Wednesday, July 29, 2009


I'm not sure what's supposed to cause culture shock anymore. Being in Korea? Being in the U.S. for three weeks after almost a year away? Being back in Korea again after those three weeks? Well, it turns out that travel in both directions can dramatically change perceptions, and it's very difficult to anticipate how you'll feel at any stage in the process. For example, both Keegan and I thought it would be hard to adjust back to the relative calm and lawfulness of driving in the United States after a year of near misses and crazy road hijinks in Korea. But it wasn't difficult at all. On the other hand, I never expected to find certain foods in the U.S. no longer to my liking, and I did find out that my tastes have changed slightly after a year here. So here's a gathering of all of our impressions and surprises as we traveled between two very different homes:

1. Driving
As I mentioned above, we didn't find it nearly as difficult to get used to driving in the U.S. as we had anticipated. Surprisingly, both of us found ourselves driving more slowly and more calmly than we used to. Maybe because the speed limits are generally lower on Korean highways than they are in the U.S. or maybe just because we were on vacation, but we both noticed it. But let me tell you, coming back to Korea and venturing back into the road jungle that is downtown Okpo was a rude awakening after three weeks of amazing innovations like sidewalks and two-lane streets for two directions of traffic.

2. Food
Keegan and I did a lot of good eating in the U.S. A lot. A whole lot. Mexican, sandwiches, Italian, Chinese, seafood, and enough Bodo's bagels to construct a good-sized bagel fortress. And generally, this eating was one of the best parts of the vacation because I miss restaurants that have more than just seafood, spaghetti, and steaks and also because it's so wonderful to top off a really good restaurant meal with a really good dessert (usually not available in Korea, although Baskin Robbins does make a good finale after almost any meal). But a few things surprised me.

First of all, a lot of the restaurant food we tasted was suprisingly salty and greasy. It tasted great for the first few bites, but after a few more I ended up feeling totally over-stuffed and logy. I think this is part of the explanation for why we saw many more very obese people in the U.S. than we usually do in Korea. Obviously Koreans come in lots of shapes and sizes, and I always feel sorry for the larger men and women that I see because I don't know how they find clothes. But I don't think I have seen anyone here that comes close to the size of some Americans that we saw at home, and I think salty and fatty restaurant food has a lot to do with that.

Another surprise for me was my breakfast yogurt. Generally, I don't like plain yogurt and always used to buy vanilla yogurt in the States. I do the same here. But apparently I can make do with a lot less sweetener than is found in the American brand, because when I had my first highly anticipated bite at breakfast in Charlottesville, I was shocked at how sugary the vanilla yogurt really is. Maybe I will learn how to make my own when we return home to the States for good.

3. Shopping
No surprises here. Going shopping with Mom in Lynchburg was so much fun! There were shoes in my size everywhere! The stores were large and almost completely self-service, without salespeople hovering at the ready to fetch "large size" clothes. All of the books and magazines at the bookstore were in English! There was an easy-to-find store selling triathlon wetsuits that we could try on right there in the store. I did have one funny moment in Old Navy in Lynchburg where I started counting out my dollars as if they were won. Because the largest denomination in Korea (until last month, anyway) is roughly the equivalent of a $10 bill, I am used to counting out bills by 10's. Imagine what happened at Old Navy when I carefully counted out three twenties and a few ones to pay for a $34 total. The clerk was a little concerned about my skills in basic math, I'm sure.

4. Work
In Korea, a lot of our friends are also Keegan's co-workers. This means that even at social gatherings, the conversation almost always turns to work at least occasionally. In addition, everyone is working very hard, long hours, and everyone knows that the company has shipped them to the other side of the world to do just that. It was so refreshing to be back in the U.S. and have so many conversations that focused on life outside of work - people's hobbies, families, and work as a way to support the rest of one's life.

5. Home
Before we left for our vacation, Korea had begun to feel like home. We have a great apartment, a rich group of friends and co-workers and neighbors, favorite shops and restaurants, two playful and affectionate pets, running and biking routes, and a plethora of activities to keep us busy. But as soon as we arrived in the U.S., it took no time at all to feel at home there as well. Familiar faces, old haunts, favorite meals, and long-missed activities filled our vacation days, and it was hard to see how a return to Korea could be a homecoming at all.

And it wasn't. I thought that the return to Korea would be very different from our first journey here, and in some ways it was. Nothing was as surprising or new as it was last year, and we certainly didn't have to do any unpacking, and we had two very happy cats to greet us when we arrived home. But at the same time, I felt a lot of the same feelings of readjustment again. I missed friends and family in the U.S. with a renewed strength and once again felt tentative and uncertain about leaving the apartment to do everyday tasks. And I started getting an envious feeling again when I looked at Korean people going about their daily lives. I am envious of them because this is their place, their culture, unquestionably their home. I had the same feeling sometimes in Poland. I loved Poland dearly, and my year there changed my life in a lot of positive ways, but it could never be home in the way that it was for those Polish people I saw in the streets, who were living where they had grown up, close to family and friends, speaking their native language without a second thought.

I know that as I re-immerse myself in my life here that those feelings will diminish, and I will appreciate the positive aspects of being here - the adventure, the chance to meet new people and try new things, the opportunities to travel. But the homesickness and distance from friends and family are part and parcel of living abroad, and they have their day, too.


Solson Scherman said...

Ellen, your blog echoes a lot of the things that I have gone through (especially the driving) with my move down here. I have dubbed it "stranger in a homeland" syndrome. I live here but get treated like a foreigner and in the States I get treated like a local as things increasingly feel foreign. I don't know if it really ever goes away, but it keeps life interesting

chrissy and ryan said...

That was a really heartful and wonderful entry! Thank you for being honest and reflective in your writing. We miss you even more now that you're back "home" but know that you really are only a phone call away. We can't wait to keep reading about your adventures and lives. We love you!

Carrie said...

I definitely have that food experience whenever I travel. I'm surprised how quickly I get over my sugar addiction when I'm trying new and interesting things. But, like a heroin addict, one cupcake and I'm back on the wagon. Or off the wagon. I'm not sure how that phrase works.

KIM! said...

this is an excellent blog entry.

i am glad I was able to spend time with you while you were here and will be more thorough in my search of cheap flights overseas.