Hiraeth: Homesickness for a Place that Doesn't Exist

May 4, 2018

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If experience has taught me anything, it is when two lesbians get up on stage to sing and perform, you better start listening. If it's three lesbians, or more, strap in for a bumpy ride. But hey, at least you'll have an awesome water cooler story at work on Monday. This past weekend my wife's organization was the featured non-profit at a local microbrewery's Open Taps event they hold every Saturday. Open Taps features live music and the featured duo came all the way from Nashville to sleepy old Tyler, TX for this event. They introduced a song that was inspired from nine months of living in a van. The theme of the song was a Welsh concept called, “Hiraeth.”

 

 

Hiraeth is a notion many Welsh will say is impossible to correctly translate into English. My personal view is most Welsh is impossible to correctly translate into English. One of my favorite pieces of music is a Welsh lullaby called "Suo Gan". When you look at the words and hear the lyrics, I guarantee you will not be able to tell where you are in the song:

 

Huna'n dawel, heno, huna, Huna'n fwyn, y tlws ei lun; Pam yr wyt yn awr yn gwenu, Gwenu'n dirion yn dy hun? Ai angylion fry sy'n gwenu, Arnat ti yn gwenu'n llon, Tithau'n gwenu'n ôl dan huno, Huno'n dawel ar fy mron?

 

Look it up! It actually is a very nice song!

 

This song was featured in the very first scene of Steven Spielberg's biggest regret Empire of the Sun. I really enjoyed this movie, but apparently Spielberg would like a mulligan on this one. When I first heard the song, I thought it was Chinese, but then the words didn't exactly make sense, and I wasn't heavily exposed to Welsh in 7th grade to properly identify the language. I really should have known better, as a little further south of where I grew up are the towns of Cymru, Bala Cynwyd, and Carnarvon. And people butcher the pronunciation of those places all the time. If you want to appear super knowledgeable, if and when you ever see an actor's name you can't pronounce, there is a 100% chance it is a Welsh actor. Right, Ioan Gruffudd and Catherine Zeta Jones?

 

Since we've beaten to death the infuriating elements of the Welsh language, perhaps we should move along to what the point of this blog was actually about. Welsh people are an interesting sort. It is not surprising at all they would say Hiraeth is impossible to properly translate. Ever hear of the term "Welshing on a bet?" Apparently, they can't translate what a wager is accurately, either (Editor's Note: The etymology of the term "Welshing on a bet" has not been completely attributed to the wonderful and valuable citizens of Wales. We fully acknowledge the terrific aspects of the Welsh culture, and when we can eventually think of something positive to say about you people, we'll let you know. We do appreciate and are very grateful you have successfully gotten your asses kicked by the New Zealand All Blacks in rugby since 1953. Kia ora!) Oh my god, did you guys just catch that mention of "you people", too? Holy shitballs! (Editor's Note: I DID NOT WRITE THE PREVIOUS EDITOR'S NOTE! I LOVE WALES! "YOU PEOPLE" IS A TERRIBLY INSENSITIVE METHOD OF COMMUNICATION! I HATE MY JOB! AAAAARRRRRGGGHHHHH) (Writer's Note to the most recent Editor's Note: Ok, racist)

 

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Supposedly this was intended to be a sweet and heartfelt blog post. I'm to stop beating up on Welsh people and discuss Hiraeth. I like Samantha Kielar's explanation of Hiraeth on her Penn State blog: kielarpassionblog2 because it was on the first page of my google search and also because you should know this by now, I'm going to Penn State.

Her explanation is:

 

HIRAETH

Hiraeth is a Welsh word that is somewhat difficult to describe in English, for the reason that there is no single English word that expresses all that it does. Some words often used to try to explain it are homesickness, yearning, and longing.  

However, there is more depth to hiraeth than in any of those words on their own. It seems to be a rather multi-layered word, which includes a different variety of homesickness than what is generally referred to. This kind of homesickness is like a combination of the homesickness, longing, nostalgia, and yearning, for a home that you cannot return to, no longer exists, or maybe never was. It can also include grief or sadness for who or what you have lost, losses which make your “home” not the same as the one you remember.

 

I think it would be a perfect explanation of this concept if there were a few more "f-bombs" in there and some taunting on the poor quality of Welsh rugby and dental maintenance, but that's just me. I'm not sure how the first Welshman could have predicted the emotional feels that would tug on an international adoptee going back to his native land for the first time, but hammer, please meet nail.

 

Seoul is a modern, first class city. Its only rivals are Tokyo, NYC, and LA economically. It is not representative of the Korea I departed in 1980. A lot of people returning to Korea wonder what life would have been if they had not been adopted. I fear the younger generation was adopted as an infant will no longer be able to see just how far S. Korea has come in such a short amount of time. Seoul is often referred to as "the Miracle on the Han". There were serious doubts as to whether the 1988 Olympics would actually happen because so much needed to be done.

 

When I went back to Korea in February 2018, I was on the phone to my wife and I told her this was not the Seoul of my memories. It is a complete and vastly modern metropolis. A couple of days later I realized more accurately why it wasn't the Seoul of my memories. I wasn't born in Seoul, I was born in Seongnam. So, maybe there were four Starbucks in a two-block radius in Seoul back in 1974. Maybe, it's exactly as it was 43 years ago and Hiraeth doesn't even apply here! And maybe, I can now welsh on my credit to Wales and a pretty awesome concept! Suck it, Wales!

 

In all seriousness, I plan on writing more about the contrasts between modern day Korea and the third world nation where hundreds of thousands of Korean children were exported from. This is a relatively unique diaspora in the terms of the sheer quantity of just children. not complete family units leaving is a subject of national shame and embarrassment in Korea. My suggestion to KADs (Korean American ADoptees) returning to Korea is to please have a comprehensive knowledge of the history of your native land so you don't feel robbed of a childhood that was the best thing ever. Or call me, as I'll be more than happy to provide a more realistic tint to your perspective.

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