I wrote this in 2004 to deal with my first time home in two years after being in Korea. It interests me now as a matter of reflection.
—side note to my pants-less editor: I used to be a horrible abuser of commas. See how I've grown?
—Ed note: Comma abuse has been preserved for posterity.
It was hot when I stepped off the plane. The 12th of May and it was hot, sweaty, sticky, and raining in Chicago. It was cold when, raining, and humid when I left Korea the day before, and somehow I thought that it would be pleasant in the US when I landed. I wanted it to be pleasant, friendly, cool, inviting, and sunny. It was instead, what it was, for good or ill, the US of A. They say the culture shock is always worse when you come back to the US after leaving Asia, but I always assumed that couldn’t possibly be true. I mean, I know America, it’s only been a couple of years, really, I hadn’t been gone that long. Like many people I bugged out in 2002 after the general countrywide nervous break down of 911 I needed a change, a job, and money in the bank. So hi-ho I went, but eventually I intended to return.
A year later the return had still not taken place, and I realized that I was scared. I was scared of the US and what it was becoming. I was scared to go back, I didn’t necessarily love Korea, but I wasn’t afraid of Korea anymore. Once I got over the three in the morning Blade Runner flashbacks while driving down the streets of Daegu, I actually liked Korea. There are parts of it that were certainly like living in a sci-fi novel of Dickian proportions (that’s Phillip K. proportions).
The news did not help my fear of the US at all. The more I read, the more afraid I became. The US had always had it’s police state like tendencies, but as time after the 911 crisis rolled inevitably on, America got scary. The Homeland Security act was the biggest knife of fear working in my back, and so I stayed in cool, comfortable quiet Korea. The only thing I had to fear there was an invasion and possibly nuclear war with the North, I figured I’d take my chances.
All good things come to an end, and so did my job, a bad end, mind you, that made me realize that maybe America wasn’t such a bad place after all. I mean at least in the last couple of jobs that I’d quit or gotten fired from I still at least got my last pay check and any other money I was owed. Hell, I remember the telemarketing job I spent exactly one night at before walking out on it, and they sent me a check for the evening of “training”. Korea, however, has a contract finalization clause that is very close to Murphy’s Law “anything that can go wrong will” and it did. Actually the scary US Korean Embassy has an entire portion of it’s website dedicated to warning teachers from coming to Korea, with the “don’t come crying to us if you get the shit” clause printed loud and clear.
So, after two years, my safe haven look a little less safe and friendly, and a lot meaner, and so off I was, on a plane for the US, swallowing my pride, my fear, and tucking my tail between my legs and coming back to the land of the patriotic troglodyte, and alas, uninformed. However, I thought to myself, how bad can it be, there’s NPR, there’s Burritos, there’s a whole country of people that understand that pork is meat and not a vegetable, surly, I will find myself at home again, once I get there.
A fifteen-hour plane ride later we disembarked in the good ole US of A. After running the lanes to immigration, I saw the mother of all lines. It stretched out for a mile from the area, and I realized, that there was hell to pay for exiting the country. Fortunately I was traveling with the slightly more conscious friend Sam who quickly pointed out that the line I was stepping into was the line for non-US residents, and that the lines we wanted where the emptier and more numerous ones on the other side. On entering and leaving the US to go to Korea I spent a total of about 30 minutes in immigration. Immigrating into Korea two years prior had taken only 5 minutes of my life, far less time that collecting my bags.
However, those unlucky souls who were entering the US had not only to wait in a line that stretched to Wisconsin, they would also be fingerprinted, and photographed like criminals. There was also a bench, among the woven maze of line, were several people were sitting. Three of them were Muslim or Hindu men, who were wearing turbans. There were three other men of obvious Middle Eastern origin. The bench was for that special run through security that was not “racially profiling” visitors to the US.
Finally we managed to get through our lines, and get our bags, and I was specially selected to have my bags run through the extra X-ray machine because I might be disreputable. Unlike the Arab gentlemen behind me who had to open his bags and was asked exceedingly condescending questions about his loaf of bread in this carry on “you cannot import foods, flora, or fauna to the US, sir.” I was waved through with nary a glance, and no confiscation of the Korean cookies, snack bars, and other foods in my bag.
And then out into the hot sun. And on the long drive across Illinois to my lodging in Indiana. I realized that the time it took us to drive from Chicago to my summer home was longer than the time I spent on the train that traveled across the entire country of Korea bringing me from Southern Daegu to Northern Seoul. It took two and a half hours to get home after we got off the plane; it took 1 hour and 45 minutes to get from Daegu to Seoul.
I’ve been back for two less than two months. I leave for Korea again in less than 20 days. I have found my time in America to be fruitful. There are things here that are more convenient, like pharmacies and Mexican restaurants, and clothing stores with sizes that extend beyond 0, but the number of inconveniences has overwhelmed me. Where are the 24 hour, 90cent an hour internet cafes? Why aren’t the bars open 24 hours a day? Why are there so many commercials on T.V.? Why is it so hard to get Kimchi? I have no idea. I couldn’t begin to answer any of these questions.
The faults of Korea are more than numerous, don’t get me wrong, but in the long wrong, it is perhaps easier to be in a county that is not in favor of war, trying to make peace with North Korea, has universal health care coverage for both foreign and native, and provides my living expenses (like an apartment) without my help. I like those things. I like being able to go to a doctor for 3 dollars a visit. My back hurts, since I’ve gotten back, and I can’t go to the doctor. I need to see a gynecologist and will have to go to Planned Parenthood because I have no insurance. My president, who I did not vote for, who so many people did not vote for, is a fool, and worse, criminally sadistic.
With plane tickets in hand, packing begins, and back to Korea I will go. Two years from now perhaps I will see it differently. Maybe by then the US will have caught up with Korea and have become more convenient place to live, one that believes in taking care of citizens and treating them like human beings, rather than like prisoners; One that has a cautious respect and even admiration for it’s foreign citizens, rather than a foaming at the mouth paranoid fear. One that is not terrorized by it’s elected officials, but rather be real threats, like it’s next-door neighbor with nuclear arms (Koreans, don’t fear North Korea, many embrace it).
Don’t get me wrong. I’m going to miss the US. I will miss the girls. Beautiful girls of varying shapes and colors. I love the variety of women in the US, variety is sparse in South K. I’ll miss pornography (you can’t get porn in Korea) and I’ll miss cheese. This yellow golden vicious plastic that comes in so many shapes, colors sizes and flavors from sweet to smokey that I could write and entire article about it alone. I will have to forgo Gouda, and Swiss, cheddar, and Havarti, for a steady paycheck, and a place to live. Onto a plane I go, and off to South Korea for good or ill, until things get better or worse again and I come crawling back, eating my words, swallowing my pride, and accepting again, the mantle of American.