We used to be rock stars.

It’s true.  When we walked down the street, people would stop in their tracks and stare.  Children would laugh and shout hello.  When we entered a room everyone would gasp and smile.  Some brave souls would try to talk to us.  Cashiers would blush when we paid in a store.  Waitresses would beam when we ordered.  Taxi drivers would compliment us and give us advice.  People were so happy to see us.  Every.  Single.  Day.

That was in Korea.

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And now?  Now we are just lowly guiris.  When we walk down the street, people avert their gaze.  Children ignore us.  When we enter a room, no one notices.  No one wants to talk to us.  Cashiers roll their eyes when we try to make a transaction in Spanish.  Waitresses never crack a smile.  Taxi drivers grunt and point at the meter.  People don’t seem to want us here.

That is in Spain.

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At least, that is how it has felt a lot of the time in the past two months.  A lot.  When people asked me how we dealt with the culture shock in Korea, I always responded that I never had any culture shock.  I secretly congratulated myself on my worldly nature, my ease with change, my willingness to be put in challenging situations.  Well, now I know why it was so simple.  I was a rock star. And all I had to do was be white and speak English.

I am so good at being white and speaking English.

A week or so after we arrived Violet said, “Mom… everyone here looks just like us.  That’s not what I was expecting.”  Makes sense.  In Texas almost everyone she knows who speaks Spanish looks different from her.  But here, no one knows we’re different until we open our mouths.  And then we get The Sigh.

In Korea we didn’t get The Sigh.  Clearly we aren’t Korean.  They didn’t expect us to know a thing about their language or culture.  So when we spoke Korean to them they were floored.  FLOORED.  It never got old.  Never mind we only knew basic survival Korean.  Even a word would thrill them.  Every sentence would bring delighted assurances that our accents were wonderful, that we spoke so well.  But I speak so much more Spanish than I spoke Korean.  And no one is impressed.

Basically, Koreans never thought that we ought to be fluent in Korean, but Europeans believe we ought to be fluent in something other than English.   And they are right.  They are absolutely right.  If I didn’t believe that to be 100% true I wouldn’t have tried to open a bilingual school, put my kids in a fledgling dual-language program, dragged my family to a Spanish speaking country.  So I just want to scream at all the scoffing and eye-rolling, “I’M TRYING!  THAT IS WHY WE’RE HERE! PLEASE JUST BE PATIENT! WE AREN’T IDIOTS!”

I now have a better understanding of how immigrants to the United States feel.  I’ve seen the eye-rolling.  I’ve heard the muttered, “Learn English”.  I’ve watched annoyed cashiers shout-talk to customers and seen the customers shrink back in shame because they missed some nuance in the language.

I’m that customer here.  I’m out there by myself every day: at the bakery, at the market, at the produce stand, at the home goods shop, at the stationary shop.  I can’t talk to the kids’ teachers.  I can’t chat with the other parents.  It’s exhausting and demoralizing and a perfect recipe for anxiety and depression.  True culture shock.

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So, yes, there have been many days of hiding at home, escaping the world outside, railing at the difficulties and hostilities, and, worst of all, feeling guilty that we could feel this bad in such a beautiful place during such an amazing adventure that took SUCH a long time to plan and implement.

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A few weeks ago I had to attend a parent meeting for after school clubs… and possibly classroom activities, it was very hard to tell.  I spent the a lot of time wandering around the school, trying to figure out what was going on, sitting in on a meeting that I was not supposed to attend, missing a meeting I was supposed to attend, all the while trying to make sure my kids weren’t missing something important.  I really had NO clue, and ended up leaving the campus before I burst into tears.  A couple days later we went to a neighborhood festival that was so disastrous it deserves its own post.  The next morning I decided to turn things around and showed up to a Pilates class at our little community center after I dropped the kids off at school.  I was so happy to be there I almost cried; until the instructor realized I am an extranjera.  The irritation radiating off her was painful.  She spoke a bit of English, angrily, it seemed, trying to explain each exercise.  Other students also “helped” in English but seemed annoyed at the intrusion.  Again, I wanted to shout,  “I am watching!  Please stop explaining a class I’ve been doing for years!  Why are you so freaking hostile?”

That was the week that I finally broke down and decided to take Spanish lessons.  I had told myself that I would just “learn through doing” and study at home, or do a language exchange.  I really hate to spend the money on classes since I’m not making money here.  But it has become increasingly clear that it’s a necessity.  Not just for making everyday life easier, but for my mental health.  I can’t go on feeling this helpless and persecuted.  Especially because it doesn’t just affect me.  I’m here with my kids.  I need to be able to take care of them.  And they really REALLY need to see that I do want to be here, that I’m willing to embrace the culture, not just complain and hide and mope and act like a big grouchy raw nerve.

So I started classes last week.  Two hours a day.  Just taking that small step has improved my state of mind immensely, even though my level is lower than I thought. Embarrassingly low.   And I’ve already learned so much more about the culture that I’m feeling less like everyone is out to get me and more like everyone just needs to get to know me.

I’ll never be a rock star here, but I’ll happily settle for being a regular person.

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2 Responses to “We used to be rock stars.

  • Mom/Granny
    7 years ago

    Oh, that makes me sad. I want it to be fabulous for you all!! Keep plugging along, I know it will fall together!! Just smile, who can resist a smile.

  • Gramma L.
    7 years ago

    Oh, Cheris, I’m so sorry that you’re going through all this ( especially after all your planning and hard work).
    And Ann, I totally agree with everything you said including your wise advise! The language school is a great idea.
    I hope we can talk about this on Face Time this week. Maybe a couple of the strategies I used with “The French,” would be helpful to you as well.
    Love you. Hang in 🙂

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