Way back in the seventies, my parents along with my brother (who was three at that time) moved to the UK. Their stint would last for about three years, before they would eventually return home, but stories of their life and travels across Europe, would dominate the rest of their life. As a child, I’d hear stories of cold winters, watch technicolour slides (photographs converted for projection) of old friends (some of whom I would meet on occasion), struggles of adapting (something I never paid much attention to back then), and the stubborn will to make the challenges work in their favour. And now that I think of it, my parents were quite the travellers. In the late eighties, when I was probably 6 (my siblings 9 and 15), they set on a world tour (without us) starting from the west (U.S.) and ending in far east (Japan). Twenty odd years later, my brother was the first to leave for Europe. My sister followed, to another part of the globe, a couple of years later. I still find it strange that my nephews and niece, speak in very different accents. I was the last one to leave the nest, get married, and eventually leave for a different part of the globe. Unlike me, Basil was born in Kuwait, and spent his early childhood there. The move to Seoul (abroad) hasn’t been as difficult for him. Those of you, who have been following our blog, would realise what a rollercoaster ride the last two months had been. But, it’s September, and it’s my favourite month. I was meaning to write this post three weeks back, but a lot has happened since then. And it’s almost October.
1. The leaves have started to turn. Temperatures have significantly dipped, the sun seems to have vanished behind the dark gloom of the rain clouds, and yet, I’ve never been more ecstatic. Fall is near. Last year, at this time, I had made my first visit to Seoul. I never thought that we’d return, let alone stay. I’d missed fall last year. And now, that I’m here, and have successfully passed the test of warm summers — I’m ready to reap the rewards.
2. If I had to compare my fitness to the last year, the progress has been fantastic. The hills that felt like mountains, last year, are much easier to climb. And what is fantastic is that I’ve taken to hiking. It helps that most mountains have the perfect combination of accessibility and challenge. We’ve been taking it slow, letting me get over my fear of heights, stand-up without railings, and letting that weak knee warm up to climbs. Things have begun to shape up.
3. I’ve never liked craft in school. Oddly, I’ve developed a keen interest in Hanji (traditional Korean handmade paper) craftwork. It helps, to have a perfectionist for a teacher, who ensures each artwork is perfectly pasted and dried. Her English is broken and so is my Korean. The combination just proves that language is only a form of communication.
Learning the craft of Jagae (Mother of Pearl) at the cultural centre.
4. My bike from Gmarket has finally arrived. Basil tried his best to assemble it and eventually had to get it fixed in the bike shop. Turns out, once you learn to ride a bike, play guitar, or even write; you can never really forget. So, after few test runs on relatively empty streets of Seoul and after nearly running over few scared locals; turns out I haven’t forgotten to ride a bike.
I’ve also developed a new addiction for solving puzzles and building 3 D models. It helps me fill those vacant moments.
5. I’ve made friends, whether or not, they chose to wear their spiritual beliefs around their neck or cultural heritage across their forehead. The only line that I draw, is when, I come across a closed mind. When we made the move to Seoul, we were advised to stay with fellow expats or better still with our own people. And I found that strange. As travellers, we always chose to stay with locals, and that’s what made our experiences real. Why should it have been any different as expats? I wouldn’t say it’s easy, when you’re the odd one out. We stay in a locality that has excellent connectivity, but very few expats or foreigners. On rare occasions, I’ve seen the working foreign professional, backpackers, or even soldiers from the U.S. armed forces. And while life has been difficult, right from setting the apartment or figuring how to dispose the trash in the right plastic bag; the challenges of language was the only barrier to be broken. I’ve finally broken ice with locals. My monosyllabic Korean has won me my first smiles. Ajummas have tried having conversations in Korean, ending disappointed that I didn’t know more words. But, the highlight would be, when our stern security guard actually opened the main doors, for me, as I fumbled for the key with two bags in my hands. Ah! The effort has been worth it!
6. I’ve been rather late at realising the dual advantages of being an expat. There are times when you want to be treated as a foreigner, be spoken to in English, or have people smile at you. And on days like those, I head to the tourist districts of Seoul and mingle with the crowds of tourists and foreigners, and double up as a tourist. It’s easy to get lost in the crowd. And as a foreigner, there’s a celebrity status. Chances of getting clicked by flash lights at tourist sights or at the local tourism centres are extremely high. It’s a good morale booster. And then, at the end of it all, I return to where we live, away from the gimmicks, and enjoy the isolation of being the odd one out.
7. Sometimes, I find it hard to understand the ways of the world. For all the mess that we’re in, we still prefer to divide than unite. In Seoul, expats are divided into native and non-native English speakers. Puts me in a predicament of sorts. I’ve never really understood which category I truly fit in. The non-native English speakers ask me if I had an international education and native English speakers tune their ears to spot errors in my grammar. And then, there’s the imaginary wall between first and third worlds. Most of my conversations begin from where I come from, quickly followed by: where from, from where I come from. The next few sentences could either be a monologue of things I always get to hear about or on rare occasions, a dialogue, when I get to try to explain differences in culture. Does it bother me? I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. But, I’ve come to realise, that when someone chooses to put you in a box; it’s a box of their creation. Who’s stopping you, from lifting the lid, stepping out of it and showing them — who you really are or can be — doesn’t necessarily depend on where you come from.
8. There’s another reason I love September. It’s the month that I was born in. And seriously, I might be getting too old, to celebrate birthdays; but this birthday was quite unique. Just when I was feeling all alone, I met a really warm lady from Singapore, in Hanji class, and she was kind enough to treat me to a birthday Bingsu. Over shaved ice and chocolate; we spoke of our lives, countries, and life in Seoul. I ended the day, with dinner with Basil, and quiet walk in the park. The next day, I would travel back home, on my maiden solo international flight. I could have never asked for a better birthday gift.
9. I’ve never been an intrepid traveller and get jittery on airplanes. It’s also one of the reasons I never travelled internationally alone. If there’s anyone who judges you on the hue of your tan, length of your stubble, colour of your passport, or texture of your jacket; it has to be the immigration officer. Following close — are airline ground staff. In Bangkok (my layover), the ground staff carelessly flipped through my passport and smiled and asked me I was transiting in Mumbai. I shook my head and her face turned grim. Do you have a visa? At 5:00 am, in the morning, I panicked. Did I need a visa to enter my own country? I feebly answered, “But, I am from Mumbai”. To which, she smiled apologetically, and said that I didn’t look Indian. I’ve never really understood how a traveller is supposed to look — the look. Guess, I’m doing something right.
10. I was crushed when my dream trip to Mongolia got cancelled in August. Just when I had given up all hopes of travel, we planned for a trip to Indonesia. And then, I decided to cancel it for a trip back home. I never thought that going back home (town) could have made me so happy. But, nothing compares seeing the smile on your parents’ face or the hug of a mum who’s missing you so badly. Strangely, my mum can be my kryptonite and magic potion. The youngest of three, I’d never been known to be the strong one. And yet, these days, my mum considers me to be the strongest of the three. I guess, it takes strength to see your mum unwell, hold her hand, and say things are going to be fine; while you’re trying to stay strong and keep those eyes from moistening. A trip back home can rival any dream destination. Yes, September couldn’t have been better!