Last Friday while walking home from work, the first significant pang of homesickness hits me square. Maybe it was the nagging fact that I couldn’t get a breath of fresh air, unscented by the incessant yellow dust that lingers throughout the day. Or maybe it was the signs I couldn’t read. Or the racing cars that nearly clip my elbow on the narrow side streets between Naeje-ro and Uirim-daero. Or maybe, it was knowing that as my day was ending, the world I lived in only a month ago was still sleeping and hadn’t even begun to prepare for the very same day.
So before I even walk up to my apartment, I go to the chicken lady’s restaurant which sits kitty-corner to my building. I still don’t know the name of the restaurant, even though I look at it every day when I go to work. The Hangul still hasn’t sunk in. I ask for “po-jang” (take-out) and point to the picture of crispy fried chicken and a large bottle of Cass beer. She bows politely and slips off her shoes before disappearing into the kitchen. At 5:30 in the evening, most restaurants are still empty. It’s only foreigners who want dinner this early. I find myself sitting there alone, actually trying to decipher the knock-off Korean army games taking place on the TV set across from me. While I’m sitting there the old woman plops the bag of chicken in front of me and shows me the price which she’s written on a piece of paper. She knows, it still hasn’t sunk in and smiles as I bow apologetically and mumble “kamsahamnida” and leave.
Once home, I throw my heavy bags into a corner, slip on some sweats and carry my unopened food treasure into the hallway. “Hey, Beth!” I shout, to which a disembodied voice replies, “Come on in, it’s open.”
Towards the end of the day, after the shiny part of my optimism has worn off a little bit, I look forward to this moment. I can talk and know I am understood. There are no subtleties to look out for. No formalities to observe. I can hand Beth the extra beer I bought with one hand instead of two. I can let my words flow and my body relaxes after a day of bowing. I become a gabber. I can’t stop talking and I can’t help but ask questions. Beth passes me the bottle opener and I hand her a plate of fried chicken. I climb on top of her comforter and she cues up the current season of the Walking Dead on her friend’s Sling Player. I sip my beer and sink my teeth into the crispiest fried chicken I’ve ever eaten. The beginning-of-the-weekend buzz starts to take affect as the the strings play the familiar theme-music to my favorite show.
“This,” I say, “Is the American cure for homesickness.”
“I’ll cheers to that,” Beth says with a wave of her ponytail. “Hell yes.”