Reflecting of Cambodia from Seoul Incheon

posted by Maura Friedman

Seoul Incheon

The terminal at Seoul Incheon International Airport. In the background is a Korean Air 747. This airport is a primary gateway into Southeast Asia from the rest of the world.

I learned a lot more about cultural immersion, and myself, than I really had planned to on my flight to Cambodia. On that first plane to New York, my layover before Korea, I sat next to a woman who only spoke Korean (I could tell it was Korean based on the book she was reading). Foreshadowing. The woman, a good foot and a half shorter than my 5’8 frame with features softened downwards with age, would nod and gesture things to me and I tried to be accommodating. When our row was asked if we wanted pretzels, peanuts, or cookies and the Korean woman only stared blankly back, I smiled as the flight attendant, rather than repeating her question, knowingly left one of each on my neighbor’s tray table.

Fast forward and I’m the one who needs that type of patience. I began to get a sense of the language barrier I was in for as I stood in line at JFK awaiting my boarding pass. I was literally one of five white people (all of whom I did hear speak English) in a line of 60 Asian people, most of who were elderly and did not respond in English as TSA agents who barked orders at our line, trying to rearrange us so that they could get luggage carts through. When we finally moved in an acceptable formation and the agent walked away, he muttered, “Don’t come to the country if you can’t speak the language” under his breath. Gulp. More foreshadowing.

These words kept repeated themselves in my head as the flight attendants on my Air Korea flight tried to negotiate questions to me in broken English. The words continued to ring in my ears as I tried to explain to a South Korean customs official that I wasn’t leaving the airport, I just needed to grab and recheck my bag. I could see the words in my mind’s eye still when I asked ten people at the Seoul Incheon Airport what time the security gate would open so I could get back into the gates, finding no one who could understand me.

I know these experiences are common ones across the U.S. every day, but I’d never been the one left on the other side of the fence of a language barrier. I hope that I’ve afforded everyone I’ve encountered who couldn’t speak English the same patience that I’ve received thus far in Korea. Not even understanding the conversations happening around you is terribly isolating and, during my 14-hour layover in Seoul, I felt every inch of that alone.

Now that I’ve settled into our Cambodian bed and breakfast and have explored some of the country with a comprehensive guide (who is a very capable translator), I’ve begun to feel very charmed once again. I keep pinching myself because life doesn’t feel. Neither of my parents have ever had a passport and, as far as I know, most out of the international travel done by my extended family has been under military service and yet here I am, an 11 hour time difference from my home and half a world away. Wow.

I’ve been reflecting on some parallels my mind’s been automatically drawing between our assigned Cambodia readings from The Best American Travel Writing and my trip.

“The River is a Road,” about a journalist in Congo, captures my fears and hopes for my writing in Cambodia. In a country torn so badly by war not long ago, I want to ask hard questions about the affect of the Khmer Rouge but, like the journalist in the piece, fear being received by elders who want to forget and young people who were intentionally never taught.

In “The Train to Tibet,” a story about the Chinese built rail system in Tibet, I am reminded that even function is seeped in history and politics, something to stay attuned to.

The piece, “The Most Expensive Trip in the World,” about the incredibly costly hunting trips of a Sheikh despite an area’s poverty, highlights the opposite, how politics and power can bring function to areas, but perhaps still at similar ethical costs.

David Sedaris’ “Journey into the Night” reminds the reader that sometimes humor, although taboo, is a very real coping mechanism for dealing with the suffering of others when there really is nothing left you can do to help.

All these pieces have components I’ll bring with me into a country that, though scarred in its history, also has a legacy of beauty, pride, and hospitality in its sights, its culture, and its people.

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1 comment so far

  1. Jamie Hord on

    I fully understand your feelings of loneliness although mine was not as bad as yours. I was just in Tianjin, China for 28 days back in April of 2011 and I had a 4 hour (going) & 5 hour (coming back) layover in Seoul, South Korea. Going I meet 1 American man & 1 Chinese girl that spoke English and coming back I meet a Filipino girl that spoke English. I will be going back to Tianjin to teach English in 2012.


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