Thursday, December 15, 2011

You Can Never Go Home

Soundtrack: hit play and start reading.
Tom Waits: "Pony"
Tom Waits sings about home like a man who's been lost a long time.

"I lived on nothin' but dreams and train smoke
Somehow my watch and chain
Got lost...
I hope my Pony, I hope my pony knows the way back home"
-Tom Waits 'Pony'

"I remember that time you told me, you said, 'love is touching souls'
Surely you touched mine,
'Cause part of you pours out of me in these lines from time to time"
-Joni Mitchell, 'A Case of You'

I mentioned earlier that at 8:15 (or so) every Friday morning, I'm on TBS radio (101.3), yamming about the topics that have been catching blog column-space, and commenter love (where applicable). This week, as Christmas approaches, maybe it's appropriate to talk about home: December's the month I always feel the most homesick, the month I hanker hard for the foods and friends I left behind me in Canada, and the last Christmas I had in Canada was the hardest, but most intimate and intense Christmas my family experienced, or likely ever will: the first one after Mom had received a terminal prognosis for her stomach cancer.

This week, Chris in South Korea had a guest post from "Gone Seoul Searching" about reverse culture shock, and Bathhouse Ballads talked about why he dreads going back to his home in England. Gone Seoul Searching writes about missing trips to Daiso and kimbap, and the accidental "got back from Korea" blunders, where you refill your friend's drink with two hands, or bow when you meet someone, ultimately seeking out Koreatown: "anything Korean felt like home to me in a strange world that was not my own." Gone Seoul Searching clearly still has one foot in Korea, planning to return perhaps, and reaching out to her former students through facebook and email. Meanwhile, Bathhouse Ballads talks about the comfort and ease of living in Korea, and does not look forward to going to a country where restaurants and taxis are way more expensive, and the streets simply feel less safe: "Going back to the UK is a massive step down in terms of lifestyle, cultural opportunities and quality of life and even the massive hike in terms of pay can’t compensate for living in an expensive, insular little enclave surrounded by a cultural wilderness," he writes.

I have experienced this myself, most powerfully when I spent seven months in Canada taking care of my sick mom: I craved the jimjilbang (I have no idea what it says about me that I missed opportunities for public nudity so poignantly), and spicy food - I once went to a Thai restaurant and ordered the spiciest thing on the menu, just to remember. My heart still races to remember that meal. When I first got back, or when I vacation in Canada, I find myself being far too chatty with waiters and store clerks, because they can speak English! or being sullen and non-communicative, as is my habit here, so I don't have to tax the clerks' English ability, or their ability to understand poorly-pronounced Korean (and my ability to form it). My hand reaches for the not-present kimchi dish several times a meal, and when I am out socially, I fall into the habit of starting every third sentence with "You know, in Korea..." as my own, world-traveller version of "This one time... at band camp..."

The smell of world travel doesn't leave me, or other people. I can spot, in some odd way, people who have lived outside their home cultures, and those who haven't. This is also true of the Koreans I meet: the ones who have lived abroad speak (and I don't mean pronunciation) and think differently, for the most part, than the Korean Koreans I meet. They bring back interests and knowledge that simply don't arrive in Korea through the usual channels - their favorite western artists are Fleet Foxes and Frightened Rabbit, rather than Abba and Beyonce.

And maybe not everybody who goes overseas experiences this personal shift: maybe there are people who manage to live here (or elsewhere), tottering, without ever planting a foot here, by hunkering in expat enclaves, avoiding the activities and foods and places that would make Korea a part of them. Perhaps that is possible. I've met a few who tried, but I'm not sure how it turned out for them, because I didn't seek out their company, once I saw that they'd hit the reject button, and were utterly uninterested in hearing about my attempts to engage with the culture and people here. I don't know how I'd relate to such people anymore, even if I once could, or wanted to.

And this is what it is like to live with one foot in two different cultures. Does it make me better, smarter, and wiser? Not than other people (how could I compare?) but perhaps than myself when I was the product of only one culture, and lacked the self-awareness to spot what of my beliefs were the prejudices of my upbringing, and what were actually my earned and owned self. Travel is certainly not the only way to identify those distinctions, though I might have trouble understanding the journey of someone who had done it through some other route.

On the other hand, the sacrifice I must make is that I never quite belong anywhere, except perhaps with others who have feet planted in more than one place: other long-term expats, whose roots stretch entirely across oceans. Koreans all ask me about Canada, though it's been nine years since I lived there, and I can't relate to a lot of the things my Canadian friends want to tell me about anymore, unless I ask them for tiresome explanations, and I can't explain things without that same long-winded background.

This is why I say that you can never go home: part stays behind, and part hankers for pieces of that other place. You have reference points that you didn't have before, and will always have them.

So, readers, in Korea or Canada or elsewhere, where have you lived, and what footprints have those places left on you? What did you miss of the place you went to, once you came back home, and is it possible to come home again?


adamgn said...

Great essay. I echo a lot of what you felt. I had to unexpectedly leave Korea and come back to America to take care of my dying father. It was/has been awful. I did search out Koreatown, putting gochujang and massive amounts of garlic in everything. And I will never forget the day my dad's nausea became so severe I could no longer cook "Korean" food. I was so selfishly sad.

I grew up in the South (love it, but it's not for me), spent a large portion of my twenties in New England (hated it), and then Korea... where I finally felt at home.

I think about this constantly because I cannot fully grasp the how or why. I am not married to a Korean. I do not have a ton of friends. I love my family in America and miss them dearly...

I will return to Korea in February. However, this time I'm coming as a student. It is kind of scary to throw my "eggs" into Korea's basket. I feel like I'm taking a pretty big risk there, but I think Korea will pull through.

Thanks for the post.

Becky said...

I too experienced a lot of the same things when I left Korea the first time. The bowing and saying "ahhhh" when I was told something were especially hard for me. I missed everything in Korea terribly and I had a lot of "I wish I had..."

So when we had the chance to return for 2011, we jumped at it. I wake up every day thankful for another day here as I look out my 10th floor window. I'm more aware of the wonders of Korea from a street food cart to those wonderful (did I say that) ajummas and ajosshis.

I have not spent an entire day yet in my apartment unlike last time. I am taking as many Korean craft classes as I can and learning as much as I can.

We just booked our one-way return flights back to the States, Feb. 1st and although I will leave with sadness, I will not have any regrets.

J. Goard said...

Thanks, Rob. Good timing for me.

I'm going to the U.S. for Christmas. Leaving the day after tomorrow, first time in three years. Together with the anticipation, I feel a kind of I don't know who I am there or what I have to offer, or what to do with my time. This feeling is totally irrational, but it's undeniably there.

Anonymous said...

Well said rob

Eugene said...

I lived in Japan from 2002-2005. The culture shock of moving there didn't really affect me. After moving back to the U.S. I was overjoyed at first, because I could finally get in my car and drive anywhere I wanted to, could watch my hometown baseball team, and could eat all the crabs to my heart's content. But after a few months things felt a little empty. All the friends who I had considered my best friends were distant, after I left they had even stopped hanging out with each other. We had very little to talk about once I got back...

There are a few funny anecdotes of readjusting. Once some dude rushed by me to get on the escalator, so I bowed to him to let him past. He looked at me all funny. I also found myself walking on the left side of the sidewalk instead of the right. My favorite places to go get Japanese food before I left ended up being not good at all when I returned.

I went to this one sushi bar that I had frequented before I left, and I wanted the guy there to make me my favorite kind of sushi that I had developed a taste for in Japan. So I asked him to make me some sushi. And he was like ok what kind. And I said hamachi (not knowing the English word for it.)

How much for what? Was his reply.

After about half a year I couldn't stand it anymore. Very few people could actually relate, and those who could seemed to be all smug like they had found the real Japan, that I was somehow oblivious to or something.

I packed my bags and moved to Korea. I've been here since 2006. I like it for sure, but I find myself homesick a lot more than I used to. It doesn't make sense since I was clearly having trouble readjusting to the US. Maybe it's actually that I am longing for my youth. I have lived outside the US for most of my adult life now, so I equate being in the US with childhood... and who doesn't want to go back to childhood from time to time?

I love living in Korea, but right now my mindset is that if I were to move back to the US I'd be totally fine. I can't help from my previous experience but think that there must be something that I am taking for granted.

Roboseyo said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone... it's interesting how people who repatriate seem called to travel again.

Eugene, I've also had the experience where I no longer like the foods I used to like in Canada. Few things brought the "you can never go home" thing home more powerfully.

milgwimper said...

When I was a kid we had this same problem. Coming back to the states after living in Korea and Japan was a shocker. My parents were ready to leave after two months. Also people who had not travelled seemed to think you were bragging or just couldn't relate. Now that I live in Germany for several years I am dreading coming back to the states. We went back for a month to visit friends and family in different states. Let's just say that it was weird, and I felt like something was a little off. Now I am back in Germany, and it feels more comfortable here.

Marie W said...

Thanks for the link Roboseyo! I like your style

Anonymous said...

Nice to hear some thoughts on being away from your home country. Not many write about it on the bigger blogs. Is it kind of taboo/uncool/weak to admit to this fact? In Ireland, we love to harp on about it - the more misery the better.