I don’t know if people remember how they learned to read and write—or swim, or do cartwheels. I know that one day I wasn’t able to do these things, and the next day I was, even though the difficult gray area in between perhaps extended for months, years even. And the day I did suddenly know how to read and write was so different from all the rest behind me, that it seems perhaps more reasonable now to believe that I never was that other person—that I never existed in a world without letters. But of course we all did live in such a world at one time, even if trying to recall it is as unnatural as jumping into the shallow end of the pool and pretending you can’t swim.
It was the winter of 1989, and we had just moved to Seoul. It was one of the harshest winters Korea had seen in decades and the city was not prepared for the thick layers of ice that coated the streets, or the blizzards that thrust snowflakes the size of birds against our windows.
When we arrived, school had been canceled due to one such snowstorm, so my brother and I spent the first few days at home figuring out how to fill our new space, our new time. We played a version of American football in the still empty rooms, also waiting to be filled, but with our furniture from Mexico. The game consisted in my brother tackling me, and me putting up with it. Just that, over and over. “Repetition is boredom’s mother,” Joseph Brodsky says in his essay “In Praise of Boredom.” In my case, repetition was the mother of a certain stoicism, one that could either tip over into subordination or, on occasions, produce a vortex of rage—inward facing at first, and then, sometimes days later, turning outward. We played Nintendo. He’d win, and win again, and I’d grit my teeth in order not to cry. Just that, over and over. I can remember only one game that neither of us won or lost, and which didn’t leave me in tears. We played it just once, on our second or third morning in Seoul. For this game we transformed the cardboard boxes from our recent move into sledges, and went out to navigate around the neighborhood—its long sloped streets. Positioning our disposable sledges at the steepest point of the street we threw ourselves down, over and over, until the cardboard pieces—marked in magic marker with words I could not yet read—were soaked in slush and mud and the half-frozen shit of stray dogs. Then we ran back home, took apart new boxes, and started all over again. Those cardboard pieces, abandoned at the end of the day in the snow and marked with words in our own alphabet, in our own language—probably words like “Libros,” “Cocina,” “Blancos,” “Juguetes”—were our first silent impression on a world where we remained foreign for the years to follow.
Once the snow had been cleared off the streets and the city had returned to normality, my brother and I were sent to school—a school mostly for the sons and daughters of American soldiers, and where there were a few others, like us, who were children of diplomats and NGO employees. We’d wait for the bus on the sidewalk of Dong ho-ro, a large avenue lined with meager saplings and stout gray buildings. If the bus was late, we took refuge from the cold in the corner store, where we exchanged coins for sweets whose names we never could pronounce. The world of the street was, for us, a rather silent one, a world where pointing or theatrically pulling a grimace replaced speech and conversation. With time, we learned a few phrases in Korean, to get by—but even then, the sentences we delivered mechanically were no different from the coins we had once traded for sweets.
The silence in which we were immersed when we left our house was deepened, on some days, by the facemasks we wore on our walk to and from the school bus. During the final months of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s there were recurrent student protests in the streets, which the brutal Korean police forces always suffocated with tear gas. The gas was like a slow, invisible fire spreading across the city, filling your lungs, burning your eyes. I had a pink Hello Kitty facemask, on which my mother embroidered my initials; my brother, on the other hand, had convinced our parents to buy him a full-face black military gas mask from the war memorabilia stalls in the Itaewon market downtown. There was something deeply comforting about making our way down the street, sometimes hand in hand, sometimes a few meters apart, sheathed in that incorruptible quietness. On the bus, we’d take off our masks and my brother would instruct me on useful matters which didn’t require speaking English—how to give people the finger when they were nasty, how to eat sweets in class or on the bus without getting caught, or how to cut class by silently feigning sickness.
Once at school, I don’t know what my brother’s world was like. I wonder if he felt as estranged as I did, or if he carved out a space for himself straight away. I didn’t. Some genius pedagogue had determined that in order to make my adaptation process easier and the process of learning English swifter, I should be sent to kindergarten in the morning hours, and then to first grade—where according to age I was supposed to be—during the afternoon. This meant of course that in both universes I was like the ominous asteroid that interrupts the harmonious dance of the more constant planets. The result was that I remained tongue-tied and, through preference, invisible for most of the school year, and failed to make even a single acquaintance. More than a lonely period, which it was, I remember it as one filled with deep ennui.
Then, quite suddenly, and I really do not know how, I was able to write words down in my notebooks—the date, names of objects and animals, my own name—and the eternal span of the school day, which had once seemed insurmountable, became habitable. Perhaps language, especially written and read, acquaints time with space, and lets us inhabit the minutes that pass. Marina Tsvetaeva writes that time is essentially “a distance.” Perhaps. But time, while reading or writing, is not felt as an expanse between the world and us, but as a space in which we dwell–a place of absolute belonging. In any case, once I had learned to write I devised a survival strategy against tedium, which consisted simply in making small booklets by folding up pieces of paper and stapling them together at the spine, and writing down all the words that I heard during the day. Later, the words became sentences, sequences, stories. I do not know what I wrote in those booklets and I suspect the words they contained were placed in a relatively ungrammatical order that only I could decipher. But when my first-grade teacher discovered that I did this, she finally allowed me to stay in her class throughout the school day, and did not mind if my attention strayed from her activities, provided that I went on diligently working in one of those booklets.
“Building a New World” was one of the first English sentences I read out loud. I haven’t remembered the exact words for all these years, of course, but I can remember where I first saw them, and by searching online archives I was able to fish out their original source. The line appeared on Time magazine’s December 11, 1989, cover, where George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev stand smiling, each turned toward the other, but looking past each other, or perhaps through each other, like two ghosts. The magazine had been sitting on my father’s night table for a few days and one morning I probably asked him who the two gentlemen on the cover were. He must have explained—though I do not remember his exact words—that the first brick of the Berlin Wall had been torn down a month earlier. He must have told me about the Iron Curtain, and the end of the Cold War, and I probably listened, trying my best to place those words in a map that took me years to complete in my own mind. He asked me to read the cover and I read out loud: December 11, 1989, Time, Building a New World, $2.00.
After that, I think I read everything that passed before my eyes. I recall the few billboards and signs in the city that were written in roman letters, which we drove past on the school bus every day, and which I repeated out loud to myself and sometimes jotted down in one of my booklets:
“Virginia Slims. You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.”
“Custom Taylor. Seoul’s Most Elegant.”
“US Army, Main Post.”
Why these words and phrases are engraved in my memory is no mystery. The lines we read out loud or write down many times in our childhood are like the walls against which everything else bounces and reverberates. If reading and writing are like swimming, those first words we properly construct are the edges of the pool that we use to hurl ourselves into deeper waters. They are no more or less meaningful than the rest of the elements in our linguistic map, but they constitute some sort of threshold.
Beyond that threshold, outside the space of paper, and pages, and pencils, school was not necessarily easier or better. And the bus was no longer a place I shared with my brother—he had made friends, and together they sat at the back, as the older kids do in those strange social pyramids that form when children are forced to share small spaces. I think I mostly stared out the window or read books and made booklets, and thus learned a deeper sort of stoicism—one that comes not from resigning oneself to frustration, but simply from learning to inhabit one’s own time. I also, eventually, learned to build my own new world, whatever that world was: I learned English, I learned the unfathomable language of childhood friendships and enmities, the vicious body language of school bus survival, the language of lies, exaggerations, and omissions, the language of rules and breaking rules, the language of foreigners and foreignness, the language of belonging and becoming.
© 2014 by Valeria Luiselli. All rights reserved.