It's time for my summer Korea trip, which is a wonderful thing, time I spend the whole year looking forward to. Or time I spend the whole year trying not to fight with my husband about, since he'd really rather I never went to Korea again (to be fair, yes, he goes to Tibet every year for more than a couple months, but they're his family/closest friends/his culture and he doesn't get how much of Korea is that for me).
Korea is where I feel most at home. It's not that my hometown isn't amazing (it is) nor that I haven't lived in a lot of other great places (seriously, Vancouver is great and really I'd return to live again in most of the places I've called home). But Korea is home. When I breathe the air in Korea into my lungs my heart sings. It makes me tear up to think I will be there in hours (I don't leave until Tuesday afternoon... but... I'm counting).
It's hard to explain it. But I think it's because I grew up in Korea. Not really growing, because I was a full sized person when I went to Korea (I moved there in 1996, and I probably stopped growing around 1986), but I figured out who I was, who I wanted to be, how I wanted to live in Korea. I think it was the first place in my life where I realized I could make my life. Before I went to Korea I was so influenced by other people's ideas. What was cool (which of course depended on who was around me), what was not cool (same). I'm not saying that my values have changed (I don't think they have, although I am more conservative, I think this is more like settling into me, rather than becoming ... I don't know what). It's just that before Korea I was surrounded by so many influences. In Korea, especially after I separated from the man I went to Korea with (one year later), I was finally able to just be an anonymous person walking down the street, living my way. Decide if I was doing something because of other people and social pressure, or if it was what I wanted. Of course I was obvious when I walked down the street, as I was fairly tall obvious foreigner living in a city with few foreigners. But as long as I did my job fairly competently, I could just be me. No one knew enough about me, or pinned me down into a box enough that I couldn't make my own reality.
There were assumptions, because I was a foreigner.
- I can't use chopsticks (are you kidding me).
- I can't eat spicy food (very false-- I don't consider Korean food spicy, I've only eaten one dish in all of Korea that was really spicy-- 고성 비빔 우동 in case you were curious).
- I'm Christian (nope).
- I only know English (even when I first arrived in Korea it irritated me that people assumed I wouldn't know Korean and why do they never think I might speak German or Hungarian?).
But you know, that's not much. It's not like growing up on a tiny island where you never have a chance to reinvent yourself for new audiences because everyone knows everything already. Or going to two tiny colleges. Or working in an incestuous (okay, not quite) group of activists in Seattle.
In Korea I could finally figure out who I was. What I wanted to be. I was challenged everyday to figure out how to live in a foreign culture, from the first bits (how to cook with new ingredients) onward. I learned the language. I learned how to present myself. I learned how to get along in a collective society (not to truly become a collectivist because I'm a freaking contrarian, but just how to blend in enough in contact with people who weren't friends.)
So I prepare to go to Korea and it's like the universe aligns with me. Everything is so easy. People act the way I expect them to. The world works. I call my taxi driver through Skype and he immediately knows who I am-- "Are you coming back or leaving? Do you have your bike with you again?" My friends and former students are reaching out on FB and by email "When do you have time?" My schedule starts to fill up. My mouth waters for Korean food. My legs itch to speed along the Han River at 5:30 in the morning. My heart swells and I break into involuntary smiles as I think of the people I'll see-- people I've known for 10, 15, 20 years. I anticipate surprising a friend I've known since two months after I first arrived in Korea. I think about seeing the kids of people I met when they were in middle school.
I'm going home.
My baby brother and my former student/friend's dad in 2002
World Cup Fever!