About a month before going home, my friend Faith returned to Colorado to visit her family. She told me that on her calendar, her sojourn was bookmarked on either end with notes. One read, “Going home to America” while the later one read, “Going home to Korea.” She had separate, disparate lives ongoing on either side of an ocean, and thus each coming and going was bittersweet.
At first, being in Toronto, where my family was more than pixels and Skype connection, was incredibly jarring. Interacting with them was too sudden, too surreal. There were too many people to see, too many words to say, too many things to shove into my face and consume. I was constantly full from gorging, chronically tired from lack of sleep, but I couldn’t bring myself to stop. I had to fill up on as much home and family and Toronto while I could, for my sake and for theirs. I would not see it or them again for months, and the wants I thought I had surpressed were suddenly alive again.
What at first I found jolting and discomfiting rapidly became easy to accept. I thought, certainly, that I would be inundated with reverse culture shock. And indeed, I spouted many raised-pinky sentences beginning with, “Well, in Korea, we [something obnoxious].” But walking along the sidestreets of my neighbourhood, smelling the crisp April wind, sleeping in my childhood bedroom washed away months of time and distance. As horrible the reason for coming home, I felt, in some ways, like I had never left. I slipped on my old life, adjusted the belt, and went back to living it.
I was around people who I barely had to explain myself to. My parents, proud and immensely happy to have me home, if only for a while, understood when I needed some time to just wander away. My sisters, who I can sit with in silence, because so many things don’t need to be said. Aunts and uncles, excited by every story I had, and careful to encourage me to see the world while implying that I shouldn’t stay abroad too long. My cousins, as much my close friends as relatives; my friends, as much my family as anyone.
The city. I was born and raised there, and thus every step I take in my neighbourhood is like diving into a deep pool of nostalgia. Riding the bus, seeing Toronto people, breathing the air reminded me of the 20-odd years already lived there, and made the comparatively short time in Korea seem like a bizarre, Dali-esque opium dream. I walked crowded Toronto streets and pressed pedestrian-crossing buttons; I ate ethnic food that wasn’t filtered through Korean flavour preferences; I saw thousands of different people speaking dozens of different languages. I saw night sky with stars, and I walked down quiet paths alone, following the trails I’d made over and over again as a child, an adolescent, and a young man. I stretched out my arms and could feel no one else in forever, but knew that my someones were still only blocks away. I was home.
I worried that I would have to try to summarize my life, to compress the experiences and thoughts I’ve had over the last year down into a soundbite. That my friends would hear me talk about Korea, think it weird and sort of unpleasant and requiring too many usages of pretentious adjectives like “magnificent” or “eye-opening.” That, in turn, people would compel me to generate a sentence or two to adequately summarize both my life and another culture and then be done with it, and go back to talking about Canadian weather like a good boy. I did not encounter this. Everywhere I went, people were happy to indulge my long, shaggy-dog stories about things which neither interested nor delighted them because they knew I had a lot to say, and they wanted to let me. I was allowed to prattle on, and I did the same for them, and suddenly we were back as things always were, in our conjoined rambling about our oceans-apart lives, happy as babbling, logorrheic clams.
Things had become normal so quickly.
I was confronted, once more, by a question that hit me the night of my going-away party. How can I leave so many people that are so awesome? People that actively seek out my company, enjoy it, and leave asking to see me again. People who know me, who I know, and who I’ve already spent significant portions of my life talking to or getting drunk with. People who I love and who I don’t have to analyze anymore, because I just get them. What could possess me to abandon friends and family for a weirdo life in kimchi county on the other side of the pacific?
I began to dread the idea of leaving once more, something I didn’t predict.
One day, I went to get some photos developed. It is, theoretically, something I could do in Korea, but there are too many verbs and nouns related to computers and life that I don’t know, and now that I can do some things entirely in Korean, interactions where I must get by with mime, Konglish, and looking pitiful depress me. So I saved them for Canada, where I know the word for “print” and can use a computer without consulting my cell phone dictionary.
I scanned through photos of Korea. Hundreds of photos. Photos of people, of places, of things. Photos of people at places, doing things, or eating things, or things doing things to other things. I looked at the faces of the other people I’d grown to know, who don’t understand me implicitly, but who understand a lot. Who live the same kind of life that I do, and have the same wants and dreams. Who don’t know all of my stupid boring stories, so I still kind of seem interesting. Who also call me and desire to spend time with me, and who make me feel good about myself and my decision to move around the world. People who I want to eat weird things with, or play board games with, or travel the world with. I slipped these pictures into an envelope and looked at them again before I slept.
My family dropped me off at the airport to bid me goodbye, to walk me to the gate and to the world again. How could I want to leave Canada, my home? But how could I not want to go back to Korea, the other home I’ve come to build?