In the seventies, my parents and my toddler brother set out to explore a foreign land. Their expat life was short-lived, but their stories lasted for a lifetime. As a young kid who hadn’t travelled at all, I found their stories to be alluring. I was hooked by a life that was alien to the one I knew and lived.
Decades later, I set out on my own journey (with Basil) to explore another country. As an adult, I realised: expat life isn’t always rosy or what you think it looks like from the other side. And no matter how much you may have traveled across the globe — hiccups are an integral part of the growth of an expat.
“Sometimes I long to forget… It is painful to be conscious of two worlds.”
― Eva Hoffman
I’ve just returned to Seoul, after spending nearly a month with family and friends. A trip back home often turns out to be a tricky situation for me. It’s hard to avoid all the confusion in my head. Sometimes, I’m so used to be being the alien, in a foreign country, that even in the midst of people I’ve grown up with and spent my entire life — I feel like the odd one out.
“Our histories cling to us. We are shaped by where we come from.”
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“Where are you from?” is the icebreaker for most expat interactions. I used to find that very annoying in my early days in Seoul. Maybe, I’ve struggled with my identity and always wondered if I can truly be who I’m are supposed to be? Over time, I’ve learned not to let the question bother me. It’s hard to escape questions though. These days, the question is replaced by, “How long will you stay here?”. It’s interesting because my answer is the same to everyone, but the reaction is different depending upon who’s asking.
“All good things in life are fragile and easily lost”
― Khaled Hosseini,
My family and friends remember me as an extremely sensitive person. And I believe, this personality trait helps me observe people and cultures in a way that’s very different from others. But for some reason, sensitive people are thought to be overtly emotional and irrational. As an expat, I think my sensitivity was the first to fade away. I feel emotionally vacant at times and it’s liberating from the complex emotions I used to feel back home.
“Pet names are a persistant remnant of childhood, a reminder that life is not always so serious, so formal, so complicated. They are a reminder, too, that one is not all things to all people.”
― Jhumpa Lahiri,
On the upside, moving to another place gave me an opportunity to start afresh. To wipe the slate clean, forget the mistakes of the past, and explore another side of my personality. I never knew the strength that lies within. And it has helped me become someone very different from the person I thought I was. I still have some anxious moments and a feeling of vulnerability at times. But those moments are quickly replaced by a newfound self-belief.
“Isolation offered its own form of companionship”
― Jhumpa Lahiri,
As an introvert, I enjoy the isolation. I think it lets me be a part of the whole without necessarily having to interact with what’s around me. No one expects anything from me and that gives me a strange kind of freedom.
How easy it was to lie to strangers, to create with strangers the versions of our lives we imagined.”
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,
Most expats choose to stick with people who can speak the same language, or practice a common belief, or look physically similar, or come from a common land. I was quite a rebel and chose to speak to just about everyone who would speak to me. I met people from different continents who spoke languages I couldn’t understand; believers who tried to convert me to their faith and nonbelievers who told me I was on the right track; cynics who made me feel right at home and pragmatists who told me to lighten up.
And through their eyes — I travelled the globe and discovered places that no travel site could truly tell me about. I realised the world is pretty simple to figure if you forget everything that divides you and just put everyone in a common pool.
Korean winters are brutal. And that’s not because I come from a warm place. In January, temperatures plummet below 0 and the winds from Siberia can freeze your face in minutes. The warnings for the next two days aren’t very appealing. The heater is my new best friend and I’m thankful to each ray of sunshine that trickles through our apartment. It’s 2018, I’ve completed a year and half in Seoul, and I’m hoping this year will be as exciting as the last!