In the months leading up to my sisters’ arrival, friends would frequently ask, “Are you excited?” And I would say, “Of course!” I, however, felt dread. And for the longest time I didn’t understand why. My sisters and I have a great relationship. They are my two favorite people to hang out with. So why was I not excited to see them? Why was I dreading their arrival?
For some, having family visit after not seeing them for many months can be difficult. There’s stress from sharing a tiny studio apartment, issues that have built up after not communicating well for several months, finding out how they and you have changed for better or worse, and saying goodbye again. I learned a lot about having family visit while the girls spent 10 days with me in Pyeongtaek. I can provide some insight into how to deal with the stress and pit of homesickness that remains when they leave.
And homesickeness was the problem. As the girls’ departure from South Korea drew near, I realized that the dread I felt had not been for their arrival but for their departure. Every moment my sisters and I spent together was darkened by the fact that they would soon be leaving.
It was a rough week for many reasons. I do recommend inviting family and friends to visit, but let me see if I can give a little good advice to make your experience easier than mine.
One thing to keep in mind if you’re stressing while family stays with you is that you and they are out of your elements. At home, you have a familiar family dynamic that you understand. Here, while teaching in Korea, everything is new to you and your relatives. Sometimes it is a little difficult to find a comfortable playing field. The best thing to do is keep this in mind. It will hopefully give you the patience and understanding you need when your relatives’ discomfort and frustration at being in a foreign country shows.
I had forgotten that my sister Renee likes to take things a little slower than I do when traveling. When I spent 5 days in Taiwan, my friend Trevor and I were on the go from 8am to midnight. He and I kept a fast pace. If we only had a few minutes to catch a train, we would sprint to that train, even if the next one came just 30 minutes later. Well, I tried to do that with my sisters. The result was … unfavorable.
Sure, I’m probably an idiot on several levels for assuming they would be OK with running half a mile to catch a train. But sometimes, when you are having a difficult day and are stressed for several reasons, it’s easy to forget that your family is not used to being in Korea or used to the way you’ve been living for a while. They are in a different mindset than you. You are living here. They are visiting and vacationing.
That brings me to my second piece of advice, which is probably just as obvious. You need to plan. I had a backward notion that I could just show them all the cool places in Korea that I frequent and had a good time at. I figured they would enjoy Itaewon because it is like America Town to Los Angeles’ China Town. I figured Hongdae would be a cool place to shop in. And I assumed they would appreciate Myeongdong for its two H&Ms as much as I do. I wasn’t wrong about any of this, but taking them to these places wasn’t as satisfying as I’d hoped.
I forgot that one reason I enjoyed Itaewon, Hongdae, and Myeongdong so much is all the great fun I've had at these places with friends. It was a little hard to share that level of enjoyment on a Tuesday at noon. They may have enjoyed these places for their interesting foreignness, but they perhaps did not get as much out of these parts of Seoul as I had hoped.
They claim to have enjoyed these places, but some part of me wonders if I should have sprung for an expensive tour of the DMZ, or spent some time at a few more museums. I’ll never know. But there is the next piece of advice.
Prepare yourself for what you can’t change. I tried hard to be a good host. Whether I was or not isn’t something I can change now. So I have to satisfy myself with what I did. I’ll do better next time by being more patient, understanding, and prepared.
Most importantly, prepare yourself for saying goodbye again. If the first time was hard, the second might be a little harder. When I first arrived, I missed my family, but I had a country full of new experiences and friends to distract me. While still having plenty to distract me and having become somewhat used to being away from home, the homesickness was a little keener, a little more intense. Though, it didn’t last for quite as long.
How did I deal with it? I slept, and I cleaned. (Cleaning can be quite cathartic.) I’ve also talked a little more to my sisters on Kakao Talk since they left than I have in the past. It’s still hard. I still miss them. But it’s something I cannot change.
Overall and despite the difficulties, the week with my sisters is one of my favorites in Korea. It could have been better, however, if I had been more understanding of the fact that they weren’t as comfortable with South Korea as I’ve become, if I had planned more touristy things for us to do, and if I had mentally prepared for their impending departure so that I wouldn’t be quite so homesick after they left. If you follow any of these pieces of advice, your family’s visit is bound to be fun for both them and you.
Currently residing an hour outside of Seoul, South Korea, Sergio Cabaruvias is doing his utmost not to appear lost or confused. So far, he’s managed. After graduating with degrees in English and journalism and after working with underprivileged youth, Serg embarked from Southern California for Pyeongtaek, South Korea to gain experience as an amateur adventurer. Since arriving he has swung on vines in the jungles of Taiwan, scaled mountains in the rocky city of Busan, driven a scooter along the edge of a massive, marble gorge, and explored some of Tokyo’s seedier areas. Moving to South Korea has been the best decision of his life.