I’m sitting here, trying to Google Translate “Please help! My neighbor is beating his wife. I can hear her screaming.” I can’t speak Korean, not under the circumstances. I want to call the police. I can’t. I’m powerless.

I consider the absurd notion of playing the Google Translate robot into my cell phone.

I yelled out the window, “Oye! Basta!” It ripped forth from my lungs in my language of confrontation, Spanish, nonsensical in Korea but universal in its tone. I aimed the hardest edge of my voice at the illuminated window below, one floor down and across the alley. I could hear him hitting her. I could hear the blows landing on soft flesh. She screamed.

I couldn’t just leave her there without even trying to call the police. 112.

“Yoboseyo?” came the Korean, thick and impenetrable on the other line. I tried a “hello,” hopeful that the dispatcher might speak English. I can’t even say my address, much less explain what I am hearing. The dispatcher asked me if I spoke Korean. I hung up.

I can’t even be sure that anyone would consider a woman being beaten to be a police-worthy situation in this country. It smacks of the sense of futility I felt in Chile, where pointless suffering and powerlessness often interrupted my sleep. There’s no guarantee that I’ll be able to close my eyes tonight. I feel as though I have to keep vigil, to stay awake for my anonymous neighbor. I have to bear witness.

Eventually, all I can do is weep with her.

4 thoughts on “Powerless

  1. I have also been in a similar situation. Feeling powerless to stop something bad that you could prevent or end in your own country is one of the worst kinds of culture shock and homesickness you can feel.

  2. I was luckier than you — I watched a man beating a woman in a car while I was behind them in traffic. I called 911 and the dispatcher had me follow the car and give directions until the police were able to set up a roadblock and separate the beater from the beaten. It still bothers me almost 10 year later, knowing that sort of thing goes on every day and I was very hesitant to call the police, not wanting to get involved. How many other people turn their heads and just ignore, pretending it didn’t happen, or worse, are part of the problem themselves and can’t see it’s harmful beyond mere words.

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