A Personal Guide on Condensing a Year into a Sound Bite
Hey you [that is, me]–
You know that knot of anxiety that forms in the pit of your stomach every time you return from an adventure? Those first few months of college, where you pushed boundaries and explored your independence; the weeks abroad spent running through and memorizing every twist and turn of your new neighborhood; the first real job you ever held, with a desk and a computer and a new wardrobe and actual responsibilities–their terminus is greeted with the inevitable “How was it?” Although expected and seemingly harmless, this question pulls the strings around the anxiety knot a little tighter. It’s like you’ve been asked to distill thousands of moments, smells, interactions, laughs, and tears–your humanhood for a span of time–into a digestible soundbite. Reclaim this expectation. Reentry–the return home and The Question that goes with it–should be bolstered by emotions preemptively chewed. Imagine the conversations you’ll have, explore your emotions now, parse out the subtext you want to share from a year of introspection, excitement, hardship, and curiosity. This is your personal pocket book. These are your experiences, your story. Deflate the impending melancholy by answering The Question like this:
To your mother: Tell her about the food—the pervasive aroma of kimchi, the novelty of cooking samgyeopsal [1. Grilled pork belly ], the strange way samgyetang[2. Soup with a whole chicken stuffed with rice, ginseng, jujube, and other spices] reminded you of home. Describe cooking with your host family, rolling up ddeok [3. Traditional Korean rice cakes] for the holidays and making pajeon[4. Pancake-like dish made from eggs, flour, and onions; can include meat or seafood] on the weekends. Wax on about chimek[5. Chicken and beer] Friday nights. Wipe the drool from the corner of your mouth and reassure her. Nobody can ever touch her cooking. Your host mom’s 14-dish spreads were gre–okay, but nothing compares to your mom’s lasagna. The 10 extra pounds you’re packing are definitely a byproduct of desk warming hours, not your nightly hotteok[6. Fried dough pancake filled with sugar syrup] stand pit stops.
To your interviewer: Deliver the speech you started concocting during the long walks to and from school before you learned to navigate by bus. Try to capture the unrehearsed air you actually rehearsed in March. You matured in this foreign land; personally, professionally. The skills you picked up living in another country will stay with you for the rest of your life–and just so happen to make you an invaluable asset to the corporate team. Korea fostered your entrepreneurial spirit—after all, you founded an after school soccer club so you could hang out with the cool kids from class 2-8. You mastered the art of spontaneous innovation—planning lessons on scratch paper during the seven minutes you designated as “quiet journal time” because fussing with the temperamental school computer meant losing face. Who else could provide the team with the same tenacity, perseverance, EQ, self-reliance, and cross-cultural perspective that you, a U.S. Fulbright Grantee, would bring to the table?
To your best friend: Try to explain falling in love, wholly unexpectedly, abroad. Let your story spill out from you. Offer too many details. Relish in the retelling of too many anecdotes in an attempt to make your friend understand the deep impact of the relationship on your life. Tell them this love transformed your year and became the best thing about it. Reassure them (yourself, too) that it was meant to be – not borne of circumstance. Catch yourself. With their pursed lips and wringing hands, you can tell they are thinking they’ve been replaced. You’ve neglected to express proper remorse at the yearlong BFF separation. Try to salvage the conversation. Harp on the things that used to connect you together, immediately and effortlessly. Thirty minutes later, hug goodbye and leave a half cup of cold coffee on the table. As you walk to your respective corners of the parking lot, reflect on how far apart two people can grow in a year, separate vines on a Y-shaped trellis.
On Facebook: Write that it was the best and worst year of your life – but you wouldn’t trade it for the world. Post some pictures. This doesn’t actually mean anything, but it’ll get you an above average number of likes, with the added bonus of excited exclamations at your homecoming from people you haven’t spoken to since you left. You get a pass on clichés. Try to find temporary value in the internet karma.
To your college professors: Show them the research paper you wrote. Attribute your success in Korea to their help and guidance. Give them the bottle of soju (just for fun) and fancy rice wine (trade for the recommendation letter you will ask for). Delve into flowery, cursory observations of Korea. Use big words. Slip in a few Korean words that “there’s simply no translation for”—nunchi, jeong. Pronounce your judgments on the education system, the advantages and the shortcomings. Talk about the first week of school, how a student stood up in class and ran out the school gates crying. How you got more sleep in one night than some
students got in three. How you anonymously surveyed the students, asked them if they were generally happy, and 46 percent said they wanted to commit suicide. Pause. Discuss Korea’s perception of itself, relationship with the world economy, with neighboring countries North Korea and Japan. Analyze gender, nepotism, beauty standards. Agree to give a guest lecture for your professor’s intro class sometime, a sometime that will become a nevermind because you have no time.
To the scowling taxi driver: “But in South Korea, nobody tips.”
To your father: Say “It’s good to be back, too.” Look him in the eye and place your hand over his as he holds your shoulder – but wait. For now, keep it light. Take him to dinner and regale him with tales of your soju-soaked hweshiks[7. Company dinners] and noraebang[8. Karaoke room] nights. Show him the proper way to measure and prepare so-mek[9. A mix of soju (Korean rice liquor) and beer]. Return his deep smile. Accept the fact that he’s proud of you just because “you did it.” A week later, invite your father on a hike. When he’s drenched in sweat and puffing hard, come clean. Start slow. Tell him that there were hard times. Just as many downs as ups. Does he remember the picture you sent with the random ajeossi[10. Middle-aged man] outside the GS? Behind the smile, you hurt. Try to map out the dichotomy of being more connected but feeling more separated. The strange duality of “the best year of your life” also being the worst. Understand that when he says, “I know,” he can’t, and that’s okay. Put a happy face on the end of the conversation with a recap of the embassy pool party and prestige of the law firm you interned for. Smile.
At the first party with old friends: Tell hilarious stories about ajumma[11. Middle-aged woman] and ajeossi encounters. Laugh about your inability to speak the language, even with weekly classes. Drunkenly suggest a game of charades, so you can show off your new proclivity for nonverbal communication.
To your sister: Embrace, harder and longer than you anticipated. Be okay with sharing more than you thought you would. Answer the questions, “How were the people/ weather/ food/ culture?” with broad strokes, knowing that she doesn’t care about the answer and is really after the comforting sound of your voice and familiar contortions of your face. Laugh when she can’t distinguish your last-minute airport purchases from the souvenirs you kept safe for months. While she updates you on her romances and struggles back home, reflect that the names and places she describes are just as decontextualized as the ones you laid out for her. Fill up with warmth anyway. Savor. Appreciate.
To the only guy drunker than you at the bar: Spill every drop of emotion you contain, recklessly indulge the nostalgia. Let the aching loneliness you felt abroad breathe. Look around the half-empty bar, at the stranger next to you. Wonder if you’re still isolated. Question the concept of “home.” Explain how every belief you had about yourself, your character, your needs, was challenged and broken and scattered. Talk about how your independence shrunk and shrunk as you were force fed food you didn’t want, left at the scheduling mercy of others, stranded by obligation, and guilted into sitting alone on your bed night after night, making up work to give your life a modicum of purpose. Yet, there are some intangible moments that you can’t help but miss. Are the tears wistful, or therapeutic? Stop. Apologize for monopolizing the conversation. Shift the focus. “How are you?” “I’m fine, thank you, and you?”
To the neighbor with all the cats: Try not to mumble. “Yeah, umm, Korea was really great. A cool experience.” Yes, you ate (and like) kimchi.
For now, this is all you can do. Prepare for the inevitable encounters, lines of questioning, demands for snappy assessment. Waves of memories, doubts and nostalgia will push down on you, coaxing you into a Sisyphean battle to roll these rocks back, back up the hill. Despite the effort, the outcome of all this mental chewing and reframing is impossible to predict.
Allana Wooley is a 2015-2016 ETA at Masan Girls’ High School in Masan, Gyeongsangnam-do. Robert Little is a 2015-2016 ETA at Changwon Science High School in Changwon, Gyeongsangnam-do.