As I'm sure I have mentioned before, I didn't know what to expect when I went to Korea in 2008. I had done some research on the Internet prior to my departure, but I don't believe that a person can really begin to understand a place until he or she has actually been or lived there. Needless to say, Korea was a lot different than my small town life in North Carolina. The weather was roughly the same, with a little added humidity and precipitation during the summer and winter, but that was where the similarities ended. Korea was a whirlwind of lights, colors, sounds, smells, and tastes unlike anything I had experienced before. It was also the first time I had been in Asia.
All of the new experiences can be overwhelming, but the best thing to do to deal with that is find something that you can make routine in your new life. Maybe it's going to the same coffee shop for your favorite mocha, or spending time at the gym. Perhaps taking pictures or writing is your thing. If there was something that you liked to do at home, find a way to do it in your new home. Familiar routine is what helps many people feel comfortable in their new surroundings, and keeps the feelings of homesickness at bay.
Coming home is a different experience than I had imagined it to be. I knew after living in Korea for 3 years many things were going to be a lot different in my life, but no amount of imagining or planning could have prepared me for how I felt.
It felt weird to hand over my alien card, and have my passport inked with an exit stamp. But I told myself I would be back soon enough.
It had snowed the day of my flight from Incheon, and so I sat on the runway for an hour past takeoff waiting for crews to de-ice the plane. I was antsy to get started with my journey, and so delays were not in the schedule. I was lucky that once I arrived in Narita to transfer to my next flight, the airport personnel were able to assist us delayed Korea passengers into getting on their planes.
My flight from Narita to Chicago would take about 11.5 hours. Thankfully I had the aisle seat with easy access to the bathrooms and walking around during the flight. I'm not much a fan of flying, and the turbulence on all three of my flights didn't do much to assuage my fears. By the end of the 11.5 hours, I was so ready to step foot on land once again.
I disembarked from the plane, gathered my bags from the international carousel and checked them into domestic transfers, then entered the domestic terminal to figure out a game plan for an 8-hour layover.
English and Spanish floated all around me without abandon. I could understand everything that was being said, and it weirded me out. A woman spoke Spanish to me in the restroom and I struggled to think of which language I should reply in. (Luckily, I hadn't forgotten my university-level Spanish!) I wanted so badly to speak in Korean, but nobody would understand me, probably.
I exchanged my won for dollars, realizing I had little recollection of how to make change in American currency. I fumbled my way through paying for my lunch, a coffee, and a magazine, all the while apologizing and explaining I had just returned from 3 years in Korea. I handed the money to the cashier the way we would in Korea, right hand extended, left on the elbow. I would even hand over my debit card without thinking, only to have the cashier look at me funny, then point to the machine in front of me. Oh! I had to swipe my own card here. That's right... (Even after being at home for almost a month, I still hand the cashier my card, forgetting about the card machine in front of me.)
Tax! That was another thing I had forgotten about in Korea. A caramel mocha from Starbucks, $3.99. I fished out $4 from my wallet, thinking that would be enough. Nope. Thanks to tax, my coffee was $4.11. I had not missed that living in Korea. (Tipping is also strange to me these days!)
I don't think it's just me, but portion sizes have gotten so much bigger since I left. What was a small is now what I would consider a medium, and the medium has become a large. I bought a rice and black bean burrito for lunch in Chicago that was (no lie) as big as my head. I could barely eat half of it before I was full.
Clothing sizes have grown, too. This has definitely made things interesting going shopping for clothes recently. I lost a good amount of weight last year, so I was excited to fit into smaller clothes. At some stores, it seems their sizes have increased; while in others, they seem to have shrunk. The inconsistency is baffling. I tried on some shirts that were labeled as medium (my usual size), and they were HUGE on me. I had to go down to a small, or in some cases, an extra-small. I'm not saying I mind, but it was quite a task trying on everything to see how it would fit these days. But it is comforting to find clothes and shoes that aren't Korean-sized.
It is nice to go about my business without people staring at me because of my hair color/eye color/eye shape, but I miss the politeness that the overwhelming majority of Koreans possess. Needless to say, my first introduction to customer service in the US was not polite at all. I know every part of the US has a different cultural and social atmosphere, but I am definitely longing for the manners that Koreans generally have for customers and each other. (Of course, it is good to hold doors for people in the South and not get funny looks doing it!)
Another thing that was really shocking about coming back: going to Wal-Mart for the first time. E-Mart is nice, as are Lotte Mart and Home-plus. But there is just something about going back to Wal-Mart that I can't put my finger on. It might be the sheer sprawl of the one-story store with the gigantic parking lot, compared to the underground parking deck and escalators/elevators of compact Korean stores. Maybe it is the fact that I know what all the stuff on the shelves actually is, and have a variety of options to choose from. I think I might have begged my mom several times to make certain foods for dinner simply because they don't have them in Korea.
Sweet tea. Ah, the fine, syrupy nectar of the South. Even my best attempts at making it from scratch couldn't compare to the gallons that are brewed to saccharine perfection in restaurants everywhere. The day after I got back, I went with my mom to see my brother up at his university. We went to one of my favorite restaurants, Red Robin, where I promptly ordered a glass of sweet tea with my chicken sandwich. When it touched my lips, I think I sighed in happiness. But I haven't been drinking it every day, however--only when we go out on the weekends. Don't want to overload on sugar!
On a similar note, eating food here has been strange (and somewhat unfortunate) for my stomach. Having grown accustomed to eating rice with lots of veggies, as well as minimal meat, butter, oil, and fat, most foods here are kinda disgusting if you think about it. I've had to make sure to limit my portions to what I would eat in Korea to avoid feeling stuffed, as well as be extra-careful with what I eat outside of my house. As a result, I think my family and friends here are convinced that I starve in Korea. (Quite the opposite!) I've even tried introducing my parents to some of what I would cook for myself in Korea--with success. I haven't gotten to make chamchi bokkeumbap yet, but I'm looking forward to it.
I am much enjoying the smell of fresh air out here in the "country," without the smog and noise of the city. I can actually see the stars at night in vivid detail without any ambient light to block them. The pace of my hometown is 10000 times slower than Gwangju, but it's been a relaxing change. Even though the stores and restaurants close before 9 pm at night, I'm not bothered by it in the least. At night I can listen to the sound of the rain outside without the usual cacophony of cars and drunken locals stumbling to bed.
Seeing my friends and family again after 3 years has been a good shock. My brother, who still looked like a teenager when I left, now looks like a man. I've started to realize that my parents are indeed older than when I last saw them, despite the fact I thought they'd never age. My friends have since graduated from college, moved to other places, started jobs, gotten married, and some are even having kids. I worried that maybe too much time had passed since we last hung out, but when we met, it was like nothing had ever changed. That has comforted me a lot. As one of my friends put it, "we all started being grown-ups, but it doesn't mean we still can't be the same friends we've always been."
Reverse culture shock has been confusing, surprising, comforting, funny, and tiring, all at the same time. I know by the time all the newness of home has worn off, it will be time for me to return to Korea. Once back there, I might even have some "return to Korea" culture shock, but hopefully not as substantial as it was 3 years ago.