Living and working in a foreign country far different from your own -- in my case, South Korea -- is a learning experience to say the least. Every day was an adventure and every new adventure was a memorable one.
I remember waking up excited to be there and anxious for what was to come. From trying exotic food, to using a squatter toilet for the first time, I was living a new life. A life that was so foreign to me but which eventually became my routine and my every day existence.
Korea and its wondrous culture in a way became my culture. My new friends from around the world became my family. My young, timid non-English speaking students became my purpose and my quaint, untamed apartment became my safe haven.
My time spent in Korea was not always easy but mostly it was exhilarating and enjoyable. After spending two years in Korea I knew it was time to pack my bags and return home. I flew back to Toronto, a place I had called home for the past 25 years. Surprisingly, my first few weeks adjusting to Western life was a lot more stressful and confusing than I ever could have imagined.
Coming home after spending two years in Asia was like putting on an old, favorite, worn-in pair of shoes only to find that they didn't quite fit my feet the same way anymore. Walking into a Korean restaurant in Thornhill suddenly felt both familiar and strange. I felt uncomfortable sitting in oversized chairs and was astounded by the price of my preferred Korean liquor. Without thinking twice, I bowed to the restaurant host as a sign of respect but was greeted with an English "Hello," yet another notable aspect of our North American culture that I was reacquainting myself with.
Overhearing English conversations and actually being able to understand them was almost overwhelming. However, what I found most remarkable coming back home, was being able to communicate with cab drivers. It took me months to be able to properly pronounce my address in Korean to a cab driver who spoke no English whatsoever. On various occasions I was driven to the other end of town just because I mispronounced a single syllable.
Not only was the language a struggle but arriving at your destination in one piece was good fortune. In a country where stop signs don't exist and traffic lights seem merely to be a suggestion, you are essentially putting your life at risk hailing a cab in the city. Using a gas stove was different than what I was used to and the absence of an oven or dryer made everyday life in Korea a little more complicated.
Once I arrived back on Canadian soil I inadvertently overlooked those fundamental utilities that were once highly sought after in South Korea. When my mother asked me why I was hanging my sheets outside to dry, I casually responded, "well there wasn't any room in the bathroom" (oblivious to our high-tech dryer in the laundry room). These everyday devices became extraordinary instruments that I learned to cherish and not take for granted.
Don't get me wrong, I love Toronto but from time to time I find myself smiling as I recall sitting in a cafe in Gwangju and listening to the cacophony of people slurping noodles a sign of respect for food. Or when I'm walking downtown I'm in wonder over the fact that pedestrians actually have the right of way and vehicles (for the most part) abide by traffic laws.
My new set of eyes allowed me to notice the norms and peculiarities of my native home. I now enjoy the small talk with sales clerks and bank tellers who were unable to communicate with me in the South. I appreciate the variety of languages spoken on the subway and relish in the eclectic mix of produce at the grocery store. Sometimes when I'm missing my old life in Asia, I find refuge in Thornhill's local Korean restaurant feeling content and a bit confused with my very own culture, one that I am still trying to identify with.