Who Said You Can't Go Home Again?

I had four months of living on the road in a backpack behind me, not to mention seven months of memories at the bookstore at home in Montreal; with all the drama, growth, losing friends while gaining new ones, and a new found strength from wandering on my own that I wasn't fully aware of yet. I got off at Busan Station, went up the ramp and through the terminal, passing a lot of businesses I recognized: The Happy Zone waiting area (only in Korea), Baskin Robbins, Dunkin' Donuts, The Twosome Place, Paris Baguette, places me and my friend Jean would go to get a snack before rushing for our Seoul-bound train after a long workweek. Nothing beats a Friday night trip, by the way. Rushing out of your weekday life, packing up a few things and meeting up with the people who matter most to you at that moment in time to have an adventure on the two days of freedom you have a week. But this time it was a grey, muggy and welcoming afternoon (a typical sweaty summer day in South Korea) in the south of South Korea. I was alone, and it had been over a year since I left Busan; the city I lived, loved and worked in for 14 months. I had left Montreal at the beginning of March and with my backpack I saw the end of winter in Shanghai, an entire spring in over ten provinces in China (complete with plum blossoms, cherry blossoms, palm trees, typhoons in Hong Kong) to the speedy transition to a sweltering Chinese summer. I shared my last few weeks in the country with bubbly Chinese twenty-somethings on their two week vacation in July. And Maria, who spent her first week of vacation showing me around Beijing as well as a weekend in Tianjin. But China was getting too hot and summer camp season was fast approaching in Korea. My good friends and co-workers from Busan were in the middle of their second teaching contract and hooked me up with a summer gig at their hagwon (private English school). They found me a good deal on a place to sublet in the busy, beautiful, beach neighborhood of Gwangan. Jean was also planning on returning to Busan for two weeks before a solo end of summer South East Asian excursion. How could I NOT go? A job, old friends, and an old home? So, after unsuccessfully nailing down a boat ticket from Tianjin to Incheon (summer vacation time in China=impossible for a traveling foreigner to get a ticket to anywhere) I did the expensive thing and bought a last-minute flight from Beijing to Seoul. After what felt like my hundredth Chinese train ride, from Tianjin to Beijing, I hugged Maria goodbye and told the Mainland I would see her soon, whenever that might be. My excitement for returning home to Korea overpowered any feelings of loss I had for China. On a financial level I couldn't really turn down a job, even if I did have to pay to cross the sea to get to it. Also the thought of waking up in the same space for an entire month, in a bustling area like Gwangan nonetheless, made me giddy. I could unpack! I could buy food, and put the food in a fridge. I would have a private sit-down toilet at my disposal every morning. The notion seemed all too surreal after four and a half months wandering around Mainland China. These were all great reasons to return to Korea but mostly, I just missed it. I wanted to go back for a dose of the amazing life I made for myself, and what South Korea made for me during my time there. And some soju.

As I walked out of Busan Station and into the city I noticed that the smells were the same, the smiles seemed bigger, things were brighter. Something is always developing in South Korea so there's always more neon lights, high-rise apartments, a new cute themed-cafe, another department store. Maybe it was because I had grown accustomed to the smog in China but I found the air clear(er). Blue skies...who knew? There wasn't much time to enjoy this because I had friends to meet in a few hours so I headed straight for the subway.
Then the few moments happened when I transitioned from traveler to normal citizen. I had my backpack on but I didn't need to have anything prepared and written down in Chinese or Asian characters. I knew my way around. I knew the voice of the subway lady announcing the stops in three (sometimes four) languages. I wasn't the only foreigner in the subway car, in the subway station and walking the street. In a metropolitan city like Busan (or Seoul) Westerners have been coming to teach English for almost two decades so lots of Koreans are pretty unfazed by a round eye, especially the young generation. No one stared, no one wondered why I had a big backpack. Koreans travel all the time. They spend weekends hiking mountains or flying to Jeju, their subtropical island to the south where all the lovely ingredients in their awesome cosmetic products come from. Giant outdoor adventure shops are plentiful in the Korean city, so intense backpacks are pretty normal. When I got off at Gwangan station I knew which exit to take; I didn't need to spend time scrambling around trying to find a map I could read...do I go West? East? North? I walked down to Gwangan-li beach as if it was a year prior and I was meeting friends for a drink. I found my new apartment with my new key thoughtfully put in the mail-slot for me, checked into my new place, showered and UNPACKED! I was back home, and had a new home, even if it was only for five weeks. Then I left to spend the evening with old friends.

My first taste of Samgyupsal made the expensive, last minute flight to Korea totally worth it

The Painted Chair (cafe and gallery) in Kyunsung, Busan. Brunch is never as cute as in Korea
By the way, I was a vegetarian for over ten years. The first time I was in China, back in 2009, I ate all kinds of animal things I never thought I would, in the name of politeness and also in the name of survival. You order plain rice in China and there's likely to be pork bits in it. Don't get me started on what you get if you order tofu. But I didn't let that experience break me. When I moved to South Korea a few months later I went back to being "vegetarian". I could afford to because I had a paid teaching job, and I lived in a developed city with all kinds of food options, even a chain of vegetarian restaurants. In big group dinners when my friends and co-workers indulged in juicy barbecue  I stuck to the rice and greens. Some seafood too. So the top-notch Korean dishes like Samgyupsal, galbi and bulgogi (all involving fatty delicious parts of the pig and cow) I left to my imagination. But there I was, having just finished China trip number two where I returned to my old ways and ate anything that looked edible, regardless if it was kosher or not. I wasn't stopping there, I decided. I ate pork in China. Heck I even went to a KFC. Korea deserved the same treatment. I wanted to truly respect its unique culture (food) and live it up Gangnam style. So I ate meat, in Korea. It was so amazing that I didn't even feel bad about it.
Juicy barbecue, soju, great friends and beach time everyday? Yes, going home again is awesome, and always possible, even if you're in the middle of a backpacking trip.

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