First Week of Class at CNU

I've just finished my first week of class at Chonnam National Universty here in Kwangju with CLS and everything is amazing! I am staying with a host family in a suburb about 40 minutes from school by bus, so I get to practice my Korean 24/7.

Speaking in a new language can feel like doing the dishes with chopsticks. One of the conditions of the CLS scholarship is that students use only the target language when they are on campus, even outside of class, which is both exhausting and rewarding. Listening and speaking are my weakest language areas, and trying to explain a multi-step process in Korean or politely make a request of my host family often leaves all parties frustrated and confused. I am committed to the language policy, but it seems to worry my host family that I come home each day exhausted of my Korean abilities rather than more fluent.

Life in Kwangju is really nice. Kwangju is the sixth largest city in Korea, so although most people here have interacted with foreigners, we are by no means common. I certainly feel the preen of cautious eyes turning toward me when I get on the bus or enter a restaurant. The questions I most often receive from strangers are whether or not I can eat spicy food and whether I know how to use chopsticks.

Heimweh

This week I have begun mentally preparing to leave for Korea. My flight to D.C. for orientation is on Thursday, and then we'll leave as a cohort on Saturday morning to Gwangju by route of Tokyo and Incheon.

I just finished reading Chang-Rae Lee's On Such a Full Sea. If, these past few weeks, I have put off processing the anxieties of leaving my hometown, reading Lee's latest has surely thrust me to the opposite extreme. On Such a Full Sea is something of a reverse odyssey, the protagonist venturing into the unknown in hopes of being reunited with her beloved. And it engenders a terribly inconsolable desire to see them reunited, a desire only sullied and complicated by the anxiety that their reunion cannot possibly meet our romantic expectations. The feeling of longing is destructive. It strings us along with the promise of consummate reunion, with each moment of prolonged separation only sewing stitches of doubt. Don't get your hopes up, we admonish ourselves, making a secret promise to ourselves that the reward for tempering our expectations will be a more satisfying reunion.

Homesickness is a peculiar species of longing that draws us toward something impossible to claim. When we long for home, we long not just for a place or even a time but for the special encounter we had with that place and time: the feeling of being there and then. Whenever I ride the plane back from L.A. to Seattle, I like to watch out the window on our landing approach and see if I can pick out our house from the grid. I do this automatically, no matter how many times I take the flight: somehow the act of pressing my fingers to the glass and staking out a house as ours is comforting. But upon my return, nothing is ever quite the same. This summer, the new light rail extension reconfigured my journey home. And though our house was the same house and its occupants the same family, somehow that slightly different preparation cast everything in a new light, like how the Christmas trees downtown look a little more insecure and lanky on the twenty-seventh.

When I was in sixth grade, my mom sent me to Germany to stay with a second-cousin for a few weeks, and I remember crying myself to sleep one night, feeling the acute pangs what I knew was called homesickness but never expected to feel so much like a real illness. I looked up the German word for it in the dictionary, just in case.

The next day, at breakfast, my aunt saw my sullen expression and suggested a diagnosis. Hast du heimweh? she asked, stressing what she thought would be a new word.

Ja, ich habe, I sighed, the words a relief to let out, but also an admission of an illness incurable. For although I was mere days away from being transported back home, in my time away I felt that I had changed, my form altered such that I would never fit back into my home in quite the same way.

Homesickness is a feeling that binds us to the past, even as we fastidiously engage our lives in the business of the future. I wonder if homesickness is a healthy anchor, an unshirkable burden that we grant safe passage in exchange for a sense of trajectory. After all, if your only reference point is where you are (Fan's parting words), than how do you orient the trajectory of your future? Given two points, you can draw only one straight line.

Urinal Matter

With ketchup and wimpy little outstretched arms,
latent charisma wakens upon a picnic bench or
wood betrayed across two stones or
urinal matter.