My birthday was on Friday. February is a strange month to be born and my birthday always feels like more on an inconvenience than a celebration; though celebrate we did.
Having a turgid hangover and feeling guilty that nothing had been blogged for over two months, I decided to get my writing cap on and offer a little reflection on my brief visit back home.
Circling over the patchwork squares of semi-rural England, in a plane, as the sun was setting was far more breath-taking than I could have imagined, and I live here.
The fact is: I am scared of flying. Not mortally scared and certainly not enough to stay earthbound for the entirety of my life. I do, however, get a little spooked when I look out of the window.
Take off and landing are the times that will make me the jitteriest; the blue haze flecked with cloud as you power along at cruise control gives a false sense of just how high up you are. Seeing the roads snaking up through Dover, under the spongy clouds with their under lit shadows was quite mesmerizing. The plane would tip and my vision would be filled with sky as we joined the spiral descent of airbuses into Heathrow’s Terminal 3.
It would be worth mentioning here that my impromptu visit home had been planned not three weeks before and was mainly because I know there’s no chance to see my family again for another year once my new contract starts.
I’d just enjoyed Christmas and New Year away from the familiarity of home and all its customs; mid-January is a strange enough time of year without suddenly teleporting in on a hungover and economically-bleak United Kingdom.
Waiting in line at customs I found myself feeling nervous; it was the first time I’d been in the line that didn’t say “foreigner” in some language or another. I flashed my battered passport and marched through to baggage-collection, where I found a conveyer belt which didn’t seem to be willing to vomit up my suitcase.
After watching the belt for a solid ten minutes, I accepted the inevitable and went to the sole member of staff at the desk. He confirmed that my bag was still in Beijing and that the only thing to do was take my name and address and have it couriered to me before the end of the week. I sighed and signed on the form and wished him a good evening—something a more whiny me would not have done a year ago—as I departed for the arrivals gate, my trusty backpack and whale-shaped pillow my only companions.
Now, today was January 18th. The date wasn’t a mystery to me, but it had been to my parents; my mother has a wonderful ability to get essential dates and times wrong and she had, the previous evening, told me on the phone that she was really looking forward to my arrival on the 19th.
Pregnant pause. “I’m about to leave for Seoul, to get a flight in the morning. Please tell me we both have the same dates.”
This is followed by a ten minute speech from mum–punctuated by her hitting my dad with a verbal rolling-pin for not having the dates to hand—about how she was so certain she’d bet her house (and mine) that the date I was due to arrive was the 19th.
Calmly reading the email from Expedia I confirmed that I was indeed correct, I would arrive the 18th January, she then proceeds to panic about who will pick me up from the airport.
Leaving them to it, I went off for a lovely “last” meal in Itaewon with The Slob and got up in time for the new express train to the airport and, subsequently, my flight.
Returning to Heathrow was perhaps the oddest moment; especially as I remember my last time there was for the inevitable tearful goodbye when I left in 2010. So much feels like it’s changed since then, though my whimsy was broken by a pink-clad torpedo hitting me in the chest: my sister.
She gave me her customary bear-hug and then hit me with my neck-pillow (such a violent girl) and guided me to where Dad was waiting with the video camera. In their typical acerbic fashion my explanation for having no suitcase was greeted with gales of laughter and mocking: it was going to be a long three weeks.
After saying hello to mum and a visit from Si, my best friend still in the country, we decided to head to the pub. My biggest shock was sitting at a table and finding that I couldn’t not listen to every single conversation going on around us; background noise was no longer just a babble of words but intricate, native exchanges.
In case of confusion, I’ve not been living under a rock for a year and hearing people speaking English was not a novelty in itself; rather the sheer amount of speech I could understand and, what is more, that they were all speaking British English. This caused some embarrassment when I asked the barmaid for directions to the “bathroom” and she giggled, saying:
“Toilets are over there, love.” The diversity was also what made my neck hurt; nobody can, after living in a homogenous culture, wrap their head around the bizarre notion that all different people of different colours and creeds are walking shoulder to shoulder with you again. I also found myself looking especially closely at anyone who was remotely East Asian, good job I didn’t try to bow.
In a previous post I talked about how being British—and I use the term unashamedly—is a conundrum in itself: if I was Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish then I would refer to myself as such. Being English, I prefer British. Not sure why, it just fits me better; even though if you were to go back a few generations, I’d be living in County Cork.
Being home was an end to that, of sorts; I was no longer a novelty in any shape or form. My accent wasn’t noticed, my terminology not picked apart by curious North Americans and, most importantly, I was back into a groove that felt like it was gone forever.
My fetish for Larkin can be put to good use here, I feel especially like this can describe the oddity of returning home:
The Importance of Elsewhere
Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home,
Strangeness made sense. The salt rebuff of speech,
Insisting so on difference, made me welcome:
Once that was recognized, we were in touch.
Their draughty streets, end-on to hills, the faint,
Archaic smell of dockland, like a stable,
The herring-hawker’s cry, dwindling, went
To prove me separate, not unworkable.
Living in England has no such excuse:
These are my customs and establishments
It would be much more serious to refuse.
Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.
You see, I can live in Korea but I’ll never know what it is like to be Korean. These ‘customs and establishments’ that I have left behind–and now have returned to–are things which I’ve missed and raved about all year only to find that they haven’t missed me.
This isn’t a bad thing, just a human reaction to a constant fact: life goes on, wherever you are.