Tuesday, August 04, 2009

As my first year in Korea comes to an end, I'm embarrassed to remember my first days and weeks here. I spoke English to everybody thinking that all Koreans spoke basic conversational English. In reality, a store clerk who can tell you how much something costs in English probably ranks in the top 20% for English ability. I laboriously matched what I thought were Chinese-style characters to learn to read three words in Korean: hour, Suwon, and won. I walked through a grocery store and found absolutely nothing appetizing. I walked down the main street of my rice field-bound neighbourhood and considered it not all that different from the meeting of Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street. Unlike most people I know, I stayed in neither an apartment nor a motel when I arrived. I stayed in the large, air-conditioned apartment of my director (who was on vacation), with its purple couch, deafening silence and complete isolation.

I've made two new beginnings in my life, the first when I moved to Canada and the second last summer. Each was embarrassing in ways I can't even articulate, but the embarrassment of coming here was intensely personal because it was done on a whim, my whim. I decided in April that I would go to Korea. Three months later, with a little paperwork, I was here. Moving to Canada, as I remember it, took about two years and we left with the expectation of never returning. Moving to Korea was something I cooked up and, given that I always like to give the impression that I know exactly what I'm doing, not being able to find a decent snack or even figure out which buildings were restaurants and which were real estate agents was a serious kick in the pants.

Later on, I made day trips to Seoul and longer trips to Hong Kong, Osaka, Tokyo, Beijing (and soon Shanghai) for the express purpose of walking around unsure of which buildings were restaurants and which were real estate agents. The day I learned to read Korean and understand what exactly storefronts read (about 30% are auspiciously-named real estate agents, another 30% are dentists and Korean-style doctors) was the day that the adventure died a little.

New beginnings are, I think, easier for someone like me. Living in Korea, a nation-state where everyone speaks Korean, is an ethnic Korean and has a three-syllable name, I came to realize how shallow my own background is. I was born in Pakistan, the second and last generation of my family to be born there, to people whose parents came from India (and elsewhere before that). I grew up in Canada, where my mom made Pakistani and Italian food, and I ate Jamaican patties, cheap Chinese food and donuts. Religion aside, my family has few traditions or "traditional foods" as Koreans like to ask. It goes without saying, of course, that as an ethnic Pakistani, what I consider my family is a group of 100 very close-knit people. Still, I've lived in seven houses not counting the three I rented in university or the one I have now.

I wasn't raised with the canon of Canadian culture (Christmas, Star Wars movies, a strange obsession with lying mostly naked outside on hot days) and I want nothing to do with Pakistani culture (coming up with conspiracy theories, technocracy, rice dishes with peculiar ingredients). The result is that I struggle to read my native language and stare at coworkers in disbelief for never having heard of the Iliad, much less being familiar with the details of its plot.

Many people get homesick living here. If I was actually from anywhere, I would have something to miss.

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