There is nothing quite like travelling alone to a foreign country to isolate one. This is not to say that I haven’t been loving every moment of seeing friends and family since returning. It’s amazing to see everyone but it also a reminder of how experiences isolate us. As a friend observed the other day, it’s the little things – the food, the household practices, cultural idiosyncrasies of a place far, far removed from anything those around me have ever known. A couple of months returned and I am particularly aware of those little things. I keep thinking of something or noticing things that remind me of Korea. It doesn’t seem rational. I am so very happy to be home and have no desire to go back. I guess when you live in a place for month upon month it gets under your skin and I always miss the places I’ve called home.
Some of the things I miss are obvious. I’m still subscribed to the ROKetship feed so I get each new cartoon and find myself laughing and thinking of the people who share that context. Some mornings I also wake up full of the urge to head to DongDaegu to take a train or a bus to Gyeongju or Busan or Seoul and go exploring. It’s a lot harder without that super-efficient public transport system. It’s also harder without a thousands-of-years-old Silla Capital and museums around every corner. Or an Opera House just across town. I miss living in a country that invests heavily in history, tourism and the arts.
I miss the little things too. Not even miss – I’m just aware of the difference and less comfortable in my own culture than I used to be. I feel just a little bit uneasy every time I suddenly register that I’m wearing shoes in the house. Anyone’s house. I miss having a ‘mart’ on every corner selling the basic essentials – like garlic and instant rice and plastic cheese slices and Spam. The shops are lovely and western and modern here – not to mention clean and pleasant – but they are so far away and wandering down aisle after aisle makes everywhere feel like Costco or HomePlus (which isn’t as good a thing as it seems like it should be). I find myself reverting to Korean – strangely most often when I’m trying to use a language other than English. Saying ‘Kam-sa-ham-nida’ to an Afrikaans-speaking bag-packer at the local PnP gets odd looks.
Other things are less expected. I miss eating with chopsticks. It’s not intellectual, either. I miss the feel of metal chopsticks in my hands. I feel the need to eat (ramen) noodles with chopsticks just to be eating with chopsticks. But really what I want is pajeon or galbi. Korean food. Proper Korean food, with all the side dishes – even the ones I don’t like. And, of course, kimchi. I miss kimchi. It is strange and odd and a little embarrassing, but I really do. I keep thinking about that Galbi place next to Festival downtown. Or the Hut. I miss the Hut. I miss the people and the place and the music and ‘Congratulations’. And dongdongju. Bizarrely, I miss Korean beer, but I think more for the sake of Somaek. Some days I want nothing more than to be able to head to the Hut after work at 9pm.
I miss that part of my life – far enough away now to be something that happened, another chapter. Missing places and people, like regret, is probably futile, except that it strengthens memories, histories. Things experienced alone only really exist in the mind of the experiencer. In remembering, we travel back to those places and those times and revisit, reinforce, sometimes recreate, what exists nowhere else. At least, that’s how I think of it – with a secret, private smile – when I suddenly feel that crazy urge to go to the hut or drink dongdongju or eat kimchi with metal chopsticks.