Sunday, November 18, 2012

Don't Know What You Got (Till It's Gone)

Those who follow this little journal regularly (I admire those that do!) will notice that I haven't written anything in quite some time. Well, the fact is that I have been away from Seoul for quite some time!

Near the end of October, Samsung flew me away back to my home country for a three-week business trip to Northern California. After only 2.5 months in Korea (with excursions to China and Japan mixed in this fall) I wasn't really craving to go back to the US so quickly, but I did look forward to sneaking in some time with friends in San Francisco in between busy work days.

I actually found myself a little anxious as I packed for my first trip east across the Pacific. What sorts of reverse culture shock would I experience? How has Korea changed me thus far, if at all? What would I miss most about the US, and would the familiarity of home terrain make me long to stay?

Reverse culture shock -- seeing a whole row of deodorant at CVS!

Traveling "back in time" to reach San Francisco on a Sunday (due to crossing the date line) I was happy to have an extended weekend. Jet lag didn't hit me too badly on the first day, and I had some time to settle into San Jose and observe for things that felt a little unnatural. Like American football on TV. Or lots of obese people. A whole row of deodorant on sale at CVS (which, strangely is difficult to find in Korea). Being able to communicate freely in my own language again. Americans mispronouncing the name of the song "Gangnam Style". And the ethnic/cultural mosaic that is much more diverse in California than in Seoul – seeing Hispanics, South Asians, and black people again was actually somewhat refreshing. But not all that much felt unusual. I guess I haven't been in Korea for very long.

There were definitely things I missed about not being in the US. Chipotle burritos are still delicious. Streaming Pandora is a musical genius (available in Korea with a VPN connection, but that's just too complicated). Being able to buy cold medicine without needing to explain my condition to a pharmacist. Inexpensive cheese and wine. Blondes, brunettes, redheads, curly-haired's – basically anything besides straight black hair!

Best part of going back to America, without question: seeing old friends

But living out of dull San Jose, with its boring strip malls and sterile technology office parks, left me yearning for life in Seoul. I didn't expect to be longing for Korea on my trip, but by the end of my time in the US I couldn't wait to board the plane to go back to my new city. As a foreigner, Seoul will be a difficult place to ever call "home", but being away made me realize that we actually have pretty good lives there. I missed being able to walk everywhere (or utilize the ubiquitous taxis and public transit). I missed super-fast Internet and mobile phone networks (T-Mobile is awful in the Bay Area, BTW). I love Korean BBQ and drinking cheap beer with friends. I can't wait to go hiking again and explore Korea's abundant natural beauty.

Going to China and Japan this fall also reinforced some of the better characteristics of Korea. I was overwhelmed in China by the pollution and the masses of people pushing to get everywhere. China also made clear how well-put-together the citizens of Seoul are – Chinese fashion sense could be much improved, and the average Beijinger doesn't take nearly as good care of her appearance as in Korea.  I liked Tokyo a lot, but missed the group spirit there that is so central to Korean culture. One of my favorite quotes is by Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness." Before moving to Asia, I would not have been tell you many things which distinguish the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean cultures, but now I have a much clearer perspective.

 My first time back since the "Gangnam Style" craze
Of course, the one thing I will always be missing from America are all the great friends I have from there. Not that we're out of touch. One of my American friends, who has lived extensively abroad, tells me that in the age of email and Skype she actually felt she stayed in better touch with some people far away during her last stint in Asia. Another friend of mine hypothesizes that Facebook has made it much easier to maintain "loose" connections. I think both my wise friends are  right. Being far away has reinforced the importance of checking in with people in America. Communication has never been cheaper and easier. But all this electronic media cannot fully substitute for face-to-face contact. I already skipped a wedding of a close friend this fall, and I can no longer hop on a plane for a quick weekend trip to see someone in a different American city. This I do miss greatly.

That said, it's good to be back in Korea, though the weather is much chillier now than when I left (California weather was nice). I don't know how long I will stay here in Seoul, but a small part of me already feels natural eating kimchi every day with chopsticks and amusing shopkeepers with my broken bits of Korean language. "Home" may still not be Korea, but perhaps now this hard-to-define place exists for me a couple hundred miles west of the California coast.

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