By Alice Jo ’23. Art by Adrian Hernandez ’22.
The lights flicker on as I enter the laundry room at midnight on a Thursday. All the machines are empty except for my dryer, one minute from being done. This warm, lavender-scented room is a place of lonely socks, awkward meet-cutes, and oddly enough, some of the most aching reminders of home. Cradling my toasty clothes and towels up to my room, I remember how my mom would fold clothes fresh out of the dryer while I gobbled down her kimchi-jjigae and sticky purple rice, sharing the details of my day at school between bites—each conversation and essay prompt, person I met and snack I ate. In those days at home, laundry had always been a series of background motions in the corner of my eye, accompanied by gossip, meandering advice, bursts of laughter. Although it seems like just a few weeks ago that I took off my graduation cap, cried the many tears of goodbye, and stepped off the plane in this country, here I am now, learning this rhythm and language of solo laundry day, 110001 kilometers away from home.
Outside of the laundry room, every day here exposes me to new languages that the world seemingly expects me to know. American English, with all its “you’re so goods” and “hot seconds”. Points, credits, Bear Bucks. Small talk about the bipolar Providence weather. Starbucks menus with their pumpkin spice lattes and chestnut praline frappuccinos. Academese, weasel words in 50-minute discussion sections.
With all these new modes of thinking and communicating piling up in my to-learn list, sometimes when I pass by people that look vaguely Korean, just a little like me, I take out my earphones and lean into their conversations, hoping to hear the language that I had never been away from long enough to miss. Even though I can only speak Korean with a third-grader’s clumsy vocabulary, it’s the language of home.
Then there are moments when all these outside languages fall away and silence wins. Like the silence in the laundry room. Or the silence after my roommates have fallen asleep but swirling thoughts keep me awake. Sometimes, these thoughts are lonely and doubtful, and listening to music is the only way to drown them out.
As I move in and out of interests, areas of study, friendships, ideas about myself and thoughts for the future, I get frustrated by my lack of direction, lack of decisions made, concrete goals to pursue. When I asked my mom about this constant sense of uncertainty that’s always making me question whether I’m doing anything right, she said, “I think that’s how I felt all through my 20s.” Although this didn’t have the most reassuring effect, it made me realize that this constant flux, the uncertainty, the questioning is just another language I have to learn on my own. Maybe the most important one of all.
Before all of this started, I remember going to Sayles Hall for a midnight organ recital during orientation. “Mad Rush” by Philip Glass rang through the vast room filled with old portraits on the walls and new first-years spread out across the floor, listening in silence. Waiting to be swept away by this mad rush we were stepping into for the first time. Surrounded and lonely. Different and the same. Knowing nothing, expecting everything. We saw each other but could hardly see ourselves.
Now that this semester is coming to an end, I’m not sure how much has changed. But I do know that this non-stop immersion into many new languages has been a beauty and a blur all at once, and the need for fluency in any of them is nowhere in my mind just yet. And I’m working on being okay with that.