By Lee Scott
It had been six years since I returned to my friends and family back in Oklahoma. When I first left my home state in 2002, it was necessary to fly from Oklahoma City to Chicago or Minneapolis and then to Tokyo and on to Beijing, or Incheon or wherever. I made that trip many times, always single and always on another’s dime for the first few years. If I recall correctly, it took approximately 24 hours from door to door. Now, you can get a direct flight from Incheon to Dallas (which is close enough for me to get home) and then it is a relatively short, high-speed and traffic-free drive to where I grew up and where most of my family still resides. If you stay up the night before you leave on a morning flight, and sleep on the plane, you won’t even get jet lag. At least I didn’t.
There are two questions people always ask me that I never really feel prepared to answer. One of them is “what is it like living there?” I guess I don’t necessarily have to go into details about that since most people reading this would be more than qualified to know, if not (maybe, like me) to answer, but in the interest of documentation, I will give it a whirl. For me, living in Korea has been pretty much like living in the USA, but there is a very specific (and somewhat dark) reason for this.
About half-way through my tenure in China, I was able to restart my MMORPG (massively multiplayer online roleplaying game) playing. Since about 1999, I had been an addict. When I worked at a software development job, I would stop working at about 6 p.m. or so, but then I would stay at my office and play, first Ultima Online and later EverQuest, until about 11 p.m. I would spend literally all day playing on weekends. It wasn’t just me; several of my coworkers also played. It was all we talked about at lunch and in our break times, much to the chagrin of the one guy who didn’t play. After the initial Internet bubble burst, and I ended up teaching in China (a fantastically coincidental realization of a college-era aspiration), I had been pretty much forced to go cold turkey on my MMO habit. Until improvements in broadband Internet in Tianjin allowed me to start up again.
Since I didn’t have a computer at home, I played at school, but not very often. Things were still somewhat regular. I got married and my wife and I quit the school in China and moved to Seoul in 2004. That was the same year World of Warcraft came out. I played World of Warcraft in pretty much every non-working waking hour from late 2004 until early 2009, when my daughter’s birth was a cold splash of reality in my face. An interesting side-effect of my playing online games for all this time (the first half of my marriage) was that I had been somewhat insulated from much of the good and bad that the typical expat experiences while adjusting to life here. I was already married, so I never got to experience the singles’ scene; likewise, my wife being Korean, I had a very strong and reliable support system built in from the get-go. My own view of living here is relatively neutral because I never had any “a ha!” OR “wtf?” moments. And, especially now, I view Korea through the lens of being a father. I have noticed that some expats have sneered at the “suicide doors” that protect most of the subway platforms. Let me suggest that, as a parent, I can’t put a price on the peace of mind those safety doors have provided as my daughter has spent a lot of time using public transportation as a toddler.
The other question is about food: “What food do you miss the most?” Typically I don’t have an answer for that one either. The main reason (I tell myself) is that I really don’t like dwelling on what I don’t have, but also we’re pretty lucky here to have access to almost anything we want, right? I am a good cook and it isn’t that hard to find nearly any kind of ingredients, so if I really want something, it is possible to have it. I don’t miss food, I miss my family and friends back home, and I spend a lot of my time not thinking about them, because if I did, I wouldn’t be able (drama alert) to survive here.
“What food do you miss the most?” I turned around in my seat on the American Airlines jet to find a portly Korean American wearing a trucker style ball cap with the mesh back. His wife is white and his two teen-aged kids look like models. They were chatting excitedly about being back home from a vacation in Korea. They noticed me looking at them so I kind of awkwardly asked, “How long were you visiting?”
“Two weeks! It’s great to be back home!” came the cheerful reply. I didn’t ask, but I gathered while semi-eavesdropping that they were from Virginia. They have a connecting flight from Dallas which will get them home in just about the same time as my drive will get me back to the Oklahoma City suburbs. Turns out this guy is just about my age, but has two teenagers instead of one four-year-old. He has a wife who comes from a different culture, too, but not really. He is as American as I am (or maybe more American at is point.)
“Were you just visiting or do you work in Korea?” The trucker’s wife asked me. I replied that I live in Seoul and that I hadn’t been back in the US for six years, and half-jokingly asked if they had any advice. “Six years! Man, I’ve only ever been to Korea twice in my whole life and for two weeks each time!” That was the 42-year-old Korean American. This guy definitely was more American than I am.
“So do you have any food you miss?” This time it is the wife asking me. This time I have an answer because this time the question really is relevant. I’m sitting on the ground at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and I don’t have to suppress any homesickness because there shouldn’t be any. I haven’t even been gone from Korea long enough to be homesick for it yet. “Biscuits and gravy,” I told her. Apparently that was a good answer. Incidentally the trucker wanted to eat a big steak.
I almost think that culture shock is a myth, or at least overwhelmingly misunderstood. When I touched down in Beijing in August of 2002, I had every expectation that I would be bowled over by culture shock. There seem to be very few places in the world that could be more different from the United States than the People’s Republic of China. Despite that fear, it certainly seemed a lot like the United States to me. Two hours after landing, facing a semi-emergency call of nature, I found myself urinating on the side of a highway in the middle of the night next to a minivan full of near-strangers. “Not really so different!” I thought to myself. The next two years were full of experiences which were different only on the surface. Make no mistake, some of these surface differences are very different, but it turns out that human culture is more alike than not (at least between China and Korea and the United States.)
So, since I had discovered myself immune to culture shock, it was no surprise that immunity to reverse culture shock is a logical side effect. Six years is a long time and economies are like some kinds of sharks — they have to keep moving or they die. Thus it was really no surprise that even my sleepy little hometown had developed a great deal. It wasn’t unrecognizable of course, in fact it really was just much more of the same old stuff. Some newer versions of places and a few small businesses taking up spaces that had been abandoned by the franchises moving ever closer to the interstate. I was pleased to see this because who wouldn’t rather give their patronage to a small, locally owned company rather than to a soulless national chain?
My wife and daughter had already been staying with my parents for a week before I arrived. Ultimately they stayed for a week after I left, too, but now it is a mini reunion not only between my parents, brother and myself, but also my wife and daughter. My wife told me much later that she was surprised that nobody cried. I guess that we are just one of those lucky families for whom Skype video calls can fill in the gaps. My wife and daughter had spent 10 days in Oklahoma two years ago, so that my parents could spend time with their granddaughter. Everyone really seemed to feel at home, including me. One of my friends even said to me that it barely seemed like I had been gone. I’m not really sure if that was supposed to be a compliment or not, but I did also feel like that. I recently watched a movie where one of the characters said he understood about why people feel like they can never go home, because eventually we outgrow our parents’ house, our hometown or whatever. I think my own feelings about that are more complex. My parents’ house did still feel like home, but I know that the reason for that is that I subscribe to the old adage–home is where the heart is. I can stay in Korea, away from all that I’ve known for the first 75 percent of my life, because I have made my own home and family here. How could I be homesick, at least in the traditional sense?
My mom had asked me when I wanted to try to get together with all my family (or at least as many as could make it). I had told her that it might as well be right away since I didn’t plan on
jet lag, and if it did hit me, it would be a day or two later anyway. We had a big family and friends gathering the day after I arrived. One thing you realize when you are coming home after such a long time away is that time is extremely precious. You can never really see everyone that you want to see, and in a lot of cases, you get to submit your friends and family to a trial by fire. Summertime is of course vacation time and this caused some problems nine years ago, when my wife and I got married without sending out a save-the-date card a year in advance. I am happy to report that there were few vacation conflicts this time.
I know a lot of long term expats dream about or plan for a return to their native country; even immigrants to America in the 19th century had similar plans (apparently 80 percent of German immigrants to the U.S. in the 19th century returned to Germany). I would be lying if I didn’t admit that the thought of returning didn’t cross my mind (often), but with that thought goes another; living abroad (at least if you aren’t super wealthy) is hard. The fact that I happen to be good at it doesn’t discount the effort it requires for the average person. I can’t quite decide if I want to submit my wife to that kind of lifestyle. I don’t know if she has what it takes.
So was there anything I missed about Korea while being in Oklahoma? It may sound crazy or a little cynical, but I found the super politeness of the average Oklahoman to be a little wearing. I found myself easily falling back into the habit of exchanging pleasantries with complete strangers and the over-use of “thank you” when it was arguably unnecessary. I suppose I have acculturated to Seoul’s packed pragmatism or “rudeness” and breathed a sigh of relief and even commented on Facebook (alongside my “home safe” message) that it felt good to be back in the “real world” where it is the strong and callous that survive and if you are bigger and more intimidating-looking than 98 percent of the people around you, your way is pretty free and clear.
Resident cartoonist and 3WM webmaster Lee Scott occasionally contributes to 3WM.
He is or has been an avid: gamer/reader/writer/designer/cartoonist/developer/hatchet-man/teacher/entrepreneur.