On two separate occasions, in two separate countries, I have found myself looking into the mouths of people I’ve just met. And I’m not talking about a quick scan of their smiles. Instead, at their own request, I peered down their throats in search of answers.
What question could possibly elicit a full uvula review as a response? This one: Who are you, and where are you from? In both scenarios, our “conversations” were about language and landscape; identity and indemnity.
An old Chinese man in Seoul showed me his molars to explain why his diction was poor. A young woman in Old Delhi opened her mouth to show me that her tongue was missing, which is why she couldn’t speak at all.
In both cases, I am so glad I asked. Not that I enjoy being an accidental dental investigator, but because their unspoken answers told me what I came to hear.
The old Chinese man had, most likely, endured torture at the hands of the Japanese during WW2. Yet he remains in Korea, where he was once held prisoner. The young Indian lady had her tongue cut out by someone. For her, perhaps, there was nowhere to go but the streets of her city. The landscape of their mouths tell the story of man’s inhumanity to man, as well as man’s attachment to the land where said crimes occurred. But above all, they speak to mankind’s resiliency.
Hostile histories are evident in the way citizens speak about themselves, too. Over the weekend, I saw a documentary film in which the main characters continuously referred to themselves in the third person — “The Babushkas of Chernobyl.”
These elderly grandmothers defied the call to remain evacuated from their homes near the site of the infamous nuclear disaster. What a story their mostly toothless mouths (and thyroid-challenged throats) tell — when silent, singing or speaking.
“Babushka going fishing.”
“This is babushka’s garden.”
“Babushka not leaving.”
“Babushka fears starvation more than radiation.”
The babushkas live in an area called the “Chernobyl Exclusion Zone,” where few are even allowed to go, let alone reside. But a handful of the hearty babushkas successfully argued their case to remain in their villages. For a very short time, they tried life in Kiev or other Ukrainian cities but didn’t even want to live at all, unless it was in their homeland. In other words, being displaced to non-radioactive places feels more deadly to them than Chernobyl. The government decided it wasn’t worth fighting with the babushkas, who are a dying breed no matter where they call home. One day, we shall all refer to them in the third person — and past tense — because they’ll be gone from the face of the Earth.
In the meantime, these octogenarians sip homemade moonshine and forage the toxic forest for mushrooms — within this exclusion zone, which will never ever be inhabitable to anyone else. How these babushkas have endured thus far is a mystery.
Their literal no man’s land is reminiscent of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. A place I have visited twice because of my fascination with being “out of bounds” while inside a defined boundary line. The DMZ exists in hushed tones. People speak in whispers for fear of setting off a nuclear war of words. My advice? Don’t think out loud when visiting!
About 200 people live in the only village on the South Korean side of the DMZ. Their story is remarkably similar to that of the Babushkas of Chernobyl. They farm, and endure frigid weather, with very little connection to the outside world. To reside in this village, a person must prove that their family has lived in that area for many, many years — long before the war, which is now 65 years passed.
“People in Seoul ask me how I live here,” says one resident. “We can’t think about North Korea. We think about what we have to do today and tomorrow. If the North Koreans are going to hit anything, it’s gonna be Seoul, not here.”
Why do people stay where bad memories live and breathe right alongside them? Whether by choice or circumstance, identity is shaped as much by landscape as language. They wouldn’t be who they are if they lived anywhere else. No matter what anyone says.