Stranger in homeland
``I have to take this,” said the Korean immigration official at Incheon International Airport, a stern middle-aged man with glasses and a crew cut, as he held my alien registration card in his hands, a card that I considered part of my life, my identity, a symbol of my more than five years living in Seoul.
``Isn’t there any way?” I asked in a defeated, desperate tone only to have him shake his head and wave me through the booth onto the bustling shopping area and my life outside Korea.
Some 20 hours later, my connection flight out of New York City descended across Boston Harbor as I looked out over the Atlantic wondering if my two giant duffel bags sat in the belly of the plane, if anyone would be waiting for me when I deplaned and what it would be like to return to New Hampshire ― the state of my birth ― after years spent living in Asia.
Headed north an hour later on Interstate 93 in my older brother’s Volvo with my bags ― all 52 kgs (114 lbs) of them ― in the back, I watched the spring evening settle over the filling treetops far removed from Seoul’s marching apartment complexes and staggered skyscrapers.
On our way to my brother’s 1825 Cape-style home, we stopped at the local supermarket, a massive store filled with too many things to choose from, in which I waited for a man to come over the intercom announcing some sort of sale on bananas or pork or garlic. But only silence and languid shoppers roamed the aisles.
When we finally got to my brother’s home near the end of an eight-mile dead-end road that leads to a boat launch on Lake Winnipesaukee (the largest lake in the state), the sky had already begun to fill with stars and darkness was creeping into the thick woods.
Inside the old two-story home the smell of smoke and stone filled rooms and wood floors creaked underfoot. Later, as I settled down to sleep, a strange silence filled my ears and the usual difficulty I have sleeping after long flights slipped away.
As my first days unfolded, shedding the independence and convenience of Korea proved most difficult. I’d left behind a lot: My modern, one-bedroom apartment in the eastern Gwangjin district of Seoul, just a 10-minute walk from work and Mt. Acha; my three minute walk to the local market and two more to a 24-hour convenience store; my 15-minute walk to Gunja subway station for lines 5 and 7 (and on to anywhere); my membership status with phone, cards and markets. Now I had my two feet.
``Three miles to Jo Jo’s,” my brother told me referring to the nearest store. So, two days after arriving, I set out for the old country store and found that three miles really isn’t too far. It helped that the fecundity of New England spring was at work with chestnut, heather, jasmine and lavender hues filling the rising canopies that cover the hills and ranges of the region.
``Nature’s first green is gold,” Robert Frost wrote and I saw that gold as I walked along the calm two-lane road, the rush and bustle of the city drifting away. Jo Jo’s, a white, one-story building with a wrap-around porch on its front, lives up to the designation of ``country store” with all the amenities anyone needs from fresh vegetables and a deli to charcoal and duct tape.
``How ya doing?” asked a middle-aged woman in jeans and a green sweater who was standing behind the register as I walked through the door. I must have looked like a foreigner as I slowly walked the aisles looking at everything just to see what they had much like I would do a stores in Seoul, especially ones that specialized in things like light bulbs or pipes or appliances ― ``There is a store for everything here,” a Brit friend once aptly said.
I didn’t expect to find kimchi, though I would have bought it if they had it. I mostly browsed and left with the local newspaper ― ``The Citizen” ― a bag of peanuts, a loaf of freshly baked bread and three post cards. ``You take care now,” said the woman.
On the walk back I stopped at a bridge that leads to the island where my brother’s home sits and I looked out over the rippled expanse of the lake, out to other islands, along the shores where summer homes peak out from the trees, farther on to mountains that rise making up the beginning of the great White Mountains.
Far removed from the buzz and bustle of Seoul, I reflected on my life in Korea, the friends (and, really, family) that I’d made for life, the mountains I’d climbed, the rivers I’d walked, waded and swum, the temples and palaces I’d visited, the seasons I’d seen, the students I’d taught.
``Do what you have to do,” my Korean brother (or ``hyung” as I call him) told me over a grill sizzling with samgyupsal before I left. ``We’ll always be waiting here for you to return.” Now, as I readjust to life in this bucolic small town in northern New England sans my Korean ID, I know that he, Korea and all those people, places and things will be waiting for me to return as someone who no longer sees the country as a foreign land, but as one of two ``homes.”
The writer taught at Daewon Foreign Language High School for more than five years and has now returned to the U.S. state of New Hampshire. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.