Going Home: Culture Shock?
There comes a time in expat life when the allure of a secluded beach in Thailand, the charming griminess of Phnom Penh and the neon order of Tokyo stop calling to us. It’s a time when we stop caring about stamps in our passports or wild stories. It’s a time when we just want, or need, to go home.
That need beckoned me last winter. My baby sister was getting hitched. Her wild years were finished. She met a guy, started listening to country music, and got engaged. For me, I had to drag my poor Korean girlfriend Sieun into the most overwhelming “meet the parents” scenario I could ever have imagined.
After more than a year of dating, I realized that this was our ultimate test. I knew she could navigate broken-down Manila at 2am but could she handle staying in a house with 8 people and one bathroom? She complimented my ability to eat spicy food, but would she still love me when she learned I was even better at eating an entire appetizer sampler from the International House of Pancakes by myself?
It is hard to go home. In fact, it can be jarring. For most of our time in Korea, we can believe that we live in an alternate reality where time doesn’t exist. We communicate through messengers or pixilated screens that are removed from reality. Going home shatters this: our parents age, our siblings grow up. And suddenly our grandparents are elderly, frail or gone.
But we weather these shocks and after a bit of jet lag, we are who we were before we left home.
The first thing that I noticed after landing in Boston was that I could buy both a non-Americano coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts and a live lobster from Legal Seafood without leaving the airport. My girlfriend’s first interaction with my family was my mom explaining that we had to hurry out of Logan International Airport because my dad was fighting with a traffic cop.
After excited hellos, hugs, a few tears, and a couple of awkward bows we were flying down the Massachusetts Turnpike. It was the first time my girlfriend and I had ridden in a private vehicle. It was my sister’s – my father’s truck is usually full of fishing junk and coffee cups. My mother’s car is, well, a huge hunk of junk, and my soon-to-be brother-in-law drives the only lifted Ford in Shrewsbury.
Ah, yes, Shrewsbury – a place that exists in the same middle class suburbia as places like Smallville, Stars Hollow, and that in any given Norman Rockwell painting. It is New England small-town charm. It is quaint and as far from Seoul in every definition of “far” there is. In the fall, scarecrows haunt the town common in front of a colonial-era church. They are replaced by snowmen and carolers clasping steaming cups of cocoa in the winter.
I took Sieun for a boat ride on Lake Quinsigamond. I spent my youth on this lake kayaking with my father or rowing back and forth in crew shells every day of the spring and fall rowing seasons. I throttle the tiny motor my father has jerry-rigged to an old green plastic rowboat and take Sieun under a bridge.
Underneath, we pass nerdy graffiti – the tags of the crew teams that call the lake home. I tell Sieun that these were the people I knew in my younger years before Korea. These faded names, some of them just forgotten nicknames, were the people I cared about before Korea was anything more than an inconsequential country on a map for me.
This is a truth of expat life: the longer you are gone, the less people care when you come back. Gone are the days when all of my friends wanted to hear stories of exotic Korea – in fact, the days of me finding Korea to be exotic are gone. Only a few friends have kept me updated on their phone numbers – the rest have been lost to life.
Sieun and I found ourselves at Ralph’s Diner in Worcester, a city Sieun already fears due to a highly publicized gang war. In what is ordinarily a dirty, packed dive bar in a dining car (with concerts upstairs), Sieun saw me for the first time interact with people who weren’t “other foreigners,” but people who I’ve connected with on levels beyond “we worked at the same hagwon.”
A long time ago something happened at Ralph’s that sent a buddy of mine to a contract in Korea to simplify his life. He was persuasive and I followed. In a sense I owe my entire relationship with Sieun and all of Korea to Ralph’s Diner. Sieun knew my friends only through stories that I had built into legends. In her mind, Ralph’s was a hard rocking mecca of booze and rock. I had drinks in a dark booth and tried to serve as the go-between for two lives that hardly ever came near each other. Unfortunately, the hard rocking drunks weren’t there. Instead it was poetry night, and a bunch of hippies with mutton chops were sitting on a sofa with bongo drums.
It would soon be time for my sister to marry. I took a ride with my father around town while Sieun had her hair done with my mom.
The night before we had hit the brandy hard. My father gave us his rousing rendition of Quint’s Indianapolis monologue from Jaws. The thought of leaving my family again was weighing me down.
He drove slowly through our changing town: half because of a hangover and half to let us savor one last “Boring Guy’s Ride” around town. The rustic cottages whose chimneys let out plumes of white smoke against a backdrop of forest that I remembered were still there, but the forest was now a neighborhood of half finished condos. The change was gradual, unnoticed, for people who lived there. For me it was sudden and jarring.
My sister was married on our last night. Attending the wedding was every living family member. Together we drank and were merry. I smiled as Sieun danced with Kathleen, my cousin’s kid. I had never met Kathleen because she was born while I’ve been away. She is named after my grandmother, who died while I was living in Korea.
As the music went on I felt lucky that I had come to find a life in Korea. I felt happy that I had brought a part of my life home. I knew, as she and my grandfather clicked glasses and drank soju on the rocks, that I had made the right choices when it mattered.