Around this time last year I was humming an impromptu victory song to celebrate the end of CET Osaka in Japan as my classmates and their Japanese language partners fought to keep tears out of their goodbye speeches. My speech was short and sweet, my smile bright. People looked on and said, “That Carmen, always happy, even times like this!” Yes, I was happy. To get the heck out of there and onto the first plane bound for the States. Plagued by terrible homesickness since week three of my Japanese program, I scoured Osaka for tastes of home: a decent cheeseburger, southern-style fried chicken, sweet potatoes, a decent hug, the smell of cinnamon. At that time I sorely regretted not bringing pictures of family and friends with me. I wildly searched for, and held on steadfastly to anything that connected reminded me of home, as if it could transport me there.
This year, thinking about my departure from Korea brings on a twinge of panic. It’s hard to believe I’ve been in Korea for two months now, and even harder to believe I don’t miss home as I thought I would. Though my friends send “I miss you; hurry back” and “what am I going to do without you?!” messages, my replies aren’t filled with the desperation they were last year. I don’t really miss home. I’m not saying my stay in Korea has been an absolute dream, but the road has been rather smooth, unmarked by emotional breakdown pit-stops, culture shock potholes, and what-am-I-doing-with-my-life detours. The car engine hasn’t sputtered on a lonely sob and given up the ghost. I feel I have a home right here. Seoul is a highly developed (and kind of Westernized) city where it’s easy to find some home comforts:
Bread and coffee. There’s a wonderfully air conditioned coffee shop every five to ten steps you take in Seoul, each with its own unique atmosphere. I’m not addicted to coffee, but if you expect me to get up everyday at 6am and be functional enough to speak and think in Korean for 5 hours straight without a little boost, you’re not playing with a full set of Bocce balls. (Kudos if you get that reference.) Usually, coffee just as overpriced as it is in America, you can be a mildly outraged by the price of a latte here too! The iced vanilla lattes from my host sister’s favorite cafe taste just like the ones from a Belgian cafe on my college campus my roommate and I frequented. Additionally, there are “French-style” bakeries everywhere in Korea, meaning easy access to morning pastries, which is really all I ask for. The bread keeps me from being defeated by the great rice barrage.
Soul food. Korean food reminds me of Southern cuisine: neck bones, ox-tails, chicken feet, ribs, fried chicken, delicious morsels covered in savory sauces. Here, they also eat things that stink up the house for days at a time. With enough flavor to sucker punch you and enough spice to make your nose run. The food is so good, you must eat seriously, head down, working your chops. You must stop to wipe your face. Afterwards you must pick your teeth and nap. Or have a slice of watermelon if it’s summer (sound familiar?)
Community. Koreans are very group-oriented. There are strong bonds between family members, circles of friends and co-workers; members of these sub-groups make it a goal to look out for one another, making sure everyone else looks their best and functions at their best. Having been accepted my host family, they baby me sometimes, asking what/when I ate, where I’m going and for how long, even giving me unsolicited relationship and medical advice. (Sometimes a little too honestly: “Where did your S-line go? Maybe you should exercise more!”) Mostly, they want to make sure that I’m happy, comfortable and healthy. It’s lovely to have this kind of support system in Korea where it can be really difficult to make friends. There are people who genuinely care about me here, so I don’t have to cling so much to people at home, who couldn’t fix my problems for me if I had any, anyway.
People-watching. I spend a lot of time watching people to learn about how to do things in Korea properly but mostly I do it because it’s fun. You don’t need to speak a word of Korean to recognize the love-sick expression on a guy’s face when he’s texting his girlfriend, or to understand that a woman is upset with her boyfriend, or the brief look of panic when the first raindrop falls and someone realizes they’ve forgotten their umbrella. Also, the side-eye game in this country is strong. It’s like I’ve found my people!
When I had to wait way too long in the line at the bank, I caught the eye of another woman who had been waiting longer then I have, and by the grip she had on her sweater, I could tell she was growing dangerously impatient. Our gazes met across the room, and we both shook our heads at the same time. I had to laugh. My life here is filled with moments like that, and is helping me to realize that despite language barriers and culture differences, we all are just the same, aren’t we?