When I share stories about my life here with other people, most of the time they don’t understand. It’s not their fault. They’ve usually never been here and don’t understand the culture or the way of life so the significance sometimes gets lost. If someone back home were to look at my Facebook page for example, they might be lead to the conclusion that I spend my time travelling, playing music, sharing funny stories about my students and socializing. I’ve spent every Skype call for the past four years reassuring my family that I am indeed doing alright. I have a job, money, accommodation, friends, a life. They’ve spent four years asking questions, “what do you do out there?, when are you coming home?, what’s the food like?, hows the weather?, what do you do at the weekend?, do you ever get a holiday? is it not dangerous so close to the North?”. The questions go on and on and sometimes I do well answering them but most of the time I don’t. It’s something you must experience.
Before I left for Korea in 2009, the final words my mother said to me in Dublin Airport were “Shauna, if I think you’re going to stay a long time, I’ll come to visit”. I’m not exactly sure if she had an exact timeframe in mind when she said that, but I guess four years is it. A few weeks ago, my sister told me of their big plan to come out here. My mum and older sister are now halfway through a two-week visit and I can honestly say, it’s the best thing they could have done.
The things that I take for granted are such novelties for them. The first day they walked into my apartment, my sister asked where my keys were as she watched in fascination as I entered my door code. The idea that I can actually read and converse in Korean is a novelty and they are thinking of ways to get my gas range back to Ireland. My mum calls my phone addiction “networking” and my sister hides her iPhone minus 1 for fear of ridicule from Koreans.(Honestly, I don’t know what version it even is but I haven’t seen it in Korea EVER). The giant screens, the technology in the subway stations, buses and everywhere else is so fascinating. High rise apartment buildings and shops that are on a floor other than the ground floor are possibly the most greatest fun.
Of all the things they’ve done and seen, I think what surprised them the most was how strong Irish culture is here. We organised a session in Seoul for our visitors (my family and my friends family) and Mum couldn’t stop talking about how great the Korean musicians were. I’ve spent over three years telling her but it was only after she heard us playing that she understood. We’re also heading to a ceili on Saturday night and I think that it’ll be this experience that Mum will take home with her. When Mum asks me how I know people, I mention the Seoul Geals and she’s even more astonished that there’s sport as well as music/dancing. Now she understands that although we look in pictures like we’re enjoying ourselves at Irish events, we also put in the hard work to make them happen. She wouldn’t have understood had she not come here and seen it for herself.
Coming to Korea and indeed to Paju has gone a long way to showing them that living close to North Korea doesn’t mean anything in day-to-day living. Every time North Korea pop up in the news, people at home gain images of military swarming the area and checkpoints and all kinds of tension and so on. They now see the reality that life here is safe and actually a little boring, not at all living up to the images they had conjured up.
This week, I have their schedule jam-packed with lunches and dinners with my friends to make sure they meet every one of significance. Putting faces to the names that I talk about and seeing a bit of the personality behind those names is great. Whenever I’ve had a problem in Korea, although Mum gives great advice, it’s these friends that have been there to help me out of it. For my real family to see my Korean family brings with it a certain knowledge and comfort that I’m far from alone out here.
Most of all this trip reinforces the idea that this isn’t just an extended holiday I’m on. I have a real job, real responsibilities and a real life. So many times, when North Korea pops up in the news or something bad happens, we all get the emails to just “come home”. Now, my family see that dropping everything and heading back to Ireland isn’t all that easy.
Living abroad, it’s always great to return to the comforts of home for a visit and share the stories of your travels. Having your family walk a mile in your shoes, however, is the best way to help them understand how you live your new life, how you made this life what it is and what keeps you where you are.