I write a lot about my experience as an expat in South Korea and just how it’s changed me over the course of two years. Largely for the better, but it would be remiss of me to dismiss the pining that I feel for my home. Oftentimes it strikes suddenly, usually triggered by seeing, hearing or tasting something that feels all too familiar.
And so, after almost two years of traversing South Korea and seeing much of what Asia has to offer in terms of travel, it was time to return home to my family and friends in Southern Africa.
I had planned to spend about a week in each city which I had ties with; Windhoek in Namibia, as my parents stay there; Cape Town, as my brother and friends stay there; and Johannesburg, to see more friends.
I’m not going to recount every part of this trip in excruciating detail, but I will say that all my fears of home and my people morphing into something unrecognisable had been allayed. Rather – and in a somewhat fortunate turn of events – all the bonds that I was so worried about fraying instead felt deeper; more genuine, in fact.
Perhaps South Korea had moulded me into a more amiable character, or perhaps adopting a more Stoic outlook over the past couple of years had softened my view on friendships.
When it came time to pack up and board my flight back to Asia, suffice to say I was an emotional train wreck.
The past two years in South Korea have had their moments, but I can safely say that I am at a point where it feels almost as familiar as some of the places I visited during my three-week sojourn back home.
And so, as an expat, you become torn. Torn between these two completely different yet equally inspiring worlds.
On one hand, you have a country where you can immerse yourself in a distinctly first-world, first-class experience. By and large, your quality of life is as good as it gets. Stress isn’t much of a factor, although this can depend on how well-adjusted you are. Add to that all the cultural discovery that comes with living in a foreign land, and this is truly an adventure to be cherished.
But, on the other hand, there’s everything you’ve left behind. Your friends, family, loved ones. The moments you miss out on. That hurts. The social spaces that you so dearly love and feel familiar with. The music. The food. These things might sound trivial but just as I mentioned in the beginning – these are such powerful triggers that can evoke a flood of memories, especially when in a place that feels the furthest from what you know.
The first time I left South Africa for South Korea, I was a wide-eyed, intrepid discoverer. I had no idea what lay in store, overcome with excitement and anticipation. Any semblance of sadness that I felt at leaving my loved ones behind was blotted out by the thrill of discovering a new country.
This time around, I’d like to think I’m something of a well-rounded global citizen. Equally cognisant of both the good and bad of both my home country and my country of residence. Nuanced in my view of how these two places operate.
Despite the divergent emotions I feel, I would not change a single thing. Ironically, I feel closer to my friends now than I did prior to leaving.
Sitting on a rooftop overlooking the Johannesburg skyline with the sky glowing a deep fiery red amongst the clouds, I was reminded that goodbyes are as tough as they come.
As I found, distance builds bonds. But for some, distance can also lead to heartbreak.
The expat life, then, is not for everyone. As charmed as it may appear, you have to weigh up the pain you feel when leaving your loved ones with the joys of living in a place where your life is objectively better. If this is something you plan on doing long-term, be prepared to deal with the consequences.