Surviving a cold winter isn’t easy. The days are short, the sun becomes a mythical entity, a sheath of white spreads over, and winds blow from lands — you’d probably never get to see. In Seoul, the streets often resemble Gotham city, with skyscrapers reflecting the darkness a million times over — doing nothing to lift your fallen spirit or broken mood. If you’ve got a vivid imagination, like mine, you might just think you’ve walked into a comic book and didn’t know how to get out.
“No matter where you are, you’re always a bit on your own, always an outsider.”
― Banana Yoshimoto
Honestly, surviving winter, is not something I wanted to tick off my bucket list. Unlike Basil, I’ve always tried to run miles aways from the cold. And, enchanting as the snow has appeared in our posts, by the end of February, I craved for the sun and warm days. The timing for a trip back home couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment. However, returning home after 6 months, doesn’t come without its own set of challenges and trepidation.
“Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.”
― Anita Desai
As a traveller, you can choose to be: a spectator, a silent observer, or a participant. As an expat, the choice is never truly yours. Fitting in is the only way forward. And, if you like to be inconspicuous like me, a thick winter jacket might just do the trick. Strangely, no matter how long you stay, wherever you do, and try hard to do what the locals do; the instant you step into a tourist zone — it’s easy to be confused as one.
I rarely like to fall for tourist traps, and yet, there are times it might not be such a bad idea to give in. On a 2 hour wait at the airport, before my flight back home, I tried to fight boredom and sleep in equal measure. With nowhere particular to reach, I walked into an enactment of a royal parade. This zone was brimming with cultural activities and performances. I doubled as a tourist, clicked pictures of everything culturally exotic, tried Hanji (Korean handmade paper) stamping, and seemed to blend effortlessly in the sea of travellers.
“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
― Terry Pratchett
9 hours later I was on familiar ground and yet, I couldn’t seem to recognise it anymore. It’s strange how foreign everything felt and I wondered: if it was me who had turned foreigner instead? Unwittingly, I had chosen to become an observer. I’d read about pangs of readjustment in blogs and online articles. I just never thought it would ever happen to me.
The suburb, I grew up in, seemed a lot more different. Cars honked in the red light, dust and expensive perfume competed for a spot of air, and prices reflected the rent for real estate. Many expats had chosen to settle here and they seemed more at ease than me. My sleepy suburb had probably died a slow death, when it was taken over by high-rises and local celebrities; I hadn’t been around to realise it.
To my friends, the ones I hadn’t seen in more than a year, I had become a time traveller. They seemed to have moved ahead, unaffected, while I was stuck back in time and nostalgia. Sadly, my time machine hadn’t reset my date of travel — to the time — I could have had a conversation without feeling like the odd one out.
“I think you travel to search and you come back home to find yourself there.”
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
In the duration of my month long stay, the feeling of being lost, never left me, and I wondered if I had tried to hard fit in Seoul that I had forgotten where I came from. The weeks that followed didn’t seem to clear the haze and I felt the need to leave all the confusion behind and head to a place I felt most at home — the mountains. Things don’t always work the way you want them to and I had to make a trip to my hometown instead. And like everything else that I’d seen before — change was hard to escape. Strangely, in the quiet of my mum’s front yard and under the umbrella of the old jackfruit tree, I seemed to finally make peace with my situation. Not needing to belong anywhere or hide under a blanket of who I needed to be — set me free. And as much as we’re urged to seek our identity under the security of a particular cultural heritage, either one we’re born into or taught as a rite of passage, I think it’s OK for some of us to become drifting clouds in the wide open blue sky — soaking new cultures whilst never forgetting the old.
“The journey itself is my home.”
― Bashō Matsuo
Few places evoke as many emotions as the airport. I’ve never really learned to say goodbye and when it’s your parents trying hard to fight moist eyes, it doesn’t make it any easier. And although, I didn’t want to leave — it was time to go back. The cherry blossoms marked our year long stay in Seoul. Like the last year, spring marks a return of life and the chance for new beginnings. I’m not sure how much longer we’d be here, or if it will get easier, but knowing that home does not have to be restricted to a piece of land within a picket fence, or a box of childhood memories, or a space between four walls — makes living anywhere feel a lot like home.