A little more than a year ago I left behind my family, my friends and my job in Reno. I did this because Chungdahm April Language Academy offered me work teaching English in Korea. Here’s what happened.
Return to the United States
“그레하운드 장류정에 가야 해요.”
I was standing at the airport in San Francisco when I uttered my first words on American soil in more than a year. Unfortunately for my cabbie, the quotation above is what came out.
“Sorry,” I said. “Please take me to the Greyhound bus stop.”
I took my seat in the back of the comically large Ford sedan. Had Crown Victorias seemed so ridiculous before Korea, I asked myself. And what about these people, I wondered. They look so butch, so ludicrously tough guy. The cab pulled to a stop and the driver asked me for $38, or about four times what I’d grown accustomed to paying cabs in Korea.
I got out and went inside the bus stop. The jet lag came at me in waves. I had to find rest, I had to piss. The friendly lady with green eyelashes and heavily greased hair pointed me to the restroom. On my way I walked past homeless Vietnam veterans and gangsters with vacant stares, dirty jackets and missing teeth. I held my valuables closely and planned escape routes. You should not be here with two suitcases, a laptop computer and an expensive looking button down shirt, I thought.
Filled with the experience of culture shock in my own native land, I ducked into the bathroom thinking I could sit in one of the stalls and get myself oriented. It was a good thought, but someone had taken a dump on the floor and the shit spread out through the bathroom like the world’s smelliest Gustav Klimt painting. I’d wait to take that piss.
I’m not being fair to San Francisco of course. I didn’t have a car and I was using public transportation which, if we’re honest, is primarily used by weirdoes and druggies in the US. I was seeing the worst of the Bay Area, but none of that made the reunion any less intimidating to me. It wasn’t Daegu, Korea anymore. I couldn’t behave in the way I’d become accustomed over the last year.
As I waited for my bus to arrive I drank three cups of coffee and started reading Dante’s Inferno. I finished the first few cantos in which Dante loses his way and is compelled to cross into the alien lands of hell. That’s when the strangest realization of my adult life hit me. America didn’t feel as much like home as Korea did.
Leaving San Francisco on the Greyhound bus I slowly re-oriented myself to America. The people who all drive cars to work and speak English, the fact I had to tip at restaurants, the weirdness of handing merchants money with both hands. It was then I reflected on how, in one year, Korea had supplanted so much of the culture I spent my first 24 years immersed in. I looked out the window, went blank and ignored the smelly people talking loudly at the back of the bus.
Dear Korea, I thought. Thank you for giving me freedom. For that year all the things expected of a young man in Nevada melted away. In that far away land the people expected me to be nothing except different from them, and it that, they offered me the freedom to make Ben Garrido into whatever I wanted. Perhaps that, even more than the friends and the students and the easy life, is why I felt like I had left my real home behind when I crossed east over Donner Summit.
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