Why We Stay; Why We Go

The road.

Swooping across oceans and continents every few months gives me some time to reflect on things. Sitting on a plane, or in the cavernous depths of an airport somewhere in Asia, I’m left with time to think. Usually to circle around why I’m getting on a plane, which I hate. What compels me to go through the horrors of international flight to go to other locations or, in the case of this last trip, back home? What is the drive that gets me to move in the first place? Why does anyone bother with planes and airports and security checks and 100 ml bottles and those horrific naked picture tubes if you plan on going within 500 miles of America?

Well, a vague sense of adventure. A wobbly, indistinct notion to better oneself, and see the world, and become open and cultured and debonair. To fulfil romantic notions about world travel. But as I set forth out into the world far away from home, people informed me of the brick that would hit me within a few weeks, once the romance and the adventure had worn off, and I came to see the world as it was. I would be struck with homesickness, as all people apparently must.

Everyone defined when homesickness would trigger in Korea. At approximately 3, 6, and 11 months I would become a remorseful ball of weepiness, crawling into my bed for hours at a time, thinking of nothing but home. At these exact, well-defined and inescapable moments, my internal clocks would switch back to my home timezone, and with them, so would my heart. I would want home food, and home people, and home life. Korea would become irrationally hateful and backwards and I would want nothing but to set fire to the whole peninsula.

It eventually did strike, as predicted. Just around my birthday I became incredibly ill. Swaddled in blankets, pumped full of many and various pharmaceuticals, coated in a sheen of my own sweat, I felt it.

Homesickness is not so much a burning, desperate yearning, a kind of addiction-like, trembling-finger craving for smack or maple syrup or mommy’s love. It’s a heightened level of environmental awareness–a knowledge of exactly how far away you are. For every moment when I was really missing home, I had figures running through my head: the amount of kilometers it took to cross an ocean, and a continent. The number of hours by plane, or ship, or zeppelin. The cost, in won and dollars; daily I would compare fares on the internet, ensuring I would get the best value for my theoretical, non-existent attempt to flee. I had always felt that I was in Korea, but until that point, I had never really felt where Korea was in the world. I had conceived of it as some sort of Narnia, a wacky kimchi-stained netherworld, from whence I could simply escape via wardrobe, or bedknob, or flying Persian rug. It was not real space, and it was certainly not real space on the other side of the planet.

There’s just more to discover. Also, readily available root beer.

In the clutches of this feeling, all that’s interesting or cool or enjoyable is suddenly sapped from travel or life abroad. What what truly gutted me was the knowledge that even if I really wanted to go home, I couldn’t. That I wouldn’t. That taking the midnight run would be giving in, and admitting I couldn’t hack it. That it would be even harder to cram all of my junk into my bags and escape by dark of night without telling anyone I knew than it would be just to stick it out. I was stuck, and I knew the exact distance of this stuckness from the place I really wanted to be.

Home is everything familiar, where everything is a sense-memory rabbit hole. When I’m in Toronto, I think of chlorine halos from swimming for too long; sheafs of handwritten recipes slipping out from my grandmothers’ cook books; long, gauzy afternoons in the park. Sunburns slowly creeping across my skin on rooftop patios, while sipping raised-pinky local micro-brews. Tens of years, thousands of weeks, countless minutes spent in a place I knew so well. Where I could walk at night and never see another person if I didn’t want to, but I never had to walk very far if I did.

During a recent trip home, I re-experienced all of these things, high on life and wheelbarrow-sized portions of pub nachos. I was constantly elated, the feeling propelled by lack of sleep and access to delicious homeland beer, and I was aware of the feeling of home like I never had before. Home was never more than an hour away, although really it was everywhere: my street, my city, my country. I was there. I was happy. I was comfortable. I was safe.

I was predictable.

You mean I can’t get there by tuk-tuk or by jumping across boats in open water? Oh…

Not that this is a bad thing. Predictability is nice: an income, a place to live, people who do not come and go on a yearly interval. Stability. Knowledge of where the good restaurants are, and which street leads to which, and how to ask where the drain cleaner is. Little luxuries that pile up and become assumed comforts, ones that just should rightly be there. A sustained knowledge of how the world works and with it, the lack of a need to really even think that hard about it anymore.

At home, the opposite feeling of homesickness struck, but it’s basically the same feeling: wanderlust. Heightened environmental awareness. Concrete, acute, and repeating knowledge of where you are, cutting out sensory adaptation and reminding you again. While usually you would habituate and stop noticing, here the feeling never went away. It was an itch, a constant alertness to where I was, and how much of it I already knew. How much of what I didn’t know was out beyond.

Life on the road, or just life outside of home. Waking up, and not knowing what one might see that day. Where one might go. Where the chances of eating something previously unheard of, possibly something still alive and thrashing against your impending oral cavity, are high. Where there are new languages that twist the tongue, landscapes that never seem to end. Where there are new tastes to taste, new sights to see, new odours to smell. Some, many, lots might not even be pleasant, but they all have the sense of discovery. Of wonder. Where? Anywhere.

Out there. Land of where the lanterns are.

Trapped in the Vancouver airport on my way back to Korea, I pieced these two sides of the same feeling together, because I felt both of them at once. Between my home and the world, in the weird interstitial, both feelings crept upon me, and made me yearn for both directions. To sink into the warm comforts of home, to be in a space where I know myself, and my surroundings, and the world. Where I understand. But at the same time I felt the draw to the extremes, to the heat and to the cold, to the weird, the discomfiting, the unknown. To where I don’t always understand, and don’t always want to.

Will these two drives ever balance, or shift, where one could predominantly take over, and I will be permanently driven to settle down or, alternately, be a long-term wanderer? I can’t tell. For now, they hover around each other, fighting for primacy, so that when one is fed, the other surges forward. Homesickness and wanderlust mean wanting to look back and, at the same time, wanting to keep moving forward. Feeling, thinking, knowing you are ready to stand still, and then just as suddenly knowing you have to keep moving.

12 thoughts on “Why We Stay; Why We Go

  1. Michael – just back from visiting mom & dad in Toronto. Of course they put me onto your blog. A great read.
    Just to make you fell worse we had very nice dinner with them, your 2 sisters and Zoe.
    All in good form. Sorry we were not there for Ken.

  2. My homesickness translates into all the restaurants I want to go to when I get home. This is sad. Although, I have been told that food is one of the hardest things to get used to while abroad. It’s not that different over here, not like if I was in Korea! For me it’s more the idea of Canada that I miss. I miss a lot of friends of course, but I think because I know the end is in sight (only 3.5 months!) it’s not that bad. Maybe Christmas will be different who knows. Maybe when I start expecting to see snow and it doesn’t come.

    I just love how you articulate yourself and what you’re feeling. Great job!

    • The food can definitely be an adjustment. The hardest part, often, is that familiar foods I do find are often adjusted for Korean tastes. Pizza is a big one, and I have to go pretty far to find a pizza without sweet potato or corn anywhere on it.

      • I’ve never been a fan of sweet potatoes. My Grandma made them a few times when I lived with her, but when she saw I didn’t like them she’d just make them when I wasn’t going to be there. Gotta love Grandmas! I’m hankering for a New Orlean’s or Pizza Pizza slice; mostly I just really want North American style pepperoni and green peppers…..not green peppercorns (I got fooled one time by that – translation can be a witch). Here in Belgium they put eggs on their pizza….like sunny side up eggs and actual slices of bacon. That’s the carbonera I had on my birthday (complete with peppercorns). It was like breakfast and supper all in one. Gotta admit it messed me up a bit.

  3. “Homesickness and wanderlust mean wanting to look back and, at the same time, wanting to keep moving forward.” They really are one and the same, aren’t they? A desire to leave, to cross the horizon, varying only in direction.

  4. Great post as usual! I’m glad I ran into you the other night so that I could introduce myself. Good to know that I wasn’t the only one constantly longing for home. Life here has gotten better now that we’ve settled in a bit more. Thanks for the chat and see you again soon!


    • It happens to everyone when they get here… it’s perfectly natural to be longing for home. It’s where you’ve spent the last couple decades, and it’s pretty comfortable.

      Indeed, thanks for introducing yourself! See you around.

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