‘Ireland’s no longer my only home’
After two years, South Korea has become a part of me and it is hard to say goodbye, writes Joshua Lernihan
These last two weeks, as I’ve been winding up my two years of life in Korea, I’ve had to make a number of trips to the post office. My Korean is quite good, but still there’s always some confusion. Whether the postman seems bent on sending my package to Iceland, or insisting Co Dublin isn’t a postcode, I rarely get out without at least one little difficulty.
Only one, that is, if I don’t count the seemingly huge confusion that ensues every single time I try to explain I’m both the sender and receiver. I’ll be signing for the package myself because I’ll be home next week.
As with these weekly exchanges at the post office, slow-posting my Oriental loot and winter jackets home, the process of departing and returning to Ireland hasn’t been easy. Going back feels strange, but it’s not because Ireland is no longer my home. Neither is it because I’ve made my home here in Korea. It sneaks up on you, the realisation that where you were born is no longer your only home.
When I moved here two years ago to teach in an English language academy, it was kind of stopgap. I had just completed a teaching certification and was recently out of university with a degree in law. I wasn’t too hot on the idea of staying around in the minimum-wage, low-skill jobs that I’d worked to pay my way through college, jobs I’d continued working after graduating in the absence of anything better to do.
The process of settling in here wasn’t particularly long or arduous. But the culture difference was a big change, as was adjusting to the routine of a busy job. It wears you down, though, the cultural hierarchy of politeness, the long workdays, late nights and quick weekends.
The constant smell of fermented everything makes you slowly, very slowly, drop your reliance on Barry’s Tea and black pudding. Koreans I share my dinner with no longer comment on my chopstick abilities or check to make sure I can handle spicy food. I know I no longer bear the wide-eyed look of a newcomer.
I’m excited to come back to Ireland to see my family and my friends, but it’s hard to see myself in a different setting to the one I’ve come so accustomed to here.
It’s not a loss of identity though, this altered perception of “home”. Like every returning emigrant, there are things I will miss about Korea: the manic clash of modernity and heritage; the meals that are delicious despite the fact that the recipe might read like the contents of a witch’s cauldron in a storybook; and in common with all travellers, the people I have met and the friendships I’ve made.
Despite these wonders, I have made it a point to hang on, sometimes tenaciously, to my Irishness. This manifests itself in any number of actions, from being huddled around a phone playing RTÉ Radio coverage of the All-Ireland final while watching a grainy and jumpy internet stream, to feigning enjoyment for watery Guinness that you would send back to the bar at home, grinning through gritted teeth as you hand over prices far in excess of those you left the country to avoid.
The process of leaving these friends I’ve made has been hard, as has leaving my students. Children get attached more than adults. One of my primary school students claiming he would shoot my plane out of the sky if I tried to fly home would be a little more worrying if he was a little older, leaving secondary school and about to do his mandatory military service.
Light-hearted threats, teary-eyed children don’t make it any easier to fly home, especially in light of the recent Sewol ferry disaster. The shock and despair I felt at the death of so many Korean students that could’ve just as easily been the ones I teach showed me how much they’ve come to mean to me too.
I think there’s a genuine merit to living elsewhere for a period of time. The friends you make and the relationships you forge are strong through shared experience. We become used to uncertainty, learn to adjust and become more flexible.
I’m optimistic about life back in Ireland, despite the constant stream of news to the contrary. As emigrants, I think we’re better placed than most. It’s strange, and sounds like a cliché, but it may be the case that the more you live elsewhere, the more you understand your home.
This is all idle speculation though. Who knows where I’ll be six weeks, six months, or six years from now. I may be seeking out the same minimum-wage, low-risk jobs that I shook me so much that I left. Or it could be better. For now, all I have is uncertainty. But I can deal with that.