As a hagwon teacher in Korea, you’re typically only guaranteed two lengthy vacation periods per contract. By lengthy, I mean one week in the summer and one in the winter… and, by one week, I mean five work days. Given that these breaks are not frequent, anytime a long-ish weekend does come around, I usually go somewhere – either outside of Seoul or to a nearby country, (and there is no shortage of epic destinations to choose from).
Bali, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Guam, Singapore... These were among my top tentative summer vacation destinations, and, with a solid week off, I could have easily visited one or more of them. I never, (and I mean never), imagined that I would spend my week off going back to North Carolina. It seemed silly to go over 7,000 miles for such a short amount of time. Then, one night, I had an all too vivid dream about home. I woke up the next morning in a huge funk and immediately started searching flights back to North Carolina. They were expensive, but I knew that I could make it work.
I have always been a family oriented person, and, even though, (like most families), we have stupid, trivial disagreements, being away from them for so long is the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced. Now, despite living on the other side of the globe, my family and I are surprisingly closer than ever. I’m so grateful that they’re supportive of my travel and career goals, but a year is a long time to go without seeing the people who matter to you the most.
Though I have missed home this year, I’ve also had a truly incredibly time that is, quite honestly, difficult to put into words. I’ve had some pretty culturally shocking experiences, but nothing could have prepared me for the reverse culture shock I experienced when I came back home.
The thing they don’t tell you about traveling is how strange it feels to go back to your old stomping grounds. When you leave home, it’s like you’re removing yourself, a single piece, from a puzzle. While you’re gone, you grow, you change. You become a bigger, better, more colorful version of the person you once were… and become more of the person you’re meant to be… and when you go back home to that puzzle, you will likely find that you don’t exactly fit there anymore. Home is the same, but you’re not.
Going back home for a week cured my homesickness in more ways than one. It was so nice being able to spend time with family and friends, but I was also reminded why I started this journey in the first place. About mid-way through my trip home, I got really sad about having to leave so soon. Then I went to have lunch with my mom at the restaurant where I used to bartend. It was dark, dead, and filled with employees and managers that I didn’t recognize. They all looked pretty miserable, and I was reminded how lucky I am to finally have a job that is both rewarding and challenging.
There is a time and place for everything, and I had my time to live and work in my hometown. It was an awesome place to grow up, and I miss it all the time… but there is so much more out there to see and experience, and I am enjoying the hell out of doing just that.
It’s cliché but oh so true that the world is a book, and those who don’t travel just read one page. Maybe home is the best damn page in the whole book, and, like I said, I love my hometown… but if you never leave and experience anything else, how will you ever know? How can you ever truly appreciate it? Leaving home and living abroad has been the best choice I’ve ever made. I now have a greater appreciation for other cultures and for the place I call home.
While I was at home, a lot of people said things like, “Wow – Asia… Must have been quite the culture shock going there,” and, yes, it has been, yes. I told them funny stories about couples’ outfits, squat toilets, and convenience store hopping. What I didn’t tell them is that the real culture shock had been in coming home.
The biggest reverse culture shocks were
1) The lack of Wi-Fi.
I got bored on the plane and linked up to United Airlines’ Wi-Fi service… so, I literally flew all the way from Asia to America surfing the web and checking in with family and friends. When I landed at the New Jersey airport, my American SIM card wasn’t working and there was not a single open internet connection to be found. Given that, in Seoul, you can link up to wifi on the subway, walking down the street, and in just about every coffee shop I’ve ever been in, the fact that I couldn’t connect in an international airport was a bit ridiculous.
2) All of the English.
HOLY COW. I landed at the airport in the states and I could understand EVERYTHING that people were saying around me… which is more strange than you may think after a year of living in Asia. I kind of didn’t like it to be honest. Though Asia can be sensory overload with all of its flashing lights, new sights, and different smells, I found that being back in the states was an overload of English. I was unintentionally eavesdropping on everyone, and my brain was working overtime.
3) People not knowing the difference between North and South Korea.
I had a long layover in Jersey, and approximately $0 USD, so I made my way to a currency exchange stand shortly after arriving. I didn’t see it on their exchange rate sign, so I asked the girl working the stand whether or not they exchanged Korean won. She responded, “Which Korea – North or South?” AS IF I HAD BEEN ON SOME SORT OF LEISURELY VACATION TO HANG WITH KIM JUNG UN. I was baffled, given a very quick reality check that I was back in America, and that's all I have to say about that.
4) The bars. They close early… And you have to tip.
Even though I used to be a bartender, I’ve gotten really accustomed to not having to tip in Asia. Thankfully, I didn’t buy many drinks back home. I only went out a couple of times at home, but the nights ended way too early due to the 2 a.m. closing time.
5) What public transportation?
Speaking of going out, I had forgotten how hard it is to get around in the States. Thank goodness I had a little sister to be my chauffeur for the week... except for that one time my dad was my DD.
After a year of living in Seoul, I’ve also become accustomed to just hopping on the train or in a cab at the end of a night out – but the subway doesn’t exist in Greensboro, and Uber rides from Greensboro to Pleasant Garden will cost you a limb or two. I was super grateful when my dad offered to pick me up after a night out at Jake’s (a laid back Greensboro bar, whose floppy chips I have dearly missed). At the end of the night, he came and picked me up – like walked into the bar and everything. The Kirst of the past would probably have been MORTIFIED by this, but I was extremely excited and introducing him to my friends. Shout out to you, dad – you’re the best.
In addition to these “reverse culture shocks,” seeing the political circus that is the American presidential campaign, via the US media, was enough to make me not too sad about leaving for another year abroad.
Despite the long journey back to the states… (which involved passing out in-flight, spending about an hour over Canada on oxygen, barely adjusting to the time zone, going to a year’s worth of doctor visits in a matter of days, and turning right around to come back to Seoul), and the reverse culture shocks… I am so glad I took advantage of my summer vacation to go home.
Don’t get me wrong: I would have loved to sun bathe in Bali or sightsee in Hong Kong for a week. I’ve still got an extreme case of the travel bug, and love flying off to new places as much as the next person, but sometimes it takes leaving to find out there's no place like home. Words really can't describe how thankful I am for the time I was able to spend with my family this summer. Playing darts with my dad, chatting with my mom on our back deck (and actually being able to see the stars), taking on Target with my sisters, celebrating Christmas (in July), baseball games with old friends, eating all the Bojangles I could handle, and hanging out in my cozy living room watching RedBox movies with my family and my dog was EXACTLY what I needed.
The truth is, places will always be there. Bali isn’t going anywhere, and home isn’t either… but people won’t always be around, so you have to take advantage of the time you can spend with them. I’m so thankful to have family and friends who made the trip so worthwhile – see you all soon… maybe for next Christmas in July.