Going “home” where I have no “house”

I feel like home is a thoroughly discussed concept, and I would be belaboring already dissected ideas. It’s not even unique anymore to say “I have no home” in the sense that you haven’t settled anywhere. All these people may have unique experiences, but that doesn’t mean they are all special. It’s just a fact about you, just like how you are the first-born, or that you have long hair, or that your last name starts with a K, or that you like pineapples (and this is all about me, because I’m just as self-centered as you are).

I’m going to talk about home in very personal terms: I want to call Sri Lanka my home.

Why? I get verbally harassed on the streets. I get leering stares from groups of men. I have no particular affinity for crows. I do about as well as a frozen bottle of water in the heat and humidity of the climate. I hate how my legs stick to the seat of tuk-tuks because of the sweat. I don’t own property there, and neither does my family. I hold a Korean passport (which I am greatly thankful for, as it gives me visa-free access to most countries in the world). Despite all this, I was determined to go back, a year after I had left my volunteering position, and 13 years after I left 10 years of my childhood, not just to keep my promise to everyone there that I would be there for Christmas, but because I missed the idea of feeling loved and I loved the idea of having an identity.

I say the “idea” of feeling loved, because the unique love and acceptance that I felt while I was a memory to me, a year after I left. Don’t get me wrong– it isn’t that I don’t feel loved in the place I am now, neither does it mean that I think that those who I love who are oceans apart don’t love me anymore. How my loved ones love me in Sri Lanka makes me love myself in a way I simply cannot replicate anywhere else. I say the “idea” of having an identity, because honestly, I think whatever identity I construct for myself based on “select” experiences is an illusion that most people entertain.

Anyway, I went back.

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I came back with a bagful of tea for gift-giving and tears that were shamelessly shed at the airport.

It isn’t just the amazing Christmas lunch with the fake snow “fights” and presents. Neither is it just the beauty of the country, the lounging on the beaches or the fireworks on New Years Eve accompanied by drinking with friends.

I think it’s just the reminder of “you have to live for this”. Given the short period of time I have to stay in the country, every day is so precious. Every conversation you have is precious. Every feeling you experience is precious. You’re never 25 again, Sri Lanka won’t be the same again next year, and your friends aren’t going to be the same age either, and everything is just so precious because it is the only time it’s all going to happen.

A grain of sand is probably not the same as another grain of sand, just as this Monday hasn’t been the same as this Wednesday. But as this illustrates, uniqueness and particularity does not imply “specialness”, as my Monday wasn’t any more special than my Wednesday although they were definitely different. What made Sri Lanka special for me, my life, was that it was a reminder of a desire and a need for continued existence.  The banality of everyday life makes it easy to forget that there are people in your life, either near you or several thousands kilometers away from you, that make your life worthwhile. Even breaking away from this banality doesn’t necessarily remind you of this, because when you return from a vacation, you return to your banality, mostly unchanged. But I was reminded that I am always welcome somewhere in the world, that people I see there want me to feel that way, and this will go unchanged. This feeling has become a part of my banality.

Reminiscing my time in Sri Lanka, 2015

People generally make drastic life-changing decisions by chopping off all their hair, getting a new tattoo in a language they don’t read, or moving to another country to “discover” oneself. “Life-changing” sounds like such a cliché term to sell such an experience, but I can’t quite find a catchier, more appropriate synonym to describe what teaching and living in Sri Lanka was like. This was the most rewarding and humbling experience of my life, that, indeed, changed me.

My life-changing decision happened randomly, suddenly, and quite calmly. I was sitting at the library café of the school I had graduated from two years ago, waiting for my interview phone call for a teaching position in Sri Lanka I had decided to apply to on a whim just two days prior from the same location. I had just quit a very well-paid job in Beijing, China, and I was in the US to visit friends and attend a graduation (a trip that also happened on a whim). I chose to quit a job at a toxic work environment, first to visit my friends, then to move back to the beautiful country that I grew up in. The Sri Lanka from my memory was not the same as the Sri Lanka I landed in in July 2015—I was 12 when I left. I was 24 in 2015. All 12 Chinese zodiac animals had made their full, 12-year cycle by the time I landed in the sweltering humidity that I had forgotten about. I knew that 6 months was not a long time, and I was determined to make the most of it.

The first hours at school was spent in trepidation—I had teaching experience, but I had never taught adults, and the sheer fact that I had to memorize about fifty foreign names as soon as possible was the most daunting task I was faced with at the time. Little did I know that two years later, I would still remember many of those names, reminisce the jokes I made with those students, and cherish the gifts of appreciation and the memories that the students gave me. The level of engagement and connection you have with the students, the kindness, good will and genuine appreciation you feel from them, as well as the immense feeling of fulfillment coming from interacting with the people you’re benefiting, is not quite sensations one can put into words that do them justice. These feelings don’t even go into the sheer awe that the beauty of Sri Lanka inspires in you once you get the opportunity to travel around the country, which requires another essay in and of itself.

I had come back to Colombo because I wanted to see how my old home town had changed. But this is not a cliché tale of radical self-discovery by revisiting my “roots”. To be clear, I am Korean, not Sri Lankan, and it would be preposterous for me to claim Sri Lankan culture as my own. However, I can now reclaim this amazing country as a “home” for me, thanks to my six months I spent teaching at SVS, understanding the country in a way I never did when I was young.

(If you’re interested in teaching in Sri Lanka, go to www.svsenglish.org)