Greed and dereliction

It is greedy to learn a language. 

It is the desire to have access to a place and history, to the tales born of a certain people’s long existence, to their wisdom and humor, without being a natural heir.

Of course, this suggests the rather charged idea that language somehow belongs to certain people more than others, and I am not in fact interested in who can lay claim to which language and its associated literature and history. But as an individual, it is not hard to acknowledge that I am a usurper when it comes to German or Arabic or Korean. 

I think that’s especially the case—such as in mine—when language learning is also an act of escape. I have many languages, and many layers of them, that matter to me deeply, but I am at home in none of them. And so I try out a new one. It is a way of traveling. 

Because it is the case that to demand entry to other language worlds is in some way to abandon your own, or neglect it, at least. Are there not enough books in English to read before starting on Spanish or Hebrew? Is there not enough to love and master in the English language that one should return to learning the most basic things over and over? 

I am a woman. He eats an apple. It will be okay. The sun rises in the east.

Or is that the point? In a new language, it is no longer possible to convey levels of doubt or certainty, to hedge, to tell a complicated story about why things are what they are, and then arrive at a conclusion that opens the door to more possibilities.

Instead, you are left with: it is good or bad, I can or I can’t, he is happy or sad, old or young, here or there.

Of course that is only the beginning, but it is a long beginning, and it never goes away, I think. When you learn a new language as an adult you always return to these comfort zones, to the building blocks of a language, to its primary form. When I am anxious I sometimes repeat basic sentences in my head in the foreign language of my choice.

I am Chava. I am a journalist. I drank coffee in the morning. The weather is nice.

There is also comfort in being an observer.

It is freeing to peek into other windows, where on the other side, life will continue with or without you. You do not need to place yourself within it. It is not a commentary about you, or your place in this moment, or your failures. As a foreigner, you can be witness, you can partake in the drama without consequences. I mean that not only as a dereliction, but as liberation from centering everything around yourself.

The wait

These days I often find myself waiting often. Mostly for deliveries of various things that I have ordered days, weeks, sometimes months ago.

I receive these packages—of household basics like soap refills or impulse buys like the white sneakers I saw someone wearing at the neighborhood CityMD—like messages from the outside world. A reminder that it still exists.

The wait is not active, though I might remember and wonder whether the running shoes I ordered have shipped, and how soon I might expect them. While most items arrive within about a week, there’s always some items that are backordered, or shipping from a vendor in South Korea, and it’s not clear when and if they will arrive.

The only principled thing I did in the last year or so is cancel my Amazon Prime account. I don’t boycott Amazon entirely—I’m not that principled, and plus I don’t know who exactly I’d be hurting if I did that—but giving up on two-day delivery is a small sacrifice to make.

I’ve learned that there is almost nothing I need within a two-day window, and if I do, I can get it at the bodega for an extra dollar. And without that incentive, I can order from any other site that offers free shipping.

Now, because of the pandemic and the supply-chain mishaps and all that, I’m always waiting for something to arrive. I like it. I like separating the buying from the arrival, and surrendering to forces that are mysterious to me.

Exploding heads

I had a frozen margarita in a darkened alley near Union Hall last night. My friend had a pink sangria, with frozen berries floating in it. It was quiet, just us on barstools at a table to ourselves, and another group a few tables over. We spoke quickly and intensely and without stopping for an hour, maybe more, until the server came by to announce last call, though it was only 10 p.m.

When we got up to leave, my friend asked if we should get another drink, and even though 16 ounces of margarita is enough to make my body feel weightless, I said yes. I wanted to be out in the streets of Brooklyn, amid whoever and whatever was left in this sultry city. So we walked up Fifth Avenue passing diners and revelers in the newly configured outdoor restaurants, lining the street, and spilling onto the pavements. We ordered beer indoors with masks on—”I’ll serve you,” the bearded bartender said when we asked if they were still open. He was the only human in the storefront, standing behind the long polished wood bar.

We took the beers to a table at the curb, in what once was a parking space and continued the conversation. This time my friend spoke earnestly about trying to become more accepting of his own feelings, and more mindful of his ego, and to try less to preempt things—to scan everyone else’s possible feelings and reactions before they even happen, in order to alleviate them—something that he and I have in common. He misunderstood the question that I’d asked, which was a more practical question about how he was going about his new efforts at discipline: getting abs, playing the banjo, eating healthier, though I’m glad he did.

I biked back around midnight, lightheaded and sweaty, even with the thick breeze and in a quick summer shower that petered out quickly.

I woke at 6am with a familiar weight in my forehead, still wearing the shorts I had worn the night before.

Thinking I was hungover I took Advil and tried to sleep it off, in denial that the alcohol had triggered a migraine: the flame of pain on the right side of my skull, the daze, the inability to mesh my perception with the reality around me, were obvious indicators. So I spent most of the day pretending to believe that coffee and Advil and a little bit of pushing myself was enough. I sent a quick email to my boss so he’d know I was alive, then ignored everything work related.

By early afternoon, the pain and nausea were bad enough that I went back to bed and curled up amid a mess of clothes, with an ice pack over my forehead. I tried reading on my phone, and when that wasn’t enough to distract me, I repeated like a mantra in my head,”I want to die, I want to die, I want to die.”

In the past, when the migraines were bad I’d imagine a gun shooting my head and the whole thing exploding. Not visually. Just the immense feeling of relief. The pain gone. Nothing left to hurt. Over and over, I’d imagine the gun, the shot, the explosion. Poof. No more pain.

This wasn’t about death, it was about relief. So I was surprised to hear the words in my head. The gun seemed more benign. By switching it to words, it remained similarly situational, but also it opened a door to thoughts I might not otherwise consider. What would it really be like if I were no longer here? If I died on this bed, surrounded by laundry and pita chips and blue Ikea bags?

In the nature of migraines, the thoughts didn’t go much further. They repeated on a loop with short bursts of what-ifs. Who would find me. How long would it take. What about the pita chips. What if I never felt this ever again. What if my head, and the pandemic, and injustice, and bylines, and subtweets, and love, and disappointment, and missing PPE, and the census and the postal service and birthdays and color-coded sticky notes and health insurance and the American experiment descending into authoritarianism, ceased. Exploded. Poof.


I’m on a Lee Jung-suk kick, which started when I watched W on Viki, then moved on to School 2013, then Doctor Stranger, which is awful, and now I’m in the midst of While You Were Sleeping, which apparently is super beloved, but I’m finding pretty boring.

I shouldn’t have liked School 2013 as much as I did because it’s a pretty unsophisticated high school drama, but I’m a sucker for teen dramas anyway, especially when the teen in question is Lee Jung-suk standing up to bullies, and being too cool for school as well a super nice guy. (I basically skipped all the teacher parts, because that really was boring.)

There’s a scene in the beginning of episode 2, where Lee Jung-suk’s character, Ko Nam-soon, arrives home from school. In the space of two days he’s been wrongly accused twice of wrongdoing by the school, and he’s been beaten up twice by the school bully. He’s also had to pick up his drunk, deadbeat Dad, and work a nighttime gig as a delivery boy.

When he arrives home, after being beaten for the second time, he enters his room, lies down on the bed, clearly in pain, and just repeats to himself a few times:

“괜잖다. 괜잖다. 괜잖다.”

“I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.”

It makes your heart go out to him. And it’s actually one of the few times we see the toll that his life is taking on him, since he usually pulls off the super cool, nothing bothers me, attitude.

Besides for obviously pulling on your heartstrings, I personally liked the scene because of the word he uses. 괜잖다 is used so frequently in Korean (or at last Korean dramas)—mostly in the 괜잖아/요 form in dialogue (as in I’m okay/are you okay?/it’s okay)—that it actually started to mean that in my brain. And I love that feeling when a word in another language stops being a foreign symbol to memorize, but actually starts to mean the thing that it means, if that makes sense.

Also, he uses the word in the infinitive form, and I’m not sure why or if it conveys something different than if he’d conjugated it somehow. The subtitles translated it as “I’m okay” but I think it could just have easily been translated to “It’s okay” because there’s no subject, and It’s making me wonder if there’s actually a distinction to a Korean speaker. Obviously, he wasn’t translating in English in his mind, so what did he mean, did he mean “I’m okay” or “It’s okay” or would he not differentiate?

Adventures in Konglish

My Korean has advanced to the point that I can make out English proper nouns in Korean news, spoken in the wonderful transmorphic way that languages have of twisting themselves into something new, and what some people call Konglish.

Although perhaps in the case of proper nouns, that’s not actually Konglish? I mean, how do you say California if not 갤리포니아, which transliterates/romanizes to kel-li-po-ni-ah?

In any case, in the ongoing mystery of why I haven’t given up on Korean, I have now begun listening/watching video clips on MBC News, because I stumbled upon the fact that they provide the transcripts to 2-3 minute news clips on their site. Which is absolutely gold.

In the sea of illegible (to me) Korean that is the MBC homepage, I use the thumbnails to guide me, and try to find a clip that features Donald Trump, the coronavirus, or something that might give me a few clues as to what the clip is about.

The upside to this is that I now know how to say ‘confirmed cases’, ‘positive results’, and ‘rapidly increasing’ in Korean. The downside is that I die a little of humiliation/anger/sadness each time I listen to the clip.

Which in the grand scheme of things seems like an okay tradeoff?

Tbh my Korean is not good enough to understand any of it, but I input the text in Learning With Texts, translate some of the words, and then listen to it a few times, mostly making out words like Keliponia, Terompe, Korona, Hyuseton, and Pilorida.

Eli Wiesel

Written after his passing in 2016.

For a long time I thought Eli Wiesel was my favorite author, and as such I have a hard time believing my writing could ever do his justice. He’s still one of my favorite authors, mostly for what he taught me about the power of language.

My favorite book of his that I’ve read is “The Trial of God.” It’s a play, set in the 1600s, about three traveling minstrels who spend the night in the village of Shamgorod. The inn is owned by Berish, the only remaining Jew in the village after a recent pogrom on the night of his daughter’s wedding. It’s Purim night and the minstrels should be doing their spiel, laughing and celebrating but there’s no one for whom to perform. As the night wears on, Berish derisively suggest that as a form of Purim spiel they should put God on trial.

The play is three acts. It never leaves Berish’s inn. Of the bards, one is a joker, one a wagon-driver, and the third a begger and mystic who makes cryptic but profound statements. A large chunk of the play is a verbal quarrel about who should defend god; nobody wants to take the role. The play is somehow darkly funny despite the themes, and despite the fact that it is based on an actual trial of God that Wiesel witnessed in Auschwitz. Wiesel plays with the themes of loss and faith and tragedy in a fashion that is so human, so sensitive, and so uniquely Hasidic.

Mendel (minstrel 1): You forget why we have gathered here tonight? The question remains a question: Is there no one here–or anywhere–to plead the case of the Almighty King of the universe?

(Mendel has spoken with nostalgia. Melancholy sets in)

Avremel (minstrel 2): Poor, poor King of Kings.

Yankel (minstrel 3): Feel sorry for Him? Already?

Berish: We’re heading in the wrong direction! We’re her not to pity Him but to judge Him!

Avremel: Poor King who needs His servant’s pity.

Berish: He needs it? He won’t get it! Not from me! He had no pity for me, why should I have pity for Him?

Mendel: I-who? Berish the innkeeper or Berish the prosecutor?

Berish: Berish is Berish. And I’m fed up with you! I’m an honest man, I’ve never stolen, I’ve never cheated! I’ve never humiliated anyone. I have done only good, not He. He has done me nothing but harm. And now, now you want me to feel sorry for Him? Where was He when… (catches himself and tries to sound calm) I forgot that we are playing–maybe He, too, is playing.

For a college essay about faith I quoted from this book and then cited a Wiesel quote that really resonated with me at the time.

You can be a Jew with God. You can be a Jew against God. But you can’t be a Jew without God.

Wiesel was my favorite author at a time that his particular blend of language and faith, but a faith that was meant to be explored and questioned and battered and hated, in a god that deserved anger and needed defense, meant everything to me.

Now my relationship to is a little more complicated; it feels like a part of a past I’m still figuring out how to embrace. But even if the messages are less immediately revelatory to me, the language, and what I learned about its power, is something I’ll forever be grateful for.