form new sentences. And each time I try, the locals beam with joy; they love that I want to learn their culture.

At the senior center, I converse with the elderly, to try to peel some of the layers of the mystery behind their faces. But whenever we get past our “hellos” and “where are you from?”, I find myself shrinking because I run out of vocabulary, even though I want to talk for hours and I am sure, the person on the other end does, too.

All the elderly I met that day were happy and smiling and wanted to talk to me as I wanted to talk to them, but alas, we could not, as the lack of common language failed us.

They may not see it but we are in parallel worlds. Worlds separated by languages. Or music created by words. And unfortunately, some music we can enjoy, some music we understand, but there is some music we cannot hear altogether.

This experience made me think of how I cannot penetrate through a huge part of Seoul because of the language barrier, and the locals cannot pass through a huge part of the international community (or Minerva students) because the locals don’t speak English. So much cultural exchange becomes impossible just because we can’t understand the other party. And while I don’t really mind this, it has made me think very deeply about a lot that goes on back in Pakistan, a country that is being polarized by its two languages, English and Urdu, where English was ‘foreign’ for many people, despite being everywhere.

Back in Pakistan, English is being taught in mostly ‘private’ schools which the upper-middle to rich class can afford. Most of my fellows and I have grown up reading English literature or watching English shows, with J.K. Rowling, or Cartoon Network. I can read many of the books in the world simply because they are in English and no alternative translation exists. So can many of my fellows. Our mind and personality get nurtured by this culture and art from English speaking authors or creators, but when that happens, we drive ourselves further and further away from those humans in Pakistan who never were taught English.

Those who never went to a private school never read Harry Potter, and never could read a word of English beyond “a-p-p-l-e”. Their minds cannot access a lot of ideas simply because they get conveyed in a language that they do not understand. And although these fellow humans try their best to unlock ideas, they cannot, because there are just so many ideas and such few translations.

It is not just billboards or television, English is in pamphlets and mall announcements. It is in Facebook, it is in Google. It is in WordPress. English is everywhere in Pakistan. And there is nothing inherently wrong with it. Except that sometimes, we forget those humans who cannot access this language – a great majority of humans. They cannot access a whole world (the internet, ideas, literature, or movies). So culturally and socially, they develop at a tangent than those who can read English. We tend to think that these people are different, but really, they are not. They aren’t stupid either, just like I am not stupid for not knowing Korean. And we differ from them, not because they are a different class or inherently backwards, but because they grew up accessing mostly Urdu movies and books and we grew up accessing mostly English books and movies. I wonder what Pakistan would look like if the country had greater access to English, or created more translations to make literature available to a majority of the general public, rather than to those who just speak English.


Though I can read and write in Hangul, the letters still stare at me. But when I try to speak them, I am greeted with warmth and joy. I also feel happy whenever I find a translation. Fortunately, I have met locals who I can actually “talk” to, and so I understand them and we have more meaningful conversations. It makes me happy that I am not missing out on their world, that despite being a foreigner, I am very much included, and I am very much made at home.

See, there is always something beautiful and intriguing about worlds locked away by language barriers. I thought this was merely about fascination, but truthfully, it is not. There is immense joy in uncovering stories and conversations of the human who was so foreign before he/she spoke words I understood. There is comfort in finding ways in which we can relate with one another, and language is one powerful way to do so. I realized this after I met an elderly uncle at the senior center who could speak English.

As my volunteer duty was ending, I sat down across him. We talked about his family and my family, his daughter and son, and my schooling in Pakistan. He told how he remembered the war, about the siblings he lost in it, and those he bid adieu because they stayed in North Korea. He told me how his parents remembered the Japanese army, the imperialists. He remembered stories as old as the late 1940s, and stories as new as the 70s, when he worked for an American company and therein he learned English. I told him about my crazy traveling school, and about my siblings, and why I was at the center with my friends. Our conversation transcended space and time and worlds and words. We understood each other. We shared a language. And for that, I will forever be grateful.

I now understand why humans get frustrated with language barriers. There is a whole other world that becomes inaccessible. So many conversations become lost and opportunities become impossible. So much sound we do not understand…as if there is so much music that we cannot hear. And maybe some music is meant just to be enjoyed. Maybe some music is meant to be understood. But every piece of music deserves to be heard. And every ‘type of’ person deserves to hear the music.

Every human deserves that they are surrounded by a language that they can access and understand.


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Caught mid-conversation: thank you Kirsty Hall for this!

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Shaking hands to bid adieu

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The elderly/uncle I befriended at the senior center.


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