The middle two weeks of June were spent in the Very Middle of America, hidden away in a cul-de-sac at the end of a tree-lined street in suburban St Louis. It is here that I claim one pregnant sister, one brother-in-law and one 2-year-old niece, who share a two bedroom ranch home with a two-car garage, two dogs, one in-ground pool, one aircraft carrier-sized gas grill and too many television sets. I suppose if one is going to throw oneself back into the saddle of American living and culture shock oneself to death, this would be the way to do it. I am now intimately familiar with exactly what it takes to become a Top Chef, not to mention what Bobby Flay can and cannot Throw Down. Whether by choice or by osmosis, I now know these things.
The culture shock began, in fact, just over a month ago at Tokyo’s Narita Airport when boarding my flight to Dallas. Quite abruptly, everything was much louder, much bigger and much messier than I have become accustomed to. And by everything, I mean everyone. My flight from Seoul to Tokyo on Japan Airlines was a quiet, relaxing affair rivaling any luxury spa experience. Well-fed, well looked after, and quite comfortable. In contrast, my flight to Texas on American Airlines was undernourished, underpleasant and not particularly warm. Both literally and figuratively
Of my near anxiety attacks since returning to the United States of America, all have taken place in shopping malls or large, brightly-lit retail environments. Barton Creek Mall, why do you give me seizures? Lowe’s, why are you SO BIG? Even Austin’s Whole Foods, a place that had danced like sugar plums in my head from Seoul, overwhelmed me to the point of exhaustion. There are so many options, how can anyone possibly make a decision? And everywhere you go, the people, the American people, they talk incessantly. In English. So. Loud. I mean, Korea is not a nation of mutes; there is talking. But it doesn’t hurt my brain to listen to it. As a result, I have become well-acquainted with America’s finest public restrooms, in which I’ve taken leave on more than one occasion to hide in a stall and take my pulse. Am I already dead or having a coronary? Jury is still out.
As for customs and interactions with strangers, I am a walking disaster. And I mean that quite literally. In Korea, as in Japan, we walk on the left when it comes to foot traffic. As soon as this became second nature and I stopped walking into Korean people, I knew this would present a problem upon my return. Worst is that I am so utterly perplexed as to which side is correct at any given moment, I keep glaring at the twenty people in my path as if they are confused mental patients. So to everyone in Texas, Mexico, Missouri and Kansas into whom I’ve walked: I am sorry.
By far the biggest shock to my system is the food, portion sizes in particular. No wonder ‘Mericans are fatter by the day. The wedge salad I ordered my first night home was an entire head of romaine lettuce. I barely ate half. My stomach and even my palette has unknowingly adjusted in the last 16 months to the degree that most western meals now taste too heavy and too rich, leaving me in desperate need of a nap. Case in point:
And what is with wearing shoes indoors? This was one of the slowest things for me to adapt to in Korea and yet has taken over every physical impulse upon return. Shoes on carpet? Are you kidding me?
Yet, much like our ears popping on an airplane or the body’s ability to cool itself in hot climates, I’ve re-acclimated rather quickly. Somehow, unnoticeably, interstate highways stopped looking so vast and huge, white people stopped looking so foreign and I no longer acquired hives when driving past a Steak‘n Shake. It has helped that I’ve magically landed in the parts of town populated by Korean immigrants, my St. Louis enclave holding no less than two Korean markets, two Korean restaurants and two Korean Presbyterian churches. Even in Mexico City, we found ourselves in the Asian section of the city, hearing Korean mixed into the Spanish while walking the streets of our neighborhood.
And St. Louis is not all strip malls and chain restaurants either. Something I learned many years ago is that it is in fact a surprisingly charming and interesting little middle American city, with stunning turn-of-the-century architecture and other leftovers from the 1904 World’s Fair. City museums and the zoo are free to the public, and it is home to beautiful parks, notable art and antiques dealers, a formidable baseball team, an outstanding microbrewery that far outshines the local behemoth that is Anheuser-Busch, and most importantly, the infamous Ted Drewe’s Frozen Custard. So this is what we did: we sat in parks, walked through beautiful neighborhoods in old St. Louis, drank Schlafly ales and hefeweizens, went to a Cardinals game and ate a lot of ice cream. All in the welcome company of a sister with whom I have nothing and everything in common and her outstanding and hilarious young offspring.
I wrapped up my visit with a trip across Missouri aboard an Amtrak train to see my friend Hannah and her brood. Before I arrived, Hannah asked if there was anything I really wanted to see in Kansas City, to which I drew a blank. “I want to see your favorite places,” was all I could come up with. Because here’s the thing with traveling to new places. You can visit all the historical sites and famous restaurants and legendary landmarks and Duck Tours and Eiffle Towers and St. Louis Arches in the world, but you will never learn as much about a place as you will from a well-loved coffeeshop or a favorite breakfast place or a perfect front porch.
So this is what Hannah showed me of Kansas City: a perfect summer weekend. Cooking together in a red kitchen, long dinners around a big table, rocking chairs on a front porch while fireflies danced around the yard, freshly bathed pajama-clad children bursting with hugs and kisses and goodnights at the tops of their little lungs, talking into the night over wine and cheese, laying in the grass at the Nelson, drooling over stationery at Hammerpress and shoes at Habitat, wandering through the Farmer’s Market after Sunday brunch at Succotash and a crazy-amazing family who showered me with love and sugar and laughter and their huge, giant hearts.
Now that the initial shocks of returning begin to subside and fade, summer officially begins. As much as this journey will bring me to new places, it was never intended to be that kind of trip. This summer was meant for re-connecting the dots between my family, my friends and my heart. After some unexpected twisting and turning, the dots are finally, slowly re-connecting. And I have the Very Middle of America to thank for that.