My body clock said 5am, but it was 6pm in London. I was at Heathrow Airport, about to take the last leg in my three flight, 20 hour odyssey from Busan to Dublin.
I had eye bags that should have been checked into the aircraft hold, and a stupid grin on my face. I arrived at the boarding gate and did nothing for a solid hour but sit and listen to the Irish accents around me. I must have been a weird sight, but I was too tired and happy to care.
There was a gang of lads on their way home from a rugby match, plenty of young professional types and a few families with kids. They were the kind of people who hop over to London and back regularly, and were far too relaxed for my liking. I wanted there to be a sense of occasion, so that my surroundings would mirror how I was feeling. I wanted to tell everyone that I was about to have my first hug from my mammy in a year. But I just kept grinning like an idiot.
In Dublin I took my luggage off the conveyor belt and found a mirror to stare into, trying for something like composure. It turned out to be pointless. I walked through those doors and saw my mother and sister standing there with Valentines Day balloons (it happened to be the 14th), and I only managed to say ‘mum’ before bursting into tears.
Over the next fortnight I stuffed my face with all the food I’d missed, caught up with friends and family, and met all the babies who were inconsiderate enough to arrive while I was out of the country. There were nights out and nights in, trips down to the wilds of West Cork and up to the Big Smoke of Dublin.
There were moments when it felt like I never left Ireland, and moments when I wondered if I had really only been gone a year. The latter is what I want to focus about in the rest of this post – the times when I realised my ‘normal’ had changed, and I was looking at Ireland through a different lens than before.
1. Everything looks so different
On the way home from Dublin Airport, the first thing that struck me was how flat everything looks in Ireland, and how much sky you can see. Korea is very mountainous so there is very limited flat land on which to build. I had gotten used to looking up at mountains, tall buildings, and even tall buildings on mountainsides.
Orientating yourself is also very different in both countries. I had a new appreciation for being able to get into a taxi and say ‘number 30 X road’ rather than ‘It’s on the green line between X and Y subway station, on the right hand side just after the Angel-in-us and before the Baskin Robbins’. In Korea the streets don’t have names so places are described by way of subway stations and landmarks.
Another thing that that struck me is how much easier it is to find shops and businesses in Ireland because most things are on the ground floor. In Korea you’ll hear about a great new restaurant on the 7th floor of a building, so you walk down the street craning your neck as you try to find the sign without bumping into anyone.
I also found Ireland to be a lot cleaner than I remembered. In Korea rubbish bins are pretty much non-existent in public places and you are expected to hang on to things until you get home, which is too much for a lot of people. As well as this, the normal way of distributing businesses cards in Korea is to ride and scooter down the road and throw them in every direction (the first time a business card comes flying in your face is a bit disconcerting). So the pavements are littered with those godforsaken business cards, as well as disposable coffee cups and food wrappers. I know Ireland has its problems with litter but it could be a lot worse.
I also noticed that Irish streets looked very neat and almost monochrome in comparison with the neon and clutter of Korea. It was nice not to have to navigate around such obstacles as old women crouched on the ground selling fruit and vegetables, waving inflatable men, and people shoving leaflets in your face. Ireland’s streets are easier to traverse but there is certainly a lot more to look at in Korea.
2. Korea has changed me
You spend months learning how to come across as a polite person around Koreans. You try to consciously remember a whole range of etiquette until it becomes second nature. Always poor others’ drinks and allow them to pour yours. Share food. Give and accept things with both hands. Bow with your whole back; a nod isn’t a small bow. And for the love of god, don’t walk into someone’s house before taking off your shoes.
Even though I still make plenty of faux pas in Korea, it wasn’t until I saw myself through puzzled Irish eyes that I realised how many Korean mannerisms I have adopted. The first instance was when I was stocking up on Dunnes Stores knickers and handed the cashier my tenner with both hands. There were several after that. I even found myself getting irked by people walking inside with their shoes on, even if it was their house and I was a guest.
I think this video definitely captures what it’s like to experience this aspect of reverse culture shock and it’s pretty hilarious too:
3. People talk an awful lot of shite
I say ‘people’ because I don’t just mean Irish people. I’m sure Koreans talk a lot of shite too, but the difference is that when I go about my business in Korea I’m unable to understand most of what’s being said around me. It’s all just background hum, so I spend a lot of time either in my own thoughts or absorbing things around me through my other senses.
Suddenly regaining the power to eavesdrop was a shock. No matter how dull the conversation, I found myself unable to tune out. Concentrating on a book or magazine became impossible.
Korea definitely makes me a more reflective person, but mostly because I can’t sit back back and listen to the gossip about who shifted who at the weekend.
4. Irish lads are the loveliest lads in the Lovely Irish Lads Competition
(Please brace yourself for a moment of extreme shallowness.)
Asian men are rarely the protagonists in Hollywood movies. When cast at all, they are often just the comic relief (that dude in The Hangover?). The media don’t expose us to a lot of handsome Asian men, so I was surprised when I came to Korea and saw absolute crackers everywhere I went.
In Korea, ideas of masculinity are very different to in Ireland. This is an ridiculous generalisation, but Korean men tend to put a lot effort into how they present themselves, they care about style and are very well groomed, whereas Irish men tend to be handsome in an effortless, rough-around-the-edges way.
I became so accustomed to Korean ideals of masculinity (partly under the influence of the middle school girls I teach) that I forgot about all the ride-bags in Ireland. When I came home I noticed them all over again.
If I am ever in a position of having to explain homeostasis to someone, I’ll tell them about the time I left Ireland for Korea and my perception of attractiveness adjusted to my new surroundings.
5. Irish drivers are actually pretty sound
How bad is the driving in Korea? So bad that when I came came back to Ireland and stood at a zebra crossing and the cars actually stopped to let me cross the road, I inwardly squealed.
If they think they can get away with it, many drivers in Korea will break red lights, park like assholes and ignore the rules of the road in general. The footpath isn’t safe either – scooters, most of them delivering fast food, speed down the pavements and endanger everyone from toddlers to old people.
Eat your Kimchi did a pretty good run-down a while ago:
South Korea is near the bottom in terms of traffic safety among the OECD countries. Adjusted for population size, 3.2 times as many people die on Korean roads than Irish roads every year. The problems stem from very lax law enforcement, the power of the big car companies like Kia and Hyundai, and how ridiculously easy it is to get a driving licence.
After living negotiating the chaos of Korean roads for a year, the roads in Ireland seemed unbelievably safe and orderly. I know we have our problems, but at least you have to get actual lessons before your test, and the laws are enforced for the most part. In Ireland you can even ride a bicycle relatively safely, something I have only ever done in the safe confines of a park in Korea.
6. Standing out is hard to do
When I first came to Korea I would see another white person on the subway and think ‘Wow, he/she stands out like a sore thumb’. Then I realised that I must look like that too. Korea is one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in the world, so as a foreigner (particularly one with light-coloured hair) looking different is a part of life.
But it’s not just looking different, it’s feeling different too. I take on the helpless child role whenever I have to ask Korean friends for help with things I could easily do back home – banking, phone contracts, doctor visits and so on. I work at a place where I am the only non-Korean out of about 750 people. I’m the one who can’t properly take part in conversations or understand announcements.
I am a person with thoughts and opinions, but due to my limited Korean, I can often portray little more than my ethnicity.
When I came back to Ireland, I appreciated being seen as just a person, rather than a white person. I enjoyed every moment of polite small talk, as well as being able to ask for something in a shop or order from a menu without any struggle at all. It even felt wonderful to speak our gloriously weird Irish brand of English. It was really the sense of belonging and feeling normal that I was basking in.
Without a doubt, teaching in Korea is a very privileged life. For the most part we are respected and regarded with interest. So I know my experience is different to that of many foreigners living in Ireland. But as I walked the streets of Dublin in February, I saw people of various races in a different way than I had a year before. I could finally understand what is to be outsider looking in, to constantly encounter reminders that you are different.
Back in the land of the rising sun…
They say that when you leave home for an extended time, you can develop an idealised picture that doesn’t match up to reality. But I can honestly say that I didn’t experience this at all. Ireland has its flaws and a lot of problems to sort out but it’s home. So coming back to Korea wasn’t easy (and not just for the reasons outlined in the previous post!), and I wondered if I’d made the right decision.
But I know that eventually all the trips, nights out and catching up with friends would subside and I would have to try to find a job and figure out real life. That’s something I’m not ready to do just yet. So Ireland, I love you and I will be back. Just not yet.