Jun 19, 2011

Notes on Crying in a Foreign Country

Photo by iwolkow.de

Four years ago, in a hostel in Vietnam, I turned on the TV in my plywood single room and found an English movie. I started sobbing ten minutes in. 

The scene was dramatic and contrived. The kind I'd watch on any other day and think "yeesh, laying it on thick there, aren't we?" But that night, the grandmother hugged her granddaughter, the violin music swelled. I cried like a baby. 

That day, I had barely spoken to anyone. I'd walked and walked, dodged motorbikes to snap pictures of the traffic, slurped noodle soup and iced coffee from kind street vendors. I had stopped to sit on park benches, pen in hand, and scribbled great conversations with my journal. I had eaten dinner alone in a tiny, empty restaurant, reading a book I didn't like that much. 

Being able to cry that night, to care for characters and cry for them, felt amazing. 


Last year, I boarded the subway from Istanbul's airport, sank into a patchy vinyl seat, and choke-cried all the way home. 

My parents had come to visit for a week, and seeing them off at the airport made something snap. A well of pent-up homesickness, traveller's frustrations, family worry, general quarter-life panic, all came uncorked and gushed out of me. Twenty seven years old, and I couldn't stop crying. Fucking keep it together! I whispered to myself. Out the window, I watched power lines bob by, the sag and anchor of the cables strung between poles. 

A man in the next seat over watched me. He probably had children my age. On his face was confusion, kindness. In Canada, your train-mates would pretend not to notice a woman clenching and unclenching her purse straps, weeping quietly. Not here.

I racked my brain for something to say in Turkish, shook my head and mumbled "My family. My mother and father." His face creased with sadness, and it struck me that he probably thought there had been a death, a sudden tragedy that knocked the feeling right out of me, there in the middle of a train ride. I wanted to explain more. I didn't have the words. I ducked my head and thanked him. 

He didn't turn away until I got off the train.


Yesterday, in the teacher's room, a deskmate slipped through the door and sat down quietly. I was at my computer, typing. It took me ages to notice, she was crying. Slumped over the desk, head in hands, sniffling. She had put on headphones, and I could hear the tinny chorus of a pop song. Her long hair hung over her shoulder, tenting her face from the world. 

I looked around. Teachers were buzzing in and out, running photocopies, brewing instant coffee. No one else had noticed.

I racked my brain for the right Korean phrase. "How are you?" "What's happening?" "Are you not at peace?" But then what? Her English was as basic as my Korean. Would we cobble a shoulder-to-cry-on situation out of hand gestures and hodgepodge Konglish? 

Still, no one had noticed. If they had, they were pretending not to. I didn't know if this was the cultural norm, if acknowledging someone's tears would be more embarrassing than the crying itself. I had seen colleagues shoot rice liquor, croon some terrible karaoke, stagger into taxis. Tears, never.

I was still sitting at my desk, eyes glued to the computer screen, when she slipped out again.

I hadn't even seen her go.


  1. I'm curious how it's handled in Korea as well. Some of my students are real crybabies.

  2. A poignant read, thank you.