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The grass is not always greener
by Chris in Canada


It was December of 2002 and, after 2 years in good old Busan this waeguk was packed and ready to go home. My two years in Busan had literally flown by. After the fun and games of culture shock in the fall of 1999, Busan became home. I met my wife and got married in Korea. I started to experience life in Korea from the inside and this changed my perspective on the place. Now, why did leave if I was so happy?

Simply put, I was burnt out after a two years of working a packed 6-day a week schedule with private lessons to boot. This basically clouded my judgement and I started seeing home (Canada) as the solution to all my problems. I enrolled in a Masters program and my wife and I decided to move to Canada.

Many people write about adapting to life in Korea. The topic of culture shock is often central to such writing efforts as it more than not is a major part of moving to Korea to teach for a year or more. What is less often covered is what is called reverse culture shock. This type of culture shock hits you when you return to your home country and attempt to settle back in to life there. I went through this when I returned to Canada in the winter of 2003.

While living in Korea and working like a dog, I had lost sight of what Canada was like in reality and instead began to focus only on this ideal vision of what life there would be like. That my friends is a huge bear trap we often dig for ourselves as expats in Korea. My pit would end up being pretty deep and I fell right into it a few weeks after landing in my hometown.

I went fro a full time teacher in Busan with an active social life to a full time graduate student with a tight budget faster than you can say go. Savings we had accumulated in Korea went to furnishing an apartment and to covering initial expenses, as my wife could not yet work. I was quickly reintroduced to the realities of life in Canada. This is when I truly began to appreciate what I had in Korea. Why am I writing about this now, nearly 3 years after my return? Simply put, because it took me about that long to settle back in and feel at home again here. The first year back in Canada would be tough as realisation came that life had moved on here while I was teaching in Korea. I started to miss Busan and my friends there. I sometimes felt as if I no longer fit in here. I missed my students and teacher as I was stuck in a classroom as a graduate student. My wife also had to adapt to Canada and as we moved in the winter this was hard on her. As I had missed my family when I moved to Korea, now she missed hers.

What had happened while living in Korea is that I now had two homes: Busan and my hometown in Canada. This was an unexpected turn of events. Who expects this when returning home? Reverse culture shock is far more devious than its more predictable brother. It also takes more time to get over than your basic culture shock because there is nothing novel or new here to distract you or interest you. No new places to explore or new experiences. You are after all returning to the familiarity of home. The 9-5 grind, high taxes, car payments and mortgage sneak up on you and before you know it, Korea becomes some distant shore you long for.

Even today, I get the Korea blues on a regular basis. I start to daydream about the land of the morning calm. Images of my students spring up and I can almost hear the noreabang and smell the bulgogi. I take a mental stroll through the busy streets of Nampodong on a Sunday afternoon or remember the neon bathed scenery of PNU on a Saturday night as I headed to Crossroads. Childrens Park where I played with my nieces also occupies my thoughts. I can hear the waves as I sat on the sand at Haeundae with my wife and we looked out at the ocean. I even miss the big crowded Lotte department store where my wife liked to shop. I can hear the harabogies talking in the park near my old apartment and watching them play paduk and chess. My mother-in-law and our daily breakfast conversations is also a recurring theme. This maelstrom of memories invariably brings a smile to my face and sometimes makes me sad. There is no way around it, the morning calm courses through my veins and is forever part of me.

Thankfully, I have my doses of Korea as we visit my wife's' family whenever we can. But, I remain here, stuck between two places and looking to bring them together. Will I return to Busan? I often think about it.

What I now know is that the grass is not greener here. It is simply a different yard with its very own weeds. What I wish is that I had realized how lucky I was to be in Korea and taken more time to enjoy my life there. That is something we should all think about as expats in the peninsula.


February 2 , 2006