Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Reflecting

It's been a week since my return to Seoul and that seems sufficient time to reflect on the impact of my first trip home since my move abroad. Before heading back to the American Midwest, I wondered how my exposure to home would affect my attitude toward my home away from home, Seoul. Would I become homesick for my country, my family and friends, and a simpler day-to-day life? Would I appreciate Seoul even more upon my return? How would my rural Illinois homeland look after ten months of separation?

Not that different, actually! Grampa John and me at a big Rhodes family party. Look at the beautiful Illinois corn!

The last question is probably the easiest to answer. After a grueling flight itinerary that sent me to Atlanta from Seoul, then back to a regional airport in west central Illinois, my attitude was less than rosy and my patience was paper thin when I finally deplaned. My stint in Atlanta was particularly disappointing, as the most unwelcoming of airport staff barked at my fellow travelers and me as we snaked our way through the lines in customs. "Move it, people, move it. Pay attention. Let's go." No smiles. No eye contact. Certainly no bows of courtesy or gentle, guiding hand gestures that Korean airport personnel have perfected. It looked, and felt, bad. I'll blame my travel-weary disposition for that evening's fixation on the undesirable aspects of American culture: mind-boggling obesity; loud, obnoxious cell phone usage; utter lack of customer service. On the other hand, I relished in the retrieval of personal space. People said, "Excuse me," before and after bumping into me, and even if they hadn't bumped into me at all! That's when I realized I had probably been throwing elbows and stepping on toes with reckless abandon (which is a-okay in Seoul), and I should probably adjust my behavior Stateside. And though it seemed nearly every American around me was overweight, I can't deny heading straight for a big burrito as soon as I touched ground in Atlanta. Night had fallen by the time I arrived in Moline, Illinois where my friend Chris joined me for the last 1.5 hour leg of my journey home. This is when I experienced the starkest visual difference between home and home. The highway was so . . . wide. The buildings so low. The countryside so incredibly dark. The vista so expansive, even under the blanket of night. "Has it always been this dark?" I asked Chris. He confirmed that nothing had changed; surpise, surprise. And as I reacquainted myself with central Illinois in the next week, it seemed exactly the same as I had left it. Unlike my neighborhood in Korea where pharmacies are transformed into eateries in a weekend's time, my American hometown seems like a place where time stands still. A case in point: A new coffee shop opened in town just before I left last September and boasted, "Now open!" on its signboard, along with a short list of menu items. Just two weeks ago, ten months later, the sign hadn't changed, although a few letters were missing. I guess it's still open, and still selling paninis. Walking into another coffee shop to meet friends Jim and Dick looked and felt exactly the way it did a year ago when I would stop in every morning for a cup of joe before work. The same guy working behind the counter, friend Eric, and the same patrons lazily flipping through newspapers, diligently working on laptops, and engaging in casual conversation.

Coffee date with friends Dick and Jim

Thankfully, there was also a lack of change among my friends and family. Almost a year away from home hasn't affected my closest relationships, and it was so heartwarming to pick up right where I left off with my loved ones. Living on opposite sides of the world has actually meant increased contact with some of my friends and fam. Through blogging, e-mails, and phone calls (thanks Clarissa, for the Internet phone!), I've been able to keep in touch on a regular basis and in some cases, more frequently than when I was living in Illinois. It makes me wonder how different expat life must have been before technology allowed such constant, immediate communication.

With grad school friend and international travel buddy, Clarissa

A big family party, a day trip to my alma mater, and a childhood friend's wedding allowed me to reunite with people from all periods of my life. Sharing my Korean experiences made me again realize how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to work and live in a foreign country.

University of Illinois journalism faculty Nancy Benson, Mitch Kazel, and John Paul

Several people asked about the difficult parts of living abroad. It's not the food, I told them. Not the language barrier. Certainly not my job at KBS. Although computers and phones and mail delivery systems make it easy to stay "in touch", it's the actual touch with loved ones, the eye contact during a conversation with a friend, and the close proximity of my strong support system that I miss the most.

Bride Liz and bridesmaid Abby

Weekday lunch with Dad and Grandpa, power walks with mom, and hugs from long-time friends are simple things Seoul's city lights and delicious food can't match. Still, as each month in Korea goes by, I feel more and more at home and I realize that, overall, I'm much more fulfilled here than I was back in rural Illinois. My local support system is getting stronger, and I now think of Macomb, IL as a warm, comforting place to visit.

My mom holds her new Korean vase

It'll always feel like home because of the people who live there and the memories it holds, but will probably never really be home again. It's a thrilling concept in one respect, considering all the possibilities of where my next home could be, but also a melancholy realization that my exposure to the place holding such personal history could be limited to one week a year. Letting go of the steadfast security of my hometown, where signboards don't change in a year's time and I'm likely to run into childhood friends at the grocery store is as scary as it is exciting.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Abby, thank you so much for sharing this with us!! What a wonderful set of comments!!

(and I HATE ATL (airport) as well)

Vic in Arrowbear, CA

Abby Rhodes said...

Hi, Vic,

Thanks for your comments! My Dad often describes ATL as a "logistical nightmare". After several trips through it, I think that's an apt description!

Have a great week!
Abby

Peter said...

A -

Appreciate the insights you've shared concerning your brief sojourn back to the Midwest; concur w/ you that although one can return/go back "home," it's not w/ the same freshly scrubbed innocence one possesses prior to leaving - the constituent memories and experiences one is privy to while away ensures it to be so...

Having spent 3 years in the ATL for grad school (and work), I've got my fair share of headaches concerning Hartsfield (airport) - no need to revisit that anytime soon.

Thanks again for sharing.

Peter.

Abby Rhodes said...

Peter,

It certainly seems I'm not alone in my distate of Hatfield! You're one of many folks who have shared similar sentiments.

Home feels a little different with each international trip I take, but particularly after living abroad.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

Abby

Anonymous said...

Home is where you have your loved ones around. Think of all the friends and colleagues loving you here in Seoul. The office lights up when you enter. There are dozens of people only in this office who missed you so much while you were visiting "home."
Home is nothing else but "people."
We love you, Abby

Abby Rhodes said...

Anonymous,

With such flattering comments, you should let yourself be known! Thank you so much for this heartfelt post. I feel very fortunate to have supportive, loving people around me in BOTH of my homes, the U.S. and Korea.

Thanks again!

Abby