It’s been 6 months since Yun and I returned to the United States. Seeing my parents outside the Phoenix Sky Harbor gate around midnight, with bleary eyes but smiling faces was a déjà vu experience. Had I really been living in another country for 4 and a half years or was I just coming back from a trip to Disneyland? Was this really “home for good,” or was this just another stage in part of a bigger journey?
There were so many things to look forward to back in Arizona. Blue skies and Mexican food, for one. Yun would be able to pursue his career. I would finally be able to spend Christmas with my family again. Of course I was happy to be back. Even so, I’d heard many tales about other expats who had a hard time transitioning out of the life in Korea. They would often talk of the dreaded “reverse culture shock.”
The comments of these fellow expats raised questions in my mind. Would I feel like I “belonged” or would my hometown feel alien somehow? Would I be able to find a job? Would the food be too greasy and salty? One expat in some literary article spoke of suffocating isolation in his small hometown and complained that he didn’t like how personal and chatty servers in American restaurant were. Fine, that was just silly. But still.
It turned out my fears were mostly in vain.
The confidence I gained while living and working in Korea made my post-Korea experience in Arizona very different. I got a job, a car and an apartment within one month of being back. I wasn’t scared to go places and talk to people after almost 5 years of living in one of the most densely populated places on the planet. Having lots of prior work experience made it much easier to adapt to new demands and situations at my new job. And there was no language barrier either!
There were other more surprising ways in which Korea made life easier back in Arizona. Hearing other languages like Spanish or Chinese at the grocery store wasn’t intimidating. I was used to hearing a language I didn’t (fully) understand and I became much more sympathetic to expats living in the US after knowing what it was like to be one in Korea. It wasn’t a conscious highhanded decision. It was a natural reaction after living and traveling in foreign countries for a long time. The world didn’t seem as big and overwhelming – just different wherever you went, which was part of the fun.
I thought about Korea, but I focused on the present situation and kept my head down and moved forward. My brain seemed to be compartmentalizing: That was Korea, that’s what you did then – now you’re in Arizona, this is what you do now. Yun bought some Korean ingredients at an Asian foods market and I bought seaweed crackers from Costco, but otherwise our diet was American. We talked only once in a while about our memories in Korea. Yun now spoke English to strangers and co workers. It was sort of like living in another lifetime.
Sometimes I would remember Korea and it seemed like a dream. Other times it seemed very real. At about the 3 month point I began to miss Korea and felt pangs of nostalgia and bittersweetness about the places and people. Leaving behind expat friends wasn’t as painful because I knew eventually they would leave too. They weren’t part and parcel of it. But the mountains, the cherry blossoms, the food, the lantern festivals, the neon lights, the music, and the Korean people were.
One of my favorite characters in fiction, Philip Marlowe, said, “to say goodbye is to die a little.” Appropriately enough that comes from the novel The Long Goodbye.
Leaving Korea felt like a long goodbye. Yun and I had planned for months how we would apply for his visa, send our things home, and travel Asia on our savings. I knew Korea wasn’t “home,” but it had still become a part of me. Even during our planning I couldn’t become detached from Korea. The time went by faster than I’d hoped. There would never be enough of it to explore the city, the countryside, and to eat another bowl of haejang gook. Each year living there went by faster than the last.
It seems natural for people to preserve their psyches by not thinking about what’s beyond their control. If saying goodbye really does kill a little part of you then better not to dwell on it. But did saying goodbye to Korea kill a part of me? That sounds so…tragic.
Perhaps it’s the opposite. Cheesy as it sounds, perhaps there’s a part of me that wasn’t there before thanks to Korea. I’m a fuller person with a heart that belongs to two places. Leaving Korea was sad, but it’s cool to know there’s a place on the other side of the world that is now comforting and familiar. I can’t really imagine never going back. Perhaps it’s not truly “goodbye” – it may well just be goodbye for now.