How “coming home” to Korea made me never want to live here again.

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The wheels touched down and I was back.

Home again at last in South Korea. Giddy anxiety rose in my chest as I looked over at Gabby and said “we’re here.” For months we’d been planning our return to South Korea, the place where our global travels began, the place we learned to live as foreigners for the first time, the first place we ever called home after leaving New York in 2012 and here we were again.

 

IMG_0821Walking off the plane felt so different than I’d expected.

Somehow I’d thought it would feel just like it had the first time, a whole new world of strange and unusual. Rather, I was greeted by an overwhelming sense of comfort and familiarity. Everything was more or less just as I’d left it. Korean phrases I hadn’t even thought of in years were suddenly right at the tip of my tongue, ready to be used without a bit of hesitation. Foods I’d missed were in abundance, and were just as delicious as I’d remembered. Carrying on conversations in the street, knowing that no one could understand me, was a freedom I’d been longing for.

 

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Visiting the places where we’ve previously lived always brings on this unexpected surreal feeling.

It’s like looking at one of those find-the-differences pictures where two seemingly identical images slowly reveal their subtle contrasts. The reality is that for better or worse, life has gone on without you and your absence has largely gone unnoticed.

 

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It didn’t take long for us to notice that the biggest variable in this equation was ourselves.

3 years of continuous travel and seasonal work had changed us so much that we barely even recognized the people we once were. We were New Yorkers back then. We were so focused on work, and securing our futures, that we barely had time to pursue the things that truly made us feel alive. It took leaving the USA for a year, relocating to the west coast, and subsequently living/working in five different states to make us realize that no amount of work or money was going to bring us the joy that traveling, cultural immersion, and adventure could possibly bring.

 

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The first few days were like floating through a dream.

I already knew the customs, suffered very few cultural flubs, and had such a fantastic time getting back into the swing of things that I couldn’t even remember what would make me want to leave here in the first place. Everything I looked at was filled with nostalgia. Things that would have irritated me 3 years ago seemed novel and even somewhat hilarious. I started to think that maybe I could come back for another year and get some of that sweet English teacher money. That was before reality set in.

 

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As we started to get into contact with some old friends, it occurred to us just how hard it was to make plans way back when.

We would go weeks without seeing friends who lived just across town due to scheduling issues. English teachers in Korea have tough schedules, their own set of stressors, and have difficult time finding space in their week for themselves, let alone social time with chingus. Even nature, although present in the background and relatively accessible, seems to to take a backseat to pressures of city life.

I won’t go too deep into detail about the specifics of what makes long term living in this country undesirable for me, as these things would vary for anyone. But suffice it to say that, as comfortable and welcome as I feel here, the culture isn’t one I’d like to spend the rest of my life in. Frankly, it reminds me too much of the place I came from. The workaholic, concrete, rat race of New York was the life I was desperately fleeing all those years ago, only to be dropped into a culture that holds many of the same values of materialism, and presenting a nice external image for the world to judge you by. This isn’t to say that we won’t come back for a visit…The idea of going forever without another bowl of REAL kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew) is the stuff of stress induced nightmares.

 

IMG_1664 Luckily, the beauty of continuous travel is the freedom to plant yourself exactly where you want to be for exactly as long as you want to stay.

The truth is that right now, I’m not sure if I’ll ever find a place that I’ll want to stay forever; and I’m OK with that. Meanwhile, I’ll keep traveling, experiencing as many different cultures, trying as many different foods, and meeting as many beautiful new people as I can, all the while learning and broadening my worldview. So, with only a few days left to enjoy here in Korea, we’ll be consuming as much kimchi, bulgogi and neng myeon (cold buckwheat noodles) as we can before jumping on a plane to someplace totally unfamiliar. We can’t wait to find out what Taiwan has in store for us!

 

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12 Responses

  1. Gareth
    | Reply

    I’ve had a very similar experience myself. I spent a year living in Korea many years ago and while I was there, it was great. However, as you said, life can be very stressful there and whenever I returned there, I totally saw how highly strung and, in some cases, depressed a lot of the people were. Korea is a really enjoyable country but there are aspects of the culture that are certainly hard to adapt to. Great read!

    • LocalNomads
      | Reply

      Thanks for commenting, Gareth! Glad to hear from a fellow former waygook. We really love Korea, and the people are so welcoming, but you hit the nail right on the head. There’s very little freedom of choice here, and there’s such a high level of competition between peers.

  2. Anne Slater-Brooks
    | Reply

    I am heading to Korea in spring and would love to hear any tips you have of things to do and other foods to try. Plus we are heading skiing so any tips on that would also be awesome

    • LocalNomads
      | Reply

      I’m so happy to hear this, Anne. We LOVE Korea and not enough people take the opportunity to travel here outside of business. Seoul is a wonderful city, with lots of great cultural activities, great shopping, and a high tech metropolis, but you’ll regret spending your whole trip there. Just one hour north from Seoul is Paju, which is where you’ll find the DMZ. If you don’t want to drop some cash on the DMZ tour you should at least check out Odusan Unification Observatory, which sits less than 3km from North Korea. You can literally look across the river into North Korea and see people working in the farming village that sits on the other side. At less than $2 for admission, you can’t turn it down. How long will you be in the country, by the way? If it’s going to be warm when you’re there, I would happily recommend you take the bus from Seoul to Busan to check out the beach life. Koreans won’t go to the beach until the heat of Summer, so it’s almost guaranteed not to be crowded. Either way, I would highly recommend you take a bus from Seoul to another major city, the buses here are more comfortable than any country I’ve ever been in, the bus ride itself is always a highlight because you’ll get to see the beautiful Korean countryside as you pass through. As far as food goes, I’m planning an entire post on my favorite Korean foods. Make sure you subscribe to our email lest so you don’t miss it!

  3. Betty
    | Reply

    Thanks for sharing your honest assessment of living abroad in Korea. I am a Korean-American, and the fast-paced lifestyle in Seoul is overwhelming for me. So I feel you on that aspect.

  4. Vyjay
    | Reply

    A lovely introspective post that looks at the transformations that happen within each of us when we travel. It is like looking in the mirror after a gap of a couple of years and not recognizing the image in front of you. Such is the change that travel catalyzes.

    • LocalNomads
      | Reply

      You’re right…it’s amazing how you don’t even realize the change until something like this comes along and reminds you of what the old you was like.

  5. Lisa Grabelle
    | Reply

    Beautifully written! What an interesting view – thanks so much for sharing and really enjoyed your pictures as well.

    • LocalNomads
      | Reply

      Thanks, Lisa! It’s really amazing how traveling can change your whole person without you even realizing it!

  6. Global Brunch
    | Reply

    Thanks so much for sharing such an honest and moving account of your feelings and experience. I think a lot of travelers have that place where they first got bitten by the travel bug and that place will always hold a piece of our hearts. It’s so interesting to read how you felt when you returned, as I haven’t been back to my “special place” after I left in 2009, but I’ve got plans to do so next year.

    Happy travels & enjoy Taiwan!

    • LocalNomads
      | Reply

      Thanks so much for your comment! I’m glad that I was able to actually articulate the mess of feelings I had going on inside me at the time when I wrote it, but once i sat down at the computer it all sorta flowed out of me. Korea was the first place we ever called home that wasn’t our “home” and coming back to realize that it just wasn’t home anymore was really tough at first. I’m so happy that I went through that though, because for years I’ve wondered if I’d be able to live there again. Now I have my answer.

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