It was the toilet. After the 15 hour-long plane ride all across the North Pacific Ocean, my sweatshirt was stained with the grey smell of Korean Air 037. My eyes were loose and my stomach felt empty, but at the same time I was filled with an endless air of grogginess. As I locked the stall door and turned to face the toilet – there, my first culture shock awakened my jet lag. The toilet was way bigger and taller than the ones I was used to. I just stood there and stared at it for a brief second. It was huge. I was reminded of how short I am, or should I say, how shorter I have become within the last 15 hours span. I knew that the culture shock was going to happen sooner or later, but not this soon – not in the bathroom of O’Hare, ten minutes after the landing.

I held onto the duty-free shopping bag with my right hand and my backpack with my left hand on the line to customs. My hands didn’t know how to control anxiousness. The shopping bag was made with a smooth and thick kind of plastic. I tried stretching it with my thumb pressing it down against my index finger. I thought about how this is where everything will begin. Once I passed through customs and got that stamp on my passport, there was no turning back.

Soon enough it was my turn to walk up.

“Hello,” I said to the worker with a weak and nervous smile. I handed him over my blue American passport. I had a green Korean one too somewhere in my backpack. Green and blue. Somewhere in between those two colors was where I stood.

“Good morning!”

The worker looked down at me with a jolly smile. He was in his mid-40s, quite big and had thin glasses on. He flipped through to the first page of my passport. There I saw an eagle and me. The eagle looked like it was staring at me, and me in the photo looked like it was looking away from the worker.

“So, where are you coming from?”

“South Korea.”

“Oh! Ahn-nyeong-ha-sae-yo!”

I was unexpectedly amused to be welcomed in Korean language by a Caucasian man at O’Hare. He was excited to greet me in Korean.

“Yeah! Ahn-nyeong-ha-sae-yo.”

I slightly bowed my head as I greeted him back, just the way it should be done in Korea. He told me something along the lines that he knows a Korean neighbor or someone who taught him how to say hello in Korean. At that time I was attentive and thrilled to find out about how he learned the phrase “Ahn-nyeong-ha-sae-yo”. Now I no longer remember the exact details of that conversation. Ever since that first man I got to converse with in Chicago, I have encountered countless of people who tried explaining themselves to me about how they knew how to speak certain Korean phrases or where they got to try eating Kimchi.

“Were you in Korea for the summer vacation?”

I wasn’t quite sure how to answer his question. Yes, I was in Korea for the summer vacation, but I was there for the past 20 years of my entire life as well. Standing in front of his cubicle-looking-like station with numerous other tired travelers lined behind me, I knew that I had to answer him quickly and with honesty. What if I pulled out my green Korean passport then? What if I tried explaining to him that I have been living as both a Korean and a Korean American in Korea? Would he have listened? It was a long story. I was used to try keeping things appear simple.

“Umm… Well, my parents live in Korea, so…”

He nodded as he swiped my passport against the machine. Then he said in an affirming voice, “summer vacation.” He grabbed his purple stamp and hit it down on the page of my passport. I saw it and I heard it. He then folded the blue passport and handed it back to me.

“Welcome back home!”

“Thank you.”

Home? Wasn’t he just greeting me in Korean?



photo courtesy: