For someone who hates having a home, I seem to keep getting them.
Unsure if it is deliberately or by accident, I find myself with the associated routine of sleeping in the same bed night after night. This pillow, this duvet, this awkward-sized twin bed. It’s comforting and infuriating all at the same time.
This dichotomy, of opposing yet co-dependent feelings, is all too familiar for most people living abroad. And like a serious case of bed bugs, or that incredibly catchy “Call Me Maybe” song, the experience of living in a foreign country, is a difficult one to shake.
I want nothing more than to be in a strange city with the exhilaration and uncertainty of questioning my next night’s stay. Yet I also experience this weird sense of elation because I know exactly how to direct a cab driver to this apartment, to this bed, and to this home.
Living abroad fits some of the criteria of travel. The foreignism and consequent confusion lead to frustrating experiences paralleled by those who are travelling in a more traditional sense of the word. But again, there’s this silly bed- a loaned piece of furniture which makes everything seem that much more habitual.
I finished a year of ESL teaching on a small rural island in South Korea. This fact is usually met with a look of commiserated shock from Koreans when I mention the island’s location. They don’t know why I would choose to teach there. I’m not sure either.
Being on this island afforded me the opportunity to travel internationally. To travel in a way I could not have anticipated when I first read the job advertisement which included an unsettling combination of asterisks and tilde signs and claimed that I could “Live island life and make great money!”
I was able to visit Beijing on weekends, Tokyo on holidays, and take advantage of laughable seat sales to places like Boracay and Taipei. At the end of the 12-month contract, I left the island and all identifying features of the expat life behind.
But here I am again, some eight months after travelling through Asia, in the heavy-hitter capital of Seoul, South Korea. I came back for another year of ESL teaching. Not because I couldn’t find a job at home (I didn’t bother looking), or because I hadn’t mastered the complete Korean numerical system (I didn’t bother trying), or because I’m convinced I can positively impact the language acquisition of a Korean toddler (I just didn’t bother). Instead, I came back because I felt like I left this place with a lot unanswered questions.
For few, travel is an ongoing and fluid affair. Arrival gates mean nothing more than the dilemma of finding the night’s accommodation by the cheapest means possible. But for most, those gates signify the end of a trip. The entrance stamp doubles as a deadbolt on travel, at least for the time being.
But for the expats, the lines of travel are blurred.
I have a local bank card and a bakery attendant who recognizes me based on my purchases of cheap filtered coffee and a walnut-raisin loaf. But my bank statements are in a currency I’m still trying to accurately convert and I ordered that coffee based on a mime of pointing and smiling.
I’m in a foreign country. And I really have no idea if this is travel.
All it takes is a 30-minute episode of Jeopardy! to confirm how little I know about the world. This point is written not to emphasize my own ignorance about Latin prefixes or the sequential events of the First World War. It’s mentioned moreso to highlight the fact that almost all questions I encounter- be it posed by Alex Trebek or the barista at the bakery- are answered with a look of confusion and the reminder that I need to read more encyclopedias.
Truthfully, the shape of this column will likely take the form of posing a bunch of unanswered questions and hoping my references to current Top 40 successes earns me the smallest fleeting ounce of credibility. But beyond these pop culture nods, the exploration of the in-betweens of travel will exist. As one trip ends, and the next is yet to start, an expat sits patiently waiting in the home they love to hate.
I still can’t definitively resolve uncertainties about my current state of travel.
Am I travelling?
Am I expating?
Am I using nouns as verbs and passing it off as “travel writing”?
Like I said, all these lines eventually become blurred.