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Taking an unexpected turn

By Nitya Pandey

In the world of short-lived relationships, I used to believe that taking chances with strangers was a folly.

While trying to learn Korean, something that I did during the pandemic while locked up in my hometown, I chanced upon a post on a language learning community. A woman, not much older than me, from Incheon in South Korea, was looking for a language partner, who could help her with English. In return, she was happy to help out the partner with Korean. She was fairly comfortable with English, just that she needed somebody to have conversations with to build fluency.

In one of my rare bouts of extraversion, I told her that I would love to be her partner, the only caveat being that I was just starting out with Korean and would therefore need a lot of help. She agreed.

My efforts with learning a third language (English and Hindi being the first two) had turned out to be major disasters in the past, with multiple failed attempts at mastering French and Italian. I thought that my journey with Korean too, would not be very different. Writing it off as a fleeting distraction, I was sure that I would turn to other things once the world opened up. But…

With the days of handwritten letters and pen pals being a thing of the past, I never thought that this exchange would be anything more than a dusty memory, locked away in my mind’s attic after a few months.

Avid planners that both of us were, we started by laying down a pretty elaborate map to conquer the languages ‘foreign’ to us, painstakingly chalking out the routes we’d take, the pit stops we’d make and the milestones we’d cross together. We were both equally excited to embark on this journey, with all the prep work done successfully– books bought, stationary stocked and motivational quotes ready on the walls to fire us up. We took the first steps cautiously, like accidental travelers thrown together by the circumstances. We had no choice but to lean heavily on each other. With mutual support fueling our desire to keep moving, we gradually broke into short walks and came to enjoy them. We were soon walking about in abandon, with our conversations peppered with Korean and English phrases, slang and more.

A few months in, we started sharing glimpses into our lives: the spaces we lived in, the people we loved, the films we adored, the music that inspired us, the food we loved and the places we wanted to travel to. She had studied in Moscow, been all over Europe and Southeast Asia, being a textile trader and now lived in South Korea. I, on the other hand, had lived all my life in India with a few years spent in Colombo. She preferred films to books and cats to dogs, unlike me.  I loved collecting old books and postcards, a pursuit she couldn’t fathom in this day and age.

I often wonder about the point when we made the transition from unfamiliarity to friendship to sisterhood. I started calling her Unnie (Korean for a woman/sister older than you) and we started speaking in Banmal (casual Korean) instead of formal Korean. She would try out my mother’s recipes that I shared while I would listen to Korean music and watch films she recommended. She agreed to give reading fiction a shot and ended up crying over characters who fell on hard times. I used to help her make posters for a pet shelter that she volunteered for while she helped me build study material for English lessons that I would take for an NGO. I shared snippets of the refreshing monsoons and chai while she sent me pictures of the remarkable cherry blossoms, the snow piling up and steaming bowls of ramen.

We were soon sharing our hopes and dreams across the countless miles that separated us, across cultures that had moulded us into two very different people. We had grown to find a ‘home’ in each other; long conversations in Konglish (a mix of Korean and English) about joys and sorrows of moving jobs, leaving our families behind, losing a pet and thinking about the kind of future we wanted for ourselves. Calming my frantic soul, Unnie had opened a new world of living and of simply ‘being’. Learning to be my own woman, I could have never imagined that a stranger, I hadn’t met and who lived countries apart, would become a cherished part of my life.

A year down, I still wonder about the stroke of fate that got two kindred spirits together, trying to navigate their way though the confused age of late 20s and 30s. Wrapped in the wind, feeling aflutter, I am learning to take chances, bet on people and drench myself in the ‘kaleidoscope of experiences’ that life brings.

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Nitya Pandey is an Organisational Learning Advisor with a degree in History. An avid Austen fan, she loves all sorts of fiction and prefers staying in to read over weekends. She likes to journal her experiences as a way of capturing some of her cherished memories and has a fascination with all things ‘old’– forts, art, books, music and cinema.

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