[OUTLOOK]It's not so easy to go home again

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[OUTLOOK]It's not so easy to go home again

Culture shock. It's a phenomenon that most outsiders pitching up on the Korean Peninsula will experience, and has been well documented. At the very beginning, a non-Asian will often feel suddenly, savagely conspicuous. He'll be baffled by hangeul lettering that seems everywhere. Women lighting cigarettes on the streets might bring a cool reception from passers-by. And for those coming to Seoul, the sheer pace of life - swarms of people and the harsh glare of neon - will probably leave even the most hardened city slicker reeling.

But what happens when the time comes to return to the motherland?

I recently returned to my hometown of London after living in Seoul for two and a half years. My first, rather dismal impression of Britain occurred before I'd even set foot on British soil. A candy bar on the Eurostar train, which I was taking through the Channel Tunnel from France, cost 60 pence (about 1,200 won or 90 cents). I had an ominous feeling that this was just the herald of more pecuniary outrages. And yes, there again, through the gaggle of relatives assembled to greet me at the station, I glimpsed - and was blinded by - the bright lights of sticky-fingered commercialism. Every conceivable corner of the depot had been transformed into a brightly lighted storefront.

Koreans haven't yet got the real hang of gleaming, franchised, unadulterated consumerism. On the ferry I took from Incheon that began my overland trip back to London, a small, sparsely stocked shop manned by a reluctant crew member opened for precisely 15 minutes in the morning and again in the evening. Chips and cookies sold at the same price as anywhere else: 500 won, boldly displayed on the packet.

You wouldn't catch the British missing that opportunity to exploit a captive market. For instance, consider the ferry from Britain to France: You'll be dodging new incentives to spend at every turn. In Britain, prices are never printed on packaging. That would deny retailers the liberty of stealthy price hikes.

My next surprise, a rather more pleasant one, was the beauty - and sturdy appearance - of London's architecture. The Blitz (the bombing of London in World War II) took its toll, but it pales by comparison to the razing of Seoul over the course of the Korean War. Most of London's buildings have not cropped up with slapdash abandon over the last 50 years. In Seoul, I would shut out the latest eyesore.

London feels dainty by comparison - even the Thames River seems a babbling brook by comparison to the mighty Han. My first journey on a London bus the day after I arrived uncovered more forgotten treasures. I was prepared to pay a hefty fare even by Korean standards. On the relaxed drive, I noticed what a pleasure it was to eavesdrop again, a pleasure my threadbare Korean had denied me. And it seems the British, for all their supposed reticence, are no less shy than Koreans about telling the world their innermost secrets while on their cell phones.

Despite the array of cuisines South London offers, food was my next surprise. Everything was bland, and so rich that for the first few days upon my return I felt queasy after every meal. I longed for chili. Even a fiery encounter in an Indian restaurant with a green hot pepper - intended, I see in retrospect, as a mere decoration on top of my dish - failed to quench my desire for some good, mouth-watering Jeolla province kimchi. It's not impossible to find kimchi in England, but London's Koreatown is, in fact, rather a trek out of town and accessible from where I live only by train.

My pleasant experience of punctual, accident-free travel on Korean rail lines has rather turned me off to British trains; especially as all-too-frequent derailing accidents now require that emergency exit information be provided next to each seat. Anyway, going to Koreatown just made me miss the real thing even more. If you eat out, you can expect to pay separately for each side dish, and a bottle of soju here is six times the Korean price in the shops.

Ah, soju. Much as I love the stuff, I am also a sucker for a pint of real English ale and it was of course in the pub - that is, our cozy, lived-in version of the drinking den - that I caught up with old friends. Such a sucker, indeed, that the quaint bell-ringing that signifies drinking time is over came as a harsh reminder of Britain's painfully puritan licensing hours. I met a few of my old friends' new friends in the pub, and committed a few of the faux pas that any long-term inhabitant of Korea is prone to. I asked the three questions prominent in any Korean's mind. Are you married? The startled response related both to my impertinence and the fact that no one around me who is under 40 is married. How old are you? I persisted. And, when the conversation alighted on occupation, I committed the cardinal sin: What's your salary? Eventually I reacquired the skill of thinking before speaking.

I've now been back long enough that I'm no longer assaulted daily by Britain's idiosyncrasies. I'm happy to be back, but I'm finding that instead of feeling the absence of Korea in a multitude of little ways, I miss it as one big, messy, frenetic, sociable, chili-hot whole.


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The writer, a former copy editor for the Joongang Ilbo English Edition, is now a free-lancer in London.

by Becky Branford

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