Coming Home

8 Aug

I anticipated a period of strangeness once I returned to America.  I chuckled at the expected stress of consciously listening to every passing conversation, my ears attuned to picking up any English I could.  I expected to notice fat people, cargo shorts, enormous servings of food, et cetera.  That was what friends had said about going home on a visit.  “It’s a little weird for the first three or four days,” they said, “but after that, you get used to it.  After a week, America’s boring again.”  But for some reason, my experience was (and still is) very different.

I passed through Korea for a few days after leaving Mongolia, picking up bags and saying not “goodbye” but “see you later.”  The thrill of hopping borders, languages, and currencies with ease got to me.  Landing in Korea felt like coming home.  I marveled at the forested mountains, smooth roads, neon, and restaurants that actually served what was on the menu.  Korea seemed delightfully orderly, safe, friendly, and lush.  I was seeing Korea with new eyes, though I knew so much about it.  I moved about with a new confidence, speaking more Korean than I normally did, feeling less burdened by social obligations to Korean culture, venturing into new places and situations with a swagger.  I’ve got this, I thought.  I am so damn good, doing this, conquering all without a hiccup or stress. “You have the travel glow,” my friend Chris commented over a farewell dalkgalbi lunch.  I was thrilled at that prospect and boarded the plane to America with such an aura guiding my thoughts.

But arriving in America was a shock, one that ended my arrogant traveler’s air.  Immigration in Detroit, in particular, was a surprise.  The polite, deferential Korean manner was gone.  Despite the looped welcome video that portrayed a friendly, multicultural America, the immigration authorities were of a very different ilk:  short haircuts, brusque manner, intrusive questions, combat boots and handcuffs hanging from belts.  Though I had been through U.S. immigration a number of times before, it had never been a shock like this.  I even stumbled a little bit in answering questions and the ICE agent behind the counter eyed me.  We are Rome, I thought.  We are not cutesy or Confucian.  We are keeping the Huns east of the Rhine. ‘Militaristic’ was the word that ran through my mind, one I had always associated with Imperial Germany, never my own country.  I wondered almost aloud if this truly was the land of liberty I had always believed in.

Faces, manners, clothes seemed odd.  I had never realized the extent to which Hawaiian shirts have taken up residence on the torsos of middle-aged American men. Stewardesses seemed cold or annoyed, never smiling, always inconvenienced by your request.  The vacant looks of many people was surprising too.  I had seen resignation, anger, greed, curiosity, resentment, and sadness in foreign eyes, but never had I seen so much blankness in human faces.  Were my countrymen really nothing more than walking Blue Screens of Death?

On the ride from the airport to the hotel, I found myself evaluating my own country like all the others I had passed through.  I couldn’t help but gauge and compare everything from cars to socks to roadsigns to food packages to conversational formalities.  I didn’t feel American, evaluating my homeland so critically and dispassionately.  Had I lost something, some essential part of my identity, never to get it back?

Nonetheless, I began to notice and comment on things.  I realized everything moved much more slowly than in Korea.  That surprised me.  I had always thought America was a bustling, make-hay-while-the-sun-shines nation that never stopped.  But even the cities seemed like a drowsy Aegean village compared to Seoul.  I had called Seoul an anthill before but had wondered if the comparison was just.  It is more than apt.

The expansiveness of America was particularly remarkable.  The sky, the road, my yard and house — everything had so much space to it.  Only Mongolia’s space was comparable but even there, in Ulaan Baatar and the rural villages, everyone was close together.  The nomads had space but that was out of necessity.  Americans just spread out, like a good stretch after waking, across the land.  And because of that space, Americans can have so much stuff.  We have huge houses with room to store.  I was amazed at how many things I had in my room that could make life richer — hundreds of books, expensive outdoor gear, even my old construction tools.  Even my truck was incredible, a huge piece of costly machinery that would never have fit on a Korean road.  My family and I are not rich.  Yet we have (and, as a result, can do) more things than most people in the world.  My old haunts in Bundang were affluent; to own an Audi in Korea like my neighbors, given the import taxes, you must have a lot of disposable income.  But I could do, learn, experience, and simply have more than them.  I had space to accumulate stuff to enrich my life.  But that was not all of it.

My girlfriend came to America only a week after my return, having planned a surprise last minute trip.  I had to quickly step back into being an American in order to show her in this crazy country I lived in.  The experience not only helped me recognize what I proudly wanted to show her, but it showed me what she was amazed by.  Through her eyes I learned to appreciate greasy American food again, and struck up conversations with strangers while waiting in line.  I enjoyed driving fast, breathed fresh air, and hiked alone in silence through ancient, unspoiled nature.  I learned again what I had forgotten.

If there is a virtue in wandering, it is that one gains a new perspective for understanding life and people.  Yet there is a cost to this, as there is a cost to every virtue.  Adhering to a principle often can force terrible things on people, such as alienating a father or a friend over an issue of politics or morality.  Thus, doing Right does not ensure completely Good results.  The cost of wandering is that, in gaining perspective, you lose it as well.  To throw yourself fully into another place means ignoring and forgetting, though unintentionally, about where you come from.  Your knowledge of who you are, knowledge that stems from how you were formed and raised, is obscured.  You forget how the fabric of your own past is woven with that of your family, friends, and nation.  Having grown up in it, breathing it like air, you can identify that rich tapestry in your heart and mind, even if you could not vocalize it to others.  But without contact with those threads that continue to weave themselves, you are forced to rely on shaky and select memories, opinions of others, news reports and scattered books, all run through filters that wash out the essence of where you come from.  You dwell on the peripheral or strange or bad or sentimental, because that is what is easy for most people to understand and talk about; your world takes on the character of a cheap broadsheet daily.  Eventually you cease to battle for what you know because it has no air to breathe; your perspective becomes twisted and faded.

I forgot the essence of my home because I left.  But perhaps I never would have realized its nature or even its presence had I not felt it rush back into a void that I did not know existed.  I have felt the most profound sense of joy and thanks for who I am and where I come from since my return, an unexpected gift but one of the best I have ever received.

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